September 24, 2015

Minor Distraction: Smart As…

I hadn't intended to write about this game, but I've found myself returning to it almost every day, and it occurred to me that I should probably fill you in on what's been tiding me over during this long summer game drought. Summers of late have been absolutely bananas for me, and I struggle to find time for regular gaming (and writing, in case you didn't notice). So the only game I have been playing on the regular, is Smart As... for the Playstation Vita.

Smart As… is a puzzle game developed by Climax Studios and published by XDEV exclusively for the PSVita. I picked it up after it was offered for free to PS+ members - an excellent method of gaining great PSVita titles, F.Y.I. - and left it sitting on my dashboard for some time before curiosity forced me to finally tap that button. I was pretty sure Smart As... was a puzzle game right from the get-go, and if I'm honest, I really hadn't planned on playing it for anything more than "Game Binge" impression, but here we are, many weeks later, and I'm compelled to give it it's own damn article! Suffice it to say I was thoroughly impressed by Smart As...
I think you'll agree that graphics aren't terribly important in a simple puzzle game, but nevertheless, Smart As... sports a clean, crisp screen and utilizes a clever neutral base with pops of bright colors to support the puzzle games. The only "characters" you'll find in this title take the form of generic board game pieces, which might seem like a lack of effort, but it actually adds a brilliant humor to the game!

The sound department follows suit: nothing extravagant but the music does its job, the effects are clear, and the humor is delivered by the game's only source of dialogue, a narrator: the legendary John Cleese. Words cannot describe my love for John Cleese and I'd be lying if I said that wasn't a large part of why I've kept coming back to Smart As... I'd also be lying if I said the game's top theme didn't get stuck in my head from time to time. I do have one gripe with the game's audio department, but I'll discuss that in a moment.

Smart As… is designed to increase your "brain power". Like many other games in the genre, it is a series of mini games, meant to help test and grow particular skills as they pertain to sections of your brain. Smart As… breaks your brain down into four skill umbrellas: Language, Logic, Arithmetic and Observation. Each of these categories then has five mini games meant to assess your abilities in these areas.

Seeing as this is a puzzle game, I'm going to go ahead and detail just about everything I can for you. If you deem that a spoiler of some kind, consider yourself warned. So let's walk through the game:

This is the main screen you'll be greeted with after booting up Smart As… To navigate any menu in this game, you need only tap the screen. There are five selections here:
Charts & Stats - where you can see the "big picture" of your progress in the game, including each day you played, what time, and a graph of how you scored in each category.
Smart As World - once you've connected to the internet and the Playstation Network, you can compare your brain to that of everyone else who's played Smart As…! The game also offers the use of the Vita's "near" feature so you can compare yourself to others in your immediate area. (This is usually accessed from the puzzle's home, and not Smart As World.)
Brain Power - which just takes you to the breakdown of your most recent assessment (I'll show you in a sec!).
Free Play - from which you can choose to play any of the mini games you've unlocked from within each of the four categories.
And my personal favorite:
Daily Training - which offers you a once daily test to assess your brain power! You'll play one mini game from each of the categories, and be scored accordingly.

Smart As… prides itself on being integrated not only with the world, but with social media. It offers you the opportunity to boast to your friends by linking your Facebook or Twitter accounts.

Most of this is pretty straight forward, so I'm only going to discuss two of the options in depth, Daily Training and Free Play.

Not-so- Daily Training is the bit I insist on doing every day as often as I can. After tapping the calendar, Cleese will ask you to confirm you're ready, and then ask you a fun question with which to compare yourself to the world, such as "Do you prefer singing or dancing?", "Dogs or Cats?", "Are you morning person or a night owl?" and so on. Afterward you are thrust in one of four mini games. In a random order, you'll play one language game, one logic, one observation and one arithmetic, all also randomly selected from the game's roster. After each game you'll be presented with your time results and overall performance on a "star scale". Of course, no stars means you've got work to do, while three stars will merit you wonderful praise from Mr. Cleese. Your high scores will also be listed for your viewing pleasure.
Most of these games require you to work quickly and without making any mistakes. Your speed and accuracy contributes to your score, after all. Once you've completed your assessment you'll see your brain power breakdown:
My math skills were on fire this day! Naturally, the average these percentages is calculated and you are delivered your daily brain power, which will remain on the main screen until your next assessment. The calendar will scratch itself off and you're done for the day! Regardless of your score, Cleese will pop in with a sarcastic comment.
You can replay your assessment if you really want to torture yourself, but your new score will not override the first.

