Review: Brain Age: Concentration Training (3DS)

Old brain, new tricks

Thinking of Nintendo's efforts to capture a more mainstream audience with non-traditional games, the Brain Age series leaps immediately to mind - and then leaps right out again, because we can't seem to concentrate on anything these days. Dr. Ryuta Kawashima, Nintendo's resident neuroscientist, has noticed this too, and has geared this latest Brain Age entry towards improving players' concentration by cultivating their "working memory" with daily Devilish Training exercises. It's Dr. Kawashima's prescription for the age of information addiction, where multitasking is both a necessity and a distraction - and Brain Age: Concentration Training is just what the doctor ordered.

The main attraction of Brain Age: Concentration Training is the all-new Devilish Training mode. Here, Dr. Kawashima dons his devil horns and dishes out difficult exercises designed to train your working memory. Though there's a good variety of styles and content in the eight activities, they're linked by the basic idea of juggling several just-memorized pieces of information while simultaneously processing new information.

In Devilish Calculations, that idea plays out in a series of simple, cascading maths problems. Instead of writing the answer to the question on the screen, you're asked to write the sum of the previously viewed equation. That starts out easy enough, but things escalate very quickly when you're asked to write the answer to the question two, three, and even four back in the sequence. Two more activities, Devilish Shapes and Devilish Listening, follow this same format, but with recall tasks based around specific geometric figures and spoken equations, respectively.

Devilish Cups and Devilish Mice are variations on the shell game, where players are tasked with keeping an eye on covered, shifting objects and reporting their new positions at the end of a round. Devilish Blocks follows a similar concept, with one block out of many flashing briefly before the blocks change positions several times, and players then tapping out the complete pattern of flashing blocks. Devilish Pairs is the classic flip-to-match card game, made more difficult by the number of cards in play. Finally, in Devilish Reading, brain trainees read several sentences aloud (the 3DS' microphone makes sure you read the whole thing!) while memorizing underlined words in each phrase, and writing those words back afterwards.

Every one of these Devilish Training games is seriously challenging, and a dynamic difficulty level makes sure you're always training at the limits of your abilities. Each session lasts for five minutes, during which there are several rounds. Your performance is evaluated after each one, and depending on how you do, you'll either move up a level, stay at the same level, or drop back down. The level of each activity determines things like how many equations back in the sequence you'll go in Devilish Calculations, how many mice you'll have to track in Devilish Mice, and how many sentences you'll read in Devilish Reading, so the tasks become exponentially more complicated as the levels increase.

The dynamic difficulty is a fantastic addition, and really does help with concentration, at least as far as the game is concerned: since you're constantly in over your head, there's no time to rest, and no time for things to get boring. Five minutes of maths go surprisingly fast when you're working as frantically as you are in Devilish Calculations, whether on level 2 your first day or level 5 after a week of training - and the sense of accomplishment from finally reaching a higher level is incredible.

Along with the main Devilish Training mode, a Supplemental Training mode is included to help improve the speed of your working memory. These exercises are all returning activities from previous Brain Age games, and are mostly time attacks focusing on simple calculations and word recognition: you'll count change, tell time differences between two clocks, add up sums, perform chains of quick calculations, and scribble words as fast as possible. Trying to beat your best time can be fun, but these Supplemental Training exercises are a good deal more mundane than their Devilish Training counterparts. Without a dynamic difficulty, the added challenge of n-back recall, or any of the visual embellishments found in the game's flagship mode, they feel sadly uninspired by comparison.

The third collection of training exercises, Brain Training, is based on the classic Brain Age aim of keeping your brain active and young, rather than specifically targeting your working memory. It features returning favourites like Piano Player (a play-along piano mini-game with 45 unlockable songs) and Word Blend, as well as several new games including Mahjong and Klondike, Spider, and Golf Solitaire. A standout among these new activities is Block Head, a minimalist puzzle game developed by Intelligent Systems (of Pushmo and Crashmo fame). Players take turns with the AI hopping on tiles with point values attached, and after all spaces are claimed, the side with the most points wins. It's strategic, addicting, and very fun - we only wish for a pass-and-play multiplayer mode to play with friends.

Finally, when you've had enough training and are ready for some cerebral repose, three Relaxation Mode activities are on hand to provide a wind-down. Blob Blast is a fun, original match-three puzzler, played with the stylus while holding the 3DS vertically. It looks a bit like Puyo Puyo with bombs (required to clear the matching blobs), but its touch controls give it a unique hook: you control the falling blob as always, but you can also move nearly any blob already in play at the same time, as well as hold blobs and bombs suspended in mid-air while you wait for a falling piece. A variety of special mechanics come into play to make things more interesting, like blobs that can only be matched diagonally or that have to be burst by two different bombs within a time limit. Beyond Blob Blasting, there's Germ Buster, a stylus-controlled Dr. Mario clone that's also played vertically, and a Music Appreciation activity where you can listen to soothing songs as accompanying visuals play on the screen.

