If you’ve ever played any iteration of Mahjong before, then there’s a good chance that you know how the tile-matching gameplay works. While the core experience remains unchanged, it’s what Mahjong 3D - Warriors of the Emperor does with the system that makes this one stand out. Rather than simply finding all of the matching tiles on a particular board and moving right along to the next one, Warriors of the Emperor adds a story and characters, making completing levels much more rewarding and giving players a reason to look forward to advancing towards the next stage.
Loosely based on Chinese history, you take on the role of a young Qin Shi Huangdi, king of the State of Qin, as he attempts to conquer, and thus unite, China. If you don’t know anything about Chinese history then you shouldn’t expect to learn from this game, but the historical elements mixed into the fictional plot are an amusing detail that shouldn’t go unnoticed. The game’s map is divided into different Chinese territories, with each territory housing multiple stages to play. Completing all of the stages in a particular territory will mean that you’ve conquered that part of the map, therefore expanding your empire. Because the stages are set up this way rather than in a more linear fashion, you’re able to skip around from place to place and complete the game in whatever order you see fit.
Not only is there an interesting and often comical story squeezed into this package, but there are also a variety of power-ups to aid in your puzzle solving, and different types of levels to play through. As you complete stages, your character will gain experience points and gradually level up. There isn’t a very refined levelling system, but instead of stat boosts you will gain new power-ups that allow you to perform actions such as blowing up certain tiles or freezing time. As the story progresses, you will become allies with various other figures from ancient China who you can then select to lend their power-ups to you during gameplay. There are also special tiles that you can match in order to perform actions similar to the power-ups, such as swapping one tile’s location for another.
Different types of levels include battle stages, building stages, and debates. While battles and building stages don’t differ from each other and stick to the standard format, debates add a bit of suspense to the gameplay. Rather than simply finding matching tiles, in debate stages you’ll actually be competing directly against a computer opponent to find matches on the same game board. Find more matches than your computer opponent by the time the board is cleared and the debate is yours.
Beyond the main campaign, there are also quick play modes and even a level creator. As you move along through the story, more quick play levels will be unlocked, each with varying difficulty. The level creator is very intuitive and easy to use, and it even offers StreetPass features; when you pass by another gamer with Mahjong 3D - Warriors of the Emperor, you’ll actually be able to send your original levels over to them, along with your high scores.
As the title implies, all of your game boards are displayed in 3D, and the developer has done a fantastic job of it. The 3D effect is used to give actual depth to the board, making it very easy to see which tiles are on top and ready to be played. The audio is done just as well, with a soundtrack that matches the traditional Chinese theme that the game is clearly aiming for. The story elements, which are told through a series of barely animated character heads with dialogue printed underneath them, are the only visual element that tends to be lacking any panache; while more effort could have been spent on animation or voice-acting for these scenes, they still get the job done in conveying the story.
As per the game’s insistence on displaying 3D visuals, all of the action takes place on the 3DS’s top screen with the bottom screen being used as a control pad. Sliding and tapping your stylus around on the bottom screen will cause a cursor to move on the top screen, mimicking your actions. While the disconnect between touch and motion may be uncomfortable at first, the movements quickly become second nature. You are unable to control the game using the 3DS’s buttons rather than the touchscreen, but you can use the Circle Pad to pan the camera and the Y button is used to open your power-up menu. Though unorthodox, the controls are easy to master and quite effective once you get the hang of them.
There are a lot of different Mahjong releases available on a number of different gaming platforms, but it’s rare and refreshing to see a version that takes the classic game and does something special with it. The price-point may be a little steep, but Mahjong 3D - Warriors of the Emperor shouldn’t be thought of as a re-hashed budget game, but instead as an entirely new and story-driven experience. The gameplay may be familiar, but the effort that was put into making this one stand out from the rest ensures that there’s something to be found for both casual and hardcore gamers.