Smart as... Review
Sony PS Vita
Ah, the brain. A magnificent device, full of lobes, neurons, synapses and lots of other interconnected science-y things. Most people see their brain as a Good Thing, and even if it’s a bit slow at times they love it with all their little hearts. These same people would probably love a way to poke their brain into having a little jog, maybe with the odd weight session pinned on the end too. Well, fine people, your prayers have been answered before you have even asked them - enter Smart as..., a clever little gem developed almost in-house by perennial favourites XDev. With all the frenzy which surrounds certain brain training franchises over on the 3DS it was really only a matter of time before the beefier Vita received a game which would offer to boost your cerebral processing ability whilst simultaneously massaging your ego. Where Smart as... differs from these other brain trainers however is that it takes the emphasis away from simply trying to ‘train’ you to constantly better your brain-game-score and instead offers you a whole gamut of social connectedness that lets you boast and compare your results across various leaderboards as well as Facebook and Twitter. Of course, if you are Thicky McThickerson you probably shouldn’t connect to the PSN while playing this one, but if you did at least you would make a lot of other people feel better about themselves.
As soon as you boot up the game for the first time (having pointedly ignored the insinuated pun in the title) Smart as... immediately throws you into your first test of intelligence, lining up a series of short tests under the heading of Daily Training. After answering a few short questions (such as birth date and sex) you jump right into these tests, one each from the categories of Language, Observation, Logic and Arithmetic. These first forays into the world of Smart as... are likely to be marred slightly by your fingers fumbling unfamiliarly across the screen, your brain processing both the posed challenge as well as the instructions on how to actually play the game. Saying that, all are simple – it’s merely having the experience to know in advance what is expected of you, thus saving precious seconds. After you’ve muddled through your first tense test of intelligence you are presented with your virtual brain in all its colourful glory. The brain is split into four quarters, each one corresponding to one of the categories of questions. Each has its own percentage score, and these are combined and then averaged into a giant bright yellow percentage that represents your Smart as... intelligence score. So long, thanks for coming – hope you feel less embarrassed now than that time when you were dropped into the third stream of maths for ‘your own good’.
Although, of course, that’s not it. That would be ridiculous. You are, however, locked out of taking the Daily Training until another day has passed. Depending on your performance this can leave you feeling quite smug with a whopping big brain number in the middle of your screen, or it can leave you a little underwhelmed, sheepishly trying to shield the screen from curious passers-by. All is not lost though; by completing your first Daily Training you have started to gain access to the various other parts of Smart as... – started because it’s a bit of a trek to gain access to them all. Probably the most pertinent section at this stage is the Free Play option, which then breaks out into the previously mentioned categories of Language, Observation, Logic and Arithmetic. Each one of these has a selection of five mini-games, and each one of these has four levels of unlockable difficulty – and it’s these mini-games which make up the constituent parts of the Daily Training. The first time you complete Daily Training you will unlock one event in each of the four categories, and each subsequent day on which you complete it will see you unlock an additional mini-game in one category, meaning you will have to play through seventeen days worth of Daily Training to gain access to each mini-game. Once available you can access them whenever you wish, and you should see your Daily Training score increase if only due to familiarity with each of the potential category games.
Presentation wise the graphics are crisp and clinical, usually facilitating the challenges excellently on the Vita’s wonderful screen. This design style elevates the whole product, making it feel more professional than other brain trainers that you may have experienced and ensuring that in the main the gameplay and the scoring intentions remain at the forefront of your mind. However, Smart as... never falls into the trap of feeling too much like a doctor’s test, and this is in part due to the graphics themselves and the associated animations, and in part due to the presence of John Cleese as the game’s narrator. Cleese smarms throughout, offering comedy tips at every turn and an almost meant pat on the back whenever you do particularly poorly. While it’s true that in some of the recorded narration Cleese is nowhere near his classical best, the inclusion of his voice in the game is still far more of a boon than a bane. Even better for those players who lose themselves in Smart as... for a time period of months rather than hours, there is an option to turn old John off (top tip –hit Start while at the main page to bring up the options menu).
But what of the games themselves? As these twenty mini-games are the meat of the content for Smart as… it’s imperative that they both work as intended and are actually fun. Rather awesomely they are, in the main, compelling little nuggets that will see you score attacking both yourself and random leaderboards. Each category of games manages to have its own feel and style; Observation games (shockingly) have you relying on your observation and short term memory recall in order to excel. The stand out game here is easily ‘Turbo Tap’ which sees potentially the best use of the rear touch pad yet – a series of boxes appear on screen containing either the word ‘Front’ or ‘Back’. Hit the right place on the correct touchscreen to progress, hit it in the wrong one to be smacked with a five second penalty. It’s compulsive, frenetic and shockingly fun, exactly what you would want with a handheld mini-game. Logic games, on the other hand, see you solving more traditional puzzles from the connect the waterpipes play in ‘Cube Mania’ to rearranging your very face in ‘Live Jigsaw’. Try explaining that one to a bored onlooker, I dare you.
