And so we come to the end of Danopian December, and of the year more generally. It's been pun, so let's wrap up with Claw and Feathers.
Time feathered: 62 minutes
Sponsored By: who else?
What if Angry Birds were a match-three game that was actually fun and interesting instead of arbitrary and bizarrely addictive?
Why, I do believe you'd get Claw and Feathers!
I like pathfinding puzzles. I spent hours and hours playing Flow on iOS when it came out years ago, even though it's basically an abstracted version of what I currently do for a living. I also like match-three puzzle games.
I hesitate to say that combining the two would make a new taste sensation, because I've watched too many games combine things I like only to make something dreadful. Claw and Feathers, however, pulled it off. Here we have a perfect blend of pathfinding and match-three puzzle solving.
The premise is derivative, but solid. Some cats have kidnapped the baby birds, and it's up to you to get them back. It's basically Angry Birds, but without the same level of cheerful abstraction between you and the understanding of what’s actually going on.
To get them back, you have to find the keys to their cages, which are in the paws of the cats. If you can get two birds of the same color to surround a cat, they’ll fly off with it, perhaps leaving the key behind. The rub is that the birds must walk to the cats, but there are a lot of birds in a level blocking your path to the cats.
Fortunately, if you get at least three birds of a single color next to each other, they'll fly off. Who knows what they're off doing at that point. Maybe they're forming a gang. Whatever they're doing, they're out of your way, and that's all that matters for the game.
Now I know what you're thinking: Why don't the birds just fly to the cats and baby birds? The answer is because birds are crazy. Seriously, look a bird in the face sometime. They look like someone gave them an enema that was equal parts caffeine and LSD.
A lot of match-three puzzle games won't let you make moves that don't lead directly to matches. There's a very good reason for that: Ponder how boring Bejeweled would be if you could move gems around willy-nilly. You could group a bunch of gems in one place, then place the matching gem to trigger a colossal combo.
Actually, that sounds kind of fun. But I do imagine it would make the game a shade on the easy side.
Claw and Feathers allows you to move birds anywhere there is a path for them to walk, whether there's a match at the end of it or not. That would be game breaking, except the game throws more birds at you every time you make a move that doesn't clear something off the field. That simple tweak adds players of strategy that save Claw and Feathers from being just another match-three game. There is a whole lot of depth there, deciding if you want to spend a move to bring another wave of birds down so that you'll have more colors to work with, or if you just want to try a clear path now and being in reinforcements later.
Additional strategic depth comes from the enemy variety. Some cats just sit there, some cats move around, and some cats require more than two birds to lift. Positioning three birds around a cat in such a way that they don't become adjacent and fly off is a challenge all by itself.
And the game is rife with challenge. It's good challenge, though: by which I mean it’s surmountable. It’s the sort of challenge that a firm grasp of the fundamentals can overcome. The phrase “easy to learn, difficult to master” is probably overused at this point, but I can't think of a more original way to say that Claw and Feathers is easy to learn but difficult to master. How about "grokkably deep"? Like chess, if chess involved irate pigeons and cats wearing terminator sunglasses.
Will I Keep Playing?
"Oh my, yes." (/farnsworth) It has all of the intuitive comfort of a typical match-three game, but with enough twists to keep it interesting for people who play more than match-three games. If you’re looking for an alternative to Candy Crush, I don’t think you can do much better. Having said that, though, I do have to admit haven’t plumbed the depths of the iPhone App Store lately, so I don’t know every match-three game in existence well enough to make that statement definitively.
Is it the Devil Daggers of Bird-jeweled clones?
The puzzles get tricky, especially when the board fills up because you’re not making enough moves that result in a match, and some of the gold-star victory conditions are diabolical, but they don’t actually matter to the game and so can be safely ignored if you’re getting too frustrated. I like that about the game. A lot of these sorts of games pad out their length by gating higher levels behind getting perfect scores on all the previous levels, but not Claw and Feathers. Why, it’s almost like they’re ok with their game just being fun to play!
It’s a novel concept, but it doesn’t earn it any points on the Devil Daggers scale. Three out of seven daggers.