Them's fightin' words.
Gamers spend a considerable chunk of their time (and not-necessarily-abundant mental energy) working up exclusive, lovingly-crafted labels for particular genres of games. You know the routine: 'hard-core', 'kid-friendly', 'beer-and-pretzel', and even 'adventure' (and half of the time, the terms involved are not merely fuzzy, but actively misleading).
[image1]One of the interesting things about PopCap is that they make such a habit out of throwing wrenches into the whole assessment of what 'casual' games are supposed to be—there's a stigma that 'casual' somehow necessarily equates with 'forgettable', 'quickly-produced', or 'half-assed'. And yet, it seems like every time PopCap releases a new title—some of them under development for years—many of the 'hard-core' gamers I know suddenly put away their 'top-tier' console games for a few days to swap some jewels, bounce some Peggle-balls, lawnmower some zombies... or, in this case, bone up on their word-making skills.
For the uninitiated: The original, innocuously-titled Bookworm is a straightforward make-words-from-sets-of-letters game starring a cute, bespectacled, bibliophile worm named Lex. The game's follow-up, Bookworm Adventures, fused the word-forming mechanics with light, item-based role-playing elements, and saw Lex matching word-whipping wits with epic literary characters literally summoned from the pages of three mythic story-books.
Bookworm Adventures 2 continues in the same tradition, pitting you and your vocabulary against foes from the pages of three new book-worlds: Fractured Fairytales, The Monkey King, and Astounding Planet. Along the way, be prepared take on the likes of The Three Little Pigs, Tweedle Dum, the Dish and the Spoon (a Boss-Monster duo, no less), suspiciously-familiar science-fiction robots, sentient space cruisers, the Cheshire Cat, the Dormouse, The Red Queen, a single, crucial butterfly from a particularly well-known Ray Bradbury story. Hell, you'll even find yourself fighting a certain famed Bowl of Porridge (the hot and the cold one).
After an admirably brief, concise tutorial, players make their way through the ten chapters of each book via a simple word-based battle system. For each battle, the challenge is to form words from a grid of lettered tiles. Once a suitable word has been mouse-clicked into existence, a single click on the Attack button lets Lex strike his opponent. Longer words equal more damage dealt ('tap' or 'snip' barely harms your foe at all—but 'vasectomy' is going to leave a mark).
[image2]The two combatants trade attacks until one of them—hopefully not Lex—runs out of hearts. At the end of each book-themed succession of baddies is a Boss Fight, which can yield new treasure items to take into battle... and even new Companions to accompany Lex on his journey. Players can take two treasures along with them each time they journey into new books, and the special effects of these treasures allow the player to effectively attune Lex's attacks to their word-building strengths and general tactical preferences.
Two of my favorites include the Just-Right Porridge (it protects Lex from any Stun attack, ever, period) and the treasure that provides bonus damage for spelling descriptive words (blue, angry, heated, etc.). Likewise, you can bring one Companion along with you into each new book—would you like Mother Goose to lay the occasional healing egg for you... or would you prefer the Cheshire Cat to smile all your tile-grid ailments away every four rounds?
A range of colored gem tiles offers a number of power-ups and other special effects in combat. Green tiles, for example, will heal Lex for a mere two hearts—still, better than nothing—even as the enemy is taking a pummeling. The extremely-useful blue tiles will freeze the enemy during his/her next attack round; purple tiles inflict a poison attack that will do lingering damage in successive rounds, and still other tiles can fully heal Lex and lay on a whopping 100% damage bonus.
Working in a long enough word with multiple colored tiles can critically wound or even finish off a full-strength enemy in a single, devastating attack. As you click in more letters to form longer and more powerful valid words, Lex's piping voice calls out encouragement: “Wow!”, “Amazing!", “Astonishing!”. Lex can also use red, green, and blue potions to heal himself, augment his word-attacks or remove negative effects on him or the tile-grid. Merely using the potions is not considered an 'attack'—so if you need to use two or three in a row to better your situation, go nuts.
[image3]Each storybook enemy has a collection of signature attacks or special moves that he/she/it cycles through in rotation—perhaps a straightforward poisoned attack, followed by a ground-stomp (that wreaks havoc with your letter-tiles), followed yet again by a self-healing spell (that irritatingly undoes most of the devastating damage you just inflicted by spelling the word 'undisclosed', plus a 30% gem-boost attack bonus).
