Homescapes is an odd little game that is a cross between the Sims and Bejewelled. It centres around Austin, a butler who is attempting to give his parents mansion a make-over. The first question that jumps to mind is: if his parents are rich enough to own a mansion, then why is he working as a butler? When we later find out he’s following in his father’s footsteps, the question then becomes: how can his parents afford to live in a mansion? But this is the game in which all of these renovations are being paid for with ‘stars’ which are collected by playing Bejewelled, so I guess I’m a fool for trying to apply logical thinking to it.
The player assumes the role of…well, I’m not exactly sure what I am within the context of the game. I’m not controlling Austin, as I am my own separate being. Occasionally he will talk to me, but no one else seems aware of my presence. Because of the isometric perspective nature of the game, when he does talk to me he is looking upwards, therefore implying that I’m some kind of omnipotent being…who plays Bejewelled in order to win ‘stars’ for him.
When I say it’s like Bejewelled, I mean, it is literally Bejewelled, with all of the same pros and cons that that entails. The most obvious pro is that it’s a lot of fun. You match up three icons to make them disappear, and match up more than three to create items to aid in achieving your goal, such as paper planes, rockets, bombs, and disco balls which will eliminate all of the paired item on the screen. These various items can also be paired together to achieve more powerful results, the best is pairing the disco ball with a bomb or rocket to cause massive destruction.
The game also has some clever level designs, such as putting the items on several islands, some of which aren’t big enough to match items together, so the challenge become creating planes or other such items to affect them. There are Portal like portals that move the items from one section of the screen to the other. Some levels have wind that blows items across the screen as others disappear. There are also things on screen that hinder your progress, such as boxes and cookies, which, on the good levels, add to the challenge of completing goals.
Unfortunately, the cons often get in the way of enjoying the game. Quite often the thing that needs to be manipulated in order to complete the goal will be at one side of the screen, but the only available moves will be at the other side of the screen. If there is only one move available, then you must play it in order to then get a reshuffle, meaning you have to waste a move. This becomes even more frustrating once the boxes and cookies need several hits to be destroyed, or the levels give you a limited number of moves under the guise of being a challenge.
There is no real strategy to the game. Though some levels always start with the items in the same location, most of the time it is randomised, so your performance depends on ‘the luck of the draw’. There is no control over what square the paper planes land on, it could be one of the items you are trying to collect or it could be a random one that contributes nothing to the level. Large chains of items vanishing from the screen always happen by accident rather than by intent.
The game not only relies on a lot of luck but a lot of persistence as well. There are two types of levels – red and purple. Red are regular levels, purple are hard levels. The purple ones will usually involve collecting or destroying so many of an item that requires several hits each and has a tight limit on the number of moves available. They will also have more than one required goal, for example destroying items and turning all the grey squares green. Every single time I play a purple level for the first time, I find myself thinking, ‘this is impossible, this is the level that will cause me to give up and delete the app’.
Of course, the reason the levels become so insanely difficult is because the developers want you to give them money. The in-game currency of coins can be collected – very slowly – as you play the game, or you can pay real money to buy some. You’ll need to spend these coins eventually, to buy more moves when you run out incredibly close to achieving the goal. Items that give you more of an advantage – the afore mentioned planes, bombs, rockets, and disco balls – can also be purchased, so difficult levels can become more manageable if you are willing or able to part with your money. I am not, at least not in this way. If the first twenty levels of the game were a free demo with a sensible difficulty curve and then I had to pay a couple of pounds to unlock the rest of the game, I would have probably done it. But that’s not how mobile games work, is it? Someone, at some point, has realised you can squeeze more money out of people if you have them pay little amounts over a longer period of time. It’s a shitty way to treat the consumers, but that’s modern gaming for you.
To give Playrix their due, they do seem to have responded to this criticism of the game’s difficulty by implementing free giveaways if you log into the game daily, in the form of bombs, planes, rockets, disco balls, and coins. These can be collected and used once the player reaches a level they are struggling with. I confess I am a stingy bastard when it comes to using them, as I fear running out. Another item that can be unlocked from time to time is unlimited lives, which usually lasts an hour or two hours. While generous, is anyone actually sitting with a mobile game – one that is meant to be picked up, played for a short amount of time, then put down again – for two hours? I often sigh when I see the unlimited life icon, because I would rather just play the five lives then put the game aside for a while. I often keep playing because I don’t want to loose the opportunity rather than because I actually want to, but I guess that’s kind of the point – it’s another way of sucking you into the game, giving you a taste of how nice it feels, then getting some money out of you.
I also want to add that while the game is stable for the most part, it does occasionally crash. On two occasions it crashed just after I had completed a purple level, but before I had returned to the house screen. On one occasion I had used some of my extra items and spent some of the coins to get some extra moves. When I went back into the game, it had registered that I had used the items and spent the coins, but not that I had completed the level. That was the closest I have come to deleting the app.
The spending of the ‘stars’ to cause elements of the home improvement and story to progress forward is, at times, silly. There are certain things that being done over several events makes sense, such as the stares, which need new wood, then a carpet, then banisters. But Austin’s life is so ridiculously micromanaged that simple story events hang in limbo until you win a star. For example, every now and again someone knocks on the door. Instead of answering the door, Austin needs to spend a star to it, which is bad game design. The spending of stars should be done in order to achieve outcomes which will result in positive changes that can be seen on screen – meaning the renovation of the house – not on Austin being given the ability to open a door.
If there are so many negatives to the game, why do I keep playing? I’ve asked myself that a few times over the last few months, and the answer is I enjoy the game, despite its very obvious flaws. Its a fun little way of passing a spare ten minutes, and the satisfaction of beating a level, especially a purple one, feels great. Seeing the mansion transform from a dump to a beautiful and homely building gives a real sense of accomplishment, made even better by the lovely graphics. And so I keep on playing. I can’t defend it as a solid game, nor would I recommend it to anyone who isn’t willing to knuckle down and endure the difficult moments, but I keep on playing.