Before Facebook, we had to seek out and install casual games on our PCs. One that I encountered (and fought addiction to) multiple times was one called Snood. The concept is similar to a match-3, except you fire colored objects from a launcher at the bottom of the screen towards clusters at the top. The gameplay was nearly identical to that of Puzzle Bobble, but without the multiple configurations of objects to remove. Now, a new title from King.com seeks to claim its place in that lineage with a cross-platform game for iOS and Facebook entitled Bubble Witch Saga.

The game starts off easy enough, as most free-to-play titles do. Color groups are clumped nicely with minimal bank shots required. As you make matches with one of the two bubbles available to you, spiders drop from the top of the screen. If you happen to drop some spheres by popping the groups they are connected to, they’ll bounce on the spiders and increase the score awarded by dropping into one of the five cauldrons at the bottom.

These are reminiscent of the score pots at the completion of ever Peggle level, with maximum points awarded for landing in the smallest, center hole, and a lower score the further you move from the middle. As you continue to progress, more spiders will drop including gold ones that double the value of a bubble when it drops into a cauldron and green ones that duplicate any sphere that touches it.

Should you fail to pop on a shot though, two of your spiders will ascend. This felt particularly frustrating when there were simply no matches to be made. Of course, if the game showed you the entire playing field, that might not be as much of an issue. In an attempt to up the complexity (or perhaps force players to squander shots), you will not get to see the entirety of the bubbles available. After clearing some of the lower objects, the camera will pan up and you’ll get a look at the next group.

Given that completing a level both requires you to open up nine of the 17 spaces on the top row and do so with at least one star (earned by scoring and filling up a meter), this stacks the deck against players. You’re given a limited number of bubbles, which becomes oppressive once you’re about a dozen (of the current 355 or so) levels in. Every unused shot gets ejected from the launcher at the end, adding to your score. Reaching even a single star becomes an exercise in futility quickly.

Should you fail, you’ll lose one of your five hearts. These regenerate (yes, there is an “energy” component) at one per 30 minutes. Never fear though, because King.com is more than happy to sell you charms that increase your maximum life, give you advantages during play (like covering the lowest value point cauldrons and giving you more spiders) and more bubbles while you are playing a game. You can also bug your friends to help you out and water your… wait… no… wrong company. This is where the game starts to feel like its stacked against you worse than a slot machine in Las Vegas.

It’s hard to chalk up a loss, poorly arranged bubble array or the game’s insistence on keeping part of the field hidden as just bad luck when there is every reason for the publisher to want players to fail. The shilling is shameless, and it’s impossible not to equate “randomly” ending up with two unusable bubbles in the launcher with the little popup at the bottom reminding you that you can refill your ammunition for $.99. That’s right, every time you want to reload with 30 bubbles, it will cost you just as much as the entire Angry Birds experience. Think about that for a second.

Here’s another nugget to ponder. If you play the game on Facebook, you can reload with 10 orbs for $.30 before you run out. If you do find yourself depleted, the game will give you another chance to continue, with those same 10 costing $.60. This is a money vacuum with a thin veneer of game over it, worse it seems like a great deal of time was spent engineering the purchases to align with the price sensitivity of the different audiences.

I’ve been stuck on level 12 for at least 10 tries, and even when I hit every shot I can in what seems to be the prime location (remember, I can’t actually see if there are better options most of the time), I still come just short of a single star, which means I can’t proceed. I decided to review this title as I would actually play a game like this. I invested no money, and at this point, I can safely say that I’ve seen all that I want to of Bubble Witch Saga.

King.com did offer me one parting shot, though. They gave me the option to purchase a magic potion I unlocked. When it was awarded to me, this limited use item had a price tag of 500 in-game coins (earned from completing levels). When I attempted to purchase it for use though, that cost was doubled. There are also charms, which are permanent upgrades. Want to raise your heart cap by three? That’ll be $8.99. Interested in having an additional bubble in the rotation to give you three to choose from? That’s $12.99. If P.T. Barnum had actually stated that famous line about suckers, he’d be laughing his ass off right now.

The presentation of the game is weak, the visuals are bland and the sound is repetitive. More time was clearly spent devising ways to get players to part with their money than on actually creating an enjoyable experience. Let me be clear, if you miss Snood or Puzzle Bobble and want your fix, by all means, download this free app or play on Facebook. Do yourself a favor, though. Solemnly promise to never, ever consider spending money on this game. It isn’t worth it. For the price of even one enhancing charm, you could fill your iDevice with better, less abusive apps.

 

Here’s the Rundown:

+ Reminiscent of Snood and Puzzle Bobble
-
Feels rigged to lure suckers into spending money

- Obscenely priced items for purchase with real money
- Difficulty spikes feel artificial
- Progress beyond first dozen levels nearly impossible without spending money 

1 (RIP) to 4 are varying degrees of a bad game. A 1 (RIP) being a game you would actually pay money to not play, and a 4 is something that just barely fails to be mediocre.

Bubble Witch Saga was developed and published by King.com. It is available for free on the App Store and on Facebook.