Rather than attacking Lex physically, enemies will often sabotage his letter-tiles—locking down or cursing individual tiles, temporarily draining letters of their ability to inflict damage, momentarily stunning Lex into inactivity, or even freezing up the entire tile-grid for a turn. If Lex has no blue tile-repairing potions in reserve when this happens, the only thing to do is take the next attack on the chin (if worms had chins) and gulp down a red healing potion afterwards. If the red potions are gone as well, the only thing to do is take the next attack on the chin... and hope you don't die. The lesson? Don't run out of potions. Just don't let it happen.
Since each enemy's possible actions are visible to you from the outset, it's feasible to work up something like a strategic rhythm to when you attack - when you Scramble (a desperation move to generate new tiles when you can't spell Jack Sprat with your current tiles), and when you expend a potion for damage-control purposes. Another almost-strategic element hinges on each enemy being vulnerable to certain critical words that relate in some way to their identities or backstories... but you basically have to guess what they are. (I won't give any real ones away, but as an example: If you're fighting a vampire, you might want to type 'garlic' or 'stake'. You get the idea.)
One especially satisfying touch in the game is roughly analogous to inflicting 'finishing moves' in testosterone-fueled fighting games: Whittle the enemy down to single heart or two, and then cream him with a particularly long, powerful word. As Lex strikes in these circumstances, the screen zooms in, the action slows to a dramatic 'worm-time' crawl, and a deep, booming, reverberating voice bellows out such victory-cries as 'WHOMPED!', 'CRUSHED!', or 'VANQUISHED!'. It's so utterly over-the-top and out of place. in a game about a cute little bookworm crawling his way through escapist literature, that it's also damn-near priceless. It'll earn you some bonus gems, too.
[image4]Bookworm Adventures 2 really piles on the new content. In addition to the new treasures, Book-chapters, and Companions, there are new Moxie Mini-Games, which are basically bonus word-game rounds between chapters, to allow for stocking-up on potions; the Rainbow Tile that are used like a Scrabble-esque Blank to bridge to words of devastating length; all-new Arena and Infinite Replay modes; and upon reaching the option to replay the entire main Adventure mode, achievements that earn you trophies, badges, and points for bonus challenges.
Through it all, Bookworm Adventures 2 shines with the same brand of quirky, dorky, good-natured—and sometimes just plain surreal—humor for which the Bookworm games have become known for. At one point, Lex does battle with the gingerbread dwelling made famous by the tale of Hansel and Gretel; a little later on, apropos of nothing in particular, Lex suddenly, excitedly blurts out, “I beat up a house!”
I once formed the reasonably-longish—and respectably gem-tiled—word 'Tiffany'; instead of calling out a supportive 'Wow!' or 'Great!', my annelid protagonist suddenly piped up “I love you!” Some designer's in-joke, I assume. I hope.
Bookworm Adventures 2 is so clean, lean, and well-done overall that it's a bit of a stretch to list any serious 'downsides'—it's certainly not lacking in gameplay, replay, or sheer entertainment/edutainment value. It's true that, due to the basically family-friendly nature of the game, certain words simply aren't recognized as valid, and the nature of the exclusion is sometimes a little confusing, even beyond the proper-noun rule of other word-based games (for example, 'zion', 'japan' and 'muslim' are recognized, but 'jew' is not... hmm).
[image5]In other examples, certain perfectly valid, respectable words from fine old books up to and including the Bible —'bastard' and 'whore' come to mind—just aren't an option; meanwhile, all of what George Carlin called the 'two-way words' seem to be acceptable here.
Also, since some players (such as Yours Truly) will occasionally bumble into spelling a valid-but-obscure word completely by accident, it would be nice if the game offered the actual meaning of said valid word. Again: Hmm.
See what I mean?—it's a stretch to list flaws of any real importance. Bookworm Adventures 2 is PopCap at the top of its (literal) game: Great presentation, quirky humor, loads of play and replay value... and God help us all, it's even educational. Do yourself a favor and play it anyway.