The mini-games in the Arithmetic and Language sections are no less fun albeit they are perhaps slightly less innovative. While you may speed through the first difficulty levels of ‘Spell It’ by the time Genius level arrives you will be wondering what the words even mean, let alone know how to spell them. A whiteboard input appears within some of the Language games; for the majority of your play experience this is a fantastic way to engage with the missing letter game ‘Lost Letter’ and ‘Spell It’, although there is a slight annoyance in the way it sometimes takes your ‘T’ and sticks an ‘F’ on screen. Its use for the input of numbers over in the Arithmetic game is more accomplished, with only unfinished ‘8’s giving the game any trouble. Which is useful, as your frenetic scribblings as you try to keep up with a series of sums in ‘Sum Sequence’ can get quite messy at times. Another addictive game here is ‘Less Equals More’ which gives you two towers of various fractions and decimals and then takes you down the middle, asking you to determine whether the item on the left is less, equal or greater than the item on the right. Brain freeze will hit you square between the eyes if you haven’t even thought about fractions since school. On a side note, dirty horrible cheaters beware – hitting the Vita’s home button during play will end the game session when you return, or, in the case of the Daily Training, give you a 10% score and then move you onto the next game. You have been warned!
It’s not all good news with the play however as some of the mini-games on offer insist on making use of the rest of the Vita’s functionality in quite a forced way. ‘Where Is It?’ for instance requires you to have an AR card to hand in order to play; seeing as how this mini-game is essentially just a ‘follow the moving cup with the object in it’ game the AR functionality is entirely unnecessary. Indeed, it’s likely to be one of the least loaded mini-games simply because of this requirement which is a shame as the gameplay itself provides a nice counterpoint to some of the other Observation offerings. ‘Bubble Sum’ is another one which feels more than a little contrived; an arithmetic version of Face Raiders it requires you to utilise the accelerometer, moving the Vita around to ‘find’ the required parts of an equation and ‘shoot’ them into place. Again, the actual idea of the game has merit, and one can see how an FPS version of the mode would fit into the wider Smart as... product. Waving your Vita around trying to find a +4 so that you can finish the level and get three stars however doesn’t feel like it is challenging your brain in the way you would hope. It does, however, make you look a little bit like a crazy tool on a packed commuter train, so there are certain external benefits.
Outside of the Free Play area you are left with a giant globe option, the Smart as... World. Those aiming high and looking to show off their mental faculties are likely to feel fairly feeble once they navigate through the various leaderboards and find that there are hundreds of idiot savants much better at a particular game than they could ever be. This ability to check out your online epeen is omnipresent, with every mini-game at every level of difficulty having various leaderboards, but it’s the implementation of near functionality that really helps the competitive streaks come out. Each time you three star a mini-game in Free Play at Easy, Normal or Hard difficulty, or simply complete it at Genius difficulty, you can upload your score so that it becomes a near challenge for other Smart as...s (see what I did there?) to pick up and compete against. Fantastically, when you have done this, you can then access a special near leaderboard within the Smart as... World which lets you see who has picked up your challenge and how they have done compared to you. Finally, this is also the area which hosts Street Smarts; this section offers you a location based challenge of three mini-games (one easy, one medium and one hard) and then ranks you on the number of stars achieved versus anyone else who has also played that challenge at the same location. These challenges are reset on a weekly basis and there is yet another leaderboard which then keeps tracks of overall Street Smart stars. It’s a competitive old business, this trying to improve your cleverness.
Really, when you get down to it, Smart as... is a bundle of twenty mini-games packaged up slightly differently in various different modes. The genius lies in the fact that Smart as... hits home in every mode, grabbing you where it counts and forcing you to care about how well you can perform in some of the simplest of games. Don’t care about your daily score today mister? BAM! Giant yellow numbers of fail on your screen – make sure you do better tomorrow! Fancy a quick Free Play Observation game? SHAZAM! You had better pay attention because there’s a chap in Sweden busy trying to topple you from the leaderboard. Intending to do some travelling soon? ZZZWAP! Cross your fingers and pray for some free wireless hotspots so that you can get your chance to beat the locals in their own back garden at Street Smarts. Will the game actually make you smarter? Will it increase the power of your brain tenfold? No to both – but it’s fun, and if you find that you can suddenly compare fractions to decimals or you learn a few new words along the way then all the better.