From sudoku and crosswords to mazes and more, pen-and-paper puzzle games have found a happy home on Nintendo’s recent dual-screened systems, especially as part of smaller, downloadable offerings. One of the latest examples of this trend is the Mysterious Stars trilogy, a set of DSiWare games that couple classic connect-the-dots puzzles with short stories for children. After finding some sour notes in Mysterious Stars: The Singer, we took a trip to Grandma’s house in Mysterious Stars: A Fairy Tale, and while there are a few fun ideas and some decent line-drawing in store, we’d suggest most players stay well out of these woods.
Mysterious Stars: A Fairy Tale’s gameplay revolves around one simple action: connecting dots. As the God of the Stars, you’ll draw lines between numbered points on the touchscreen in sequence, eventually resulting in a larger picture in the starry sky shown on the top screen. The item pictured then comes to life and finds its way to a young girl, the star of the story.
There are twenty puzzles to complete — with each episode bookended by short scenes which tell the titular fairy tale — and you can earn from one to five stars in each, depending on your score. In the first run through of a puzzle each individual line is scored on straightness — though the grading seems awfully picky and a bit random. After you’ve finished a puzzle once, you can return to it again in a Time Attack mode, where precision goes out the window and speed is the name of the game. Earning three or five stars on a certain puzzle — whether in Story, Time Attack, or from a combination of both — lets you swap out the everyday version of the item for a rare or magical variant, respectively; it’s not a huge incentive for replay, but it’s a fun touch nonetheless.
As we mentioned in our review for Mysterious Stars: The Singer, connecting the dots on your 3DS is about as exciting as it sounds: namely — with some variation for taste — not very. It’s certainly relaxing though, and it is fun to watch the pictures take shape in the night sky — since there are a lot of stars up top, it’s not usually obvious what you’re going to be drawing, and the continuous paths employed to create the constellations are clever and fun to follow. It’s certainly not going to challenge you — though we suppose it may help younger children along with their counting — but at least it does what it says on the tin.
If Mysterious Stars married subpar puzzles with an interesting story, it could still stand out as a half-successful hybrid. Unfortunately, while the line-drawing is passable, the story side of the equation misses the mark entirely. First, there’s little to no connection between the items you connect into being and the story itself. Rare exceptions aside, it feels like you’re playing two different games: one where you do nothing and watch a little girl talk to three other people, and another where you conjure up random objects out of the sky and deposit them in her house for no reason. We kept wanting — and expecting, given the precedent set by games like Orion’s Odyssey — to create something useful to help her along on her journey, but instead we just kept flooding her room with furniture.
The second issue with the story is that our poor heroine never even gets to go on a journey, or really do much of anything at all. A Fairy Tale takes classic character tropes from Grimm-style stories — a trod-upon orphan, an evil caretaker, a kindly old stranger, a heroic prince — but doesn’t actually bother to build up a narrative to tie them all together; the resulting ’plot’ is barebones, uninteresting, and lacks any sense of identity or charm. We can’t imagine children becoming the least bit invested in the story, but worst of all, if by some miracle of boredom they do come to care what happens to the ostensible heroine, the unsatisfying ending leaves nothing but loose ends and a depressingly sexist aftertaste.
On the plus side, it’s possible that your child might not understand the story at all, thanks to the exceptionally poor translation. Riddled with grammatical errors, typos, stylistic inconsistencies, and straight up nonsense, the script has the elegance and readability of a drunken Google Translate, serving up gems like “Before you can even notice it, news objects appears!” and “You told you that you could speak in?!” line after line.
Sadly, Mysterious Star’s problems don’t end with the narrative — the controls are also surprisingly disappointing. Drawing lines with the stylus works well enough, but panning around the picture via the zoomed-in view on the touchscreen is cumbersome at best. You can use the D-Pad or swipe the touchscreen to move, though each has its issues: the D-Pad is unbearably slow, and sliding around with the stylus — while faster — feels odd, and often results in unintentionally botched lines. In addition, neither method lets you move while drawing, which turns the larger, hundred-dot-plus pictures into slow slogs of incremental movement. Thankfully, hitting the ‘L’ button centres the screen on the next dot to be connected; spamming ‘L’ after every line became our inelegant but functional replacement for manual movement.
These controls are only slightly annoying when you’re taking your time in the Story mode, but in Time Attack, where scoring is based on speed and combos — both of which are helplessly out of reach with the sluggish setup — they become incredibly frustrating. With everything mapped to the left side of the system, southpaws are left completely in the cold; perhaps the lefties are the lucky ones.
Shoddy story and shaky controls aside, A Fairy Tale does have some positive points worth mentioning. The graphical presentation is cute and cheery, with large character portraits and lots of colour, and the soothing soundtrack goes a long way towards easing the pain of the game’s control issues. We also liked the idea of having multiple grades of objects based on your score — even if the scoring system in general leaves plenty to be desired — and loved the charmingly meta title screen, where you connect the dots to create the house’s front door and begin the game.
Mysterious Stars: A Fairy Tale has an appealing premise, placing simple connect-the-dot puzzles within a larger storyline, but it fails to deliver across the board. The story is dull and poorly translated, the line-drawing action — average at best — is brought down by spotty controls and surprisingly harsh grading, and the lack of a tangible connection between the two makes the whole package even more disappointing. For a far better afternoon, we recommend putting down the 3DS or DSi and pairing a good old fashioned puzzle book with a classic story.