Pros: Addictive; simple; strategic; fun; inexpensive; easy to purchase and download; regular or time trial mode; multiple levels of difficulty; great atmosphere
Cons: One bug I’ve run into; seems harder to keep getting better at it (than with the other PopCap games)
Rating: 4 out of 5
First published 1/10/2005
This is my third review of a PopCap game for Mac OS X; so far I’ve already reviewed Bejeweled and Big Money. As I’ve mentioned before I don’t play a whole lot of computer games (I’m not very good at them) and thus can’t go into as much detail as some reviewers, but hopefully you’ll find this useful anyway.
PopCap games in general
Many of PopCap’s games seem to involve some sort of basic pattern- and color-matching. It lets me consider the games vaguely educational (or some such rationalization), and it’s something I happen to be a little better at than, oh, say, reflexes, so I enjoy these sorts of games more.
PopCap games also seem to have a lot of atmosphere. While the theme and type of games may seem somewhat limited, the styles aren’t. The company puts a lot of work into making sure that each game has a style and sticks to it. Take Alchemy, for example–the subject of this review. In Bejeweled the colors and shapes you were matching were gemstones. In Big Money they were coins. In Alchemy they’re colored alchemical symbols that glitter with gold dust. As you go up levels and gain points you gain new ranks like “concoctionist” and “grand alchemist.”
PopCap games are wonderfully inexpensive; I believe I paid about $15 for Alchemy. When budgets are tight, that’s a wonderful price for a game you can get a lot of replay value out of.
PopCap understands that you’ll probably want to try out a game before deciding whether or not to buy it, and makes it easy for you to do so. You can play limited versions of many of their games in your web browser from their website. I find that for some reason Safari and IE for the Mac can’t handle a number of them, but it can handle some of the simpler ones, and I’ve been able to play others (like Insaniquarium) through Virtual PC. You can also download the “deluxe” (non-web) version if they have one for your platform (some games are for the PC only; some are for PC or Mac–and they have Palm versions of games too!) and you can play it as a demo for a limited number of times before you need to register. You can also choose to get their games on CD instead of by download.
Alchemy in specific
The game board in Alchemy is a blank square grid. First you’re given a single gray stone tile, which you can place anywhere on the board (actually, on the first level they place it for you). Then you get a new colored symbol each turn, which you must place somewhere on the board (every symbol directly next to it must be either the same color or the same shape) or destroy in the “forge”. After the forge fills up (which happens after you discard three symbols), the next discard ends your game. You also get an occasional skull-and-crossbones piece that lets you destroy one symbol on the board, clearing its space (but leaving it gold).
Placing a symbol in a space turns the background of that space from lead to gold (unfortunately the color change is just subtle enough that I’ve sometimes not noticed unchanged squares). Any time you complete a row or column, all of the symbols in that row or column disappear, leaving more spaces that you can fill if need be. You get more points for putting symbols in lead squares than for putting them in squares that you’ve already turned to gold. Once the entire board has been turned to gold, you progress to the next level. Each level includes more colors and/or symbols while keeping the playing field the same size, making things more and more difficult.
There are three levels of difficulty that you can set for your game; higher levels of difficulty incorporate things like even more colors. You can also play on time trial, in which the forge slowly fills up as you play, and you lower its level with each symbol that you place on the board.
Alchemy is the only PopCap game I’ve played so far that’s contained a bug, although it’s hardly a deal-breaker. When you quit the game in the middle of a game, it saves your current game and allows you to load again when you start up. I find that if I save between levels, it loads with a blank gold field and I have to start over with a new game. An easy workaround is just to never save between levels–always start the next level and place a symbol or two before quitting.
I find that I like Bejeweled and Big Money better than Alchemy. Somehow with Alchemy I always eventually hit a brick wall beyond which I can’t seem to get any better at the game, whereas with the other two it seems like I can still progress. And Big Money has the puzzle mode, giving it a wider range of game-play. Still, I haven’t yet stopped playing Alchemy–I just don’t play it as often as the other games. And for only $15, I’d still call that a great deal!