Back in journalism school (shocking isn't it, that some of us have actually trained for this video game writing lark?) our most hated class was short hand. Every day at the crack of dawn we would sit their, pumping coffee into our eyeballs, and write short, sharp strokes as fast as our hands would allow. It was mind-numbingly boring stuff. Listening to our tutor read out passages from the morning paper for us to copy and keep up with was the last thing we wanted to be doing at that time of the morning. It'll all be worth it, we kept telling ourselves, during the toughest times (usually in the middle of a two our session). Who knew that one day it would come in handy not just for writing faster than Kaz Hirai, Reggie Fils-Aime and Robbie Bach can speak, but for beating a video game?
The game in question is Doodle Hex for the Nintendo DS, a kind of Etch-A-Sketch real-time strategy game. And how in the hell does short hand help you beat it? The answer is simple: rather than casting spells by selecting them from menus or inputting elaborate d-pad and face button motions, you draw symbols with the stylus. 200 of them.
Doodle Hex is set in a Harry Potter-esque school for young magic users, each with their own set of statistics (attack, defence, speed) and runes to learn. The tournament mode is where you'll start your doodling career, under the tuition of a ghostly wizard called Kalamazoo. You need to fight one on one battles against the remaining students as you make your way up three towers to the game's final boss. Talk about school of hard knocks.
The game starts you off nice and slow with only a couple of spells, which come in four colours - green (quick and low on mana), red (more powerful, more mana), blue (curse) and yellow (defence). The drawing board, a circular background on which you draw the runes, is flanked by each player's health bar as well as their character symbol. By simply drawing the symbol correctly, you'll send the spell slowly moving around the drawing board towards your opponent's character symbol.
You quickly learn about defence, which involves pressing and holding on your character symbol. Doing so creates a bubble that absorbs all or some of a spell attack, depending on what kind it is. You'll find yourself frantically drawing spells then defending just as an enemy's spells are about to hit.
It's a bit like drawing hieroglyphics on your DS, which is initially odd but soon becomes quite fun. The game has solid stroke detection tech, so it's a rare occasion when it can't work out what symbol you're trying to draw. Even better, you're rewarded for accurate symbol drawing - get it exactly right and you'll cast an unblockable perfect spell.
It gets much more complicated of course. The symbols get more elaborate and harder to draw, and there are multi string combos to learn as well. It's not just a case of stringing together spells either - the spells move towards the enemy at different speeds, so you have to learn when exactly to cast so they all hit at the right time and in the right order, giving the game a rhythm action element. The aim is to send off spells so they all hit at around about the same time, the first few wearing down your opponent's shield so the next couple do maximum damage. Add to this character pets, which help you out by making your next spell perfect or making your defence bubble temporarily invulnerable, and you can see that Doodle Hex is more than a mere child's game.
The AI is extremely tough, we'd say too tough. Even on the easy setting we got stuck on the final boss for a whole day, which is never a good sign. And when we changed characters it felt like it got even harder. We bloody hate it when developers unreasonably spike the difficulty up for boss battles. Bad developer. Hopefully Mallorca developer Tragnarion Studios can tweak this before launch.
We like Doodle Hex's symbol drawing spell casting mechanic. It's fun, addictive and surprisingly rewarding. The Japanese manga style feel lends a certain charm, but we're not so sure about the characters, who feel a little clichéd to us (black rapper from the Bronx, Spanish gypsy, Emo girl from Camden). The story cutscenes and spell animations are nice enough but not the most spectacular we've seen on the DS. And there are some obvious problems with localisation too. We noticed more than one embarrassing mistake with the English text, but there's no reason to doubt these won't be ironed out before release too.
Doodle Hex should be on any discerning DS owner's radar. What's most important is that its main hook - drawing symbols to cast spells - works well. And, if you like that, there's tons to do in the game. Each character has his or her own set of runes and combos (there are literally hundreds) to learn. Then there are characters to unlock, as well as other secret runes awarded by completing specific one off challenges. Doodle Hex is a clever idea on a console full of clever ideas. We can't wait to get doodling with the final version.
Doodle Hex is due out for Nintendo DS on 11 July 2008.