Quarrel XBLA Review
Not having an iPhone or, well, decent phone in general means I miss out on alot of cool bitesize games I otherwise would have probably become addicted to (if I had any travelling at all to do, that is). Many of these games are starting to work they way into more accessible areas now though: Fruit Ninja Kinect; Words With Friends on Facebook; Angry Birds on PSN and now the latest addition to that list, Quarrel on XBLA.
Quarrel is probably best described as a cross between Risk and Scrabble, and as such brings with the best/worst parts of both games. The main aim of the game is to take over the whole board, using Risk-esque troop deployment, but doing battle with other players by making better words than them (which replaces the dice rolls in Risk which suck balls). Just as in Risk you can re-deploy troops to other adjacent squares you own, which makes a difference when attacking/defending because the number of troops you use determines the length of the word you are allowed to make, upto a maximum of 8. The higher scoring word wins, or if it's a tie, the player who typed their word fastest wins. You earn coins for almost everything you do in the game, even for making words when it isn't your turn, so there's always something to do.
I got used to the game mechanics pretty quickly, having played both Risk and Scrabble in the past, and then I hit somewhat of a wall. After playing the tutorial and taking part in 1 or 2 games versus the AI I had basically had my fill. For the sake of reviewing the game I forced myself to play the game's different modes, but they weren't varied enough to grab my attention. Domination Mode (seemingly the main single-player component) has you facing off against varying AI opponents to take over the map, Showdown Mode pits you against a single, difficult AI and Challenge Mode puts you in situations where you must figure out the strategy to win. I'll be honest, once you've played the Domination Mode there's really no draw to play the other modes, as they're far too similar, and while I appreciate the attempt to try and vary it up, the other modes all just feel like watered down versions of Domination.
On the positive side, the game has a good look and feel, with a nice chunky art style, bright colours and a great, easy to read interface and Xbox Chat-pad support, which was a neat little addition. The sounds and music in the game are what I would describe as extremely Spongebob-like, with lots of Hawaiian instrumental music and sounds (though no talking starfish, which is always a bummer). I found it curious that the aesthetic was so clearly geared towards appealing to children, as the gameplay would be (I would assume) far beyond your average child. Between the AI's tendency to pick on the human player, it's uncanny ability to always be faster than you (by nature of it not having a squishy, second-guessing human brain, I'd wager), the necessity of a good vocabulary and the strategic aspect I find it baffling to picture subjecting a fragile, child's mind to the game, especially because picking your words is done under a very strict time constraint which had me stressing out, nevermind a kid.
My guess is that the reason Quarrel even got published onto a console in the first place, instead of just staying on the mobile phones, is to allow for the addition of online multiplayer. It really feels like any single player mode is solely there to teach you the ropes so you can play the game over the internet, although in my experience there are few more stressful games to play against people. the beauty of a game like Scrabble, is that it being turn-based allows you to think about your word for a long time, constantly rearranging your letters and scouring the board for a free vowel, all the while everyone else is having a nice conversation about biscuits, or holidays or some such nonsense. That nice, snuggly feeling of making the best word you possibly can is completely removed when you add a harsh time limit and the need to play a word quicker than the other person. Human minds go blank, human minds can't see the forest for the trees, human minds will completely miss the fact that almost any word can end in 's' if you only give them 15 seconds to think. You lose all that satisfaction, even if you win, if you're being forced to throw random letters at your brain, see what sticks, then hurriedly type the outcome out for fear of being slower than the other person. It's stressful, and unpleasant, and left a sour taste in my mouth at the end of it (despite coming 2nd in my game).
I feel like I've been quite harsh on Quarrel, but when the measuring stick you've set for your game is Risk and Scrabble (2 of the best-loved and greatest games of all time), you're kind of forcing it upon yourself. It's not a bad game, the presentation is about as clean and spot-on as you could hope for, and there's fun to be had from the concept, but in a world where Words With Friends exists on Facebook for free? Then it's hard to recommend. Perhaps the iPhone version is different, in little chunks whilst on the bus I bet it works a treat, but sat in front of my TV? To be honest, I'd rather just watch Countdown.