Bejewelled could quite easily be seen as the progenitor of all tile-matching puzzle games. Its incredibly simple and addictive gameplay, not to mention prominence at the very dawn of the casual game revolution, made it the most well-known and popular title in the genre. Many other games have since expanded upon its design; Puzzle Quest is perhaps the most notable example of this, introducing not only a set of new gameplay mechanics, but an entire roleplaying metagame. Of course, there’s also a deluge of similar games that aren’t quite as innovative. Jewel Master: Cradle of Rome is one such game. Whilst this DS adaptation of the similarly titled PC game is serviceable enough, it really doesn’t attempt to do anything new or exciting.
The core gameplay requires little explanation; you’re presented with a grid containing a number of tiles, each featuring one of several symbols. By moving tiles horizontally or vertically, it’s possible to create matches of 3, 4, or 5 of the same icons, causing them to disappear so that more tiles fall into the grid from the top of the screen. The key to completing each stage is to destroy all of the blue plaques that also appear in the grid. This can be done by including them in matches, or using one of the special abilities that you have access to. You’ll also come across tiles and plaques which are chained and can’t be moved or destroyed until they have been unchained (again, through matches or abilities). These are occasionally used to create barriers and bottlenecks in the grid, allowing the gameplay to feel a little more dynamic.
Special abilities are gradually unlocked as you progress through the game, and can be deployed once a certain number of specific tiles have been matched. Whilst not particularly exhilarating, they certainly help to get the job done. For example, the Hammer is used to destroy a specific tile, Lightning destroys twenty random tiles, and the Bomb detonates a square of nine tiles. There’s also an Hourglass which pauses the time you have left to complete the stage, as well as four further abilities.
As the title of the game suggests, all of this puzzling is placed within the context of building Ancient Rome. All of the tiles represent different resources such as gold, food and timber, which are accumulated as you create matches. Between each of the game’s 100 stages, you’ll be using these resources to build various structures, from small farms and settlements to more significant constructions, such as the Coliseum and Pantheon. Unfortunately, the metagame is fairly superficial; although each building provides you with a distinct advantage (such as access to a special ability or extra resources), the linear progression through each epoch means that there’s very little strategy involved in deciding which buildings should be constructed. This aspect of the game is further hampered by the annoyance that failing to complete a stage before the time runs out causes you to lose all of the gold and resources that you had gathered. It isn’t possible to go back and play easier stages in order to earn resources (replaying is limited to Relax Mode, which doesn’t feed resources into the main game), so if there’s one stage that you’re finding particularly difficult, you may find yourself unable to progress for a while.
Gameplay aside, the game doesn’t make the best first impression. Its hokey, hand-painted visuals are reminiscent of a third-rate PC strategy game from 1995, incredibly detailed but ultimately charmless. Additionally, the bold and colourful tiles and backdrops from the PC version haven’t translated well to the compact screens of the DS, often appearing pixelated and hard to make out. The mediocrity of the game’s presentation also has a more subtle effect on the gameplay; the positive reinforcement that similar titles heap upon you for playing well is woefully absent. Where these other games often shower the screen with a million technicolour particles accompanied by Handel’s Messiah and a 21-gun salute simply for entering your name correctly, Cradle of Rome acknowledges a rare five-tile match with all the gusto of a Tesco employee first thing on a Monday morning. There are further oddities in the game’s delivery, including a curiously contemporary soundtrack that seems to be inspired more by the Ming Dynasty than the rise of the Roman Empire.
Although Jewel Master: Cradle Of Rome is certainly a competent entry into the burgeoning crowd of tile-matching puzzle games (even proving to be ever so slightly addictive on occasion), it fails to do anything remarkable; there’s no real spark of ingenuity or long-lasting appeal here. Still, if you’re in the market for a bus stop time-waster and can overlook the nagging feeling that you could be playing something better, you could do far worse. However, it’s worth bearing in mind that Galactrix, the spiritual successor to Puzzle Quest, is just around the corner and promises to deliver a far more compelling experience.