I don’t normally cover free-to-play titles as there’s little need — you can simply try them out for yourself. That said, I enjoyed The Secret Lives of Pets movie so much that I had to give the EA / Illumination Entertainment gem matching game a spin.

The first thing I noticed in The Secret Life of Pets: Unleashed is that the animations might have been culled directly from the movie itself. It’s equal parts heavily stylized, colorful, and extremely cute. The story is simple, and obvious to the title — these are the things that our pets are doing when we head off to work.

Each character has their own motivation — Max misses his owner Katie and will watch the door until she returns. Level four lets you play as the criminally-underused poodle Leonard (he’s the purebred metalhead you see in the movie trailers). In his levels, your matches raise the volume on the stereo until he rocks out with his friends. Eventually you’ll get to play as Gidget, dropping spa items to her as she relaxes in her bubble bath. You’ll even get to chow on a giant rawhide bone as Duke. It’s very authentic and gave me a few laugh-out-loud moments.

Leonard made me laugh every time I saw him in the game or in the movie.

Leonard made me laugh every time I saw him in the game or in the movie.

Like other gem matching games, combining toys makes bigger toys. When you match four, they turn into a super-toy. Using a super-toy in a second four-toy match makes it into a line clear. A match five turns the toy into a Rainbow Ball. Using that in a match removes that color from the board entirely. Smashing two of them together has Tiberius and Gidget teaming up to swoop in and clear the entire board for an oodle of points.

The early boards are very easy as they are massive and square. Later levels are made more difficult as they take different shapes and demand higher point values to complete. It never felt as unfair as Candy Crush, and the varied mechanics make it feel different enough to keep playing. You’ll clear hard crunchy kibble with nearby matches, you’ll drop roses and cucumbers into Gidget’s bath, and eventually you’ll have to match specific items before you run out of moves. Much of it is based on luck laced with a little bit of strategy, but that’s true for all games in this category.

Gidget, the pampered princess.

Gidget, the pampered princess.

The missions do have a maximum number of moves, and exceeding that number costs hearts (unless you pay with in-game currency to extend five moves). Failing gets the “I miss Katie so much.” line from the movie. If all of this sounds familiar, congratulations — you’ve not slipped into some fever dream, it’s the state of free-to-play games.

Before levels begin you can select boosters to help you beat a level. These can be purchased with in-game currency, or with real-world money. There are also power ups (such as Chloe’s Laser Smash – a small laser illuminates a selected toy which causes Chole to come out and lazily swat it out of play) that can be purchased and used mid-level. Again, they aren’t necessary, but they are a mechanism to bypass would-be frustration in gameplay.

Duke, the big floppy co-protagonist.

Duke, the big floppy co-protagonist.

In my time with The Secret Life of Pets: Unleashed, I did run into a few occasional animation glitches and slowdowns, even on the flagship-level Nexus 6P. I imagine, given the immense popularity of the movie, EA and Illumination will be making sure these minor glitches get patched up.

The Secret Life of Pets: Unleashed is now available on iOS and Android platforms at their respective stores.   And if you’ve not done so already, go out and see the movie — I promise it’ll make your day.