Updated: SpellTower Review

Since we last checked in with SpellTower, its developer Zach Gage has put out a couple of updates for it. The most significant of these is latest one, which makes the app Universal. This is great, as now the game– which has also seen some dictionary improvements– can fit in your pocket.

There does seem to be a slight performance hit when playing on an iPod Touch or iPhone, but the game is still very playable. The controls and graphics have also been changed slightly to better accomodate the smaller screen and, while the iPad is definitely a more comfortable experience, fans of word games with the smaller iOS devices should definitely take a look. Even though the game’s structure is still pretty minimal, there are now some Game Center achievements, which are always a fine carrot-on-a-stick.

It’s also worth mentioning that, to celebrate the game’s inclusion on the New and Noteworthy page, Zach Gage has temporarily cut the game’s price in half.

SpellTower’s 3.0 update brings with it one big new feature and a bunch of smaller ones. The small ones are all thoughtful tweaks, but the big one is multiplayer, and it’s a lot of fun.

You now have the ability to mute the game’s audio (an option that is oddly absent in too many mobile games), and there’s also a new visual style you can select, called Night Mode. It makes the play area’s appearance based on dark blues rather than the beige that characterized the game’s earlier aesthetic. However, this palette swap isn’t the only change to SpellTower’s look. There’s been a subtle change to the game’s animations, but given our hours upon hours of SpellTower play, this is something we noticed immediately and really liked.

SpellTower 3.0 also introduces what we originally identified as one of the game’s most surprising shortcomings: a multiplayer component. Now the game has “Debate Mode,” in which you connect to another device locally over Bluetooth and play what is essentially a mash-up of SpellTower’s existing Rush Mode and the Battle Mode seen in so many Tetris releases. As you make words on your screen, tiles drop into your opponent’s play area, and both of your fields are added to from the bottom at timed intervals. The first player to have a tile overflow from their tower loses.

It’s a lot of fun, but we still think there’s room for SpellTower to grow into an even better multiplayer game. It really feels like this game could be the next great asynchronous multiplayer experience (a la Words With Friends, Draw Something), if its designer Zach Gage felt so inclined to develop the game in that direction. Here’s hoping that this great game only gets better!

Having brought us games like Bit Pilot, Halcyon, and Unify, Zach Gage has some considerable credibility in indie gaming circles. His newest game, SpellTower, is a bit of a departure from his previous work, as he takes on the word game genre.

One of Gage’s aims seems to have been to make a game that’s not as dependent on metagame as something like Scrabble is. To be really successful in Scrabble, you need to have a knowledge of a lot of two- and three-letter words that you would almost never use in conversation. So while Scrabble is like a crossword puzzle in ways, SpellTower is somewhat more accessible, being more comparable to a digital word search.

The basic mechanic of SpellTower is that you string letters together by drawing a line from tile to tile until you’ve formed a complete word that’s at least three letters long. What makes this interesting is that you can draw this line in any direction from any tile; you can theoretically have a word that snakes all over the play area. You can also spell things backwards. It’s both liberating and challenging, because most of us are basically trained to read in only one direction: left-to-right.

One less reason to buy a newspaper.

Like in Tetris and Match 3 games, tiles will fall towards the bottom of the game’s play area when ones below them are used up. This is especially important in the game’s three unlockable modes: Puzzle, Extreme Puzzle, and Rush. In these modes, the game will add more rows of tiles to the bottom of the screen as you play. This happens every turn in the two Puzzle modes and every few moments in Rush. If at any point a column of tiles reaches the top of the screen, it’s game over.

These unlockable modes are definitely the most compelling ways to play SpellTower, but it’s disappointing that there are no more rewards dangling in front of you once you’ve earned them, a task that shouldn’t take more than 20 minutes or so. After that, there’s simply the game for its own sake, as well as Game Center leaderboards.

Other than the leaderboard competition (which is nothing to sneeze at), SpellTower boils down to a single-player experience that lives and dies on the pure merits of its gameplay. Perhaps a multiplayer mode in which players use the same board to compete against one another would have made this a better-rounded package. Still, even given the game’s structural simplicity, the core gameplay is enjoyable and will please fans of word games.

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