Game developers may well have the most demanding jobs in the world of PC computing. Unlike those who wrestle with word processors and spreadsheets, gamers know they don't have to put up with software that's buggy, boring or difficult to use -- the market is vast and highly competitive, and there's always something better coming along.
That said, it's interesting that a software giant accused of monopolistic practices has repeatedly proven itself worthy in the cutthroat game market. With hits like Age of Empires and Midtown Madness, "cult classics" like The Neverhood, and the upcoming Asheron's Call and Age of Kings, the folks at Microsoft have shown they know good game development when they see it.
Microsoft Pandora's Box is a puzzle game -- surprising in itself, since this genre is all too often pushed aside in favor of real-time strategies and first-person shooters. The storyline (also a surprise in a puzzle game) is quite basic: Pandora's box of troubles has broken apart, and the pieces have been hidden throughout the world by seven legendary trickster characters. Your job is to find the pieces by solving visually-oriented puzzles, reassemble the box and trap the tricksters inside. The game boasts over 350 separate puzzles with worldwide themes, based around ten core puzzles created by Alexey Pajitnov, and it gets full marks for addictiveness. In fact, as I write this I keep muttering, "No, not just one more puzzle. This review is already late as it is. Bad reviewer, no biscuit."
Gameplay, Controls, Interface
When you begin the game, you are shown a map of the world and a city where one of the missing box pieces is hiding. Travel to that city and you will be presented with ten puzzles; one of them conceals the piece. To add a little luck to the chase, some of the puzzles also conceal special tokens -- Hint tokens, which give you a specific hint about one piece of the current puzzle, and Free Puzzle tokens, which allow you to solve the current puzzle completely. You also earn a Free Puzzle token automatically after solving ten puzzles. As the game progresses, the puzzle challenges become more difficult, so it isn't a bad idea to go easy on the tokens at first. There are also Speed Challenge puzzles, which offer you a bonus if you complete the puzzle within a specific time period. Once you've found the missing piece in one city, proceed to another until you've found all four pieces of a side of the box. Then you must find the trickster and play a challenge puzzle to capture him or her inside the box again. If you'd prefer to skip the storyline altogether and just get straight to the puzzles, there's also a Puzzles Only option.
The ten puzzle types are Find and Fill, where you find a hidden object among a mixture of outlines and fill it in with color; Focus Point, where you swap scrambled pieces to assemble a picture; Image Hole, where you match moving holes to the objects in the hidden image; Interlock, a puzzle based on tangrams; Jesse's Strips, a series of trays containing interlocking strips of images; Lens Bender, where you move the pieces under lenses to figure out where they go; Outer Layer, where you re-assemble the "skin" of a three-dimensional object; Overlap, where you compose a picture using overlapping jigsaw-like puzzle fragments; Rotascope, similar to a circular Rubik's Cube; and Slices, another three-dimensional puzzle where stacking slices create an object. After having talked with several people who have played Pandora's Box, I've noticed that there's at least one puzzle type they can't stand, but it varies from person to person. For example, I cannot stretch my brain around all but the most simple Rotascope puzzles, so I skip them whenever possible. Another friend can't stand Image Hole; yet another thinks Find and Fill is an exercise in futility. Thankfully, the game has enough built-in flexibility to allow you to skip almost all the puzzle types you don't like.
The controls are highly intuitive, and about as simple as it gets -- completely mouse-driven. About the only time you need to touch the keyboard, in fact, is to enter your name as a new player. With most puzzles, you left-click on a piece of the puzzle to select it, right-click to turn or flip it if necessary, then left-click again to place it. Just in case the objective isn't immediately obvious, however, you get the option of an interactive tutorial when you try a new puzzle type. You don't even need to worry about saving your game -- the program does it automatically for you when you exit.
The look of the game itself is worth mentioning; few interfaces have been created with such loving care as is in evidence here. With its Art Nouveau styling; textures of marble, mahogany, birch and walnut burl with dovetail joints and brass detailing; and an old-fashioned, parchment-colored world map (complete with swimming sea monster); the interface of Pandora's Box has a moneyed, tasteful look reminiscent of a late 19th century gentleman's study.
To create the puzzle graphics, Microsoft's development team drew on a not inconsiderable pool of pictures from Corbis and other visual image galleries. I'm not certain who made the final decisions about which images to include -- but whoever it was has impeccable taste (want to come help me spruce up my house?). The completed puzzles show skylines, bridges, churches and mosques, paintings both ancient and modern -- even three-dimensional statuary, masks and objets d'art. In part, this is a satisfying game to play because of the quality of the finished images.
The narrator, who introduces each trickster character and directs your next move, has a wonderful folk-storytelling style that is not out of place. With each recovered piece of the box, she adds an additional section to the trickster tale in progress, spurring on your efforts to complete additional puzzles.
The background music is top notch. Each area of the world has its own distinctive leit motif -- a Mozart-esque piano and orchestra in Europe, a salsa beat in Latin America, a stately koto and gong in Asia, a fusion of New World tunes in the USA and Canada -- and each is notable without being overbearing. Even while struggling with the most frustrating puzzle, I never once felt the need to turn the music off, although there is an option to do so.
Sounds within the puzzles themselves are crisp and appropriate. Pieces in the Rotascope "shloop" from one space to another, objects under the lenses in Lens Bender "shing" back and forth and "tok" into place. I especially liked the satisfying snap-lock sound of a correctly placed puzzle piece in Jesse's Strips. (I know, it sounds nuts, but you'll understand when you play.)
Required: Multimedia PC with Pentium 100 processor, Windows 95/98/NT (SP3), 16 MB RAM (32 MB for Windows NT), 120 MB hard drive space (w/additional 50 MB for swap file), 4X CD-ROM drive, SVGA with 1 MB VRAM, mouse.
Recommended: 32 MB RAM (64 MB for Windows NT), audio board, speakers
It's always encouraging to see a new puzzle game, but a real treat to see one as well-designed and well-executed as this. It isn't perfect, but it's close. With a sleek, elegant interface and addictive gameplay, Pandora's Box may well be just what starving puzzle game fans have been longing for; with any luck, it may encourage more quality entries into this almost forgotten genre.