Despite the fact that the App Store is littered with match 3 games, I’m always up for a new one if it has something different to offer. Add to that the fact that I’m a big fan of Azkend, and it seemed like there should be no question about how I’d receive Dragon Portals. Unfortunately, I just can’t seem to get into the game. It’s actually a nice twist on the match 3 concept, but it just hasn’t grabbed me like some of the others do. I like match 3 games that are challenging but casual, and Dragon Portals just gets too hard too quickly. Lack of music throughout most of each level and a pretty lame mini-game don’t help the situation much, either.
The whole concept behind the game is pretty cool. You play Mila, and you’ve learned that your destiny is to help free the good dragons from an evil spell and release them from their confinement to Earth. In order to do that you must destroy all the magic orbs that are binding them down. In adventure mode there are more than 70 levels, and each level has a meter that must be filled before the level is over and those dragons are set free. There is also a survival mode where you play one level for as long as you possibly can. Survival mode definitely didn’t do it for me, because the timed element of the game as a whole was the worst part of the experience for me.
Game play is simple and familiar, yet different at the same time. On each level there are four dragons, each of which has a number of orbs on its body. The idea is to match 3 or more orbs of the same color. To do this you slide an orb down one level from where it currently rests. You can even do this on the lowest dragon, in which case the orb will just fall away. You can either make a match by sliding the orb into a group so that there are 3 or more of the same color in that group, or removing it from between two groups that when combined will form a group of 3 or more of the same color. The best part is that if moving the orb results in both a match in the row you’re moving from and a match in the row you’re moving to you get a double bonus. The down side to that, however, is that both rows get cleared and reloaded immediately, so if there were more matches in those rows they are lost. One other thing I’ve seen on occasion, and I’m not sure what causes it, is that when you slide the orb down it will sometimes roll backwards and make a match with orbs further back in the row that you slid it to. Finally, as you get further along in the game some orbs will be locked so that you can’t slide them. Getting rid of them is a simple mater of including them as part of a match.
The other thing you can do is create chain reactions. When a match occurs the orbs disappear, and the rest of the orbs at the back of the line roll forward. If the resulting shift creates another match you’ve started a chain reaction. If you get 3 or more matches in one move you get a power up (if you have any). There are three groups of power ups: Destructive and Creative, which require intervention on your part to use, and Passive, which just “happen” when you meet the chain reaction requirements. Destructive power ups are ones that will remove orbs, while creative are powers like Wind, which lifts the dragons higher off the ground. You can have one power up from each group active at any given time, and when Destructive or Creative power ups are available for play they will appear as an icon among the orbs. You simply click the icon to activate the power up. I haven’t quite figured out what triggers new power ups, but every once in a while between levels you’ll be asked to choose between two new power ups to add to your collection. In between each level you can select which power ups you want to use as well.
The game is over when you’ve beaten all the levels. If you lose a particular level you simply replay it or go back to the map to pick different power ups and then try the level again. That does make it nice in the sense that you pretty much always feel like you’re making some sort of progression. However, the game also uses a “timing” mechanism whereby the dragons are constantly descending, presumably under the weight of the orbs, and you half to clear off enough orbs before the dragons crash into the ground. From this perspective the game is not so relaxing, especially since the only time music is played is when you’re too close to the ground. It’s kind of like the match 3 version of Jeopardy, and sometimes it gets on my nerves. I also find some of their timing in terms of locking orbs a bit inconvenient. For example, when a level first starts the game will lock some orbs, and while that’s happening you’re descending. You can’t make any matches during that time, however, and while at the beginning it’s not such a big deal, as you progress and the dragons start descending faster, every second counts. Also, there have been several times where I clicked an orb, and as it was falling the game decided to lock some more orbs. This negated my move, so I lost one or more matches. Again, not fortuitous in the later levels.
I was also disappointed with the bonus level. Every once in a while a scientist will ask you to take some snapshots of the dragons. You basically scroll a box around the screen trying to capture the requested dragon in your view. When you’ve locked on what you thing is the right dragon based on an image the scientist has supplied you tap the screen to take the shot. Each bonus round is comprised of 5 possible shots. Personally, I find this mini-game quite boring. You can skip it, but I just think it’s a shame that it’s the only available mini-game.
The graphics in Dragon Portals are pretty sharp. Of course, I’ve always been a sucker for dragons anyway, so I suppose I’m a bit biased. The intro to adventure mode is nicely illustrated, and it’s too bad that there weren’t more illustrated story segments between each island. The spell effects look pretty decent as well. The only thing that I really don’t care for visually is the way the dragons light up as they’re flying away when you beat a level. It’s a bit too hard on my eyes. The audio is where the game falls apart aesthetically. The sound effects are annoying after a very short time, and there’s no music until you get close to the ground. The game really could use background music throughout each level, and then simply change it or intensify it as the dragons get closer to the ground. As it is it’s almost worth turning the sounds and music off and just listening to something on your own. It’s really sad, because the music played during the title is pretty decent, so it’s not beyond the developer’s capabilities.
Dragon Portals is a very odd game. It’s different enough from the average match 3 game that I can’t imagine not liking it. On the other hand, as evidenced by my opening paragraph, I really didn’t care for it when I started writing the review. However, I always want to give a game a fair shake, which is why I continue to play a game while I’m writing the review (which also means it can take me 2 or 3 days to write a review in some cases). As a result, I’m now at a point where I actually like this game. Sure I get frustrated when I have to play the same level 10 times before I pass it, but then there are many levels I was able to pass on the first try. I still don’t like the mini-game, but like I mentioned that can easily be skipped. In the end I’d say Dragon Portals is definitely worth giving a shot, at least if you can catch it on sale. I’m not sure that it’s worth $4.99 when there are many other decent match 3 games that are less expensive, but it’s definitely an addictive game once you get into it.