Demo Driver 8: Letter Quest: Grimm’s Journey

It is apparent that the letter Q is silver.

I fought a werewolf with nothing more than weaponized words. That’s what I did today.

Bookworm Adventures was always weird.  In a good way, mind – I think the weirdness of the very premise had a charming quality, albeit happily disconnecting from anything resembling reality by simply deciding that forming words deals damage and going from there.  It is, in many ways, the logical precursor to games like Puzzle Quest and Gyromancer, games with love for the RPG model but with an eye toward making the mechanics of fighting things a bit more unusual.

You cannot, however, call it the “logical precursor” to Letter Quest: Grimm’s Journey without being exceptionally generous with your use of that term, because it’s the same damn game.  Letter Quest, top to bottom, is so close to Bookworm Adventures that calling it even a spiritual sequel is a bit too gentle.  It’s the same core game with a slight facelift, a different look to it, and new challenges for you to clear through as you plod along through some story or another that’s not terribly well-defined and mostly exists so you can kill monsters with letter tiles.

That’s really not to its detriment, though.

No explanation is ever offered for why your little grim reaper is damaging his opponents with scrabble tiles, nor is one really necessary.  This isn’t that sort of game.  The reason it works that way is that it works that way in this game, just go with it and enjoy it.  Repeat to yourself it’s just a game, etc.  The story, as presented in the demo, is simply that said little reaper wants to go get a pizza, which again makes very little sense – again, who cares.  Play the game.

These are, to be fair, usually things I care quite a bit about, but in this case the game clearly doesn’t care and doesn’t think you ought to care all that much either.  Everything in the game is bent toward facilitating your actual gameplay goals, and spending too much time thinking about why the gameplay works the way it does would shatter the illusion.  So why worry about it?

The actual gameplay, to be generous, is liberally inspired by Bookworm Adventures, by which I of course mean that it’s exactly the same with a slight difference in the layout of the letter grid.  You unlock special gem tiles, enemy attacks affect some tiles, harder letters to use get your more points/damage, and so forth.  It’s all straightforward, and as with its obvious inspiration you’ll sometimes be screwed by your letter selection but can always refresh your options at the cost of the enemy getting in a free attack.

It beats another GoW clone.

If you’re going to go ahead and just functionally copy something, you may as well go ahead and do so with an underserved game.

Where it differentiates itself, however, is in the amount of fiddly garbage available to you as you play.  I will admit that Bookworm Adventures was not a game that I played too much despite liking the premise, but it was definitely a game that fell into being an RPG almost by accident.  That was not its main goal.  Letter Quest, on the other hand, loves giving you all of the RPG stuff you can eat, if your definition of “RPG” means “numbers and upgrades” as it has in the gaming industry for the past decade or so.

I’m just saying, you claim to add RPG elements to Call of Duty, but I’ve never had a chance to sit down and romance someone in that game.

The eponymous Grimm can upgrade his health, damage, and armor – all standard.  He can also pick up a number of books which enhance his abilities and level up as he clears content.  There are other weapons available which offer different also-upgradable benefits.  You get the general idea.  Play the game, clear challenges, get more money for more upgrades and then rejoice as you wind up dealing more damage and healing yourself whenever you spell a word containing the letter E.

Yes, there are challenges – each stage is fairly short, but you can go through timed versions of the stages, fight hyper-challenging versions that strictly limit what you can do against exceptionally tough enemies, or face off against stranger challenges like having to clear the whole thing in a limited number of letters.  It’s blatant padding, but it’s also fun padding, so… split the difference, I suppose?

It's actually sort of to the game's credit, when you think about it.

It’s all exactly what you would expect, yes. It’s also all exactly what you would want, so why complain about that?

And thus goes the game.  It’s all pretty simple and straightforward, it’s a transparent riff on a game that was already made and released and sold, and it adds a bit of new stuff to that game but certainly not enough that it becomes a wholly different enterprise.  You would think that all of this would come out to a rather firm indictment.

But that is entirely incorrect.  I like the game a lot.  I think it’s stellar.  It’s one of the (many) demos that I’ve played for a bit, nodded with satisfaction, and then tossed on my wishlist as a game that does exactly what it’s setting out to do with panache and skill.

Oh, sure, it’s not the most original title that I’ve ever played, and it’s arguably deriving more than its fair share of mechanics from another game… but those mechanics are fun.  It’s fun to actually sit down and play the game.  Being annoyed or ungrateful that it takes so much inspiration from another source is unfair to it when it does all of that with such skill, and when the central mechanic that it’s yanking is one that doesn’t get used frequently.  More to the point, it provides a fun, polished, and comprehensive experience that is, I would argue, every bit as much fun as Popcap’s offering.

So it may not be original – decidedly unoriginal, if you don’t feel charitable – but by any standard you care to use, it’s still a very good game, and built with all the care and compassion you could ask for from a much smaller studio.  It’s a winner, is the point here.

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About expostninja

I've been playing video games and MMOs for years, I read a great deal of design articles, and I work for a news site. This, of course, means that I want to spend more time talking about them. I am not a ninja.

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