Why are thousands of people buying a DS right at this very moment? Go on, have a think. Picture a till point at your local ASDA, Tesco or HMV. What game are people braving the freezing cold and hordes of rival Christmas shoppers just to play on Nintendo's touch screen phenomenon? It's not Viva Piñata: Pocket Paradise, The World Ends With You, Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings or Dragon Quest: The Chapters of the Chosen. No. In all likelihood, they're buying a DS for Brain Training.
Dr. Kawashima's disembodied head has certainly done well for the big N, hasn't it? The Japanese neuroscientist has, it could be argued, contributed more to Nintendo's recent success than Mario, Link and Donkey Kong put together. The inoffensive, simply-designed puzzle series has the handheld casual market sewn up. Well, now Sony wants a piece of the puzzle game pie.
Hence Buzz! Brain Bender, Sony's Brain Training killer. Like Nintendo's game, it's essentially a series of mini-games designed to test different aspects of your mental prowess. The difference? Well there's more colour. A lot more colour. And instead of Dr. Kawashima's breezy text you've got full voice over from that that incredibly annoying Aussie quizzmaster with the big blonde quiff and slight overbite directing your training. Oh, and he's dumped his trademark sharp suit for a lab coat and clip board. Don't worry, though. He's still got a wonderful "sense of humour".
Gameplay wise, Brain Bender follows a rather predictable pattern. There are 16 mini games, each playable on easy, medium and hard difficulties, covering four categories: Analysis, Observation, Memory and Calculation. Only the four face buttons are used for each mini-game, and all 16 work in a similar fashion, and are all against the clock. After a three second countdown an image or a number of objects is displayed on the left of the screen, and you're charged with pressing the correct face buttons relating to the specific trial.
The mini-games are varied and often extremely difficult. In the Observation category, for example, you've got Match Up, which flashes on screen a number of heads before asking you to press the face buttons that correspond to the heads that were pairs. In Memory, you've got Take Away, which briefly displays a number of playing cards, then displays two and asks you to press the face buttons that correspond to the missing cards. In the Analysis category, you're tested on your ability to quickly analyse various problems, as you'd expect. Power Struggle, one of the game's hardest tests, asks you to work out which vehicle is strongest in a tug of war, which, on the higher difficulties, involves multiple automobiles. And in Calculation, Count Tally, for example, asks you to work out what combination of gems associated with the face buttons equals the gems displayed on the left of the screen.
At the end of each mini-game you're graded depending on your performance. There's a bronze, silver and gold star to aim for in each mini-game on each difficulty. On hard, the game's just that. We were unable to score anything better than a bronze on any of the mini-games on this difficulty. You're also shown your training history for that mini-game, and for the category in general, which allows you to track your increasing, or in my case, decreasing mental ability, as well as the option of playing daily tests.
As with Brain Training, playing Brain Bender won't make you smarter, or off-set dementia. What it will do however, is make you quicker and better at the various mini-games that make up the game. It's more about fun, and, in an odd way, Brain Bender is fun. It's easy to play, has nice production values and works well, but it's not going to make Newsnight Review suddenly make a lot more sense.
Replayability is added with a number of challenges, unlocked as you gain stars in the main mini-games. These are especially hard, and will test even the quickest mental reactions. Beyond this there's a six-player competitive multiplayer mode, which involves passing the PSP around and taking it in turns to play the mini-games. We can't see this keeping people occupied for longer than 15 minutes, although it's probably more fun than having to actually speak to the in-laws when they come round on Christmas day.
In this respect, Brain Bender could have been bettered with the addition of game sharing so players could compete in real-time, and a competitive edge would certainly have been gained with some online functionality, with leaderboard support for the various mini-games and challenges at the very least. Without, Brain Bender is still a fun, entertaining and much less serious addition to the ever expanding handheld puzzle game genre, and is certainly worth a look if you haven't already got Brain Training for the DS and you can tolerate the insufferable quizmaster.