The Mayan civilization's accomplishments are many: developing the calendar, advancing mathematics and astronomy, creating elaborate art and written language, and inspiring one of the better kid's game shows of our generation, Legends of the Hidden Temple. But for all their inventive, Mesoamerican dealings, makin' Tetris ain't an achievement they can claim.
With this context, Slapdash Games applies a Central American tint to it's Tetris/Lumines equivalent, TiQal. It's got Olmec statues, it's got jungles and jaguars, it's got staired pyramids...it's got Tenochtitlan and obscure gods that are hard to spell. Like the aforementioned titles, clearing blocks quickly is the name of the game. TiQal relies on combos and a range of block pieces to get this done, and edges its rows of colored cubes upward as time progresses. Naturally, then, this is a puzzler that asks for quick execution in addition to thoughtful block-placement; you can't rotate the shapes during descent, so the goal becomes linking and accruing combos while managing overall tile terrain.
For the most part, it's a pretty fun formula. Blocks only dissolve if they're placed in 2 x 2 squares or greater, and each time you form one, the block group glows for a few seconds before disappearing -- it's within this narrow window that you'll want to pile on as many pieces of the same color as possible to rack up a higher combo (and point total). The higher the combo, the higher quality power-up you'll earn.
Fun power-ups help boost TiQal's appeal, and they also up the emphasis on coordinated play. Each time one is earned, it'll float from the bottom of the screen upward, needing to be caught along the way with your block-dropper. Slapdash's tacks on some tension with this approach. A lower-level combo might produce spears that jut upward and clear vertical rows, slow the block wall's ascent, or hand you a fireball to blast a small area away. Mid-level combos can level the playing field -- like "Jungle Rumble," which summons an earthquake to shake towering tiles from their top and fill empty gaps; "Creeping Vine" deploys a snaking shock that clears blocks as it crawls.
Crank out an impressive combo, and you might grab a Jaguar Strike, which clears all blocks of a certain color, or gain the Breath of Kukulcan, which changes a group of adjacent tiles to the same shade. TiQal manages a neat metagame with the power-ups -- clearing boards doesn't just mean making the right geometric moves, but gathering good combos to knock out bigger block sections with the special abilities. For better or worse, TiQal opts to have the power-ups unlock over its 120-level single-player mode. This probably wouldn't be a problem if the game didn't advance so slowly -- over a few dozen stages you might earn four more block types to play with and a power-up or two.
It's over these lengthy spans that TiQal's tame depth becomes apparent. It takes more than 50 levels for the game to add to the number of colors you'll try to clear at once (three, at first), and the wall shapes and sizes don't vary enough to make individual stages distinct. It isn't a problem for a puzzler to feel repetitive if its core gameplay's sound, but TiQal treadmills at too many points, and boring bonus stages can't salvage much of the shallowness.
Presentation-wise, TiQal's tokens of Mayan lore are one of its more redeeming aspects, scattering notes of history between stages. Animated jungle backdrops decorate the screen well, but the title could've been better served by some particle effects that were a little more stimulating. Music ends up being hit-or-miss, with good jungle beats overshadowed by an annoying theme that tries to inject tension anytime the blocks near their peak.
Ultimately, the power-ups and new block groups are the only things that expand TiQal's experience, and they're artificially spaced as unlockables within single-player. This doesn't make it a poor puzzler -- the core mechanics execute well, even if touchy controls mean you'll have difficulty being precise and working quickly at the same time. It just means TiQal doesn't maintain its novelty at every point. If simplistic, pick-up-and-play puzzle games are your thing, and you like the idea of bustin' down blocks with plenty of power-ups, TiQal's worth a look.