Tens of millions of people are still swapping sweets in the Candy Crush Saga game on smartphones, tablets and Facebook. Now its publisher, King, has released a new puzzle game: Bubble Witch Saga 2.
It's available today for Android and Apple devices, as well as on Facebook. As with previous Saga games, if you log in using your Facebook profile, your progress will be saved across all of these if you choose to play across several.
As you'll likely have guessed from the name, this is a sequel: the original Bubble Witch Saga was actually King's first mobile game back in July 2012, although the company has since admitted that it wasn't as fun as it could be on smartphones in particular.
"It plays great on iPads with larger screens, but you kinda had to squint on smartphones," King's games boss Tommy Palm told the Guardian last year. Bubble Witch Saga 2 is the company's attempt to remedy those faults, slapping several layers of polish on to the core gameplay.
And that gameplay is… popping bubbles. Specifically, firing coloured bubbles from the bottom of the screen at other coloured bubbles higher up to make matches of three or more, which then disappear. You have a set number of bubbles to fire on each level.
As with King's other games, this isn't a new form of gameplay in itself.
Just as Candy Crush Saga took its cues from a game called Bejeweled and Papa Pear Saga was heavily based on a game called Peggle, both Bubble Witch Saga games have their roots in a series of games called Puzzle Bobble and Bust-a-Move – the names varied depending on where in the world and on what device you played them.
Around that, King has wrapped a structure that is now familiar from its other Saga games: you play through levels earning one, two or three stars for your scores, with different challenges to vary the core matching gameplay, and power-ups used to get you out of tricky spots.
Here, the power-ups include a rainbow bubble that will match with any colour, and a fire bubble that blazes a path through any bubbles in its way. Once unlocked, you get three of each for free, but if you want more, you'll have to spend gold bars.
Yes, virtual spending. As with the other Saga games, virtual items and in-app purchases figure prominently in Bubble Witch Saga 2 – it's one of the "freemium" games that have come to dominate the mobile games industry.
Gold bars are used to buy the booster bubbles, but also to get a few more bubbles if you hit your limit on a level, and to buy more lives – you lose a life every time you fail a level. An in-app store sells the gold bars starting at £0.69 for 10, and rising to £34.99 for 650.
Note, you can also choose to "ask friends" for more lives. Tapping this button brings up a list of Facebook friends playing the game, who you can then ask for help – another familiar feature from the other Saga games.
There are three types of levels at the moment in Bubble Witch Saga 2: Clear the Top, Save the Animals and Free the Ghost. The first tasks you with reaching the top of the level and freeing up six spaces on the uppermost row; the second involves clearing bubbles to rescue animals floating throughout the level; and the third involves freeing a spook trapped at the centre of a rotating cluster of bubbles.
So, is Bubble Witch Saga 2 any good? Needless to say, it won't appeal to the vocal brigade of Candy Crush haters who see King and its Saga games as the epitome of freemium awfulness. If this is you, Bubble Witch Saga 2 won't change your mind, but there are some excellent paid games out there as alternatives.
What if you're a big Candy Crush Saga fan looking for a new fix? Bubble Witch Saga 2 is definitely worth a try, as its structure will be familiar, but the gameplay will be a fresh change from candy-swapping.
This kind of bubble-popping was brilliant fun in the Bust-a-Move and Puzzle Bobble games, and King has done a much better job second time round in translating it to modern touchscreens. No squinting required.
I do wonder if there's a risk of Saga overload, though. There was a moment around level 20-something where I got stuck, lost all my lives – they replenish naturally if you don't pay, but only at the rate of one every 30 minutes – and I had a sudden, wearying vision of the future.
Weeks and months of grinding through difficult levels, being prodded to buy gold bars, and badgering friends (and being badgered in return by them) for lives. How many people who went hundreds of levels down the Candy Crush Saga rabbit hole will relish the prospect of doing it all over again in a new game?
That said, at 9.30am this morning, this point was going to be the main thrust of the review, once I stopped playing. The next time I looked up, it was 10.30am, I'd reached level 40 (without paying) and completely forgotten the theory that this was supposed to be a grind.
Incidentally, level 40 is the first roadblock in Bubble Witch Saga 2: you're asked to either wait five days to unlock the next set of levels, spend nine gold bars, or ask friends for help. Judging by the in-game map, this happens again after level 55.
At launch, Bubble Witch Saga 2 has 70 levels, but King says it'll be adding new ones every fortnight, following the same pattern as Candy Crush Saga.
So, in answer to the question in the headline of this review: if you love Candy Crush Saga, will you love Bubble Witch Saga 2 as well? The chances are good. And even if you're starting to wonder when the wheels of the Saga bandwagon will start to wobble, there's plenty of fun to be had.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
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