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).
Feeling overwhelmed by garish, freemium-fueled puzzle games like Candy Crush Saga and its successors? Two Dots is a favorite here at Macworld, as the beautifully minimal puzzler sets a chill tone while still offering a challenge, and doesn’t feel like it was designed and balanced specifically to sell in-app purchases.
And if you dig Two Dots, then you’ll definitely want to give a look to Dots & Co, the new follow-up that puts a few fresh twists on the dot-clearing formula. While you’ll still link together like-colored dots to clear them from view, Dots & Co introduces new companion characters that shake up the matching gameplay—and there are tweaks to the free-to-play model, as well.
Like its predecessor, the gameplay in Dots & Co looks incredibly simplistic compared to some other match-three puzzle favorites, but there’s more nuance below the surface. You’ll connect adjacent like-colored dots by drawing a line between them, whether it’s two dots or 20, and you’re given only a certain number of moves to complete each stage.
However, you can also create squares and rectangles with four or more dots, which not only clear those from the board but also every other dot of the same color. The objective changes with each new puzzle, whether you’re trying to clear a certain amount of each color’s dots, spread a puddle trail around the entire screen, or shatter all the ice blocks by matching the dots found beneath them.
And the companions play a role now, too. As the title suggests, Dots & Co makes these fresh faces a big part of the experience, as clearing the occasional triangle companion dots that pop up will charge a companion’s meter and unleash a special ability. Anita the penguin, for example, will detonate every dot of a single color once triggered, while Emilio will drop explosive icons on the board that paint all nearby dots the same color as they’re cleared.
Better yet, each companion can be boosted at the start of the level to immediately use their ability, not to mention cut down on the number of cleared companion dots needed to use it again and again. That’s a big benefit that can often be the difference between struggling with a stage and easily, haphazardly completing it—so naturally, there’s a fee for that.
Boosting a companion costs three tokens, which lets you grease the wheels and take some of the bite out of any stage. On the other hand, failing a stage and paying for a continue costs nine tokens, which gives you five extra moves and tosses five more companion dots on the screen. In short, it’s a lot cheaper to boost a stage in advance and try to secure victory, but you might be more desperate to pay triple at the end when you’re a few moves away from winning.
You’ll get a small cache of free tokens at the start, which can be easily spent in minutes without much effort, but I didn’t receive any more after playing dozens more stages. Instead, they’re sold in bundles ranging from 10 for $1 to 1,200 for $100, with the 50 for $5 and 105 for $10 packs looking like the sweet spot for most players. Whatever the spend, a continue costs a little less than a dollar, while boosting is closer to a quarter per level.
Can you play without spending? Totally, but the occasional jolt of intense challenge means you’ll sometimes butt your head against a stage over and over before finally passing through. It feels less severe than in Candy Crush, where sometimes it seems nigh-impossible to progress without spending money on boosts or continues, but those difficulty spikes remain. Ideally, if you spent a few bucks on a pack of tokens, you could spread them out and only use them to boost a companion when you’re really stuck.
And there’s an energy meter, of course. The system is sort of clever, but can occasionally feel cruel too. You’ll spend three bolts (out of a recharging total of 15) to play each stage, but can earn them back by winning. Typical, right? However, if you only get one or two stars instead of three, you’ll only get one or two bolts back, respectively. That can create situations where you complete a level but don’t have enough energy to play the next one without waiting, which is frustrating.
Each bolt takes 10 minutes of real-life waiting to recharge on its own, which means 30 minutes for each level play, or you can spend 12 tokens to top off the meter at any time. It’s still a free and very worthwhile game that isn’t loaded with ads or aggressive prompts to purchase the premium boosts, but Dots & Co does have a bit more freemium baggage than its predecessor.
Luckily, that’s not a big detriment to enjoyment: Dots & Co is just as entertaining as Two Dots, while the new gameplay additions open up a lot of new possibilities that are explored over the course of a bunch of levels. You’ll find 155 of ‘em here so far, but seeing as Two Dots has nearly 800 levels by now, I suspect Dots & Co’s content tally will gradually build quite a bit.
The dual energy and token counts and light freemium irritations might make Dots & Co a little less mellow than its predecessor, but it’s still delightfully attractive—the scrolling level select screen is marvelous—and has heartwarming background music. And on top of all that, it’s a deceptively smart little puzzler that’s well worth savoring whether or not you spend.