Mobile devices have been a utopia for Match-3 games, so it was only a matter of time until the Cartoon Network added one to their own collection of titles. Cartoon Network Match Land (CNML) is a cosmetic overhaul of a pre-existing game called Match Land, spruced up with characters from the channel's many popular animated shows like Adventure Time and Steven Universe. But is this chart-climbing puzzle-RPG hybrid compelling enough to overcome the trappings of free-to-play systems?
Charming presentation: Cartoon Network Match Land has an abundance of retro '90s personality, from the artwork to the animation to the music, evoking classic Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy role-playing games. At the same time, CNML adds its own whimsy, like an anthropomorphic container of fries that's wearing vintage blue-and-red 3D glasses. This sense of fun helps drive your desire to keep playing, because you want to see what wonderfully silly creature CNML conjures up next.
Friendly tutorial: Match Land does a good job of walking you through the game's different systems; basics like how to match gems, upgrade characters, unlock new characters, and manage your shops. Your guide is a cheerful, anthropomorphic Game-Boy-like device who talks to you using pixelated text.
Nuanced gameplay: More than just a Match-3 game, Match Land also adds a combat system. Your puzzles come in sets of three, and matching gems earns you points that get converted into damage inflicted upon a group of enemies located on the top half of the screen. Instead of clearing the board or reaching the end of a timer, you advance to the next puzzle by eliminating the bad guys. Meanwhile, they're taking turns attacking you, so you have to balance matches that earn points against matches that heal you. Each battle also contains a boss fight, so you want to conserve your hit points to prepare for the final scuffle. Interestingly, you can also move gems diagonally, creating more opportunities for matches and cascades.
Partial victories: Even if you lose a battle, you at least get a consolation prize in the form of captured enemies, which you sell at your shops for a modest amount of gold. Since battles cost energy points, it's nice to get a little something in return.
A non-trivial amount of grinding: CNML is big on loot boxes. One of the items in the basic box is one figurine of a character that you haven't unlocked yet. The thing is, you need 20 of these figurines to unlock a single character, and there are 16 characters to unlock. In order to even unlock the basic box, you need three keys. You can buy one key for 1,000 gold, which could take a couple hours to collect. If you stuck to this path of figurine collection, you'd probably get bored of the game before you unlocked your first guy.
In-app transactions can scale quickly: Of course, you can pony up for the "Magic Chest," which guarantees five (randomly selected) figurines, but it costs 800 gems. You need 5,000 gold to buy 80 gems, so that would be pretty tedious. Your other option is to cough up real money for the gems themselves, which the game is happy to sell you in quantities of up to 14,000 for $100.
But who spends that kind of money on a Match-3 game? You can pick up a pouch of 500 gems for $5, but that won't cover the Magic Chest. The next step up is the bucket of 1,200 gems for $10, but now you have 400 gems left over. There are other things that you can spend the remainder of your gems on (like speeding up timers), and you'll collect a free trickle of them as you progress through the game, but it's headaches like these that make most people skip free-to-play games altogether.
Ultimately, you'll have to cough up an open-ended amount of cash to complete an indeterminate amount of game, with every penny spent only committing you further to getting your money's worth.
These are not the kinds of problems that the game's youthful target audience is readily prepared to handle, which is why loot boxes have become an increasing point of controversy.
Some gameplay systems require trial-and-error discovery: For example, there's a tiny number above the heads of your enemies, which counts down to one. This turns out to be the number of turns you have until the enemy attacks, which we didn't see explained in the tutorial. Also, matching hearts instead of fruit grants you health, which is a necessary move to survive fights as they become more difficult. Since every battle costs you energy points, you don't want to lose because a gameplay system was missing a description.
Bottom Line: While Cartoon Network Match Land is colorful and polished, the way that progression is structured into its in-app purchases leaves something to be desired, and putting loot boxes in front of an audience that might not be prepared to handle them responsibly leaves a bad taste in the mouth.
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Build a team of your favorite Cartoon Network characters to conquer a unique match 3 adventure in Cartoon Network Match Land!
MATCH 3 WITH A TWIST
Once you make a match, you can keep on matching until the timer runs out. How many matches can you string together? Plus, you can move pieces diagonally to put a whole new angle on classic match 3 gameplay.
FOOD FIGHT FRENZY
Battle a horde of sentient food items to keep the Cartoon Network Food Festival running. Punch a pizza! Clash with cupcakes! Fight some french fries!
YOUR FAVORITE CHARACTERS
Choose your heroes from 20 different Cartoon Network characters with unique abilities. And keep your eyes peeled for CN cameos among the customers and shop owners!
Level up your heroes, then evolve them into much more powerful versions. Earn gold from 20 different food shops you can unlock and upgrade.
LUNAR SEA SPIRE ARENA
Get even more gold, gems, tokens, and other goodies in the Lunar Sea Spire, an entirely separate arena mode that lets you test your team's true power for awesome rewards.
Match your way to victory in CARTOON NETWORK MATCH LAND!
This game is available in the following languages: English, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Turkish, Korean and Japanese.
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