Reviewed: June 14, 2005
Released: May 11, 2005
Not only is the PSP seeing the most launch titles in the history of a portable system launch, it is also getting a good variety of games across all genres. Smart Bomb, from Eidos, marks the third puzzle game for the system but despite the clever premise and a box cover that could get you in trouble going through airport security, this latest brain teaser seems bent on testing your patience more than your deductive reasoning.
Smart Bomb is all about diffusing bombs but rather than the “red wire, blue wire” decisions from the golden era of movies, we now get high-tech gizmos that would send James Bond back to the bar for an extra martini. Rendering a bomb harmless is more about playing a clever sequence of mini-games, often too clever for their own good.
There are about a dozen variations of the same puzzles most gamers will recognize from those point-and-click adventure games like Myst. You might have to connect a maze of multi-colored conduit, maneuver marbles through a maze, bounce lasers from point A to B by using mirrors to redirect the beam, or even the classic robot programming puzzle game from the old Sierra Dr. Brain series. Even when they do manage to sneak an original design into the mix there is a nagging familiarity about it.
Smart Bomb suffers from several problems, the most serious of which is the pacing starting with an unreasonable learning curve. Each bomb/puzzle puts you on a strict timer. Obviously, this is to intensify the bomb disposal process, but the time limit rarely gives you a chance to figure out the process to solve the puzzle. That combined with a shaking of the screen and the music and countdown beeps (that thankfully can be turned down or off) end up getting you flustered to the point where you lose.
So what should be a game of wits now simply becomes a game of repetition and memorization. With only a dozen puzzle types and only a few variations of each, eventually you will get a repeat of a previous puzzle configuration and only then will you have the necessary advantage to actually win. But even after you master a few puzzle types the game still punishes you with its unforgiving “do it all at once or start over” mentality.
The Story mode starts you start off in a cylindrical chamber with a central shaft. Mechanical arms extend outward, each with a futuristic briefcase or other metallic container housing a bomb. You can pick the bomb you want, each telling you the time limit you have to complete it.
As you diffuse each bomb it is removed from the “tree”, but if you fail on any bomb, even the last, you have to repeat the entire stage. This means you get to do a lot of the easier bombs over and over while you attempt the more difficult bombs.
For those with a “short fuse” you might find yourself better suited to the Challenge mode where the clock counts up and you merely try to better your own personal score. This takes a lot of the pressure off and allows you to actually learn the mechanics behind solving the puzzles. There is also an Arcade mode as well as special bonus modes you can unlock.
Some levels award you with special power-ups that help you get through the game, but oddly enough, several levels practically requires these power-ups just to squeak in under the timer, even if you know how to do it. The game is that unforgiving, plus the number and distribution of these power-ups isn’t exactly logical.
Smart Bomb also offers a Multiplayer mode for up to four players, but this really only works when everyone is at the same level of expertise as everyone else. If even one person comes into the game with advanced knowledge of the puzzles and their solutions they will dominate.
For a game that is all about precise timing the controls are awkward and a bit sluggish. There were numerous times when I couldn’t do what my mind was telling my fingers to tell the game fast enough. This was especially true in the marble-maze puzzles where you have to switch between several marbles using the X button then move around with the A-pad. You’d hit the button to switch and nothing would happen (because the game was thinking) so you’d hit it again and then it would jump ahead to the wrong marble. I just never felt confident with the controls, even after I was confident with the gameplay.
You really can’t expect much from a puzzle game, but Smart Bomb does deliver some fresh ideas, and the entire games looks better than it probably should just because of the PSP screen. There are some intricate details in a lot of the puzzles and even some cool special effects and animation.
Most of the puzzles are 2D static screens but there are a few 3D puzzles that require the A-pad to move the camera around. For such a simple game design I was surprised that more than once the framerate took a hit when moving the camera around. This is not good when I’m on a time limit.
The techno music is surprisingly leisure considering the intensity of the situation almost to the point where it becomes distracting and counterproductive. It would have been better to have something with a steady beat that matched the countdown pacing. Something like Jeopardy music, only more intense.
There’s not much in the way of sound effects other thank a few blips and beeps and the annoying countdown timer. I’m not big into wearing headphones so I tend to play all my PSP games at low volume. I don’t think I’m missing anything here.
If you stick with it you can probably master this game in a week at which point you can finish the story in a few short hours. The multiplayer functionality is limited. There is no single-disc play, so you first have to find others with a copy of the game then you have to hope you are all at the same level of puzzle memorization, otherwise this game is about as enjoyable as playing Trivial Pursuit with somebody who has memorized all the cards.
Basically, Smart Bomb is a conglomeration of puzzles we have all played before as part of an adventure or other puzzle game. They are tied together with an interesting premise, but the strict timers, lack of pacing, and the unforgiving and repetitive nature of the gameplay will frustrate more than it will entertain.
If you’re looking for a puzzle game with staying power you thankfully have a few other choices on the PSP. Smart Bomb is only for those with steely nerves, low blood pressure, and a lot of extra time on their hands.