When it comes to casual puzzle games, the match-3 format is nearly as ubiquitous as jumping is in platformers. For some of us consumers the gameplay possibilities have nearly been exhausted, and it takes something really special to get our attention. Development studio Machine 22 aims to do just that with Bret Airborne, a puzzle RPG for PC and Mac. Does this title featuring hot air balloon duels succeed at rising above the competition? For the most part, yes, though some parts may leave players feeling a little deflated.
The fate of the world is at stake shouts the genius scientist and inventor, Doctor Altus, to our titular hero. Well, not so much ‘shouts’ as conveys through comics-style chat bubbles at the introduction of Bret Airborne. It’s a promising start to this steampunkish tale, as the hero must quickly chase and thwart the nefarious villain. Over the course of the journey, our hero boards a hot air balloon, combats a series of minions, and then takes on the big, bad boss himself. My first impression was that this was going to be an entertaining homage to the comic strips or cinema matinees of the 1930s and 40s (think The Rocketeer). Unfortunately that’s about as far as the story goes until the quick wrap-up at the end. This was the sole failing of Bret Airborne. It had a promising opening, clichéd though it might be, but did nothing to further develop the characters or drive the plot onward. Who is Bret? Who are these nameless, faceless enemies helping out the villain? Why is everyone in tricked-out hot air balloons? There’s no point in putting window dressing on this type of game if it’s not going to be fleshed out a bit more.
With the negatives out of the way early, I can talk about the great gameplay. Yes, it’s essentially a match-3 game but with some interesting twists on the rules. Each battle is a turn-based duel between the player and the opponent, both of whom share the same board. Each combatant can make their 3-in-a-row matches of symbols on their own half of the board, though the matches can be sitting partly on the other player’s side. In fact, doing so increases a particular stat used by some acquired powers, but more on that later. The point of each battle is to knock the enemy’s armor down to zero before they can do the same to the player. In between battles, the player directs their balloon from waypoint to waypoint encountering more enemies, entering stores, and heading further and further east towards the game’s end.
During combat, the symbols found on the board can be combined to net three different kinds of collectible resources, cannonballs for immediately attacking the other player, tools for repairing the ship’s armor, harmful lightning (avoid!), and so on. Succeeding at making a row or column of four or more of the same symbol will not only earn the player another turn, but it also moves the central bar one column further into opponent territory. Moving that divider has the potential to open up enough additional territory for the player to either gain some previously inaccessible resource or to thwart whatever work the opponent might’ve been in the process of. For instance, the player can hit a four-symbol match to move the bar and use a set of cannonballs on the enemy’s side before they can. The bar resets to the standard position when the player’s turn is finally over. It might not sound like much, but this one rule alone shakes up the match-3 formula in a really fun and strategical way.
Much like Puzzle Quest, there are passive abilities and powers available to the player. In Bret Airborne, these can be purchased using gold earned through battle and exploration. The main campaign is divided into ten zones, and most of the zones have a location where purchases can be made. The passive abilities include stat boosts like increased armor, a chance to deflect enemy shots, and extra gains when matching resources. The powers are even more varied and generally include different types of direct attacks, the ability to screw over the opponent’s side of the board, or affecting the opponent’s ability to use their powers. All powers use the core resources collected by the player, so it’s important to play a well-rounded game.
The final twist is that every power has a boost if the player has reached requirements in two other statistical categories: movement and piracy. Maneuver points are earned when the player can combine four or more symbols. Piracy points are earned when making a match that uses at least one symbol on the opponent’s side. The boost might make the attack more potent, cause timed powers to occur more quickly, or make debuffs last longer. There’s a strategy involved in deciding whether to burn powers early to get a jump on the opponent, or whether to focus on gaining maneuver and piracy points and going on the offensive later.
Bret Airborne is more than just about the main campaign, as a few additional modes have found their way into the game. The most interesting of these is the Gauntlet. It’s a series of 12 matches against increasingly difficult opponents. Before the round begins, the player gets a look at the opponent’s set of abilities and powers in order to gauge what he or she will be going up against. The player starts out the mode with basically nothing, but earns an additional power after defeating each opponent. It’s a solid challenge and easily makes this the pick of the litter in terms of bonus modes. The other modes include setting up a customized duel, 2-player local multiplayer, and a tower challenge. The tower challenge is based off of a mini-game found throughout the main campaign where the player races against the clock to collect a requisite amount of different materials for constructing a defensive tower. In this particular mode, the clock is removed and the player is granted 200 moves to complete as many towers as possible. Most of the modes probably won’t get more than a couple of plays, but they do add some incentive to stick with the game once the campaign is completed within a few hours.That time
It’s frustrating to play a game like Bret Airborne, but not because it’s bad. On the contrary, it’s quite good. The gameplay is familiar, but it has some unique rules that will make it appealing to both casual players and strategy masters. The problem is that I can easily see what it would take to give it that extra coat of polish to make it shine. While this is just the first entry in Bret Airborne’s adventures, it’s my hope that we’ll see the balloon-riding hero in a sequel that rises to even greater heights.
Bret Airborne is available for PC and Mac from the Machine 22 website along with demos for each platform.
This review was conducted using a copy of the PC version provided by the developer for that purpose.
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