Review: Aki is Frustratingly Peaceful

Tuesday, 2004-03-02; 22:16:00

Tranquil ambience makes Mahjong Solitaire clone easy to get lost in, difficult to master

(Originally posted on AppleXnet)

If you're bored with all of the first person shooter games that seem to be the norm these days, and you prefer puzzle games that allow you to relax, then Aki might be for you. While you might be put off by the concept of yet another Mahjong Solitaire clone, it's worth it to take a look it Aki, especially since it's from Ambrosia Software, one of the best game publishers around. Aki, like all Ambrosia products, is a superbly designed piece of software, and at least for me, it's the first one that is worth the price. (Aki is actually developed by Liquid Metal Software, but is published by Ambrosia.)

Mahjong Solitaire is a very simple game. At the start of every level, you are presented with a board that contains a number of different tiles. On each tile is a symbol. To complete the level, you have to remove all pairs of tiles from the board in the allotted time by matching every tile on the board to another tile with the same symbol; removing a pair of tiles adds a little more time to the clock. If you prefer playing without the clock, however, Aki doesn't allow you to advance levels: you must play in timed mode (not Practice mode) if you want to continue on.

In most cases, there are four tiles for each symbol, so you have a choice of which pairs to remove. There are also 8 "wildcard" tiles, which have different pictures on them but can be removed together. When removing pairs of tiles, you must choose two tiles that aren't obscured. Unobscured tiles don't have any other tiles on top of them, and have a space immediately to the left or right of that tile. If a tile is obscured, it cannot be removed.

The third level of Aki

With these simple rules, it may seem that Aki would be an enormously easy game to master. On the contrary: the fact that many tiles start out obscured forces you to strategically pick which tiles to remove in order to be able to remove more. It also takes concentration to be able to see the various pairs of matching tiles and to decide which to remove.

Gameplay is all well and good, but what sets Aki apart from all the other Mahjong Solitaire clones? Rather than just simply allowing you to play Mahjong Solitaire, Aki is presented as a tour through Japan, with each stop being a different level in the game. While you proceed along your journey, there are brief descriptions of all the different places you visit, complete with large, beautiful pictures that create the backgrounds to each level. From the Aki Handbook:

The Japanese word “Aki” (pronounced aah-key) is the historical name for the area around present-day Hiroshima City, Japan, currently called Hiroshima Prefecture (or Hiroshima-ken). Each level in Aki™ - Mahjong Solitaire is played on a backdrop of a historically or culturally significant location in or around Hiroshima Prefecture.

Indeed, Aki isn't a game, it's an experience. When you sit down to play a game of Aki, the music puts you in a tranquil, peaceful state. All of the tiles are rendered beautifully, fading out when you make valid matches. The backgrounds to each level are large pictures of the site that the level represents, so as you come close to finishing the level, you get a more complete view of the site. Furthermore, the gameplay is very fluid, with transitions accompanying every scene change, and subtle but effective pointers on what to do next. For example, the lantern that represents the next level on the overview screen gently pulses on and off. The hint button also pulses green when the computer senses that you're struggling to find a match. Everything goes together, and the interface for the game is seamless, like a true piece of artwork.

The levels themselves also aren't incredibly easy to chug through. The difficulty in completing a level slowly ramps up as you progress through all twelve levels, and some levels, especially the last two, are incredibly hard even to solve on the Medium difficulty level (I've only completed the last one on easy). However, as you progress and get good at identifying valid matching pairs, it becomes apparent that each level has its own twist and that they all require their own different strategy. Since each tile has three valid counterparts (and 8 of the tiles have 7 counterparts), you need to make sure that you remove the right pairs of tiles in the arrangement so that you don't shoot yourself in the foot later in trying to complete the level.

Aki kindly keeps track of how many valid matching pairs exist in the bottom right corner of the screen, and if you reach a point where there are no matching tiles left, you can still reshuffle the tiles. But beware, you only have a limited amount of shuffles: each shuffle penalizes you by lowering your time available, so if you shuffle too much you may find yourself rushing to match tiles before the time runs out! Planning your time is essential in Aki, or else you'll end up frustrating yourself into losing the level. Aki is definitely meant to be played in small bouts, because otherwise certain levels can really get on your nerves.

In very rare cases, there are times when it's not possible to complete the level even if you had an infinite number of shuffles -- this is because two matching tiles that you need to remove are stacked on top of each other. Shuffling tiles doesn't change the overall positions of the tiles; it just changes the position of each specific tile. So in cases like these, shuffling wouldn't help. However, Aki kindly informs you that you'll be unable to complete the level, and it also points out why and how to avoid this in the future -- when a developer pays attention to details like that, you know that the game is superbly made.

There are some areas in Aki that could stand to be improved, however. One frustrating aspect of Aki is that when clicking on a non-matching tile, Aki deselects all tiles; it would be nice if it simply selected the new tile you clicked on, so that you can make matches more quickly if you accidentally click in the wrong place. Depth perception in Aki is also surprisingly amibguous: sometimes the vertical position of a tile is not very obvious, so you have to click on certain tiles to make sure that they are not available. Aki would be much improved if there were an obvious difference between vertical positions of the tiles.

There also should be an option to force every level to be solvable without shuffling. While this might make levels easier, it would relieve the main source of frustration: sometimes shuffling only gives you one matching pair, and you have to shuffle constantly in order to continue to play the level. Especially on the Hard difficulty level, shuffles need to be used sparingly, so being able to complete a level without shuffling would be a great option.

On a larger scale, Aki needs to expand the breadth of the experience. Twelve levels is nice, but it would be even better if there were 20 or 30 that offered many more tile arrangements. Aki also needs more music -- while the existing music is excellent and creates a peaceful environment in which to play, the two tracks get boring and monotonous after a while. Finally, it would be nice if Ambrosia stepped up to the plate and made a versus mode, something that is always lacking in Mahjong Solitaire clones.

Despite these shortcomings, however, Aki is definitely worth its $20 price. It's a great, peaceful alternative to shoot-em-ups, especially if you're a puzzle lover. You can download a free trial of Aki from MacGameFiles, which allows you to play the first three levels of Aki. You can also get more information about the game at Ambrosia's Aki product page.

-- simX

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