Review by SneakTheSnake

"... what?"

The makers of Blokus (well, the board game at least, not this video game version) have seemed to stand on top of Board Game Mountain to declare their game's supremacy over all other board games. Boasting sales in the multi-millions, I was almost convinced that Blokus took the country by storm overnight, its interesting take on Tetris and Othello sweeping the nation. I then remembered that I know no one who owns a copy of Blokus, nor have many people I know heard that the game exists. It's not a bad board game in its own right, but I doubt that it was popular enough to warrant this PSP game. Neither was Steambot Chronicles.

How this game came about is truly a mystery to me. If each of these things - the board game and the quirky-yet-truly-endearing-and-excellently-translated RPG (and, of course, its sequels) - weren't reaching a boiling point among market demand, why make a game featuring either of them? Who thought to combine them? No, the characters in the PS2 RPG - or the PSP spin-off - ever play Blokus in the Steambot Chronicles game. They never casually mention it in passing in the game's silly dialogue. Blokus is a board game whose creation is rather recent; Steambot Chronicles takes place in a closely modeled after the 1920's and 30's. And yet, like most conveniently-placed plot points or advertisements, the characters just happen to have enjoyed the game all along. Why, they've always played Blokus! Just because you've never seen them play it or ever heard them talk about it doesn't mean they've never done it at all. Even stranger, this is a PS2 port from a game only released in Japan.

All strangeness aside, Blokus, as a game, is a rather sound one. The object of Blokus is to get rid of all your tiles by placing them on a game board one at a time. Each player starts off in one corner of the board, and they may place their tiles diagonally from one another, but not directly next to each other, i.e. not above, below, or next to one another. The challenge is that other players, two or three of them, are doing the same thing and can hoard in on your space. Players can intermingle their tiles with other players' (each player's set of tiles has a different color). Gameplay ends when players have run out of possible moves. Points are tallied for how many square's worth of tiles they have left (for example, a Tetris L-shaped tile is four squares long, worth four points), and that determines the winner. There are also little bonuses, like using the solitary cube last.

Blokus is a Tetris derivative, plain and simple; if there were no Tetris, there'd be no Blokus. The tiles are almost all shaped like Tetris blocks, or are based on them; rods, L-shapes and the classic square make up most of the selectable tiles. The game seems like a cakewalk at first, but there is truly some strategy embedded in the game's underlying concept. Feeling trapped can happen rather quickly if players are quick to move into your corner of the board; some play it differently and try to spread themselves out from one corner of the board to the other. With many different strategies for play, and so many different combinations for tiles, it surpasses the "novelty" quality most board games of today possess. It's not as deep as chess, but it taxes the mind more than many others. A warning for colorblind players: its yellow tiles and green tiles look remarkably similar to one another, and there's no way to change it.

This PSP game works as a mediocre introduction to Blokus. The game is keen on letting you know which moves you have left by highlighting tiles you can still play, and that helps, especially when there's no hint system in place - or a great tutorial. Gameplay is usually fast-paced and enjoyable, though more advanced rounds feature some twelve- to fifteen-second pauses for the AI to "think" about its next move. One thing I noticed is that the AI doesn't mess around. They're very difficult to beat, and winning sometimes feels as if by chance. It can be very hard to make it to the upper rounds if the introductory round is so hard to best. Perhaps I simply haven't practiced enough but, even after mastering the basic concepts of Blokus and developing a rudimentary strategy, I'm not making it through the ranks.

The game is presented within the context of a grand hotel, a meeting place for the Steambot Chronicles characters who all love to play Blokus. Winning games earns players Dollarinos, which can be used to buy clothing for your character or to enter higher-ranking tournaments. It's nice to have this kind of context, but the personalities of the Steambot Chronicles characters are never really fleshed out; they're simply goofy-looking character portraits. Newcomers will have no idea why a character will exclaim, "I love riding on my Trotmobile!" before placing his tile, and even those familiar with SC might find themselves rolling their eyes or scratching their heads.

Simply put, the game looks and sounds terrible. The interface is convoluted, and the interior of the hotel could have been pulled right out of an early Final Fantasy title. Generic, bulbous-eyed workers and pale, lifeless beings populate the hallways of the hotel. Uninspired color pallets wash over the place with browns and greys, and this is about all you'll see outside of the Blokus games themselves, which are fine. The music is just as unimpressive. I don't mind that it - or the graphical style, for that matter - have no actual connection to those that SC featured. What's here, though, is trash. Generic jazzy tunes blast through the imaginary speakers of the hotel and playing rooms - no personality, no soul, just as unsettling as the cover art on the game's box. Is that guy on the far left supposed to be Vanilla? The icing on the cake: I've noticed no voice acting or many sound effects at all in the entire game.

Replay value works inasmuch as you can get first place in the first round of Blokus. Character customization is cute, and it's one of the only things that reminds me of SC, but it's not as deep or involving as players might like. You'll very quickly tire of the characters' silly dialogue between moves, and I don't believe there's a way to turn it off and stick just to Blokus. There aren't a variety of options here either, which is equally disconcerting.

To make the game less esoteric, it would have probably been better to offer simple, straight-up Blokus instead of shoehorning the SC universe in. The Blokus gameplay can be fun in short spurts, though the AI seems to be set at "Master" difficulty right off the bat. This game is certainly an oddity, and those looking for cheap board game fun on the road might consider this a nice investment. After all, how bad can a game based on a board game be if the board game itself is so fun on its own?

Reviewer's Rating:   2.5 - Playable

Originally Posted: 01/24/11

Game Release: Blokus Portable: Steambot Championship (US, 03/03/08)

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