18 (Android)

If you've picked up a smart phone for more than a few seconds, you've probably played match three puzzle game. I've reviewed one in the past, but today's match three subject is in a different subgenre: The monster collector/sacrificer. Games like Puzzles and Dragons have popularlized this weird little type of game, where you go through puzzle stages with a team of monsters, sacrificing weaker ones to your mains to make them stronger. Most of these games are garbage, but 18 ended up being a nice surprise, both in presentation and game design. Imagine a mix of Persona 4 and Catherine, put into a match three structure from the producer of Rez and the Lumines series. It's a solid mixture of aesthetics and design.

18's plot is derivative but effective enough. Your player character ends up in a strange dream world and saved from it by a real world doctor who appears as a strange cat man in this realm. This world is home to witches, the twisted, repressed personalities of “sleeping beauties,” women that have been affected by a mysterious sleeping disease. Your character proves himself to be unnaturally talented for a diver (people who explore the dream world) and ends up becoming the only person who can defeat witches and save the sleeping girls. Plot beats never surprise, but the character writing is amusing enough to keep your attention and create context for the game mechanics.

The story is really just framing, and in that respect, it does its job well. The meat of 18 is in quest mode, where you travel through a series of stages divided into different areas, each ruled by a different witch and given a different style related to the witch's psyche. Puzzles proper have you matching together interconnected gems, matching three or more to unleash an attach from a party member with the same color attribute as the gems used. There are also gems that heal your collective HP and chain together different types of gems for attacks that hit every enemy. You can also target a particular enemy, making full use of the elemental weakness system, with fire beating earth, water beating fire, and earth beating water, plus light and dark defeating each other. Dark divers are rare finds, but they're useful in later stages where enemies create dust gems, which dark divers use to launch attacks.

The goal is to get through waves of enemies to continue on, with witches as end area bosses, and evil divers as mini-bosses (explained in the narrative as people that failed to leave the dream world and went mad). It all seems simple, but there's a surprising amount of depth hidden in the systems. For example, bosses, mini-bosses, and late game enemies have skills that change the very shape of the board, what gems you have to work with, or create dangers you need to deal with as soon as possible, including gems timed for explosions, massive dust attacks or heals, and guards on gems that defend enemies from damage until said gem is destroyed. These skills start stacking as time goes on, and the challenge comes around making good use of your party and goddess.

Every time you defeat a witch, the original girl the witch was born from becomes a “goddess,” a character you can choose to support you when you make an 18 or more long combo. They all have abilities that last for three turns, from boosts to time stops, and can really turn the tide of a fight. It's also important to have a balanced party with good skills to use in battle, not to mention passive team leader skills. Diver skills take awhile to come into play, but they can completely flip a situation on its head if you know how to use them. You can also get help from players not in the game at the moment. A selection of their selected favorite divers are laid out before each puzzle, and you can pick one as a fifth party member, gaining a leader ability (if they have one) and some extra fire power. The ones you have selected can also net you summoning currency when you're not playing as well, so make sure you get powerful selections.

Your team gains experience as you go, but you can also sacrifice divers and monsters you're not using to ones you do for bonus experience. There are also material cards and rings that add further bonuses, and using enough of the same type of diver or material can result in experience bonuses. Once a diver's level is maxed, it's also possible to evolve them into a more powerful form. Their level is reset, but their new potential is more than worth it. Summoning new divers is also as easy as spending earned diver points or using dream orbs (first for normal summons, second for rare summons), though this is where the game's freemium elements start coming out.

The game is a free download, but dream orbs cost real money. They act both as summoning currency and extra lives, so they can run out fast if you're reckless. There are also a few orb sucking roadblocks in quest mode, especially with the witch in the warzone area, but smart play makes these moments of little issue. It helps that the game is surprisingly generous with dream orbs and most every currency, as you can easily stack them up just by beating quest mode stages and logging in one every day. You don't need a lot of rare divers to make progress either, and some three star divers can really prove themselves as incredibly useful, especially with strong evolved states. I spent about nine bucks total on the game, though mainly because I genuinely wanted to support it and not because of brow beating. Of course, luck of the draw is a factor, so be aware of that. There may be a promotion up for new users when you download, offering a four star diver for the purchase and use of four gems, but it's not necessary. For reference, one orb cost roughly one dollar, with bigger bundles up giving bonus orbs, but there's absolutely no reason to get anything more than the five dollar bundle with six orbs.

The game spices things up with weekly quests that last for a day or two, offering opportunities to farm for evolution and sacrifice material, along with big events every once in awhile that can net you rare divers or other goodies. There's also a season two mode called Dream Masters you can unlock focused on combat, though I haven't gotten a chance to play it yet. On the downside, getting information on these events is hard because nobody seems to be updating the information blurbs, and some text in events is untranslated (also an issue in later quest mode flavor text in fights and for one story sequence near the beginning of the game). There's clearly support for the game, but the English version doesn't have all the support it needs, so some basics get left by the wayside. These issues aren't game breaking, but they are notable.

The thing that really makes the game so fun to play through, though, is the killer style. The team took a ton of inspiration from Atlus, with psychedelic dungeon backgrounds and a familiar urban fantasy look. Monsters are based on contemporary concepts and designs, including living TV creatures, and the soundtrack is J-techno and J-pop goodness. Even if everything about the game is blatant knockoff, it's hard to deny that it works, and it's not like Atlus is doing anything similar in the mobile market. I'll gladly take it, especially since the eventual Atlus mobage is bound to be another god-awful Persona 4 spin-off.

I really hope 18 gets more western attention, because it's a good deal of fun and I'd like to see more of it. Finally, one of the Puzzles and Dragons knockoffs gels with me. There's still the dreaded freemium aspect, but it's not too in your face at this stage of the game's life, so I'd say give this one a try if you want something involving and pleasing to the senses.


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