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Mahjongg Artifacts
Score: 78%
ESRB: Everyone
Publisher: G5 Entertainment
Developer: G5 Software
Media: Download/1
Players: 1
Genre: Board Games/ Puzzle/ Strategy

Graphics & Sound:
We played Mahjongg Artifacts out of order, but that didn't hurt our appreciation of this first entry in G5's puzzle series. The game of mahjongg lends itself nicely to this presentation, filling the 16:9 PSP screen format with beautifully designed tiles. There are five distinct tile sets, each with a design that plays off a certain part of the story. Most traditional mahjongg games we've played in their videogame incarnation have a strong Asian design flavor, but Mahjongg Artifacts uses the design of the tiles and the background images to tie the tile-matching action to what is being narrated as the story. The general feel of things runs the gamut from Asian, to Egyptian, to just plain far-out alien... Each level is supported by a background image, giving you what amounts to wallpaper behind the tile-matching action.

Aside from the main story, it's possible to visit one of the alternate modes and select from up to 99 special tile layouts and your choice of background. The tile layouts often bear a striking resemblance to some real-world object or character, sort of... We're pretty sure we saw the Death Star, a pretzel, the term "gaijin," and possibly a crawdad. Cute touch: The 99th layout is in the shape of the number "99." The musical settings are very mellow, with an acoustic sound that favors guitar plucking and some fluttering flute sounds. Mahjongg Artifacts has all the trappings of a classic Casual title, at least from a front-office perspective.

Digging a little deeper into the game modes, you have three ways to play. What's called the Quest Mode is made up of varying tile sets and level designs, woven together with a narrative about exploring various territories. You use your mahjongg skills to defeat enemies, gain access to stashed treasure, and other elements of your quest, but the actual game doesn't change in the least. You'll find the same consistency in Classic and Endless Mode, which is fine by fans of tile-matching games. Nobody really wants a mahjongg mash-up, do they? The other modes preserve the rules of the game, but introduce custom layouts and tile sets you select, along with the option to stream tiles endlessly in the well-named Endless Mode. About the only thing that would have improved the playing options in Mahjongg Artifacts would be some type of multiplayer or a level editor. Both would have worked and would have made for a fun twist to the game, that didn't spoil anyone's enjoyment of matching tiles.

The Western version of mahjongg isn't at all like the game that is played in Asia, which resembled a much more skill-based game. This version isn't even a memory game, but it works a bit like that. You'll need to match tiles in order to remove them from the field of play, which sounds easier than it actually is in practice. Unlike a memory game where everything is available for play, Mahjongg Artifacts presents you with stacks of tiles. Tiles that don't sit on top of a column are locked, and unavailable for play, so you'll have to look across the entire board to find matches, and use special powers to unlock the board when you are out of moves. Some categories of tiles can be removed without an exact match, simply because they share common DNA. It's hard to know exactly which tiles meet the criteria, but usually when you see a one-off tile, it means there's another one-off somewhere that will allow you to take both off the board. Once you get to the bottom of the piles, you'll find two gold tiles; matching these means you win, regardless of whether all other tiles are cleared. Lather, rinse, repeat, and that's Mahjongg Artifacts in a nutshell. It's a disarmingly simple game to learn to play, but much like solitaire, you'll find yourself booting it up again and again to kill some time.

There's very little about Mahjongg Artifacts that would qualify as "difficult." It's tile matching, you can see most of the tiles on the board, and if you really need to, you can shuffle the tiles until you find a match. This is the casual quality of the game that we love, but don't come expecting any torturous puzzle/strategy elements. This is something you'll jump into when you want to relax and kill a few minutes, not something that is going to captivate you for hours on end. Perhaps at some point in the future, we'll see a mahjongg mash-up similar to what Puzzle Quest did for gem-matching games, but for now it's all extremely mellow. There are some things you need to bear in mind, such as clearing across the entire board before drilling down too awfully deep. The other tip is to clear from the outside in, for the most part. This ensures you uncover tiles, which means you can put them in play. There are a few magical tiles that pop up for play, but rarely will these make or break your game. They are mostly there for a change of pace, and to give brand-new players a chance to expand into something. The theme of magic and adventure also lends itself to these special "powers." Once you start playing much in Endless Mode, you'll no doubt be stumped a few times, so it's not like Mahjongg Artifacts runs completely on autopilot.

Game Mechanics:
Using the PSP controls for this mahjongg experience is the weakest part of the whole endeavor. If a touch-screen had never been invented, we wouldn't know better, but trying to navigate through tiles using a four-way controller is damned awkward. The problem is that tiles structures aren't laid out in a perfect grid, and you can only select active tiles. This means that traveling left means jumping up and down, so you can stay attached to active tiles while navigating through to your destination. Not only is this style of movement counterintuitive, it results in a few dud matches. Once you miss a second-spot match, you'll have to go all the way back to where you started, which can be tedious on a big board. You might wonder how anyone could mess up a two-tile match, but some of the designs look familiar. At other times, thanks to the strange controls, you'll fat-finger a tile and end up trying, trying again. The analog stick would have made a better navigation resource, but it's mapped to camera, for some reason. You'll rarely want to move the camera, since you can tap the two shoulder buttons and put the game's camera on auto-focus. Sure, the tiles look better when you zoom in on them, but then you can't see matching tiles in other areas of the board. It generally works fine, but occasional frustrations like these tend to build up the more you play Mahjongg Artifacts.

Mahjongg fans won't think twice about purchasing this one, and I'd rather play mahjongg on PSP than most solitaire games. The comparison is valid, but the style of play mahjongg promotes is actually much more interesting than any hand of Klondike or Canfield... Seeing the scattering of tiles on a sweet-looking background and listening to a relaxing soundtrack has to count for something. The limitations of the form are many, but Mahjongg Artifacts manages to make some interesting twists with its use of story and customized tile layouts. Give it a try, and you might be hooked.

-Fridtjof, GameVortex Communications
AKA Matt Paddock

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