When pondering the subject of exploration, match-three puzzle titles might not be the first thing that springs to mind. Jules Verne's classic story of an 80 day adventure around the world is a difficult concept to adapt through gem-switching and colour combinations, but Joindots GmbH has gone and done exactly that. Around the World in 80 Days on DSiWare and the 3DS eShop is here, so is this a journey worth taking?
Phileas Fogg, London gent and wealthy eccentric, has made a £20,000 bet with members of his private club that he can circumnavigate the world in 80 days or less. Desperate to prove the naysayers wrong, he grabs his French assistant Passepartout (get it?) and sets off by any means available on the journey of a lifetime. The story is told with a fair amount of detail, as the game frequently breaks into dialogue scenes and exposition in between traditional puzzle stages. It's definitely not the most loyal or capable adaptation of the original story, but manages to rise above simply using 80 Days as a framing device and embraces the setting wholeheartedly.
You'll start in London, where Fogg begins making preparations and the game sets out some of the basics of play. It's standard match-three fare, with the goal of each level being to drop key artefact parts to the bottom of the puzzle. Every level represents a day of the journey, and the artifacts in question are all important plot-related items required to continue, such as Fogg's journal or a missing part of a ship. You're gradually introduced to a few more mechanics as the days go by, including the usual locked pieces as well as some more interesting powerups. Using a tesla hammer to clear away pieces is a fun novelty, though the implementation is a little awkward, given that you need to blow into the mic to fully activate it.
Chapters are separated by region, and moving on to a new area requires the player to complete a 'stamp' level, which involve matching shapes on every possible panel to clear the background. The difficulty curve steadily increases as you travel to Paris, Egypt, and beyond, so once you're out of England the puzzles can get fairly nasty. Every level is timed, and if the player fails to complete one before it runs out (or chooses to quit in the middle of a level...), they'll lose a life. Lose all of them and you're sent back to the beginning of the chapter, so it's a good thing that extras can be earned by releasing hearts in-game, as you would with the artefact pieces. Similarly, money bags will net you additional points, and the sandglass temporarily freezes that pesky time limit. Things eventually get frustratingly difficult — even more so than other match three titles — but perseverance will get you through most challenges.
Technically speaking, 80 Days performs very well, with pieces responding to your every slide with smooth animations. You'll be holding the 3DS or DSi as you would a book, á la Brain Training or Hotel Dusk, and there's even the ability to switch behind a left or right-handed mode in the options menu. A handy statistics screen is provided at the end of each level to show your performance, but it's unfortunate that the multiplayer modes are essentially useless with this release. There's no longer any way to connect, so we're left to stare at some fun-looking diversions that are sadly inaccessible.
The overall package is quite impressive, with bright colours forming the backbone of a charming aesthetic. The music changes appropriately to suit each region, as the upper-class harpsichord of London city gives way to the jaunty accordion of Paris for example. It's surprisingly enjoyable, though a little voice acting would have really helped to add even further to the game's audio. The only real quirks come in the form of a typo or two, found within the pages of Fogg's journal that he updates after each level.
As far as concepts for match-three titles go, Phileas Fogg's grand voyage is something of an unexpected success. The gameplay is still hugely predictable, and won't win over anyone who isn't already matching colours in their sleep, but the source material provides an interesting backdrop to some enjoyable puzzling nonetheless. With over 80 levels to complete and an even tougher challenge unlocked upon completion of the story, this is actually one pretty memorable expedition.