While there's certainly no shortage of content in Brain Age: Concentration Training, it's worth noting that nearly all of it is doled out at pre-set intervals based on the number of real-life days you've been training. The Devilish Training games become available quickly, with a new one popping up every day you play, but you'll have to wait significantly longer for other exercises — 40 days for the very last Brain Training activity! The drip-feed delivery system does help keep the game feeling manageable, and ensures you're able to get a handle on each new exercise as it's unlocked. It certainly makes sense if you think of Brain Age as a daily training program - which is how it's intended to be used, after all - but it's going to cramp your style if you just want to play some Dr. Mario (Germ Buster) before day 12. Similarly, Dr. Kawashima won't let you do a single Devilish Training exercise more than once a day, dashing dreams of whiling away the afternoon with Devilish Mice.

Along with introducing new exercises one or two at a time, Brain Age makes things easier on players with unfailingly excellent tutorials for almost every aspect of the game. From teaching you the rules of a Devilish Training mode to elucidating the science behind the exercises in "Brain Seminar" lectures and "Brain News" TV segments, Dr. Kawashima's explanations are helpful, easy to understand, and often slightly amusing. Players who have wrestled with games requiring text input in the past will also be happy to know that Brain Age's handwriting recognition is top-notch — we tested it on a bumpy bus ride and the game was able to discern our jittery scrawl without issue.

In terms of presentation, Brain Age: Concentration Training takes it cues from the clean lines and subtle colours of Wii Fit. The 3D effect adds a nice touch to Dr. Kawashima's floating, polygonal head, and a subtly layered look to the top half of the Devilish Training exercises, but it's sadly completely absent in the Supplemental and Brain Training modes. Since these two components are already significantly simpler visually - and in the case of Supplemental Training, almost completely monochromatic - the loss of 3D makes them feel straight out of the DS days. Those modes aside, however, Brain Age looks great. The fonts used are crisp and clear, everything animates smoothly, and the Relaxation Mode games are colourful corneal treats.

Happily, the audio side of the experience holds up the same standards. Though there's no music during the training exercises (in the name of "concentration", we assume), the harpsichord-heavy menu tune is both catchy and classy. Better still is Dr. Kawashima's consistently calming voice-over, which serves as a soothing antidote to the stress of Devilish Training, and adds a whole lot of personality to the proceedings.

In fact, the good doctor's voice is part of a long list of charming little touches that give Brain Age's first 3DS outing a distinctly Nintendo feel. You'll notice them from the first time you're asked to stamp the attendance sheet using the touch screen, and watch the ink mark fall exactly where you've tapped, rather than dead-centre in the box. It continues from there, when you're asked if you're ready to try Devilish Training: if you tap the "No" button, it jumps cheekily out of the way, bouncing around the screen to avoid your stylus, eventually hiding behind the "Yes" button and sealing your fate in the most adorable way possible.

As a side note, to anyone worried about the game's suitability for impressionable little ones, what with the floating demon-professor and all: Dr. Kawashima keeps his kind, comforting voice even in his devilish form, which makes the demonic doctor seem more as if he's just eaten a particularly spicy jalapeño and placed a pair of ice cream cones on his head, rather than arrived fresh from the depths of the underworld.

There's no multiplayer mode to speak of, but Brain Age: Concentration Training does have space for 4 profiles (each using a different Mii) on the same game card, and takes a Wii Fit-like approach to its shared leaderboards. You can compare your powers of concentration to your friends and family playing on the same system, as well as see your personal bests. There's also a StreetPass function, which lets players swap profile cards, records, and a Miiverse-esque message with fellow brain trainers. An impressive collection of Awards rounds out the package, with over 100 certificates of commendation available for everything from training for three days in a row to setting up StreetPass.

Conclusion

Brain Age: Concentration Training takes Nintendo's cerebellum-enhancing series onto the 3DS in style. It boasts a wealth of content, smart presentation, and loads more charm than you'd expect from a brain-training game. The new Devilish Training is a supremely satisfying challenge, thanks to the game's dynamic difficulty, and returning Brain Training exercises are joined by some excellent additions. We're crossing our fingers that continued use of Dr. Kawashima's system actually improves our concentration, but either way, this is definitely a prescription worth filling.

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