The Nintendo Switch has gradually become a nice home for match-3 puzzlers. Publisher 10tons has contributed its fair share to the genre with titles like Sparkle 2 and Sparkle Unleashed. The company is continuing the puzzle trend with Azkend 2: The World Beneath, a game where you connect pieces with matching symbols to clear a large board.
Azkend 2 certainly deserves credit for putting its own original spin on the tired match-3 concept. Instead of making matches, the game asks you to find them. Each level consists of a uniquely shaped board filled with hexagonal pieces, each with its own symbol. Using a cursor, you must line up three or more symbols to destroy them. You can connect them in any direction: vertical, diagonal, or even circular. Consequently, you can also make big, satisfying plays by connecting numerous pieces from one part of the board to the other. As a bonus, longer chains activate electrical charges that will automatically clear random portions of the board for you.
However, merely matching symbols is not the primary goal. Each level has a different objective, and after fulfilling it, a special object spawns on the board. If you eliminate enough pieces to drop the object to the bottom, you beat the level. The rotating objectives keep the experience from becoming tedious. The “classic” mode only asks you to make enough matches to turn each hexagon on the board blue. Then, one level may task you to clear the field of bugs, and another may require you to extinguish a slowly growing fire. Unfortunately, the frustrating gameplay makes each goal more stressful than it should be.
There are two main sources of frustration: the time limit and the game’s heavy reliance on luck. Each level has a strict time limit. Sometimes it’s in the form of a clock ticking down. Other times, it’s a fail state, like bugs invading the top of the screen. Either way, you have to make matches fairly quickly to meet these time-sensitive demands. That’s easier said than done. There are usually too many different symbols on the field to consistently connect three in a row. The game often had to shuffle the board because there weren’t any possible matches at all.
But the real issue is that each objective doesn’t want you to just make any old match; it wants you to make specific matches at particular places. Continuing from the previous examples, you would have to line up symbols directly touching the moving bugs or the fire in order to make any progress. Too often I would get stuck, unable to complete the objective in time because I was dealt an unlucky hand. What should have been a relaxing puzzle game became a demanding and stressful experience. The only exception to this is one objective that takes away the time limit and adopts a more elimination-oriented approach. It simply asks players to clear the whole board. I liked this playstyle more, but it was sadly a rare occurrence.
It certainly doesn’t help that the controls can work against you. Analog stick and button controls aren’t precise, and I found it difficult to draw the lines connecting pieces. Luckily, the Switch version has a touch screen that is more ideal for the game’s design. I still had some problems, mainly due to the small size of the hexagonal pieces, but it was still a large improvement over the shoddy traditional controls.
At least, Azkend 2 gives players assistance. As you work towards your objective, Tesla coils charge up and eliminate pieces for you, which is a gratifying reward system. More importantly, throughout the game you unlock active and passive power-ups, and you can equip one of each. You simply need to match its symbol on the board to activate special effects, like automatically clearing single pieces or blowing up adjacent symbols. Different power-ups may be more effective depending on the objective, lending to a customizable element. What’s most clever is that the power-ups are actually derived from the objects you collect during each level.
In fact, those very objects play a part in the game’s story mode, which involves a maelstrom interrupting a seafarer’s journey and pulling her into a mysterious land. She must find multiple items to proceed, and you obtain those through puzzles. It’s a basic plot, but I admire its attempt to drive players to keep playing through the 17 chapters and 60+ levels. There are also additional modes for those desiring for more. One is a welcome score attack mode, while the other lets you replay levels. The catch is that you earn a medal if you can beat the level in half the allotted time. Neither mode is as entertaining as the main adventure, but score attack is even less impressive due to its limitations: you only play a single board for a couple of minutes, and there are no online leaderboards.
What impressed me most was the presentation. The adventurer’s monologues are fully voice-acted, and the background scenes are impressively illustrated. You get a better look during the hidden object mini-games in-between chapters, where the game presents small segments of the background that you must point out on the screen. However, I found the pictures difficult to find. Sometimes, I would have to locate one very specific wave in the water or the given area was upside down. Thankfully, it’s a mere mini-game, as I’d likely go crazy if I had to complete it. The beautiful backgrounds are only rivaled by the impressive soundtrack, scored by the same composer behind the Sparkle games. The orchestrated music sounds like it would better fit a fantasy movie score than a match-3 puzzler, though.
Azkend 2: The World Beneath has an interesting concept but executes it in a way that causes more stress than fun. Still, its a unique take on the match-3 genre, with a clever story mode and rich presentation helping it stand out among the pack. It’s worth a try for puzzle fans, but not every adventurer will appreciate this journey.
I am a lifelong gamer, having grown up with Nintendo since I was young. My passion for gaming led to one of the greatest moments of my life, my video game themed wedding!