As a crossword lover, I naturally expected Crosswords DS to have the same appeal. Adding anagrams and word searches to the formula made the game seem even more delectable, and I gleefully anticipated being sucked into a puzzle-packed experience. As it turns out, though, this first-party title didn't meet my expectations -- in fact, it didn't even come close.
Gallery: Crosswords DS
The first thing I noticed about Crosswords DS was its interface, which is clean and simple. You hold the DS book-style, and lefties, don't fret -- even though you can't switch to left-handed mode in the demo offered by the Wii's Nintendo Channel, you can do so in the actual game.
If you're not familiar with any of the games offered (anagrams, word searches, and crosswords), there's a training mode available to help acquaint you with the rules. It's also worth noting that you can't use the d-pad or buttons at all; everything, even the menus, must be controlled with the stylus.
Being able to create separate profiles in case more than one person wants to play on your cart is a nice feature, but you'll soon notice that multiplayer options are noticeably lacking from Crosswords DS. Such an omission is especially egregious because New York Times Crosswords offers both co-op and competitive play. Furthermore, there's no downloadable content to look forward to, but this is less of an issue because the cart itself contains a vast amount of puzzles.
Of course, quantity doesn't equal quality, and gameplay is where this title suffers most.
Although most of you are probably familiar with the ins and outs of a word search, I'll provide a brief explanation. You're given a grid of jumbled letters, which you must search through to find words that are hidden inside. Once you locate the word you've been looking for, you simply highlight it by dragging the stylus over the letters (which happens to be extremely comfortable and intuitive).
Simply enough, whether or not you'll enjoy the word searches in Crosswords DS probably depends on how much you enjoy word searches in general. You can choose between small and large puzzles, each of which have their pros and cons. The small puzzles are much easier -- too easy, in fact -- but they're appealing because the entire grid fits onto the touchscreen. Still, it only took me about two to three minutes to complete a small word search (just to give you an idea of how easy they are), making them too simple to be much fun.
The large puzzles, on the other hand, are more enjoyable because they actually present a challenge. However, the fact that you can only see a portion of these grids on the touchscreen is a slight annoyance. Also, the word lists are too long to view without scanning through them, meaning that you'll constantly have to break your concentration in order to adjust one screen or the other.
There's also a word search size that's locked, which I assume includes grids that are even bigger and more difficult than the "large" ones. It's frustrating that you can't just jump into the hardest puzzles right away, but having to navigate an even larger grid on the DS's tiny touchscreen isn't too enticing, anyway.
Crosswords DS includes a decent number of word searches -- 100 small, 100 large, and (probably) 100 of the locked section -- which is ample enough. The word searches are good for what they are, yet they're not so compelling that you'll feel the need to complete more than what's offered, if that.
After reading so many good things about the anagrams, I was stoked to try them out for myself. Once I did, though, I only felt let down -- gutted, even. The gameplay is easy enough to understand: you're given a certain amount of letters, and must figure out what words you can make by arranging them in different ways. For example, if you're given the letters "A," "L," "M," and "E," you could make the words "Elm," "Ale," "Male," etc. One nice thing about this mode is that you can choose your difficulty -- nothing is locked. You can either try out short words (four letters), medium words (five letters), or long words (six letters). Obviously, the more letters you have, the more difficult it is to figure out every single word that can be made from them.
Some impressions I read before trying the game described the anagrams in Crosswords DS as "addicting," and I can understand why -- I used to waste countless hours of my life playing a similar title called Text Twist. Still, I found the anagram mode in this game to be somewhat flat in comparison. It was fun at first (and definitely challenging), but after a short period of time, I was too bored to continue.
For me, the problem with the anagram mode in Crosswords DS is its lack of urgency. Unlike Text Twist, you're not given a time limit to find as many words as you can. Instead, you have all the time in the world, and you're only allowed to move on to the next anagram once you figure out all the words that can be made from the given letters. While I'm not a big fan of time limits by any means, the lack of chaos really made the anagrams dull after a few minutes. Perhaps those who've never been spoiled by Text Twist won't find this to be a problem, but since my standards were already set so high, this game just fell short.
The stylus is another minor problem when it comes to the anagrams. While you eventually get used to the controls, it's just not as intuitive to drag the letters into empty spaces as it would be to type them. Without a time limit this is less of a problem, since you don't have to worry about the extra seconds that are wasted when dragging letters and tapping "OK" (as opposed to typing them and hitting "enter" on a keyboard), but NST and Nuevo Retro Games could have ditched the drag-and-drop scheme for something much simpler. For example, why not just let the player tap on the available letters, thereby creating a touchscreen-keyboard of sorts? Such a minor change would have made anagram mode seem a lot less tedious.
By far, this is the most disappointing mode in the game. For a game called Crosswords DS, you'd think that this would be its bread and butter. Unfortunately, though, most crossword fanatics (like myself) will be left unsatisfied. Such a failure could have been easily avoided, too, as the bane of crossword mode is merely its locked difficulties.
Let me explain: if you've tried out the demo on the Nintendo Channel, you'll see that it offers varying difficulty levels. The four different types include easy, normal, hard, and what I can only assume is expert. Why do I have to assume this? Because the expert level is locked. Even worse, hard mode is locked in the game as well.
Now, if you're not very good at crosswords, this probably won't faze you. Assuming that many crossword fans would want to purchase a game called Crosswords DS, though, having the hard and expert modes locked is nothing short of ridiculous. For me, even the normal puzzles were mind-numbingly easy, and there's not one I tried that I couldn't ace. (I never even had to use any help or hints.) After doing fifteen of the largest puzzles that were offered (the grids differ in size), I was so bored out of my that I gave up on unlocking hard mode. Even after playing the hard puzzle in the demo, though, I'm not sure that I'm missing much. While it was definitely more challenging, the clues just weren't as diverse as one might expect from a quality crossword.
The control scheme also had its share of hair-pulling moments. You'll (somewhat) get used to navigating around the screen and zooming in and out to reach your desired section. Yet, constantly switching between "across" and "down" clues can be a pain. Switching is necessary because the screen will automatically drag you to the next letter in the clue you select. Thus, if you want to solve a "down" clue but you're in "across" mode, you'll be pulled away from the clue you want to solve. This is equally convenient (so you don't have to manually travel to the next letter) and inconvenient (for all the times you get dragged the wrong way).
The times that the automatic system is at its worst, though, are those when the game misreads the letter you've written. It's understandable that the touchscreen can't be perfect when interpreting handwriting (although, Crosswords DS seemed to mess up more than Brain Age 2 in this aspect); but, having to go back to correct the game's mistake after being dragged away can get very frustrating, especially if the screen misinterprets the same letter more than once (this happened to me often for difficult letters like "k"). Personally, I would have preferred an option that let me turn off the automatic drag.
Final Score: 5.0/10 -- This is definitely one of the most heartbreaking games that I've played to date. With a plethora of puzzles, Crosswords DS has the potential to offer an incredible amount of value to its buyer. A few terrible decisions, however, such as locking the hard and expert crosswords, will completely break this game for crossword connoisseurs. As for the word search and anagram modes, they're only mediocre -- decent at best.
With just a few gameplay tweaks and no unnecessarily locked puzzles, Crosswords DS could have been one of the best puzzle games to ever grace Nintendo's handheld. As it stands, though, it's one of the most nonaddictive and uninspired pieces of software in the genre that I've played in a long time. The anagrams and word searches are the only things that keep this title from being a complete failure, but they aren't strong enough on their own right to make this game worth recommending.