Forget your oxen and well-supplied wagon. Itâ€™s time to abandon the Oregon Trail and follow a darker path. TiQal has arrived on the Xbox Live Arcade and will have you adventuring into the depths of the jungle, embarking on a quest to save your Ancient Mayan village.
Harking back to the good old days of text-based adventure games, youâ€™ll venture along a map with little more than a blurb or two to explain your mysterious surroundings. Each stop you come to will open up a puzzle stage to be completed before you move forward.
Like an illegitimate love child of Tetris and Lumines, TiQal presents you with the straightforward task of stacking and rotating falling shapes in order to form blocks of four or more similar colours. With a steadily rising base of blocks, the only way to survive is to form large combos of blocks to clear some space. Later stages will ensure the block wall rises faster and the falling shapes become more cumbersome and bulky.
Once youâ€™ve got the hang of creating some sizeable block combinations, youâ€™ll start unleashing a variety of power-up bubbles which, if captured, can make the difference between life and death. Although every power-up is beneficial, some are especially spectacular to watch, as giant Mayan spears slash up through your blocks or creeping vines strangle around and crush them into dust. As most of the power-ups are introduced progressively, youâ€™ll have plenty of time to come to grips with each. Things get hairy very quickly, so donâ€™t forget to remove that smug smile before you start out on your quest.
Along the way, youâ€™ll meet an assortment of curious characters ranging from cheery villagers to sneaky serpents. The writing is brief but clever, and will have you yearning to go and play your favourite old-school text-based adventure. You wonâ€™t be dying of dysentery any time soon, but you will be collecting items like corn, sacred earth, warrior shields and the odd piece of treasure to offer up to the gods of each temple you pass through. Sadly, thereâ€™s no real interaction with the text but having it displayed on a stunningly presented background graphic wonâ€™t leave you feeling disappointed.
The graphics are limited by the very nature of the game, but nevertheless, still manage to shine. Everything is immaculately presented in strong colours and tribal designs giving the game a solid air to it. The sound goes way beyond the usual tinny blinging noises of many arcade games and instead offers up a genuinely interesting background track to listen to as you play. Even more mercifully, the music integrates itself perfectly into the action, becoming increasingly intense as the wall moves higher but never distracting from the task at hand.
The only apparent annoyance in TiQal comes from the vaguely slippery controls. Moving blocks from side to side is quicker with the thumb stick, but can often have you over or undershooting your target gap as the blocks fail to move quickly or slide away much faster than anticipated. Using the D pad is more accurate but slower. In a game that demands both accuracy and speed, itâ€™s an awkward choice to make when deciding which method will suit best.
With a dozen available achievements, youâ€™re likely to clock up at least half of them quite quickly. The other half will take a fair bit of effort and/or a bash at the multiplayer version of the game. Leader boards are also available to upload your scores and find out where you stand in the world.
Finally, when your thumbs are aching and your heart is pumping on overload, you can take some time out to read the interesting bits of Ancient Mayan trivia that is presented between levels. Itâ€™s not at all useful in getting through your game but it makes for a nice touch in an already well presented arcade puzzler.
Lumines and Tetris may have paved the way with their falling block puzzles, but TiQal holds its own with a combination of gorgeous presentation, humorous writing and a simple yet entertaining puzzle structure. TiQal is worth your time, money and praise.