Hoyle Majestic Chess Review
By Chris Commodore |
Hoyle Majestic Chess tries to dispel the old myth that chess is boring. Like the fondly-remembered Battle Chess, Majestic Chess creates fresh excitement not through any variation of the classic chess rules so much as through a radical reworking of the presentation of the game. You're still playing traditional chess with traditional pieces on a traditional board, but now you can do so in a framework that makes the game a bit more exciting both through a fantasy-themed narrative and focused drills.
The broad range of difficulty settings (against 24 opponents) should allow you to pair up with a player that will offer just the right level of challenge. Naturally, as this is a top-of-the-line chess program, the upper fourth of the levels are for those players who are either a) Gary Kasparov or b) far below the FDA's recommended daily allowance of humiliation. Not fitting either of those categories, I found the middle range of levels offered a reasonable challenge. Players at Dan's skill level ("which way does the horsey go?") will likely find low-level opponents that challenge without frustrating.
Beyond the single, one-off games, the real draw with Hoyle Majestic Chess is the Adventure Mode. Geared initially towards players who aren't terribly familiar with the game, Adventure Mode introduces the concepts of chess bit by bit through a series of lessons, drills and limited practice matches. Multiple chapters tell the story of your character's progression through a chess-themed fantasy world as you learn about the pieces and tactics of the game.
There's a great collectable element to the game. At the start of each chapter you're told you'll need to face off against a particular chess master. But before you can even reach the big boss at the end of each chapter, you'll need to progress through several smaller challenges. In a Heroes of Might and Magic kind of format, your character rides over the land, visiting villages, caves, shops and all manner of typical fantasy settings.
Each location provides a unique opportunity to learn or practice new skills. Some locales merely cover specific concepts, like piece movement, forking, or centralization. Other locales offer six-question quizzes on those same topics. You may also find yourself solving mate puzzles or playing a limited match against a set number of pieces. Challenges will sometimes reward you with gold, sometimes with pieces, and sometimes with access to new locations on the map.
The idea of piece collection is probably one of the best parts of the Adventure Mode. Beginning with just a single king, you'll need to build up your chess army in each new chapter. You can earn major pieces and pawns for completing certain of the challenges. These pieces become part of your set and can be used to take on the limited-piece matches later in the game. You can also visit shops to purchase extra pawns or special one-time use artifacts that will, for example, instantly remove an enemy unit from the board in place of your move. These smaller force engagements give you a real sense of progress and help focus the exercises on certain tactical concepts.
That said, I think the overall presentation could be strengthened. For all its inventiveness the story still seems a bit incidental. Characters like the Jester certainly take on a bit of life but the majority of the characters you meet in these challenges are relatively flat. You won't find the same sort of inventiveness and depth of something like the chess story in Through the Looking Glass, but you will find the small story elements provide a convincing context for the game itself. Still, the story elements could be tighter as you progress through the missions within each chapter.
But that's not exactly the point of it, is it? The point is to hone your chess skills and, while Hoyle's Majestic Chess presents the tutorials in an engaging narrative, it's the lessons that keep you playing long after the story wears off. But even here there are a few problems. The timed exercises go by so quickly that you'll rarely have a chance to study what did or didn't work. The timed nature of the exercises certainly ramp up the excitement level but, for players like me who prefer to play a more contemplative game, the hip-shot format of some of the drills leaves me wondering whether I had a chance to actually learn anything or if I just won on instinct (or raw chance).
A few examples will suffice: One drill has places a number of stationary pawns around the board. In successive levels of this challenge you'll have to lead a single major piece around the board making sure to capture an enemy piece with every move. Grab a piece out of sequence and the board offers up a new setup and has you try again. Likewise, the "mate in two" puzzles should allow extra time for a bit more thinking, particularly at the later stages where you're asked to solve six problems in the space of twenty seconds. Strangely the "avoid mate" puzzles (which are quite a bit easier) require you to find only one move and give you over a minute to search for it.
You'll find the partial piece, pre-set matches to be much more useful for developing good end game tactics. Armed with just a rook, for instance, you'll have to take on an enemy king and his two pawns. Having nothing else on the board really starts to make things clearer in terms of boxing the enemy king in and heading off advancing pawns. And since you build a new chess army in each chapter, you'll find that you can go back and revisit earlier challenges once you feel like your chess army is strong enough to take them on again.
Once you've tired of the computer opponents, you can venture online and try your hand at some human competition. Hoyle's Majestic Chess has a relatively painless multiplayer component (painless at least in terms of functionality -- whether you're pained by losses at the hands of an anonymous internet opponent is another matter entirely). Offering both rated and unrated games, the multiplayer portion of the game lets you issue challenges to specific players or post them to a general challenge board.