When Pure Chess was first announced for the Wii U and 3DS, it created a considerable buzz for a game that's based on a relatively niche, high-brow hobby. However, there was good reason for this; developer VooFoo Studios and its publisher Ripstone were not only determined to deliver a graphically rich experience, but one which could be enjoyed extensively in single- and multiplayer. But lofty ambition doesn't necessarily translate into success, and sadly this is the case when it comes to the final released version of Pure Chess. While there's no denying that the game delivers a high-quality single-player mode with a range of features and a decent, reliable AI for you to practice against, it's the much touted online multiplayer that harms the overall product.
In the single-player portion of the game, Pure Chess offers a variety of modes and allows for a good amount of customisation. The main mode enables you to pit yourself against an AI opponent of your preferred skill and have up to six separate games running at the same time. As the title suggests, there aren't any gameplay gimmicks or changes to the traditional chess formula, which makes sense given that the "sport of Kings" has remained hugely popular, entertaining and intricately strategic in more or less the same form for centuries.
While you are only able to play chess in its most vanilla form, you can nevertheless choose which rules you’d like to play by, such as the ability to undo moves – especially useful if you’re a chess novice! – or set a time limit for each move. You can also choose between an AI or set up a local multiplayer game with a human opponent. If playing against someone else, you must share the GamePad between you, which results in a lot of passing back and forth if playing on the TV. However, one really neat feature is the ability to lay the GamePad on a flat surface and play the game as if it were the tabletop version (it's worth noting that the GamePad must already be set flat on the table before this mode will activate). When it comes to the AI, meanwhile, there are ten difficulty levels to choose from right up to "Grand Master". Newcomers will appreciate the lowest level and the gradual climb in challenge, while players who know what they’re doing will likely want to start from the third level upwards.
There are also plenty of options when it comes to choosing your visual preferences. Before the game starts, you can choose the style of your pieces — from three sets — and what material they’re made from, as well as one of three fancy locations in which to play your match. Pure Chess is slickly portrayed on Wii U, featuring stunningly detailed textures and realistic lighting. While it – along with the jazz/classical/easy listening soundtrack – undeniably adds a certain level of class to the game, it’s also not the most visually engaging experience; after all, it is just chess pieces moving around a virtual board. For the real enthusiast, there are a number of themed DLC packs to choose from on the Nintendo eShop that provide further sets and board styles.
By default, the TV screen displays a cinematic overview of the board, with the camera weaving in and out of pieces so that you can admire the amount of detail the developers have put into the game. For the first five minutes it’s an impressive feature, but after that you’ll likely want to change the view so that the actual playing view is displayed on screen (especially if you’re playing locally against a friend).
Outside of the standard chess mode, you can brush up your chess strategies by playing a series of bonus games or even quick-fire Tournaments. The bonus games task you with scenarios in which you need to reach checkmate in a certain number of moves; some of them are pretty tricky, requiring you to really analyse the board and take subsequent moves into account. If you've never played chess before then you’ll likely want to start off with the Learn to Play mode, which covers the basics and provides some good strategies to set you on your way. When used exclusively as a chess computer or in local multiplayer – be it to learn the game as a novice or practice as a pro – Pure Chess provides an extensive experience at an affordable price point.
Playing against the computer and your nearby friends and family has its limits, however, and it’s only natural that you’ll eventually want to take the skills you've developed in single-player into the wider multiplayer arena. As we recently reported, one of the VooFoo Studios’ main goals when developing Pure Chess was to provide a multiplayer experience which transcends platforms. In this regard, the developer has certainly succeeded, using an account system which allows you to play multiplayer matches across Wii U, 3DS, tablet and smartphone. Your account isn't locked to a specific system either, meaning that you can access all your ongoing matches and start new ones from multiple devices - provided you've got the other versions that is.
Unfortunately, playing an online game isn't smooth sailing. While it’s still early days and performance has sped up a little, in our play time Pure Chess has been riddled with connectivity issues; from signing in to loading up a match and even performing an in-game move, this title is painfully slow in the online department. This is because your matches don’t actually play out in real time - the design concept here clearly being that this is meant to be a game that you drop in and out off for a few minutes every so often. While this works for many online multiplayer titles on mobile devices, it just isn't suited to the Wii U. While you’re likely to check your phone multiple times a day, how often do you boot up your console just to quickly do something and turn it off again? The time it takes to load up the system alone isn't worth it.
Moreover, Pure Chess doesn't interact with the Wii U operating system to provide notifications that your opponent has made a move. Therefore, if you want to find out, you have to load up the game and sign into the multiplayer – the latter of which has taken us nearly five minutes to do in some instances. That’s an awful lot of effort just to find out that the other player hasn't made their move yet.
Even if you are both online at the same time, the wait you incur every time you load up a match, and take your turn, which is then uploaded to your opponent at a snail’s pace, is just far too long. When testing this, we were waiting up to three minutes before we could make our next move — after confirming with each other in online chat that the other had moved — by which point we’d pretty much lost all motivation to keep on playing. It’s a little baffling that the Wii U version doesn't at the very least have a real-time multiplayer mode as an additional option. It just isn't designed with a typical Wii U user in mind, and you really can’t help but wonder if it’d just be quicker to invite the player at the other end over to your place, even if they are hundreds of miles away.
Playing against random opponents online is also problematic when you’re not interacting immediately with one another. You can ask the game to auto-match you against another player and it’ll set everything up. However, if that player isn't active, you have no way of knowing in advance if the game is going to go ahead or not. In addition to this, it doesn't require a player to take a move within a certain amount of time, or so it seems to us. Therefore you could be about to win, but if your opponent decides to no longer take their turn, your only choice is to hope that they forfeit the match before you do. As with the single-player mode, it’s possible to have up to six separate matches running side by side, so on the plus side the game that has been held won’t stop you from playing online altogether. Nevertheless, it does seem a bit daft that there isn't a way to set a limit to find like-minded players willing to move within a set time.
While Pure Chess is impressively presented and provides an excellent single-player experience, the online multiplayer component is dreadfully slow and ill-suited to the Wii U. In this regard, Pure Chess seems to favour mobile devices and to some extent handheld systems such as the 3DS; this is a title you’re meant to play for a minute or two at a time before switching it off again. The game doesn't (and we assume can’t) interact with the Wii U’s operating system, meaning that you can’t tell whether a player has taken their turn without having to go through the hassle of loading up the game, signing into the online service and checking the match itself. It’s a shame, because Pure Chess is otherwise a well-made title with a lot of visual sheen behind it, and one in which it is fun to learn or practice chess. If your interest only extends to the latter, then Pure Chess is potentially a worthwhile investment, although you may be able to achieve the same goals with cheaper alternatives elsewhere.