I have always felt that the PlayStation VITA is a great handheld. It’s extremely powerful, easy to use, and has a large library of games. I have never regretted owning one and I will continue to use mine. But I don’t use it nearly as much as a console, even if a handheld, should be used. The reason being the lack of exclusive titles I actually want to play. The Achilles Heel of the VITA is not that it can’t run games you can play on the PS3 and PS4. It’s actually just the opposite. It’s that today basically every game that gets released on the VITA also gets released on a home console. I have a PS3 and a PS4. Both cost several hundred dollars to buy coupled with a large HDTV that also cost several hundred dollars to buy. Why on Earth would anyone sit on their couch playing games on a handheld when they can play the same games on a big screen TV? The logic is that simple. The VITA loses because handhelds just can’t stand up to home consoles for the average consumer and the VITA rarely offers anything you can’t get on the home console. And more often than not you get both versions bundled so it doesn’t even cost you anything extra to choose home console over handheld play. The saddest part of all is that the PS4 isn’t even the superior platform to play certain games on other than in terms of screen size when it comes down to a number of games. Such is the case with Azkend 2: The World Beneath. This recently released (5/3/16) PlayStation port of the 2012 puzzle matching game by 10tons Ltd. is perfect for the highly responsive touch screen of the VITA. But honestly I went into the game unhappy that I wasn’t reviewing the PS4 version. After actually playing the game, I’m totally glad that I was asked to review the handheld version of the game.
Azkend 2 is a very beautiful and highly detailed game that makes use of mostly hand drawn graphics and very simple movement effects which can’t even really be called cutscenes. It looks great for what it is. The backgrounds and interactive objects have been crafted to the highest degrees of detail and the game does not disappoint visually . . . on a handheld screen. It looks exactly the way I would expect a handheld indie game to look. And I was in no way unhappy with the graphics. But I cannot see myself being impressed with these same graphics on my rather large HDTV. At that point I would have just been comparing it to games that belong on that scale such as but not limited to The Division, Metal Gear Solid V, and Xenoblade Chronicles X. It’s a very simple game in scope. All you do is match tiles and look at pictures. On the VITA, this is acceptable. On the PS4 this would be disappointing.
The HUD is quite simple. You have the layout of tiles which changes for each level. In the top left corner, you see your timer, which is shaped like an analog watch. On the top right, you see your target object. In the top center, you see your bonus power charge. At the bottom left you see your active power-ups. Tutorials are given in white Times New Roman text at the bottom center of the screen over the tile board. That’s the visual aspects of the gameplay in a nutshell. The plot is given through a list of journal entries and the occasional subtitled voice over, usually being given while looking at one of what I would guess to be about 10 – 15 total background images. It’s a simple looking game in terms of how much there is to see, but what you do get to see is done very well for what it is. As a VITA game, I can happily give the graphics solid marks.
The gameplay is a very interesting take on the classic puzzle matching genre. You are given a field of random tiles that must be matched in groups of three or more. When you match them they disappear and more fall from the top of the board to fill in the holes. It’s perfectly made to be played with a touch screen and playing it on the VITA works great. It runs smoothly and allows a very fine level of control including changing your moves before you finalize them. There are also bonuses for matching specific types of tiles or six or more tiles at a time. There are selectable power-ups which you earn as you progress through the game. You can equip one active and one passive power-up for any stage. There are 18 power-ups to choose from by the end of the game. But what’s truly fun about Azkend 2 is that it’s not just your simple puzzle matching game. There are a ton of variations to the gameplay that change from level to level. Every level consists of a goal which is usually to locate a piece of an object. After completing all the stages in a chapter you will have completed the object and can move forward with the story. You complete each level by making the special object tile appear and then getting it to the bottom of the board before time runs out. But with each new chapter there are new obstacles that are relevant to the game’s story at the time of the level you’re on. In the opening levels you are on a ship caught in a fog. The levels require you to clear out fog tiles before the special object tile will appear. That objective changes as you go, to so many different things. There are ice tiles, moving bug tiles, fire tiles, and several others. I found it so interesting and refreshing to see a basic puzzle genre morphed into several different challenging styles of play in one game all while tying to a narrative. Failure to complete a stage results in just having to replay that specific level after being given the option to change power-ups.
Between chapters, there is a small mini-game that has you look at the background and locate small details that have been zoomed in on a little magnifying glass. Completing the game within the time limit gets you power-up bonuses going into the next set of tile levels. It works very well, and is quite challenging because the backgrounds are highly detailed.
The gameplay is challenging. As you move forward, levels will become harder because of the time limit as well as some of the other interesting stage objectives. You will have to take your power-ups much more seriously and find the right ones for whatever level you seem to be stuck on. I haven’t tried the PS4 version but I can’t see the gameplay working nearly as well with a controller. The touchscreen just lends itself to making this game enjoyable. I was very happy with the gameplay overall. It makes sense, takes time and strategic thinking to master, runs very smoothly, and is easy to pick up and put down at any time.
The sound is also very well done. The music is done in the style of traditional adventure/exploration films like Indiana Jones. Sometimes it’s lower key and other times it revs up based on the narrative situation. It sounds crystal clear even without using headphones on the VITA. The effects are also quite good with lots of ambient sounds as well as gameplay effects. But not just the basic matching tiles. There are sounds for the various in level challenges such as the fire tiles and bug tiles. The mini-game has its own special tones as well. You have the option to control the music and effects volumes separately in the options menu, but keeping them at default works just fine.
The writing is not bad, but it’s also not Mass Effect. The game follows an unnamed girl during what starts out as her journey by ship from Liverpool to New York City. The 1800’s setting is strengthened by the use of language and objects from that time period as part of the story. The ship gets pulled into a whirlpool and the character is knocked unconscious. When she wakes up she finds herself in a lost world that she must find her way through in hopes of reaching her world again. The game is broken into 7/8 different sections split up into several chapters. Each chapter represents a different item you must complete to move forward in your journey. The entire story is told in voiceovers and short (1 – 2 sentences) journal entries which keep the game moving forward based on a narrative without bogging down the puzzle game with too much dialog and reading. The only other writing in the game is the short tutorials that appear at the beginning of each level that requires something new from you and the power-up descriptions. For what Azkend 2 is, I felt the writing was very appropriate both in size and scope.
This game doesn’t appear to be too long. If I’m reading the map correctly, you could clear it in less than five hours easily if you don’t get stuck on any stages for too long. There are several different upgrades so I guess you could replay the game differently if you wanted to, but I don’t really feel like that would be necessary. There are 16 trophies, all of which are challenge based, that you can technically complete on a first playthrough if you know what you’re doing and where to do it. I think the $8 price tag is a bit too high. Especially considering this is a port of a game that was released on mobile in 2012. But for $5, which happens to be the Google Play Store price, I could endorse buying it. Again, that’s as a VITA title. For the PS4, I’d have given it a hard pass most likely.
Azkend 2: The World Beneath is a nifty little puzzle game. It’s fun, creative, and well made. It’s a smooth running puzzle game with a narrative that’s good enough to follow while matching tiles. I wouldn’t suggest getting a non-portable version of the game, but if you have the ability to play games on the go and like puzzle games, it’s certainly worth considering.
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