There’s a peace to be had playing games like Mahjong. Much like Solitaire and match-3 puzzles, you can move the brain down into first gear and enjoy its routine. In Mahjong’s case, you are matching identical tiles and removing them from a large tile structure, which in turn reveals more tiles. Remove them all and the puzzle is complete.
We’ve been playing Mahjong games for a fair old time now, stretching back to Shanghai on the Atari Lynx, and we’ve seen the formula dressed up in many different clothes. Mahjong Adventure DX intrigued us more than most because of the promise of the ‘Adventure’ in the title. As much as the clickety-clack of removing tiles from a grid is enjoyable, it can prove samey, and an adventure – whatever that might mean – would smooth over the repetitions.
It’s worth addressing that assumption early, as there is virtually nothing in Mahjong Adventure DX that you would classify as an adventure. In fact, there’s possibly less choice and variation than you would find in your average Mahjong game, as there’s only a single mode and it’s utterly linear. You are moving from tile-clearing puzzle to puzzle, and you’re doing them sequentially. If you get stuck, there’s nothing else to do in the game.
It’s all a little soulless too. There’s a character who features on the store page and trailers, but who knows who she might be. She never makes an appearance in the game, and you’re left to just chew through the – admittedly large – 63 puzzles on offer, one by one, without even a change in the background or tile-backs.
That’s not to say that Mahjong Adventure DX has nothing to offer, or that a reasonably vanilla take on Mahjong is a bad thing. Some people will actively want to wile away the hours with a no-frills tile-matching game and achievements attached, but we found the ‘Adventure’ labelling a little disingenuous. What Mahjong Adventure DX does have is a reasonably decent suite of power-ups for you to play with, and some different tile abilities that develop over the course.
The power-ups are gained in random batches after every completed puzzle, and you’ll also receive some currency to purchase a couple of your own. It’s a nice mix, as you get some random ones to try out, while also buying a few that you know and rely on. Since there’s a finite number of puzzles to complete, we did find the currency running out towards the end of Mahjong Adventure DX and we had no impulse to return to older puzzles to grind out more. It’s a minor gripe, but a less tedious method of gaining power-ups would have been appreciated, especially as they can improve the game by a few lengths.
Standouts include a Shuffle power-up, which gets you out of a fix when there are no tiles to match; a Dragon Fire, which burns away every visible version of one tile, and a Clover, which darkens all inaccessible tiles and lights up all of the accessible ones. This last one made Mahjong Adventure DX particularly breezy and easy, and we’d treat ourselves to it whenever we could afford it.
The Clover does highlight a problem with Mahjong Adventure DX, which is that the available/accessible tiles aren’t particularly clear. It’s not often you criticise the shading in a game, but Mahjong Adventure DX could have used clearer indications that one tile was higher than another, and it took some time to get calibrated. The Clover power-up makes this a non-issue when you use it.
Then there are the puzzles, grouped together into sets of nine, that add a new puzzle tile every so often. These puzzle tiles aim to mix things up by adding Ying-Yang symbols (clear them and you finish the puzzle early), block tiles that can’t be removed, and scissor tiles, which cut open locked tiles in other parts of the grid. They serve to break up the repetition, which goes in the plus column, but one of these puzzle tiles is so game-changing – and not in a good way – that it takes up a sizeable proportion of the negative column.
The ‘hidden’ tiles in Mahjong Adventure DX are added with the third tile set, and man did they grind our gears. You can only flip these hidden tiles one at a time before they revert back to being hidden, and there can be dozens and dozens at one time. It turns Mahjong into a memory game, like the old card-flipping games you might have played as a kid. There are so many problems with this – Mahjong, like solitaire, is best when it’s a relaxed, low-intensity game, and it suddenly becomes a game of huge concentration. It’s a completely different game, too, and not one that we’ve ever found fun for more than a few minutes. Plus, the tiles in Mahjong are not the easiest to memorise: they’re all abstract yet similar to each other, so you can stumble over yourself in an effort to remember them.
The problem is that these hidden tiles stick around for over half of the game and don’t leave. You’re now playing a hybrid memory/Mahjong game, and that’s not what we signed up for. Your mileage might vary, but we found Mahjong Adventure DX had a huge mid-game dip because of them. It’s an innovation that just doesn’t work.
The more conventional stuff – how Mahjong Adventure DX plays – is a mixed bag. The symbols are clear and presentation decent, but we found the matching to be a little unfriendly. Miss a tile by a pixel or two and the match will fail, meaning you have to move the slow cursor across the length of the screen to have another go at matching. It’s surprising that no leeway is given, especially when you’re trying to highlight one tile that’s on its lonesome. As far as we can tell, there’s no way to quickly activate power-ups either, which means you’re heaving that slow, heavy cursor over to a sidebar again.
These issues are slathered over some puzzle designs that are actually pretty decent. The layouts require different approaches, while the Ying-Yang and scissor tiles encourage strategies: do you rush to uncover them first but risk leaving behind an unmanageable pile of tiles? When Mahjong Adventure DX strips away the memory stuff, it’s a diverting little puzzler.
Your appreciation of Mahjong Adventure DX on the Xbox will depend on two labels that should have been slapped on the box art: ‘not actually an adventure’ and ‘turns into a memory game halfway through’. In our case, the latter was a dealbreaker: it felt like going for a light stroll but being forced to stop and do push-ups. You come to Mahjong for relaxation, not mental gymnastics. Overcome or embrace these issues and you have a straightforward tile-matcher with some fine power-ups and a decent clutch of 63 puzzles. We just came away feeling it had been done better elsewhere.