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Smart As Review

Posted by Chad Habel On Tuesday 11 December 2012Comments Off

Available on PSV l Published by Sony l Developed by XDev Studio Europe l Classified G l Supports 1 player

REVIEW IN BRIEF > The PS Vita is clearly trying to play catch-up with Nintendo’s enormously successful Brain Training games on the DS. Smart As provides mental challenges of varying type and quality. While it can be fun, it is often inconsistent, frustrating, and poorly designed. I hate to say it, but these games really aren’t about learning anything important and this one is unlikely to keep you entertained for long.

REVIEW IN FULL > It seems that someone left an ‘s’ off the end of this game’s title. The main purpose of Smart As is to achieve a high score and gain bragging rights to all and sundry regarding your intelligence. The problem is that this assumes an amount of market saturation which is certainly not present and the focus on leaderboard design means that level design is a bit limited. John Cleese narrates the trials and tribulations, but legendary as he is, he is no match for Stephen Fry in LittleBigPlanet.

…each daily challenge unlocks only one free play challenge, which means that it is impossible to play the whole game until you have checked in daily for weeks.

Smart As presents its own format, and offers a full suite of twenty invariably time-based brainteasers divided into colour-coded categories of Logic, Language, Arithmetic, and Observation. You undertake a daily challenge, and can then play individual tests in a free play area, with all results meticulously scored, recorded, and shared via PSN. The concept here is fine, but it suffers in execution.

The range of activities in the daily challenge is very limited. There are perhaps only two in each category, and while this maintains comparability, it ends up being dull. This is compounded by the fact that the difficulty level remains the same. It is actually very hard to improve. After weeks of playing nearly every day, you may well find yourself stuck on a  plateau. This is partly because the slightest error is punished strictly. One wrong move in any of the areas will reduce your score in that area to 50% or so and the only other possibility seems to be a nearly flawless performance.

The free play area is more forgiving, and with four unlockable difficulty levels, it also provides much more variety. However, each daily challenge unlocks only one free play challenge, which means that it is impossible to play the whole game until you have checked in daily for weeks. Good luck if you wanted to play this game in an extended sitting. Did Zynga have a hand in this design?

The mini games themselves can be fun, but are hugely variable. Often, Smart As attempts to trick rather than test. For example, Turbo Tap requires you to touch the front or rear touch pads, but the instruction is often put on the opposite position in a 3D field to distract you from the correct response. The substantial use of the PS Vita’s features means it feels more like a proof of concept than a genuine entry in and of itself. It’s more like a gimmick than a good use of the features. Some challenges are just badly designed. Live Jigsaw uses the camera to cut up a real life image in front of you which adjusts in real time, producing a kaleidoscopic effect that makes timely completion of the jigsaw mindbendingly impossible. Sometimes the interface is inaccurate. A whiteboard that ‘reads’ your handwriting can sometimes misread it, resulting in an incorrect answer or lost time. Luckily there’s no voice recognition.

When it’s not frustrating you with poor design, Smart As is a casual tool for some jokey bragging rights.

It’s not all bad news, though. Some of the trials are quite enjoyable and hugely addictive. Some of the most low-tech, banal arithmetic challenges are the best. Less Equals More has you quickly calculating fractions and percentages, while some of the logic tests require rapid problem solving and path finding skills. All of these examinations engage a sophisticated sharing and leaderboard mechanic which allows you to compare your scores with friends and strangers, and others in your city or country. Finally, each daily challenge asks you a question that allows the game to build a profile of your preferences and tastes in order to form further comparisons. Some of these are interesting and relevant. It’s nice to know that you’re ‘smarter’ than the average person in their thirties, for instance. However, other profiling comparisons are simply bizarre. Why would you want to compare players who prefer beards to those who prefer moustaches (especially now that Movember is over)?

The real problem with Smart As and its brethren is that they are a pretty poor measure of general intelligence and don’t teach much of value. I do believe strongly in the power of video games for learning, but it doesn’t happen as simply as these games make out. Even setting aside debates about the multifaceted nature and complexity of ‘intelligence’ (or its definition or even existence), these games are little more than drill and practice exercises with no real learning or valid assessment built into them. If you already know, for example, basic arithmetic, this game will confirm it for you, and you may improve your speed or accuracy slightly. But it’s not going to change your life.

This is not to entirely devalue this game, but just to hold off on unqualified praise. When it’s not frustrating you with poor game and pedagogical design, Smart As is a casual tool for some jokey bragging rights. It can be fun and it certainly does encourage mental activity in the same way as doing a crossword, reading, or playing Sudoku. However, this is the kind of ‘edutainment’ that is now largely discredited amongst both educators and gamers. In attempting to appeal to both, such games deter everyone equally.

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