But if you're really itching to play more mini games, not to fear, we have the Free Play area for that.
From the Free Play menu you can freely choose which of the four areas you want to play in. As I said before, there are five games within each category. Most of the games are repetitive sequences of the same challenge, and you need to complete them quickly, without mistake or both! Incorrect entries will result in penalties that affect your score drastically.

Observation:
Boxed In - Various objects will jump in and out of the box. In then end, you will have to select which item(s) are still in the box from a list. As the difficulty increases, the number of objects does too.
Where Is It? - This is the classic "cup game." Object(s) will be shown beneath the cups, and then be mixed all around. You need to select which cup(s) have an item beneath. As the difficulty increases, the number of cups and objects to find does too.
Same Different - This is a strange one. You'll be shown two objects, then shown another two objects. Your goal is to determine if the second screen contains the same two objects, different objects, or if one is different and the other is the same. You need to make note of the object's size, side and color to be correct. As the difficulty increases, so does the complexity of the objects.
Turbo Tap - This one is fun! You're taken to a screen in which tap cards will pop up from every direction, in every color, near and far. They will read "front" or "rear". Regardless of who, what, when, why and where, you're meant to tap the Vita on the side that the card dictates. That is to say this game uses the Vita's rear touch capability. As the difficulty increases, so does the variation of the tap cards.
Rapid Recall - In this game you're shown objects one at a time. You're meant to memorize the object (and color) so you can "Where's Waldo" them from a large selection at the end of the sequence. You'll do this several times.

While each game is loading, whether in Free Play or Daily Training, you'll get a fun fact to keep your brain warm. If you suspend play during any of the games (hit the "PS" button, perhaps?), you'll forfeit your work and be taken back to the Free Play area.

Language:
Word Wheel - This is sort of like mini Scrabble. You'll be give a series of letters on a wheel, and you'll
have to turn the wheel, investigate, and tap out a word using all of the letters on the wheel. As the difficulty increases, so do the number or tiles and the difficulty of the word you need to spell.
Spell It - Straight up spelling bee. You'll be verbally delivered a word and expected to spell it out on the board, one letter at a time. This is where my major audio gripe comes in. You're delivered your word by a woman with a thick English accent. You can ask her to repeat the word as many times as you need, however - unlike a spelling bee - you cannot ask for a definition or a sentence example. Being the snobby American I am, I often cannot make out exactly what it is the woman is saying, due to a mere accent. Case in point: I was asked to spell, what sounded like "dissent". So I spelled just that. Incorrect. On a second occasion I got the same word. It clearly wasn't "dissent" so instead I tried "descent". I'm failing to hear any other possible words here…
…the word was "decent". This is an issue with many words, however, and as you get to some of the higher level words it's pretty important that you understand what you're being asked. Misspelling a word means giving up at least one star, and that just won't do for this grammar nazi. Typically, as the difficulty increases so does the complexity of the word.
Alpha Trap - This is the first of a couple of Smart As…'s (that was fun to type) games which will require a Playstation AR play card to function. Pro tip: this is easily dismissed if you simply google "AR card" and stuff your phone under the Vita's camera. Otherwise, present your card to receive your challenge: navigate the Vita around like a viewfinder and press L or R to choose the letters in alphabetical order. A mistake means you will start the sequence over. As the difficulty increases, so do the number of traps and their scatter in the arena.
Lost Letter - Exactly what it sounds like. You'll be presented a word with one or more letters missing. You'll have to draw in the letters one by one on the board. This brings me to a second gripe in Smart As… the letter detection is less than stellar. You notice this a lot with language and arithmetic games: you'll draw in one letter or number, but the game will mistake it for another. Sometimes it doesn't matter how clear your penmanship is, if it isn't what the game wants, you'll be docked. In the case of letters, sometimes using capital letters will alleviate the issue, but I've found drawing lower case 'e' is the best bet. Obviously as the difficulty increases, so does the size of the word and the number of missing letters.
Odd Word Out - You're shown a wonky street sign with several words upon the many directives. The words will all have something in common: texture, living things, they may be even be actual directions, but one or more words will not fit the mold. You need to tap that word(s)! As the difficulty increases, so does the number of words and the manner in which they relate.

