Review: Clockwords

There are usually a handful of “buzz words” we game designers aim to have our creations epitomize. Creative, addicting, and original are just a small sampling of them. How different designers attempt to accomplish this is as varying as the colors in the full spectrum. Games that ACTUALLY accomplish this, though, are as rare as roses in the desert.

CLOCKWORDS, though, manages to do it beautifully. Everything from the game’s slightly steam-punk inspired visuals to its original game mechanic make it both charming and addicting. It has most of the main elements that make a good game, and does them well. The story-line is entertaining but not overbearing, the art is stylish and professional-looking, and the game mechanic is both challenging yet not arbitrary.

The plot is a simple one. Basically, you play an inventor who stumbled upon some rather vague blueprints for a machine. Unable to figure out what the machine did just from the blueprints, you decide to build it to try to figure out its purpose. Unfortunately, even that does not fully clear up the mystery. What you do discover, however, is that the machine only runs when it is spoken too. Yes, you read right. The machine fancies itself a conversationalist, only it never really communicates back.

Shortly after this discovery, your lab is invaded by mechanical insects bent on stealing the blueprints for your new machine. As luck would have it, though, the machine comes with a built-in self-defense mechanism. How does the mechanism work, you ask? Well, it turns your words into projectiles which it fires at the invading insects, of course.

So sets the stage for Clockwords. The story, while rather thin, is entertainingly told with nicely done still art. There is very little animation to the intro, but the shifting stills work just fine. It almost has a comic book feel to it, which is more in its favor than a detractant.

Unique art style

Unique art style

The only real fault here is that the story never really progresses. The rest of the game is spent with you perpetually in your lab defending it against invading mechanical insects. There is some vague reference to a rival inventor, but it is never explored further than that. I cannot help but feel as though the developers fell a little short here. With such a nicely set-up storyline, there is a lot more they could have done with it.

Even something as simple as having your rival taunt you between levels would have helped the feeling of some form of plot progression. Unfortunately, you get nothing of the kind. The beginning story sets you in your lab, and there you stay throughout the rest of the game.

To be fair, the game is apparently to be broken up in chapters, of which only the prelude is released. I can only assume that the other chapters will develop the story a bit more. Even if it does, though, it is a bad design to make the player wait all the way until the next installment of the game to feel as if the story has moved at all.

Final Grade STORY: 3/5 (Original and entertaining, but no progression)

The gameplay of Clockwords is one of its strongest points. Imagine a cross between Bookworm and a Tower Defense game, and you begin to have an idea of what Clockwords has to offer. It is an original idea that avoids the pitfall of making the outcome of the game completely up to chance. If you lose, it is solely because you did not do well enough; and not because the game cheated or because the random number generator gods decided to hand you the short end of the stick.

Each level takes place on a single screen. The screen is divided into three rows, with the mechanical spiders (the enemies of the game) gradually working their way down each row in succession. At the end of the third row is the safe; the place where your blueprints are hidden. If an enemy makes it to the safe, it takes out one of your blueprints and begins to work its way back up to escape with it. Once the insects escape with all of your blueprints, the level is lost. Very standard tower defense mechanics.

Where the originality comes in is how you protect your safe. You do not build any structures in Clockwords, and there is only one “turret”. It does not fire automatically, although it does handle all of the targeting on its own. In order to make it eradicate your enemies, you have to “talk” to it. Basically, you type in words at a prompt. Each word; as long as it is actually a legitimate word (no bldkadda nonsense, here); will be turned into bullets which the turret shoots at the enemy. While you can just randomly type in any old word you can think of, where both the strategy and difficulty come into play at is random words using random letters will not do nearly the same amount of damage as words made using letters from a constantly changing word-bank will.

The game mechanic

The game mechanic

At the bottom of the screen are “tubes” where random letters pop up at. Once you use a letter from one of the tubes, it goes away and a new letter appears in its place. These letters do more damage when used in a word, than the letters in the same word that did not come from a tube. Your best attacks are the ones that use as many of the tube letters as you can manage. This adds a very hectic and thought-provoking aspect to the game play. It is easy to find yourself wracking your brain for a word that includes both a “z” and a “y” in it (zydeco). It also lends itself to “stream-of-consciousness” game play, where you just let different words come to you instead of having to really force or think about what you are doing. This is far more rewarding that it may at first sound. You get both the fulfilling reward of having thought of a word that includes all six of the tube letters as well as the invigorating feeling of action without concentrated thought.

There are a couple of down-sides to Clockwords game play, though. The most obvious being it is not readily accessible to everyone. I consider my vocabulary to be decently larger than the average persons, but somewhere around level 21 I find myself hard-pressed to come up with “powerful” enough words to fend off the endless horde of mechanical insects. One of the nuances of the mechanics is that words repeated more than once do not do nearly the same damage as an original word does, and there are only so many words an average person can think of that include the letter “x” (example, obnoxious, luxury). Add to this the fact that someone with a high wpm typing speed is at a serious advantage over a hunt-and-pecker, and you can start to see how some people will be turned off by the requirements of play.

Also, the level design never really changes nor does the over-all “strategy”. Essentially, each stage is the same three columns with the same variety of enemies mindlessly marching down towards your safe. The turret is auto-aimed, so there is not even any real strategy to which enemies you pick off. You type words as quickly as you can, and attempt to add in as many of the tube letters as you can as you go. Nothing really changes from level to level other than the amount of enemies that spawn. There is a mechanic in place where you can exchange the letters that pop up in the tubes for ones that do more damage, but that only adds so much growth. Ultimately, the most progression you really feel in the game play is when you suddenly think of a new word to use the next time a “q” pops up in one of your tubes.

Final Grade GAMEPLAY: 4/5 (Original and entertaining, but same throughout)

The art is above par here. The sprites and images used for everything are original and stylish; invoking images of a steam-punk variety. The color palette used is not vast, but given the art style it does not need to be. Everything that should move, does. The game could definitely use some variety in their enemy design, though. Later on, a larger variety of mechanical spider appears, but the detail makes it look like little more than a resized version of the smaller ones.

Enemy image

Enemy image

The sound effects are brilliant. A lot of clicks and mechanical noises, as well as the pre-requisite steam hisses and whistles. It is subtle, but adds tremendous atmosphere. This is one place I cannot find any real fault. None of the sounds are harsh or seem out of place. They all fit together perfectly, and do a lot towards immersing the player into the game’s world.

Music is just as good, what little there is of it. There are only two tracks; the menu music and the “battle” music. Both are wonderfully done, but a little more variety here would have been nice. They are both seamlessly looped, and have enough variety in them to not grow too repetitive too quickly.

Final Grade ART: 4/5 (Once again, great… but no variety or progression)

Clockwords is a great game. For those who enjoy mental stimulation as well as free thinking in their games, this one is a definite must. Its only recurring flaw is that there is little progression and not enough variety. What it does offer, though, it offers perfectly; an original game mechanic, stylized art, and a unique story. I would recommend this game to just about anyone. The only people I feel who would not enjoy it are those whose vocabulary can not stand up to the difficulty, or those who have a slow typing speed. Neither of those are really Clockword’s fault, though. Blaming the game because a player cannot type fast enough to take full effect of its main game mechanic would be equivalent to blaming Mario for people who cannot push a button.

Over-all, play it, enjoy it, and support it. We need more indie games out there of this quality. Also… if anyone knows of a word that includes both a “k” and a “v”, let me know.



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