"You might be wondering how the game could possibly be difficult. The answer is that you suddenly find yourself working with extreme limitations. Besides gaining life meters several times the length of your own, enemies gain the ability to lock half of your pieces so that they can't be used, or to devalue them so that playing the selected tiles gains you no particular advantage. Worse, they may even set things up so that playing your own pieces damages you! There are items that can be used to counter these effects, but they are gone for good once you make use of them... at least until you take the time to earn more. The process for that basically amounts to level grinding."
PopCap Games has produced more than its fair share of addictive puzzle games. The company's newest release, Bookworm Adventures: Volume 2, started out by doing enough things right that I immediately found myself sucked into the experience. Long after I began playing (and well into the night and early morning to follow), I was still loving every minute that the game enabled me to spend creating words with the mild-mannered worm named Lex. Then I played several more hours--after a good night's sleep, of course--and gradually I began to realize that while the game certainly has its strengths, it doesn't sustain the same level of seemingly effortless brilliance that so many of its peers do.
Having never played the first volume in the series, I began without any real idea of what I should expect. My total lack of knowledge didn't work against me at all, though, since the game is very proficient at getting things going. Tips are provided for the first few rounds but are never so invasive or lengthy as to be irritating. A lot of that is probably due to the simple core concept, which goes like this: you get sixteen letters and you have to use them to form a word. Once you do so, new pieces will fall into play so that you can continue forming words. Each word that you generate inflicts damage on your opponent, who then gets to strike a literary blow in retaliation. This exchange will continue until one of you wins, at which point you either move on to face your next adversary or start the stage again.
Bookworm Adventures: Volume 2 contains three adventures which are linked together by a common narrative thread. Essentially, the plot takes you through a handful of distinct worlds that are entered by way of mystical portals. Upon clearing one dimension, you'll move onto the next with the skills and items you have acquired. Features also are unlocked, including a selection of mini-games when the second of the trilogy is conquered. For those who aren't necessarily anxious to experience all three quests, PopCap Games has indicated that it will be releasing the adventures individually later this month.
The story, while perhaps not unique, is at least interesting. There are a lot of little tidbits throughout that show the usual PopCap sense of humor. The earliest moments remain my favorite, though, chock full of poems that don't quite rhyme and cows with rocket shoes. Later segments delve into dreary mythological themes and sci-fi trappings that start to feel a bit dark, even as the jokes continue. None of it was likely meant to be examined all that closely, and on that level the material mostly works.
As you work through that first and most lighthearted adventure, you might think that Bookworm Adventures: Volume 2 was simply made to be too easy. I was able to clear it without ever losing a match and without even relying on healing items. As I moved into the second book, I wondered if the difficulty would ramp up slightly or if it would start fresh. I was wrong on both counts; the spike in difficulty was nothing short of astonishing. A few rounds in, I found myself struggling just to reach bosses, then found them wiping away my life meter in single rounds as they stacked one ailment on top of another. I was able to rally and clear that second book's adventures once I spent the time to carefully plan things, but then the third book came along and almost immediately ratcheted up the difficulty yet again.
You might be wondering how the game could possibly be difficult. The answer is that you suddenly find yourself working with extreme limitations. Besides gaining life meters several times the length of your own, enemies gain the ability to lock half of your pieces so that they can't be used, or to devalue them so that playing the selected tiles gains you no particular advantage. Worse, they may even set things up so that playing your own pieces damages you! There are items that can be used to counter these effects, but they are gone for good once you make use of them... at least until you take the time to earn more. The process for that basically amounts to level grinding.
When you enter a stage, you also get to equip gear--two items and one companion--but the design of each area ensures that you can never quite shield yourself from all of the worst blows your enemies are capable of dealing. Some can also steal your items, or can remove the powerful gems that sometimes drop onto your board. It's frustrating.
Another potential issue is that the letters you receive are often not as random as they should be. When you're facing a boss with a weakness against fire-related words, for example, the letters to spell "ember" are quite common. That's useful, of course, but then there are times where there's no tangible theme and you're still getting an assortment of nearly useless letters. You can scramble things to try again, but that costs you a turn and could very well lose you the match if your opponent chooses to petrify you and you have exhausted your supply of healing droughts. The most exasperating part of it all is that since your supply doesn't restore itself to its previous level upon failing a quest, there may be times where you perhaps could have succeeded but didn't because you were too worried about using a precious potion.
I've spent long enough griping about the difficulty, though, and I don't want you to get the idea that I hated the game. I didn't. I just find the closing hours to be too difficult for their own good. I stopped short of finishing the last few rounds for that very reason. Some things just aren't worth it. By the time I threw in the towel, though, I'd played many hours and had also unlocked a healthy supply of mini-games that offer a nice change of pace if the main campaign is becoming a bit of a drag. These include one that lets you unscramble themed words while a timer ticks down, one that lets you try to gather a high score from the placement of only five words and so forth. There are score boards that let you challenge your best scores, too, so that should add a lot to your enjoyment.
In the end, Bookworm Adventures Volume 2 represents a solid 15 or 20 hours of addictive play, which isn't bad at all considering the price. Gamers have certainly been content in the past to pay more for less. The real downer here is that PopCap often tilts the "fun versus cost to play" ratio even more aggressively in its favor. This latest effort is certainly worth a go if you've already played everything else or you just want to engage in a battle of words, but otherwise there are several titles within PopCap's library that serve as a superior starting point.
Staff review by Jason Venter (August 02, 2009)
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.
If you enjoyed this Bookworm Adventures Volume 2 review, you're encouraged to discuss it with the author and with other members of the site's community. If you don't already have an HonestGamers account, you can sign up for one in a snap. Thank you for reading!