Candy Crush Saga: Sugar Coated Letdown
I consider myself a hardcore gamer. I’ve navigated through waves of bullet-hell shooters, defeated cheap over-powered fighting game bosses; I’ve watched and wept as Aeris died in Final Fantasy 7 (oops, spoiler alert) and headshotted with the best of them in Counter Strike–but I have never been faced with a challenge like Candy Crush Saga. The devious minds behind this match three arcade puzzler have transferred their addictive little gem over to mobile devices from it’s original home on the ubiquitous Facebook. Be prepared to invoke the ire of your friends as you repeatedly harass them to give you more lives, as the all the established Facebook free-to-play mechanics are seamlessly integrated in this version.
I’ve put countless hours in to this game. I’m hopelessly addicted to games of this type and instantly download a new contender for Bejewelled’s crown as soon as they pop up, only to be instantly disappointed by derivative gameplay. Candy Crush Saga is one of the better designed games in the genre, bringing genuine innovation to an increasingly stale genre. So why haven’t I given this game a perfect score? It meets all the requirements for a classic game, but it commits a serious transgression of it’s relationship with the gamer, which ironically is the reason that it’s one of the most financially successful apps on the Play store.
Candy Crush garners a lot of good will from it’s beautifully realized, whimsical designs that invoke an oddly eastern European mid-sixties animation style. But the look is far from saccharine, in fact it’s very knowing without being smugly ironic. A lot of thought has been put in to the presentation, from the kooky characters with their almost Terry Gilliam-esque simplified movements, to the the actual candy itself which literally looks good enough to eat. The tangerine jelly beans always make me want to dash to the store and pick up a bag.
The thrust of the gameplay will be familiar to anyone who has been near a computer of any kind since Tetris escaped the U.S.S.R. all those years ago, when it was smuggled out of the Soviet states through a network of underground tunnels in a camouflaged Gameboy. The player is presented with a grid of various differently coloured candies which must be swiped to an adjacent position in order to achieve a row or column of three or more of the same variety, upon which they will burst and new bon-bons will drop from above to take their place. Careful players will be able to initiate a chain reaction whereby the incoming candies themselves form a cluster; the score for each subsequent link in the chain multiplies exponentially, so it’s best to look out for those opportunities. When four or more sweets are assembled, they produce a special candy, imbued with extra powers. You may get a local area of effect bomb, one that slices through the grid either vertically or horizontally, and if you match five, you’ll receive a chocolate coated smart bomb that can take out all candies of a particular colour. The real strategy comes in to play when you combine any of these power-ups to for even more devastating attacks. You’ll find yourself manipulating the game board in such a way as to make sure that you can achieve these life saving combos, as they give you the upper hand when confronted with some of the later levels.
The levels are where King.com’s design really comes in to play, and is Candy Crush’s best feature, but ultimately it’s downfall. The standard combo heavy early levels soon give way to more fiendish configurations with impassable walls, jelly cubes that must be destroyed to complete the level, and unbreakable blocks and walls among others. These obstacles, coupled with a limited amount of available moves or even a miserly timer, really ratchet up the difficulty at complete odds with the sugary dressing draped over the mechanics. It’s a welcome change to so many repetitive similar games that show no hint that the developers are concerned with the quality of the product. King.com stretches the confines of the humble matching concept to breaking point, by throwing in new alterations to the basic template every few levels. Some stages require you to drop fruit (surely poison in this Candy world) from the top of the screen to the bottom by removing the sweets under them. It was on one of these challenges that I first started to get an inkling of the game’s true intentions.
Some levels are impossible to beat. Just flat out impossible. I initially thought that this was a game breaking bug but when the game suggested that I buy a $40 upgrade, I saw that this was no coding mistake. When the game asks you to get rid of the fruit from the gameplay area, it helps that the fruit actually be present. I spent several moves waiting for the last apple to appear at the top of the candy stack, and when it finally did, the game ended as I had no more moves left. This rendered the level unbeatable. Faced with this I refused to spend any money on IAPs to get a few extra tries at or a candy crushing power up, and instead repeated the level twenty times (which takes a while considering how long it takes to regenerate lives), until what ever algorithms the fruit gods that dispense cherries in to candy based puzzle games, delivered them to me when I actually needed them. There is something wrong when failure isn’t based on lack of skill but rather innate unfairness within the game, especially when the remedy is to purchase extortionate upgrades.
It didn’t stop me playing though. The game is quite compulsive and I can see weak willed players succumbing to over-priced power ups.
That said I have got a lot of enjoyment out of what is a free to play (and pay to win) game, without dropping a penny on it. When microtransactions (or not so micro) are such an established part of the modern game paradigm, the way they are implemented must be taken in to account as an integral part of gameplay. And as such Candy Crush Saga really drops the ball. It alienates the player with punitive difficulty spikes, insulting money grabbing tactics, and design choices that show complete contempt for those that it should be wooing.
It’s a pity that Candy Crush Saga falls in to the ever expanding category of cash-siphoning hits, as the underlying game is such a winner. But it’s charm and quality of execution won’t save it from having those all important paw prints deducted from it’s score.