I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall when the idea for the original Bookworm Adventures was pitched. I’m guessing it went something like this:
PopCap exec: “Gentlemen, you’ve created a fantastic game in Bookworm. It’s selling pretty well, but I think we can do more with it. I’ve been thinking it might be fun to combine it with another game genre. Any ideas?”
Designer 1: “How about a hybrid FPS? You would have to create words to take down enemies as they appear.”
Designer 2: “Already been done…don’t you remember Typing of the Dead?”
Designer 3: “Yeah, I’m still trying to purge the memories of that game’s voice-over work from my brain.”
*nods of agreement from everyone*
Designer 1: “Maybe an RTS game would work. Each unit would need to be created with a different word, and you only get the powerful units when you do big words.”
Designer 3: “Too complicated, you’d end up with a bazillion words on screen. We need to keep it simple.”
Designer 2: “I know, I know. We’ll create So You Think You Can Dance – Britney Spears Bookworm Edition!”
*silence around the table*
PopCap exec: “Ted, you haven’t started drinking again, have you? No, no guys…we need something that will really grab people. We all saw how Puzzle Quest stole our Bejeweled game and fused it with an RPG…” *mutters and grumbles from everyone* “…and we need to catch the same lightning in a bottle.”
Designer 1: “Well, why not do the same thing? Combine Bookworm with an RPG…that could be fun, right? ”
PopCap exec: “You know, I think you’re on to something here. Get to work boys!”
And thus, the title that stole dozens of my gaming hours was born. OK, so it probably didn’t go down exactly like that, but they did have a pretty brilliant idea to combine Scrabble (basically) with an RPG, complete with character advancement and NPC companions.
The basic idea is a simple one. You play as Lex, the titular bookworm. Lex wakes up one day to find that all the creatures from his books have suddenly come to life, are running amok in the library, and he needs to figure out what’s going on. After all, when Mother Goose is being chased by the Big Bad Wolf through the Reference section, one can hardly stand idly by, right? So Lex must jump into his books and try to defeat the characters that have come to life by attacking them with…well…words.
You are given a grid of 16 random letters, and must create words to defeat your enemies. Both Lex and the baddie have a Zelda-style life bar (complete with small hearts), and the words you create cause damage and deplete the bar. Creating small words cause small damage (i.e. 3 letter words will typically only knock off about ¼ of a heart), while longer and more complex words can dish out some major damage. String together a 10-12 letter word, and watch your opponent’s life bar go from full to nearly empty in no time. Just like Scrabble, using “tougher” letters (J, X, Z, Qu, etc) will cause more damage as well, which is indicated by a small colored dot on each letter. Bronze letters are common and cause little damage, silver cause a bit more, and gold letters are the heavy hitters.
But simple word creation is not all Lex has in his arsenal. Putting together longer words will also cause tiles to become gems. These gems have beneficial effects such as poisoning the enemy, reducing his strength, burning or bleeding (causes him to lose health each turn), increased damage, or healing. While these can be tossed around at whim in the early game, later levels and stronger enemies will require very judicious use of these gems in order to succeed. You will also acquire a stock of potions throughout the game that can purify any status effects, add power to a single word (great to use when you finally get to play “xylophone”), or heal a few hearts. These can be played at any time, but aren’t given out all that often. Like the gems, careful and strategic use of these potions is vital in the late game.
Your enemies aren’t without a few tricks as well. In addition to the same poisoning, burning, and bleeding attacks you have, they can lock multiple letters so they can’t be played, smash them so they will do no damage when used in a word, stun Lex so he misses a turn, or steal potions away. Often times, you’ll be hit with multiple effects at once, and have to figure out the best way to battle through. The worst enemy attack was the tile warp, which causes 4 or 5 common letters (such as R or T) to switch to difficult letters (such as X or J). This can create some serious havoc, especially when you’ve been saving that T or S for just the right word.
The game is broken up into 3 books, each one based around both popular and classic literature. You’ll run across plenty of familiar faces, from The Cow That Jumped Over the Moon (complete with space boots and helmet), to The Queen of Hearts, to personifications of Chinese yearly calendar (year of the dog, year of the goat, etc.). Each book has 10 different levels, and each level will pit you against 4 increasingly difficult enemies, then a tough end boss. Once defeated, each end boss gives out a special item that Lex can equip prior to any future levels. Some items prevent effects such as stun or freeze, while others add additional damage or increase potion drop. Choosing the correct items can be the difference between success and failure on many levels. You’ll also pick up a few companion characters along the way, which will provide beneficial status effects or items. Once of these companions can also be equipped prior to every level.
Graphically, Bookworm Adventures 2 looks like a very pretty Flash game, but the excellent and creative character design add a ton of fun and personality. All the characters have a paper-doll look, and are animated accordingly. It’s simple, but very effective. Each enemy has a very distinct look and a set of attacks that is specific just to them. While they may boil down to the same thing (i.e. stunning, burning, tile warp), some of the names and descriptions of the attacks are downright hilarious. PopCap put a ton of effort into giving each and every character their own little quirks, and it absolutely pays off. I couldn’t wait to get to each new level, because there was always something amusing or creative about every new opponent I faced. Had they not done such a good job with the design, this game wouldn’t be nearly as interesting or fun to play. There is some ambient background music and some basic sound effects, but I typically played with iTunes on instead.
The main story campaign will take most gamers 8-10 hours to complete, and the fun can be extended through a smattering of mini-games and even an area that allows you to fight specific characters in an ever-increasing ladder of difficulty. The game also tracks a number of specific stats, so you keep tabs on those l33t 13-letter words you used to take down tough enemies.
On paper, Bookworm Adventures 2 sounds like a crazy idea, but bringing together these very disparate genres and gameplay ideas just works. It’s addicting as hell (breaking away from it long enough to write this review has been tough), incredibly well-crafted, and is simply just a ton of fun. It’s absolutely worth your gaming dollar. Oh, and if PopCap’s next game is Bookworm Adventures: Real Time Strategy Edition, I’ll be expecting a royalty check.