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My Little Pony: Puzzle Party (iOS) artwork

My Little Pony: Puzzle Party (iOS) review

"Bright visuals and otherwise solid puzzle challenges fall victim to design that excessively favors free-to-play hooks."

My Little Pony: Puzzle Party is not the sort of game I would typically find myself playing, which is precisely why I gave it a shot. I like to keep myself guessing.

When I downloaded the game, which is available as a free download on the digital store, I didn't expect to play it for long. I certainly didn't anticipate that I would keep at until I reached the end of stage 143 and found out that the developers haven't made any additional ones to challenge my elite puzzling skills (they're apparently working on a new batch, though). I assumed that I would play it for a few minutes and then forget about it for always and forever. But here's the thing: the game actually works reasonably well if you just want something to play for a few minutes a day. Which I did.

My Little Pony: Puzzle Party (iOS) imageMy Little Pony: Puzzle Party (iOS) image

I'm not going to try to do the plot justice. Basically, a dark horse named Discord is going around and causing trouble, which the ponies can fix by matching shapes of the sort that you might find in a bowl of Lucky Charms cereal. Occasionally, text bubbles pop up before you attempt the next stage, and the ponies or Discord spout a few lines of nonsense, but this is not a game that one plays for its scintillating plot.

I can't be entirely sure, but I suspect that most people will only spend any serious amount of time with the game because they: A) like My Little Pony; B) like puzzle games; C) are cheapskates. Which is good news, because Puzzle Party (mostly) caters to anyone possessing those first two attributes. The visuals are suitably bright and cheery--or bizarre but at least still very cartoony--across every menu and in every mode. I haven't watched a My Little Pony cartoon episode since desperation drove me to it when I was in the second grade and channel surfing, so I'm afraid I can't rate the title on faithfulness to the intellectual property. I just know that it all felt magically and sparkly, which I'm pretty sure is still the point, just as it was in the 80s.

As for the puzzle side, that's something I can talk about in considerably more detail. Looking at screenshots, you might suppose that Puzzle Party falls into the "match-3" mode, where you have to line up three or more squares so that they automatically disappear. That's not the case, though. As long as you have two or more blocks of the same type in position next to one another--and not encumbered by restrictions that are introduced over the course of play--you can tap to make them vanish. Eliminating larger formations will cause power-ups to drop, such as lightning that clears a column or row, or a cauldron with a 1-block radius. Those power-ups can also be combined to greatly magnify their effects, which is key in later stages.

Said stages begin by offering you objectives and a set number of moves. Typically, you have to match the specified number of blocks, or cause a special item to make a migration from the top of the screen to its bottom. If you exhaust your supply of moves, you can spend in-game currency known as "bits" (think gold coins with horseshoe icons etched on their surface) to continue, but I don't recommend doing that. Just try again by using some of your perpetually refilling energy. That's my motto.

Because Puzzle Party is a free-to-play game that would like to convince you to part with as much money as possible, it includes all sorts of "hooks." I mentioned energy just now, which is one of the biggest of those hooks. Basically, the way the system works is that you gain a heart each half-hour, up to a total of five. Whenever you fail a stage, you have to spend a heart if you want to try it again. You can keep as many as five hearts in reserve, which means it makes sense to check in every few hours. Or, if you spend $0.99, you can permanently improve your ability to gather hearts and can instead amass as many as six at once.

My Little Pony: Puzzle Party (iOS) imageMy Little Pony: Puzzle Party (iOS) image

$0.99 is actually a pretty small investment, all things considered, so I spent that money and I don't regret it even a little bit. However, there are other options that I felt were a bit on the steep side. If you want to buy 30 bits, which is the minimum required to do anything interesting (for instance, it can immediately refill your supply of hearts), that will set you back $2.99. Which doesn't sound terrible, but you can suck away any impact it might have in almost no time flat. Larger purchases include one at the $9.99 level, which offers free lives for a couple of hours (along with 360 coins, which still isn't a whole lot), and the $99.99 investment that awards free lives for 4 hours and includes a useful 4500 bits.

Considering how expensive all of that is, and how poor I am, I decided to limit my purchases to just that original $0.99 investment I bragged about a moment ago. That decision forced me to enjoy the same experience that awaits small children who lack income and are smart enough to not steal Mommy's credit card.

That experience is, in a word, irritating. The first few stages are fun and easy enough, but the developers quickly got busy introducing a variety of new obstacles. For example, you'll eventually encounter swirling black clouds that expand by one space whenever you make a move that doesn't eliminate at least one of them. They can quickly take over most of the board. And then there are the bits of bubblegum that require three adjacent matches before they finally disappear so that you can get at the pieces they were guarding. Elsewhere, you'll find gifts that must first be broken open with a match. And late in the game, some of the blocks start shifting color every turn.

As you can imagine, those obstacles and others like them start to become quite the hassle in the later stages, and the game suddenly feels excessively random. Sometimes, I could clear a puzzle or even several puzzles on the first attempt. Other times, it would take me 10 or 20 tries, so that I might go a day or two without making any progress at all. Some of that comes down to skill (or lack thereof), but a lot more luck is involved than feels appropriate. The pieces you need either drop or they don't, and there's only so much you can do about that, even as each tap you make decreases your available remaining moves by one. Then, after a few failures, a round starts with almost all of the right pieces in place, as if the developers were afraid that you might start getting too frustrated and quit the game altogether without spending more money. It feels a bit icky, to be honest.

In the time honored tradition of free-to-play games, there are of course rewards for coming back daily. You can spin a wheel and get a prize, such as a free power-up you can access within a stage to easily clear a block or row of blocks or whatever. You can also watch a video to double the prize received, if you are so inclined. And if you clear enough stages each day for several days, you can also win some free bits... but not enough to do much of anything.

So anyway, I played through all of the stages that My Little Pony: Puzzle Party has to offer. And I earned 3 stars on most of those levels, including the last one. But I'm not tempted to go back and try to improve my rank on the ones where I "messed up" because my performance felt like it was tied too closely to random chance. The game does a lot of things right, but its ultimate goal is clearly to get you to spend more money. For that, it suffers. I would have much rather spent $4.99 or so for a version that chops out the need to wait for extra turns at all, but then I would have reached the end of the original content sooner and would have wound up having no reason to keep playing. Which happened eventually, anyway, even though I was a cheapskate. It just took longer...


honestgamer's avatar
Staff review by Jason Venter (January 25, 2017)

Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.

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