Sparkle 2 is a follow up to last year's Sparkle Unleashed, both developed by 10tons Games of course, and it's fair to say that they to have been working on a policy of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." This year's offering could be termed an evolution of the original game, rather than a revolution (pun definitely intended), featuring as it does the central premise of matching three orbs to make them disappear. Said orbs are delivered at high speed with a mystical orb shooter (our phrase, not theirs) that can insert the spherical objects into the queue of similar balls, causing them to vanish. If nothing else, this review should give our brains a bit of a work out as we try to come up with new synonyms for "balls." First developed for mobile platforms, can the simple gameplay work a second time on Xbox One?
Compared to last year's offering, the presentation this year is much slicker, with an actual story set up that sees you searching for five mystical keys. As you progress around the map, there are forks in the road to be navigated and at the end of each fork there is a beautifully rendered scene with a voice over, explaining what you see and what, if anything, you find. These scenes are lovingly drawn, with just enough animation in them to make them interesting to look at the first time you see them. After you reach this point of interest, you're magically transported back to the fork in the road and sent on your merry way, popping balls as you go. This, then, is pretty much the whole game, for the next 90 levels or so. There is a bit of variation with the introduction of Survival and Challenge modes that can be unlocked as you go, so once the main campaign is completed there is still more to do.
When matching the orbs, every third successive match will spawn a power up onto the field of play, which must be shot with an orb to collect. These range from the relatively ineffective Fireball, that allows you to shoot three single orbs, through to Firefly and Colour Splash, which both enable orbs to be re-coloured to make matching easier. As long as you can keep the chain going, there will be these power ups spawning. However, bear in mind that if you shoot for a power up and miss, this counts as the end of your chain and you have to start building it again, adding a nice bit of risk/reward tension to the gameplay. A well timed "Backwards" power up (which stops the forward momentum of the queue and gets it rolling back) has saved us on more than one occasion, for sure. In addition to the new powerups, 10tons have introduced another little tweak to the aiming system of the game this time around. If you hold down the "A" button (the default shoot button), it will put an arrow on the screen to show where the shot is going to go, and in a nice touch, colours it to the hue of the orb that is going to be fired when you release it. We did have our differences with this marker on a couple of occasions, with the ball not going where it seemed to be indicated it would, but overall the system works well. After ten rounds or so, you'll get the hang of where the shooter is aiming anyway, so the point is probably moot.
There is a twist this time around, in that there are enchantments that can be unlocked to power up your mystical orb shooter and make your life a bit easier. These range from Purple Flame, where every 20th orb will be a Purple Flame shot - which is extraordinarily useful as Purple Flame shots wipe out an area of the chain of orbs - to simple enchantments such as Tar, which slows the orbs down a bit on their relentless march. The shooter has also undergone a bit of modification this time, and can be charged up by matching balls and collecting pick ups, which give it a Runic Charge. Once the shooter is fully charged, you can choose various effects to use, such as Butterflies, which causes a flock of magical butterflies to appear (we're not making this up, honest!) and destroy the first few orbs in the chain. These power ups can be the difference between succeeding and failing in a level, so you'll need to choose wisely.
The presentation of the game is a lot better in this iteration, which sees a more mature tone to the map screen, and an overall less cartoony vibe to the game. The graphics of the balls and the courses are quite simple, but some of the effects are very pretty and add to the atmosphere. The music plays a big part too, normally quite bouncy and jaunty, but gets progressively more tense and oppressive as the marbles creep ever closer. When you have some orbs hanging from the edge, with no possible matches in sight, there is a good deal of tension generated, but somehow it never feels cheap when you lose.
The achievement list for Sparkle 2 is fairly generic, with achievements being unlocked for 10,000 orbs popped and 2,000 matches made and so on. Add to these achievements for completing the game on each difficulty level, of which there are three, and for getting all the stars in Survival, and completing Cahllenge Mode, and there is a long grind ahead if you wish to get the full compliment. A special mention has to go to the end sequence, which you'd hope would be quite good given that you've spent the last few hours matching and popping balls. There is no easy way to say this, but the payoff is rubbish, with quite possibly the least satisfying ending we have ever seen in a game. Obviously we aren't going to spoil the surprise, but once you get past level 92, we would advise against holding your breath.
In conclusion, Sparkle 2 is a lot like Sparkle Unleashed, which in turn was a lot like PopCap's Zuma. If you are a fan of this genre of game, then Sparkle 2 has a lot going for it, but it unlikely to convert anyone else to its cause. We found it weirdly addictive, with the "just one more level" effect being very strong, and the usually pretty graphics and reactive music all helping to hook us in. At its heart, its another colour matcher, but this is a little different to the run of the mill mobile ports that we see, and with the new modes to unlock as you play, it could well keep you hooked a little longer than normal.