The puzzle game is a standard genre for handheld systems, but the puzzle games that have made it onto Sony's PlayStation Portable system have been anything but standard. We've had music puzzlers, goo-based puzzle games, and now we have a puzzle game that's all about bombs. This weary genre needs some surprises and shocks to wake it back up again, but sometimes, developers put too much pressure on the formula twist too much when a simple brainteaser would do.
Eidos' Smart Bomb suffers from this, amongst other problems. A collection of about a dozen puzzle types all based around the concept of diffusing bombs, Smart Bomb has plenty of high-concept behind it to draw in players for what would otherwise be a routine experience with some familiar and some new puzzle designs. But with so much pressure behind you from the very first stage on, as the ticking timebomb you are trying to shut down keeps beeping towards detonation, there's never much time to ease into the experience and set up a rhythm. It's a herky-jerky puzzle challenge that, for many of these puzzle sequences, is full-on as soon as the clock starts, then stopped dead and shifted violently in pacing and style when you move on to the next puzzle set. It's aimed at being as fast-paced and frantic as Wario Ware, but it's too top-heavy with complex puzzles instead of quick brain-teasers, and its foundation crumbles long before it has a chance to build enough heat for its explosion.
Pacing is the key component to the gameplay, and the fast-paced play doesn't mix well with the puzzles given. All of these puzzles have one set solution, and at this speed, you really want a little room for trial-and-error. If you're an avid puzzle gamer, you'll recognize some of the puzzle types in the game -- there's the laser maze (where you must guide a laserbeam to a target by redirecting it with a handful of movable and set mirrors), the guided robot (where you must pre-program movements for a robot to execute a number of tasks once it has left the programming station), the pipe flow puzzle (where you must connect several points by arranging a tangled weave of multi-colored lines), and more. A number of original concepts also come in to jack with your head, and most are in this same vein of very specific challenge with no margin for error or experimentation.
It's a game designed to test your brain rather than your reflexes, and that test is meant to be challenging and brutal. An uncompromising challenge, that's fine to a point -- too many recent puzzle games have coddled players into thinking they're brillaint by having explosions of combos and abundant rewards for unintended actions. But is Smart Bomb really the right direction for hardcore puzzle players? Its problems start showing when you realize that you're playing a speed game with puzzles that aren't mastered by cunning and technique, but simply through experience and memorization. There are only so many puzzles to the game, with a handful of variations on each. See it once, you will have seen it all. It makes for a not-so-enjoyable multiplayer experience, when the player who knows these puzzles like the back of his hand goes up against a new gamer who's just trying to put his head around how the mechanisms work for the first time.
This is just not a pick-up-and-play puzzle experience at its core, and even though there is a game mode for more leisurely and self-paced play (Smart Bomb's play modes include s Challenge mode, where the clock ticks up instead of down, and you race yourself for a best personal time, as well as Story, Arcade, and High Score/Best Time Special modes), the pressurized main gameplay mode is more frustration than fun for the short while that it lasts. And many of the game's other features rub you the wrong way as well. There's a story mode to the game, but the inclusion of cutscenes in-between explosions just means that the game hangs up to load when you're in the mood to just play. You also can't practice any one part of a stage without beating the stages that led up to it (and waiting through the short loads to get back to them -- never more than two or three seconds, but they begin to add up.) There are a number of power-ups doled out in each stage, but the balance on when and where they appear is wonky -- some stages toss out power-ups like they're candy, others keep them spare (and make it really hard to grab them in the process). The time limit on stage progression sometimes depends on these power-ups (it may be possible for experts to pass any stage on the initial time offering, but we found some stages almost impossible to complete without a little bonus even after we had figured out the tricks.)
On the fundamental level, Smart Bomb is only an okay game. Unfortunately, the developers didn't help the game out much by polishing the controls. There are times that you'll want to huck your PSP against the wall, not because you can't figure out a puzzle or can't beat the clock (although those will likely be problems for many gamers), but because the game isn't responding right when you need it most. Smart Bomb is mostly played with the X and D-pad or analog controller, and with the gameplay this simple, there's not much to screw up. But there are still a few things left loose in a game that's played too fast to not be whip-sharp.
A glitch in a gear spinning puzzle is one of the more obvious examples of this -- the cursor can have a hard time finding gears that are diagonal to the one you're working with, and in one case, I had to move some gears parallel to the askew one before I could work with it. The twin marble maze is a lesser but also annoying case -- you move a cursor between two marbles to move them about as they open gates and hit switches for each other so that they both can reach the finishing mark. Handling on this mode should have snapped immediately from one marble to the other so that players can go up against the clock, but instead, the switching cursor takes forever-and-a-day to switch marbles. And if you accidentally tap twice or enter your tap too early to take command of the other marble, you'll instead be transferred back and lose all that time again. Most command inputs in the game are slow and heavy. It's one of those games where your thumb hurts after playing because you've been pushing so hard on the buttons in a fruitless attempt to make things move faster. It doesn't help that the graphics are sometime choppy (especially in the marble maze), with minimal (if any) camera control on the puzzles. The visual issues are minor, but on a puzzle game, there's not much excuse for things not being fully polished.
©2005, IGN Entertainment, Inc. All Rights Reserved