Release: Out now
How do you iterate on a whimsical RPG based around spelling? Bigger, better, more badass gerunds? Bump-mapping capital letters? How about inventing some new vowels? As luck would have it, wiser minds have won the day, and the second instalment of the adventures of the chirpy and bespectacled Lex chooses to elaborate on the role-playing elements rather than the vocabulary itself. The result is exactly what you’d expect from PopCap: a charming refinement, a richer slice of heavily frosted birthday cake.
Even with the spelling put to one side, Bookworm Adventures remains a smart game. The basics are unchanged: fight your way through a selection of classic (out-of-copyright) literature by untangling words from a randomised grid of letters. Each chapter is a scrolling parade of quirky enemies, culminating with a boss: the longer the word and the choicer the consonants, the more powerful the attack it inflicts.
It’s Scrabble with headbutting, then, or World of BoggleCraft. As a synthesis of RPG and brainteaser, Bookworm Adventures remains several scores more elegant and charismatic than the sleepy blandishments of Puzzle Quest, and it’s consistently less arbitrary, victory hanging not on the whims of random jewel drops, but your own ability to draw words from an unpromising muddle of Qs and Ys.
There’s a handful of gentle evolutions, the biggest of which is probably the ability to head into battle with a companion – capable of dealing out perks every fourth turn – alongside your traditional buff-producing treasures. It’s a nice addition, bringing a deeper touch of strategy to choosing your load-out, as well as providing yet another strain of collectable to mark your progress by. Elsewhere, there are revised mini-challenges, extra tile types, a much-requested game-plus mode, and, of course, three new books, sending you battling through fairy tales, the myth of the Monkey King, and a cliche-slick science fiction paperback.
The most obvious improvement, however, is the extra layer of polish. The animations are stylish and economical, calling to mind paper-cut marionettes or air-brushed shadow puppets, and the smart aleck asides come thick and fast. Everywhere you look in Lex’s world, from tutorial text to character descriptions, attack names, and – a PopCap tradition – the blather accompanying loading bars, there’s verbal punning to be found, and the story, light as it is, now progresses with a greater degree of sophistication.
But, as the ‘Volume 2′ suggests, the main focus of this particular sequel is soothing continuity. PopCap’s providing a second chance to enjoy the charms of Bookworm’s comfy – and strangely Victorian – universe, offering another opportunity to revel in a system which remains so brilliantly balanced, not just by the designers but by the player’s own ability: that teetering battle between pride and strategy than ensues every time you decide whether to comprehensively flatten a villain with an unnecessary monosyllabic flourish or gamble on saving it for your next target, hoping the board doesn’t get scrambled before you get a chance to show off.
RPGs rely on tradition like few other genres, so it’s hardly surprising that a strain as esoteric as this has decided to stick with what works, particularly when it continues to work so well. This may not be the modern meme-factory side of PopCap then, the side that gave us dolphin zombies, Jimmy Lightning and Crazy Dave with a pan on his head, but it still serves to remind you that, even at its most conservative, the king of casual studios remains a force to be reckoned with. More of the same then? Good.