Mahjong Tales: Ancient Wisdow is Creat Studios’ first in a series of PS3 titles to hit the Store, alongside Magic Ball and Cuboid, but is Mahjong really right for Generation PlayStation?
The idea is a simple one – faced with a decorative pile of tiles in a variety of arrangements, the player must match up pairs of identical tiles without disturbing the neighbouring tiles, the ultimate goal being to match up the two golden tiles at the bottom of the pile. It’s essentially a solitaire variation, with the cards replaced with ornate and often difficult to read Chinese symbols.
There’s little here that will surprise you given the fact that this is a niche game from a new developer to the PS3; if you’re a fan of Mahjong then you’ll probably be more forgiving of the game’s numerous flaws, but otherwise this will be a difficult sale. Firstly, Tales screams of budget production – that’s not meant to necessarily be a negative on the team behind the game, but don’t be expecting flashy graphics and top notch animation here. The menus are clunky and poorly designed, the controls victim of at least one dodgy decision (why doesn’t the pointer snap to the nearest tile?) and the various alternative modes really little more than a distraction from the main game, which revolves around a series of five tales.
Each tale breaks off a few times, and it’s here that the mahjong starts. Whilst there’s no connection between the cut- scenes and the action itself, the real bizarre question is why the story segments are there at all – if the developers had spent more time refining the mechanics a little and forfeited the ‘Tales’ then Creat might have had a tighter, more enjoyable game with a little less fluff around the edges. As it stands, it feels like a bare bones download with extra story intermissions added to pad it out.
The mahjong itself is reasonably well handled, but the game is too easy and the infinite hints make even the more challenging boards a doddle. Sure, you’ll lose out on a Trophy if you take advantage of the re-shuffles, but if you’re buying this just to add a little more silverware to your collection you’re in for a rough ride anyway – the Trophies are pretty tricky to get and might take a few days to plug through. Aside from the cursor being too small and not snapping to the tiles, we also discovered an odd bug whereby the game had stalled because there were no tiles to match but wouldn’t give us the option to shuffle. A tap of the hint button suggested we match two entirely different tiles, which worked – how that happened we’ve no idea. Edit: this may not be a bug, more of a deeper game mechanic – see comments below.
Functional is perhaps the best way to describe the graphics in Mahjong Tales. As said, the menu system is oddly designed and wouldn’t look out of place in a late 80s Amiga game, the tiles are far too delicate to read on anything but a HDTV and the faux Chinese styling is messy and obtrusive. And then there’s the cutscenes, which are basically static backdrops with a few moving elements, and whilst quite possibly true to ancient Chinese drawings just clash with everything else and really should have been left on the cutting room floor. It’s true that a game like this doesn’t need great graphics, but when half the onscreen estate is taken up with a massive border and a dragon, well, it’s not going to impress anyone.
The clinks of the tiles are fine, and the music, if you can bear the stereotypical Chinese lift music, is fine. What’s oddly jarring is the voiceovers in the cut-scenes, and whilst we’re reluctant to continue to go over the Tales sections again and again, they are the cornerstone of the game. For some reason the actors employed seemed to have recorded their lines on the same Amiga used to design the menus, and then processed over a 56k modem before being sampled onto the PS3, such is the muffled, crackly delivery.
It’s really not going to set the PS3 on fire, the game is hardly challenging the machine and despite the presence of a couple of multiplayer modes (both split screen and online) Mahjong Tales looks and feels like it’s running in Flash. Again, this isn’t a slur or a put-down, for the most part the design and aesthetics work reasonably well with the style of game, it’s just the odd decisions that pepper the experience with negatives that we’re focusing on. We just wonder whether the game’s target audience will even notice.
Everybody interested in Mahjong Tales will know exactly how the game plays, and minor (patchable) bugs aside, Creat Studios seemed to have delivered a reasonably good game of Mahjong. Sure, it’s hardly going to push WipEout and Warhawk off the PSN charts, but for a mildly cerebral experience it’s probably up there with the PSN’s other puzzle titles. It is overpriced, however, and the score reflects that.