Logic:
Cube Mania - In this game you're presented a cube with a series of lines and corners on it. Your goal is to connect a solid path across the three dimensional surface to guide a light from its designated beginning point to its end by tapping the sides of the cube so the potential path rotates direction. You can, of course, spin your cube around, too. As the difficulty increases, so does the nature of the puzzle.
Path Finder - This is a great game in which you're presented a surface of multiple hexagons. There will be a little man on one of them, and a destination on another. Along the bottom of the screen you'll find a fixed set of directions (indicated by arrows) for the piece and play button. What you need to do, is raise or fell the hexagonal pipes so that the piece either progresses onto it, or bumps into and stays in place, so that he ultimately winds up on the destination spot. When you think you have it figured out, you press play and watch your work. As the difficulty increases, so does the number of steps our little guy has to take to get where he's going.
Live Jigsaw - Pretty much exactly what it sounds like. The Vita will take live footage from the camera, and then break up the scenery into a jigsaw puzzle. You need to rotate and piece together what is literally right in front of you as quickly as possible. Tip: your best bet is to point the Vita at something easy to discern. As the difficulty increases, so does the number of pieces.
Roller Blocks - Remember those toys we got as kids where you had to roll the ball around and try to get it into the little crater? That's what Roller Blocks is, except with colored blocks and corresponding destinations. You'll have to tilt the Vita just so, to ensure that each block reaches its spot. As the difficulty increases, so do the number of blocks and general challenge of the maze.
Chain Reaction - You're presented a board with a number of pegs on it. Each peg will sport a color. You must draw a single line connecting all of the like-colored pegs together without crossing the paths of the other colors. As the difficulty increases, so does the number of colored pegs!

Arithmetic:
Less Equals More - You're given two numbers, one on the left and one on the right. In between is a series of buttons depicting >(greater than), < (less than), and = (equal to) and you must choose the correct connection. As the difficulty increases, so does the nature of the numbers - you may be presented percentages or fractions, or a mix of everything!
Bubble Sum - This is another AR card game. You'll navigate the Vita like a viewfinder, searching for the correct number bubble to complete an equation at the bottom. As the difficulty increases, so does the number of bubbles required, and the equation will demand more of you as well.
Calculations Plus - This is the more basic "draw the correct number" game. You're presented an equation, and you must draw the correct answer, one number at a time, on the board. As the difficulty increases, so do the equations, and the number of answers you'll have to provide.
Number Pinch - You're presented two or more numbers and a selection of blobs with numbers within. You must pinch the proper blobs together to create the numbers asked of you. As the difficulty increases, so do the blob numbers (i.e now you'll have to multiply or divide…) and the number of answers you'll have to conclude.
Sum Sequence - More or less what it sounds like. You're given a number, and then a piece of an equation (+5, x2, etc.), and another… this carries on for a lengthy sequence, at the end of which you'll have to provide the final answer, one number at a time, on the board. As the difficulty increases, so does the length of the sequence and the nature of the numbers provided (i.e. you may have to factor in a percentage).

As you can see, many of these games utilize features unique to the Vita: touch screen, rear touch, camera and others. All see some action in Smart As…
Each of the Free Play games comes equipped with four difficulties: easy, medium, hard and genius. To reach the next, you must complete the previous difficulty with a 3-star rating.
Of all these games, my least favorites are the games that require AR play cards or camera use. I just don't feel these games are presented as cleanly as the others and I don't like it when my face suddenly pops up on the screen... My best games include Turbo Tap, Lost Letter, Path Finder and Chain Reaction, and Calculations Plus. I feel these games are both fun and challenging, so I'm happiest when they pop up in my Daily Training. Regardless, you can't deny there is a variety of games here, all of which very clearly represent their categories. There is some fine game design here, folks!
Of course, you don't begin with all the Free Play games… free. No, you'll slowly unlock these games with regular play of the Daily Training, and achieving high enough scores. That said, don't be discouraged if you perform poorly the first time you play any of these games. There were a few that took me a couple of tries to understand, in spite of the brief tutorial you're given on the first go.

Ultimately, it took me about 4 hours to unlock all of the Free Play games, and now the world is my oyster! I still volley back to Smart As... whenever my Vita is within arm's reach, and I must say, of all the "brain building" puzzle games I've played (and there are many) this is by far my favorite. While there is some room for improvement, it's still easy to enjoy myself. I wouldn't keep coming back if it weren't for John Cleese a great, challenging game. I'd recommend Smart As… to all Vita owners, and anyone who enjoys daily puzzles and brain games. Think Brain Age or Big Brain Academy. And never mind those apps, go get Smart As…!

You've finished this article! Give yourself 10 minutes' smugness.

You would not believe how many times I typed "smart ass" during the making of this article.

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