Azkend 2: The World Beneath Review
Gorgeous Garnish, Unsatisfying Meal
Pasta is a great dish. It’s pretty excellent most of the time, but the key to a good pasta meal is the flavoring. Simple carbohydrates and sauce will not do the job. Instead, you need just a little bit of spice to make the meal exciting, some red pepper, garlic, paprika, basil, etc. A fettucine alfredo without the right spices will taste fine, but it will lack that exciting kick that makes the meal memorable and desirable until the very last bite. It will taste fine, fine enough to seem satisfying throughout the first few bites but not fine enough to compel you to finish the whole thing.
Why did I start off this review of a video game talking about pasta? Because Azkend 2: The World Beneath plays like how bland pasta tastes (Boom, I just blew your mind).
Azkend 2: The World Beneath makes a strong first impression. Even though it is a port of a game released in 2012, it still lures you in with orchestral, sweeping music and an art style inspired by the imagination of Jules Verne. A simple match-3 game, the initial experience feels like opening up a comfortable but enticing adventure novel. Unfortunately, continuing to play the game feels like finding out that the novel’s cover was the best thing about it. This strong first impression soon turned to boredom, frustration, and then apathy.
You play an explorer whose ship crashes in the ocean thanks to a terrible storm, and you wake up to find yourself underground in a world with landscapes that defy logic in their existence and beauty. While this is just a frame for the gameplay, it is much more effective than it has any right to be. The game gets a ton of mileage out of its art and sound. The “graphics” in the game are mainly just pretty background images and icons, but those background images are really pretty. The consistent tone and gorgeous hand-painted artwork make the game seem like an actual adventure even though it was simply a series of screens.
Credit also must be given to the soundtrack composed by Jonathan Greer, who composed last year’s Owlboy. The big brass, haunting pianos, and melodic strings would feel right at home in a game ten times its size and are worth checking out on their own.
Problems arise in the game, though, when the actual puzzles begin. At first, the relaxing nature of the game is welcoming and even soothing. This match-3 game is not trying to reinvent the hexagonal wheel. Find at least 3 icons that are similar, draw a line between them, and hope the others fall in favorable ways. The game places a heavy emphasis on making matches near objectives, like attacking bugs, locked tiles, certain colored tiles, etc. It also gives a large array of powerups, passive and active, that give additional time, eliminate other tiles, change what tiles show up on the board, and more. All these features promise depth to the gameplay.
In-between rounds, the game has a hidden object bonus game where you look at one of the game’s gorgeous pieces of art and try to find things. If you do well, the game gives you bonuses for the following levels. Though simple, this was a pleasant break from the rest of the game and an excellent excuse to appreciate the game’s artwork a bit more.
“[Azkend 2’s] strong first impression soon turned to boredom, frustration, and then apathy.”
Unfortunately, the game really needed more diversions. The gameplay becomes tedious by the end of the campaign. There is a variety of modes, but with the exception of the puzzle mode, they all amount to essentially the same few strategies. Moreover, the “challenge” section of the game does not add any interesting new ways to play, just allows you to do a simple time mode or replay levels you have already won. Furthermore, the powerups seem more exciting than they actually are. Some of them seem to win games by themselves while others while others barely do anything at all, but either way, they rarely do anything exciting.
The lack of exciting moments is definitely the most damning part of the game. There were no plays that got my blood pumping, nothing that made me go, “Nice,” in that way I say to myself when I am especially proud of something. It is technically possible to make long strings of matches thanks to how the wild tile works, but the game does not reward this accomplishment enough. Chances are, if you need to make a long string, you are better off quickly making a series of shorter strings instead. I know this because going into the last level, I picked an active powerup that increased the amount of wild tiles and a passive powerup that gave me more time so I could create those long combos, and then, even though I got several combos long enough that the main voice actor exclaimed, “Nice” for me, I still lost by a large margin.
Then I switched back to the basic powerup combo I had been using for the last 20 levels and won easily.
That moment was especially telling because I felt I had finally found a way to make the game exciting, to add that spice it so needed, but instead of rewarding this behavior, the game simply brushed away the crushed red pepper and basil and said, “Okay, now play the game the right way.”
So I sighed, did just that, beat the level, and left feeling disappointed that the magic and wonderment of the game’s presentation was nowhere to be found in the core gameplay.