The DSi’s touchscreen-and-stylus setup has inspired an impressive array of pen-and-paper puzzle conversions over the years, and this trend seems set to continue right into DSiWare’s twilight days. Collavier’s Mysterious Stars trilogy, as the most recent example, pairs classic connect-the-dots puzzles with children’s stories. It’s a fun concept, though after running our pencils over The Singer and A Fairy Tale, we didn’t have high hopes for the last, Samurai; unfortunately our fears were not unfounded. It has a few interesting ideas, but it fails to deliver on any of them, and most players will want to steer well clear of this warrior’s tale.
In terms of gameplay, Samurai is cut from the same star chart as its siblings — Mysterious Stars: Fairy Tale and The Singer — so if you’ve read our write-ups or played either one you’ll know exactly what to expect here. Raising your stylus for the God of the Stars, you’ll draw lines on the touchscreen to connect numbered dots in sequence, painting a picture in the process and — when the finished product lights up in the top screen’s starry sky — bringing that object to life, ostensibly for the benefit of our samurai hero.
Samurai’s line-drawing action is split across twenty puzzles, with cutscenes before and after each episode. You can earn up to five stars on each drawing, with scoring based on the precision of your penmanship — though as with the other Mysterious Stars titles, we found the grading to be rather harsh and unpredictable. After you’ve had your first pass at a puzzle, you can tackle it again in Time Attack mode, where all scoring comes down to the clock. No matter the mode, earning a certain number of stars on a puzzle will unlock improved versions of that stage’s object: three stars will let you swap it for a finer quality variation, while five stars will net you a magical equivalent.
Taken at face value, perhaps the idea of a game based solely on connecting lines doesn’t sound too intriguing, and unfortunately Mysterious Stars doesn’t do much to challenge that notion. It can be fun to see how the paths in each picture unfold, and it does have the same basic appeal as the original pen-and-paper concept, but it just isn’t very engaging as a gameplay mechanic. At least the drawings themselves are potentially more interesting than the antique store staples seen in Fairy Tale — you’ll be conjuring up lucky cats, hakama, and hanging scrolls from the stars, instead of dressers, chests, and clocks.
Beyond the basic simplicity of the gameplay, there’s also the problem that the paperback versions of these puzzles control far better than this DSiWare incarnation. Samurai is fraught with the same input issues as the other games in the trilogy: painfully slow scrolling, the inability to pan the zoomed-in view while drawing, and an uncomfortable button layout that completely shuts out left-handed players. The controls are a tolerable annoyance in the slow-paced Story mode, but they’re an absolute nightmare in Time Attack, where they make taking advantage of the potentially interesting combo mechanic — where players score more points for connecting dots in quick succession — practically impossible.
The story side of the equation, meanwhile, falls almost as flat as the cautionary Fairy Tale, and for much the same reason: Samurai assembles a reasonable cast of characters — among them a retired warrior, a young apprentice, a renegade hitman, and a wise ruler — sets up several possible paths for the story, and fails to do much of anything with any of them. In fact, it fails to even leave the house; while the narrative makes plenty of reference to events occurring outside of the samurai’s walls, the player’s perspective stays planted firmly in his living room from start to finish. It worked for Beckett, but it certainly doesn’t work here.
While the tale told here is perhaps the least awful of Mysterious Stars titles — that’s a very low bar, to be clear — it also has the unfortunate distinction of not being all that appropriate for its presumed target audience of young children. Arson, assassins, and even torture all come up in dialogue, and while there’s nothing graphic depicted on screen — actually, there’s not much of anything depicted on screen — it’s still a bit bleak.
Worse is the fact that this forgettable story has little to no tangible connection with the items you’re creating in the connect-the-dots portion of the game. The all-powerful God of the Stars can call forth any object from the power of starlight, and yet he chooses to spend the vast majority of his (and thus, your) time filling the samurai’s house with furniture and knick-knacks. On rare occasions you’ll craft something that actually gets used in the story — a katana here, an outfit there — but in general, there’s an almost absurdist disconnect between the objects you’re creating and the content of the cutscenes. The samurai’s about to begin training a new disciple? “Perhaps he could use a new doll.” An assassin arrives to finish him off? “I bet this scale model of a horse cart will cheer him up.”
Again, as with the other two games in the trilogy, the subpar story suffers further form a ludicrously poor translation that makes Zero Wing feel like a work of literary significance. From grammatical errors (“You’re not the type of person that ask for advices!”) and awkward attempts at in-line cultural explanations (“Is this a Hyottoko mask over there? (traditional Japanese clown mask)”) to unintelligibly inverted sentences (“That looks a lot like what was wearing my lady!”), it’s a real mess. On the plus side, it does make for lots of unintentionally humorous moments - our favourite was when a burly villain scowled with “Brr…”.
Even with its uninteresting (and sometimes incomprehensible) story, Samurai does have a few redeeming factors to its name. The music — which it shares with its sister titles — is nice and calming, and a good fit for the sedate action, and the art is colourful and appealing in a Latyon-lite sort of way. While the scoring system needs work, the idea of building better objects as you improve is a solid one, and it can be fun to see what upgrades you earn after ranking up.
Mysterious Stars: The Samurai takes a potentially interesting concept — pairing connect-the-dots puzzles with a themed narrative — and stymies it with poor implementation at every turn. It marries a mediocre line-drawing mechanic with a boring, appallingly translated and age-inappropriate story, and then fails to meaningfully connect the two; as one of the game’s more gifted orators once said, “what a bunch of failures”. Save the DSiWare Points and skip over this Samurai — you’ll have far more fun splurging on a puzzle book and a pair of geta instead.