What do Boggle and haiku poetry have in common? Until recently, I would have answered that they both deal with words, but otherwise they have little to do with one another. Thanks to Hot Lava Games, I can now write that they meet in Haiku Journey, a puzzle game inspired by the shortest and most popular type of poetry in the world.
The unique combination of casual gaming and Japanese poetry gives Haiku Journey its charm. The goal of the game is to complete enough levels to achieve the ranking of Haiku Master, and the fun lies in forming words and reading the hundred or so haiku that appear throughout the journey. These elements create an intellectual puzzle mixed with a bit of culture, differentiating it from most other casual titles.
In terms of its gameplay, Haiku Journey is a combination of Boggle and Wheel of Fortune. Between thirty and fifty letters appear on coloured lanterns. Players spot words by joining the letters upwards, downwards, sideways, or diagonally. Not only do these words score points, but their first letters reveal part of the haiku that, Wheel of Fortune style, appear with their letters hidden. When enough letters are revealed to guess the remainder of the poem, players can fill in what’s missing for extra points. Various bonuses, called engi-mono (Japanese for “good luck charm”) add some strategy by introducing “wildcard” letters like the blank tiles in Scrabble or by colouring the lanterns on the screen, which uncover more letters of the haiku when they are all lit. There’s also a slight penalty for creating too many short words: a miniature whirlwind appears and uncolours the lanterns on the screen. In practice, this penalty is rather mild, and Haiku Journey presents a relaxing, cerebral experience.
The real stars of the game are the haiku themselves. Each level begins with a short essay on the form written by well-known haiku poet and editor Michael Dylan Welch, [at the time] a former vice president of the Haiku Society of America. The database contains over five hundred haiku and features many of the top poets writing in English from around the world, most of whom will be familiar to anyone who is familiar with the haiku scene. (Oddly, most of the essays focus on haiku in Japan but none of the poems in the game is translated from the Japanese and all but a few poets are from the West.) Anyone who wishes to indulge their poetic instincts during their gaming should enjoy this introduction to the burgeoning haiku movement in English.
I enjoyed the Japanese themes and the bright, hand-painted look of the various backgrounds. The main screen displays a cheerful temple scene, complete with a cherry tree in full bloom and a Mount Fuji–like mountain filling the background. Sliding doors close and open whenever the scene shifts from one screen to another, and the handful of fade-outs and special effects provide some nice effects. My only complaint (a large one) is that the font used for the essays is hard to read.
The Japanese music sounds as if it were played on a Japanese koto, which creates an Oriental atmosphere. The sound effects tend to be minimal, but the sliding of the door and lighting of the lanterns are nicely done.
Anyone who thrives on games like Boggle or Scrabble will find much to enjoy here. The process of clicking on lanterns to form words was simple and fun, and I was able to pick up all the elements of the gameplay in seconds. For the most part, the dictionary that the game uses stood up well, though it failed to recognize “spandex” and “storey,” accepted acronyms like “iou” and “eta,” and prompted me to find French words like “eaux.”
However, even the most diehard fan will find the journey through ten levels and eighty-five stages to be a bit trying unless it is spread out over many days. The basic game is executed well, but there is no variety between levels to keep the core mechanic fresh. The bonuses tend to resemble one another, and I was shocked to find that no mini-games helped to give me a break from searching for words. The lack of variety and slow pace (even for a casual game) presented a pleasant experience, but not enough fun. This was a shame as a few simple additions would have raised my interest considerably. A chance to take a break to learn more about the haiku and poets featured in the game as opposed to poets who lived in Japan hundreds of years ago, a chance to make haiku of my own similar to the popular “poetry magnets,” or even the odd level with different gameplay (say, more like Hangman than Boggle) would have done wonders.
Haiku continues to grow in popularity worldwide, and the decision to use these short poems in place of names or famous sayings makes Haiku Journey stand out from similar games.
The lack of variety in the gameplay is balanced by the solid production values and the chance to learn a bit about Japanese culture. I found myself liking the haiku enough to ignore the repetitive gameplay.
Haiku Journey showcases a novel theme that needs a few more elements to raise it from a decent game to an extremely good one. As it is, Haiku Journey is a well-executed word puzzler with some intriguing poetry. It is certainly worth a try for anyone who is curious about Japanese culture or who enjoyed poetry in school. However, even those who cannot get enough of rearranging letters into words will find themselves wanting a bit more by the end.