Bookworm Heroes (iOS) review

Bookworm Heroes is a new iOS release from PopCap. It’s available now as a free download from the App Store, and carries additional in-app purchases.

Bookworm Heroes is an adaptation of one of PopCap’s older games, Bookworm, which has been around in one form or another since 2003. In practice, however, it’s not all that similar to the original Bookworm at all, save for the fact that it involves building words, and that it features the titular Bookworm named Lex as a mascot character.

While Bookworm was a single-player score attack puzzle game that tasked players with connecting adjacent letters to form words while simultaneously preventing dangerous “red tiles” from reaching the bottom of the screen, Bookworm Heroes is an asynchronous multiplayer word game. Even the core mechanic has changed — instead of making words from adjacent letters like in the original game (or in like other competitive word games like Scramble With Friends), the player is presented with a 4×4 grid of letters and can instead pick from anywhere to create their words. Each tile is worth a particular number of points, and the higher the word scores, the more damage is inflicted on the opponent when the word is submitted. Once a player has played a single word, play passes to their opponent and the game continues until one or the other is defeated.

Some variation in the game is provided by several selectable “hero” and “pet” characters that can be selected at the start of a game; the game may be played for “free” using the default hero Lex and no pet, but in order to remain competitive it is all but necessary to make use of the more powerful heroes. Heroes cannot be purchased, only rented using in-game currency, and the same is true for pets, with the exception of one that is available for permanent use with an in-app purchase. Both heroes and pets provide special abilities that improve the player’s chances of success, and while none of them are game-breaking in their power, there’s more than a touch of “pay to win” at work here.

There’s another big problem with the game relating to the in-game currency and hero/pet rental systems, too: should you find yourself playing against an opponent that refuses to take their turn, there is no way of abandoning the game and getting your money back. This wouldn’t be a problem if the game had an active community of people keen to play their turns quickly, but if anecdotal evidence and App Store reviewers are to be believed, this is a very widespread problem — the game has a lot of “sore losers” who simply refuse to play their turn when it looks as if they are about to forfeit the game. The game could do with a (perhaps optional) time-out function that concedes the game if you don’t play your turn within a certain amount of time, and which preferably refunds the player who started the game with the currency they expended on starting the game in the first place. In-game currency is also earned at such a glacial pace through normal play that it’s all but necessary to make an in-app purchase to continue playing after a while — free coins can also be earned by inviting Facebook friends to join the game, but this may not be desirable for some players.

The game’s reliance on free-to-play and pay-to-win is disappointing, as there’s a fun word, if rather simplistic, word game underneath here. This is one case where simply making the game a $2 download and then allowing players to pick their hero and pet combination freely would improve the experience significantly; as it stands, the overly-aggressive business model negatively impacts the gameplay of Bookworm Heroes to such a significant degree that it’s difficult to recommend it in good conscience.

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A potentially good multiplayer word game, but one that is in urgent need of some rebalancing, and of dialling back the aggression factor with regard to its monetization.