The simplicity of the Match-3 genre is both its blessing and its curse. Its easy learning curve and ability to pick up and play can open it up to a wide fanbase, but only a certain few clever or lucky titles are able to stand out amongst a sea of copies. Jewel Quest: The Sapphire Dragon is the sixth installment in the series, and it feels like effort was put forward to shake things up a bit and add some variety; in some ways, it succeeds, but in others it still feels held back by its original formula.
The basics of The Sapphire Dragon remain the same as previous titles: swap jewels to form matches of three or more, turning the tiles beneath these jewels into a handsome gold colour. You will still need to turn the entire board gold in the majority of cases to proceed, but a somewhat impressive number of variables have been added. Some boards also involve getting special jewels into certain locations, or only counting matches that go step by step along a certain path. Other familiar gimmicks such as opening up more of the board by making matches next to closed sections or collecting certain numbers of special blocks also return.
A greater sense of available options is also added in the form of five “companions" you can choose from to take on each board. These five form a Himalayan-area expedition party searching for the main protagonist's brother, and each comes with their own set of special little powers that can be unlocked and strengthened as they level up. It's a nice enabler to bring certain abilities to certain boards and the leveling system does add a slight sense of progression. Although some powers do tend to make certain situations much easier, you still have to endure a “cooldown" period before being able to use certain powers again.
Actually, it may be more appropriate to say that some powers don't make certain situations “easier" more than they make them “less infuriating." The abilities to swap gems or turn any square of your choice gold may just become your best friends in The Sapphire Dragon, as the game shares the same curse of its brethren in the insistence that so many of its boards must be fully covered to win. With the shapes of boards potentially jutting out into various nooks and crannies, there are many times you might have just one spot left to cover and all you can really do is churn through as many matches as you can, praying for the right random jewels to pop up in just the right spots as time ticks away. The fact you still have to accomplish this goal on top of the new tasks in the game is a buzzkill toward these fresher elements.
The Sapphire Dragon does make a good move in often offering several choices of boards at a time and not requiring that you beat them all to proceed. This can allow you to skip certain styles of board you don't like, although sometimes you may be forced to endure them anyway. You'll also have to at least select every board if you want to keep up with the game's story, although it doesn't feel all that deep - lines are fully voice-acted to a competent degree, which is nice, but the characters feel somewhat shallow and stereotypical. You can unlock journal entries from each character as they level up that fleshes them out more, but the fact both playable male characters spend time discussing how hot their female team members are in their bro-diaries feels plenty worthy of eye-rolling.
The scenery and backdrops for the game do a good job of setting the environment, although the boards and jewels themselves leave more to be desired; the playing fields still seem too small and could take much better advantage of the real estate on the touch screen. Sound effects during gameplay can also start to become annoying, yet the background music isn't as offensive. Art-wise, the characters aren't badly designed and have more of a realistic sense about them than found in a number of other games, but it's a pity that you never see them as more than inanimate cut-outs.
The fans and faithful of the Jewel Quest series who don't mind wildly cramming gems into a corner for several minutes might very much enjoy the newer takes and elements of The Sapphire Dragon. The old facets to which it still stubbornly clings, though, will likely leave others out in the cold. The attempts at more variety and character implementation are admirable and will make the trek more bearable at first, but only diehards will likely ever reach the summit.