Free-to-play games often look appealing, but it’s difficult to know at a glance whether the business model is insidious and fun ruining, or reasonable and worth pumping a few bucks into. With Freemium Field Test, we’ll take a recent free-to-play iOS game, put it through its paces, and let you know if it’s really worth your time (and money).
It was only a year ago that I found myself swimming in the syrupy sweet waters of Candy Crush Soda Saga, King’s spinoff of the original free-to-play puzzle smash, Candy Crush Saga. In playing it for this column, I’d poured a lot of time into the game, but also quite a bit more money than I’d planned—and despite the frustration, I still admired the game to some extent.
That’s not the case with the recently-launched Candy Crush Jelly Saga, now the third standalone entry in the series. Jelly Saga is more than just a scenery change, as it introduces new gameplay elements alongside the slight makeover, but the core remains a business model designed to get you hooked and leave you desperate to progress once you hit a wall. And this time, it’s much less subtle about its methods.
For the most part, Candy Crush Jelly Saga maintains the structural center of the experience from earlier entries: It’s still a match-three puzzler in which you swap the places of colorful candy pieces. Match four or five in a row, make a square, or align an L shape and you’ll generate a special piece that can clear lots of candy at once and potentially lead to chain reactions of pieces falling and clearing automatically. That’s a good thing!
Everything is vibrantly depicted with eye-popping gloss, and even the backing music is ultra-catchy. Candy Crush is easy to learn and play, and like the sugary snacks it depicts, the game can be rather addictive, too: You start whipping through levels, building up big combos as the game praises your obviously planned maneuvers, and it feels good. King has made billions and billions of dollars perfecting that feedback loop, and it shines here early on as well.
Where Jelly Saga deviates from its predecessors is in the implementation of its titular goop: In many stages, you’re tasked with covering the entire surface of the board with jelly by clearing a piece from each square. At least part of the cleared chain has to connect to a square that’s already doused with jam, so you’re essentially spreading it around the screen. Cover every inch before you run out of moves, and mission, accomplished.
In other levels, you’ll need to expose little candy creatures hiding behind multi-layered barriers, which is similar to a mode from Soda Saga. But the biggest addition here comes with head-to-head battles against a computer-controlled opponent, with both of you fighting to dominate the screen with your vast jelly trail. While it’s the biggest twist seen here, it’s also the most naked example to date that you’re often playing against a stacked deck in this series.
It doesn’t take long before the competitive mode proves utterly infuriating. You’ll find a screen split in the middle, with your jelly slathered across the top pieces and your A.I. opponents’ sticky stuff all across the bottom. When pieces are cleared from the bottom, the candy in your half falls into the lower half, and you alternate turns. Makes enough sense, right?
Sure, until all of your strategic moves are nullified by the opponent’s turn. And that same opponent is magically able to put together incredible, multi-step chains too. It’s the game’s brick wall and it comes very early: That particular level is #29, and if you Google for tips (as I sheepishly did), it seems to be the most-searched level in the game at this point. Ultimately, I used the better part of a $10 in-app purchase to buy boosts and extra moves just to get past that level after banging my head against it for days.
And then, with the very next stage, I got stuck again. It’s one of those “Release the Pufflers” stages, where you’ll free the little creatures by clearing the layers of candy and barriers built atop them—only in this entry, they move away from you with every bit of progress. You might clear half the board, but they’ll all be bunched up on the other end, bleeding you dry of moves. It’s horrendous. And I’m still there on level 30, as I stopped myself from spending another dime.
It’s a shame, since I wanted to play further into the game. Jelly Saga has more than 100 levels already, with surely more to be added as the freemium game swells in size like the earlier entries, and I don’t want to feel like I’ve just scratched the surface of it. Yet it’s unlikely there’s anything unexpected down the line: It has the same regenerating lives system and the same barriers keeping you out of worlds unless you bug Facebook friends, pay money, or wait.
It’s all so calculated and expected, and that’s because it’s so massively popular. Why mess with success when it nets you billions?
After $20 total of in-app purchases to grease the bottlenecks, I’m left punching a nearly-unbreakable wall. So I’m done. Where Candy Crush Saga and Soda Saga at least had me smiling lightly through the manufactured frustration, Jelly Saga pushes back too hard and too early, and makes little effort to hide its transparent tricks.
I wouldn’t be surprised to see Jelly Saga’s difficulty spikes softened with updates: As of this writing, the initial U.S. release is still live, and although the game was soft-launched elsewhere for a while, King is sure to get a lot more feedback to work with. And hopefully that criticism makes it quite clear that the latest Candy Crush leaves a very unappealing taste with players.