The Nintendo DS has been a great platform for casual and puzzle games.  When you look at the games available for the system, some of the major hits for the platform have been the Brain Age games, Professor Layton, Diner Dash, and Cooking Mama.  The “match 3” concept has been around since the original Columns in arcades and on the Sega Genesis.  The Nintendo DS has had it’s share of these clones, including Zoo Keeper and Pokemon Trozei!  Now Cradle of Rome has come from makers of Jewel Quest.  Can this game match the brilliance that was Puzzle Quest?

 

The theme behind Cradle of Rome is building the landmarks of Rome using the “match 3” mechanic in puzzles.  As you match icons you gather resources and tools to build the structures.  While the theme is interesting, is it enough to make the game stand out?

Cradle of Rome tries to capture the Roman culture graphically by the items they use in the puzzles as well as the cities you build.  Because the items in the puzzles are on the small side, you don’t get much of detail and end up with a lot of jaggies.  It is also difficult to see when there are chains placed on squares until you know what to look for.  While working on the puzzles, the top screen shows a water jug that slowly empties.  The water jug is better than a typical hourglass to try to capture the theme of the game.

 

When you complete levels and construct buildings from different epochs, they appear in the top screen.  They all have architecture that comes straight from ancient Rome.  When you see the city you are building you don’t see any kind of animation though.  You might think that you would see some kind of people populating the city or even some kind of movement to make the city feel a little alive.

The background music has a bit of a Roman flair to it, sounding like something you might have heard from a movie about Cleopatra, or possibly The Mummy series.  The music does change between puzzles, which is impressive for a title like this.  The music stays in the background though, and it never becomes overpowering.

 

The sound effects are typical of a “match three” games.  You hear a clink with every match, and as you gain matches in a single move, the clink gets higher and higher pitched.  When you complete the level you get a trumpet blare indicating your success, which is reminiscent of the battle victory tune from Final Fantasy.

Cradle of Rome can only be controlled with the stylus.  While most people would want to use the stylus for the controls, it would have been nice to be able to use the D-pad and A button to select the jewels to switch.  You wouldn’t think that this would have been that difficult either.

 

When doing the switching you can either tap the first jewel and then tap the second jewel, or you can push down on a jewel and then drag the stylus into the square you want the jewel moved into.  Unfortunately I found the stylus to be less than accurate at times.  Sometimes it would not select the jewel I wanted it to select.  Occasionally I would tap on my first jewel and the system would automatically switch it with another jewel without my input on where I wanted to move it to.  While this wasn’t a deal breaker, it was frustrating when it didn’t make the move I wanted it to make.

The gameplay in Cradle of Rome is simple.  If you have played Bejeweled, Puzzle Quest, or anything similar, you have the basic idea.  You have a board with multiple icons on it.  You switch two icons to create a lineup of three or more icons in a straight line at one time.  What is different about Cradle of Rome is that the playing board changes with each level.  What makes this interesting is that it might make certain squares more difficult to match with other icons.  This is important because you need to eliminate the blue backgrounds of specific squares by matching three or more.

 

When you match icons, you gain value in the kind of icon it is.  There are three categories for these.  There is food which is required to feed people, resources like wood for constructing buildings, and money to pay for things.  Once you have enough of all three commodities you can build a building.  There are four buildings in each epoch.  As you build these buildings you gain more icons that can appear in the puzzles.  These can be different items in the same categories listed above, or they can be power ups that can be used to help you complete a level.

 

While the objective for each level is the same, there are a few wrinkles that can pop up in each puzzle.  Some icons might have a chain on them.  That means that before you can move the icon in that square you have to break the chain by doing a match three across that square.  Other times you might have squares that require two match threes before the blue background will disappear.  While these aren’t too inventive, they help to give the puzzles some variety.

 

Some of the obstacles might be difficult to break, so there are power-ups that can be gained by doing the matches.  For instance there is a hammer that can be used to break a chain or background of one particular square.  A lightning bolt will break twenty at one time, but the computer automatically chooses which squares.  Sometimes you need these to get through a  level, but once you use it you have to recharge it by making matches of that icon in the puzzle.

 

The problem with the game lies with the controls and the response.  Sometimes the stylus doesn’t select the icons you choose.  Sometimes you touch one icon and it automatically switches with another.  It seemed like the stylus wasn’t quite calibrated right.  The game also didn’t have a red box around the first selected icon every time.  This would have been a great indicator to put in to make sure that the correct icon was selected.  While these problems don’t happen every time, they arise often enough that it is a problem and I have to wonder how this got past the QA process.

Cradle of Rome includes 100 levels, and you will need them all to build all the building in all five epochs.  Each one is a bit different, so you will get a little variety.  As you build buildings you also gain new icons.  You will gain more icons on the board the more you progress.

 

You can play the game without the timer in the “Relax Mode.”  This is more casual and it lets you play any of the levels you have already defeated.  They show the resources you have collected, but they don’t actually go towards the story mode.  Still, you can get a lot of play time out of this game because of the large number of levels.

Cradle of Rome is a game that frustrates me.  I have been known to stay up late playing Bejeweled 2 online in a web browser or on Xbox Live Arcade.  I have Zoo Keeper on the Nintendo DS and both the DS and PSP versions of Puzzle Quest.  I felt myself compelled to play, but the control issues really got to me.  Had there been no control issues, I would have been able to recommend this without any problem.  Instead, I have to downgrade this game and warn people of the issues.  Hopefully a sequel can be made that will fix these issues.

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