Magic Lanterns
Reviewed by Tiffany Craig
Review Date Platform Genre Rating Production
2006-07-02 PC Puzzle E (Everyone) Boomzap Entertainment

Lurking in the mind of a writer is a book idea for Zen and the art of casual gaming. A simple guide that describes how to attain the moment of clarity when all solutions to difficult problems blaze like the obviousness of the Da Vinci Code. A training session in finding playing flow when swapping out tiles, or bricks, or balls could make slacking so much more satisfying and successful. The people that should write that book are the developers from Boomzap, who are pushing Magic Lanterns as being quite Zen. But do they deliver? Is Magic Lanterns an exercise in higher consciousness or something a little more mundane?

In a rather unorthodox fashion for casual games, Magic Lanterns attempts to make sense of where you're going and what you're doing. Hana, your guide, is a chipper young lady in a kimono. She takes you through the Lantern Quest where your mission is to arrange disheveled decorations tainting Japanese street festivals, turning them into something better suited. Each time you reach a different level, it's another point on a map with a small blurb about the history of a city's festival.

Most of the levels in the Lantern Quest are in Boomzap's "Zen" Perfect mode. In these you have limited turns to reach the necessary score point for moving on to the next fair. As you arrange the lanterns, Hana will tell you about the very familiar new obstacles and boons. The Perfect levels tend to appear mind-numbingly easy up until about half way through when the gradual difficulty incline becomes noticeable. Timed Panic mode is a little more energetic but much of the same. Yet just as you reach a sense of security about your masterful lantern abilities, you encounter the extremely difficult Puzzle mode.

The very first Puzzle level is enormously complex but based on obvious relationships and rules. Selecting a set of lanterns can completely ruin chances of completing the level successfully so proceed with caution. Difficulty, in contrast to the gradual incline of Panic and Perfect modes, increases almost vertically. But if you do find this sudden change in challenge vexing, you can switch back to the main menu to practice. Thankfully, you don't need to have unlocked the levels in the Lantern Quest for them to be playable out of it.

Magic Lanterns' lack of graphic glossiness works in its favor. Because it's slightly choppy in comparison to similar titles, it doesn't come across as being a freshly skinned rehash of a popular classic. Instead it relies on its own unique visual and story merits to capture an audience. It hasn't veered so sharply as to alienate habitual casual gamers. The graphics are bright, clear and feminine with a certain cartoon edge as you would expect, but in an unexpected sharper style. Audio is par for a game centered on assumptions about traditional Japan. Music sits happily in the background unless it catches your focus and then it can be obtrusive. Sound effects aren't very tactile; instead, each successful matching is a series of squeaks and animated butterflies.

As of now no one appears to be taking advantage of the unexpected community features. There are options for custom levels and to add other users' level designs to a favorites list. The worldwide scoreboard at the end of every level can be a little entertaining although somewhat discouraging when you're at 2000th place. I do hope that there will be more of these types of social features within or without the game itself later on. Other casual games have shown a community aspect can be integral to its success. With a dedicated audience, Magic Lanterns could add a lot of value to its $20 price tag.

Though the Perfect mode doesn't offer the player "one with everything," I'm very impressed with this Boomzap creation. They've taken classic ideas and added elements that are significantly different from others in the genre and made it intriguing. The journey from Kyushu to Hokkaido and the history behind one of the Japanese's more romantic traditions gives it a little bit of an edge.

The only main failing point is the slow incline in difficulty during the Lantern Quest, which may give players good cause to lose interest before their one hour trial is even up. Rewards for persistence come in interesting community features, deliciously abstruse puzzles and a heavy dose of general knowledge. For Magic Lantern's quality, I can excuse them for leaving me to get a piece of enlightenment from a hot dog vendor but I do expect that book out soon.