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Fortress

Score: 90%
ESRB: Everyone
Publisher: Majesco
Developer: Pipedream Interactive
Media: Cart/1
Players: 1 - 2
Genre: Puzzle

Graphics & Sound:

What you might expect to be a Tetris rip-off turns out to be a nod to the classic with some wonderful new ideas. Sure, Tetris is like the videogame equivalent of Checkers - simple, quick and addictive - so what kind of additions can you make that won't break the appeal? Well, graphics for one! Fortress takes all the pretty pretties of Tetris' background panes and brings them to the fore. Not only that, it makes them interactive. No longer can you only be concerned about which pieces fit together and what piece you have coming at you next, you'll also have to do some strategizing over the total structure being created. As the name might suggest, Fortress is a game about building castles. The setting in which you build is either Stone Age, Pirate Age, Medieval Times or Space. The castle types you build change accordingly, and also the denizens of the age. The characters in this game come about as a direct result of your building, and appear because of certain structural objects you can place in your castle. Sure, the blocks fall from the sky just as they do in Tetris, but once you form any 2x3 interlocking section,your blocks transform into rock, wood, etc. Tower structures can also be formed with a vertical 2-block sequence, and very quickly you have a solid structure built in the theme of the period. It's a neat visual effect, and one that encourages building with a mind toward overall design instead of short-term block-matching strategy. The matching strategy is still important, and speed is of the essence, but design plays a big role in successful gameplay. Little animated characters, fun music and sound effects round out a pretty package.

Gameplay:

If Tetris is the Checkers of videogaming, Fortress is the Chinese Checkers. Same basic idea and objectives, but elevated complexity. The theme concept at first seems like a complete shift in gameplay, but it really is just window dressing for the same old falling block concept we fell in love with long ago. Either as a single player facing off against the CPU or as one side of a link-cable competition with 2 GBAs, the idea is to build a better castle. Several modes are available, the most immediately accessible being Battle Mode. When you begin, you'll see a battlefield complete with flags that demarcate your territory. A foundation block is dropped and then blocks start coming down from above. You're given a brief period to build a foundation, and this includes the ability to extend territory, giving yourself more room to build. Once the buzzer sounds, an interesting twist to the Fortress gameplay is revealed. Special weapon blocks you placed on your castle start firing! Yeah, not as simple as just building the thing, because your opponent quickly starts taking it to pieces and you return fire to do likewise.

The placement of the special blocks is only limited by available space, but defending them is important. Along with offensive capability, you can drop defensive blocks that release little guys called Twerps to fix your castle. Once in a while, an offensive Twerp can be launched from your castle to go over and bomb the other guy's structure, blowing himself to bits in the process. And, on the side of offense, building carefully will result in the coveted Wizard's Tower. This gives you the ability to create huge monsters that inflict major damage on your opponent. Blitz Mode is similar to Battle, but puts more emphasis on weapons, doesn't offer as much in the way of bonus points and plays quicker because of lower score requirements. Tournament Mode takes you on a tour of the 4 different time periods. With all the neat features of gameplay, it's important to note that score is still king. Beautiful, powerful Fortress you may have, Grasshopper, but if enemy reach target score first, you lose. This frustrated me a little in the beginning, as I had hoped there might be at least one play mode that focused entirely on destroying the other castle. But, as you play, you come back more and more to the similarity between this and Tetris. You'll love the extra elements thrown into gameplay, but you'll still have to drop the most blocks in the least time for the highest score.


Difficulty:

Before beginning any of the competitive modes, you are able to choose one of three available difficulty levels. After some testing, the easiest setting is probably accessible to any budding Tetris fan out there, which is not to say it's going to be a walk in the park. Even at the tamest setting, Fortress will feel like the more advanced levels of Tetris where blocks fall fast, fast, fast. Tips in the manual help illustrate ways to swing the battle in your favor, but much practice will be needed before all the elements of gameplay can be balanced to achieve victory.

Game Mechanics:

Certainly one of the most important things about Tetris' appeal and popularity is the simplicity of its control setup. Rotate blocks, adjust blocks and drop blocks. Fortress doesn't mess with a winning combination. Block control is simple, with (A) and (B) buttons rotating blocks while the D-Pad works to maneuver and drop them quickly when in position. There is really no way to slow blocks, and pushing 'up' on the D-Pad just sends them plummeting to the ground, so I found myself wanting to slow things down at times only to mistakenly plop a block in the wrong place. That's a pisser, but trust me when I say that after playing Fortress even a little you'll understand that the focus is always to do things faster, not slower. Especially in the higher difficulty settings, your CPU opponent is ruthless and will build a complete castle bristling with guns before you know what hit you. The only deviation from standard Tetris controls relates to the horizontal aspect of this game. If you want to see what your opponent is up to, you can hold down a shoulder button and press the D-Pad to scroll. This is a feature of questionable utility, but it at least offers a little more interactivity than just watching blocks drop into a static screen.

The point system deserves some elaboration. Basically, dropping blocks doesn't grant points. Building structures and combining built structures is what earns points, along with weapon multipliers granted when you successfully attack your opponent. Really, what you want to do is build up combos, more like Bubble-Bobble, if you can imagine that game inverted vertically. In a perfect world, you'll drop a long horizontal line of blocks and then combine the next layer of blocks to create those 2x3 or high, tower-forming structures. Actually dropping blocks that form structures gives you points. If you can immediately drop blocks to form a connecting structure, you'll receive a bonus multiplier. This is where the points really add up, and the CPU kicks a large amount of butt with this strategy.

Fortress is a perfect addition to the puzzle category and a true successor to Tetris' proud legacy. The only thing that would have made this a perfect game would have been some mode that focused purely on destruction over points. The CPU is almost too difficult in places, but the option to face off against a human opponent with linked GBAs neutralizes any qualms over unbalanced difficulty. And, if you can beat the CPU on the hardest difficulty, you're probably ready to take on any Fortress master. This game earns a 10 on the addiction scale, no question. We'll hopefully see a sequel with expanded gameplay options and more themes.


-Fridtjof, GameVortex Communications
AKA Matt Paddock

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