Digital Chocolate has only really made half an effort to educate us all on the benefits of its 'Café' system, and even after a couple of hours dabbling with Café Solitaire (previously released on mobile) this reviewer is still only vaguely tuned in to this unusual, asynchronous online community. True enough, there's only so much a promotional campaign could tell you about DChoc cafés, but some kind of elucidation on the advantages of taking part in the group antics of a café would be appreciated.
You see, without it we're only aware of two very separate aspects to its community-based games, in this case Café Solitaire. Or, as it actually comes across: Café. Solitaire. Two almost entirely detached aspects of one game. To be fair, both are quite entertaining, so in the spirit of the game's division we'll look at the café and the card games separately.
Since you're unlikely to buy the game on the strength of the café system, let's begin with the 12 variations of solitaire. With there being 12 different modes of play, and this being a form of entertainment that predates mobile gaming by a few centuries, there seems little point in talking play mechanics. Suffice to say that if you're one of the millions upon millions of people who use their coffee break (and beyond) to play Freecell, then Café Solitaire is likely to be quite a delight.
But a computerised, one-player card game doesn't require fancy graphics, sound effects or dazzling technological revolutions in 3D processing. If you can read and access the cards easily, nothing else is required. And Café Solitaire succeeds in these basic, yet vital requirements most admirably – gladly reigning itself in to allow for an uncluttered and easily scrutinised playing field. I know that sounds boring, but in truth it's a good sign that Digital Chocolate has shown the judgement to prevent flashy visuals from blurring up the screen for want of making Café Solitaire needlessly stand out, so it's thumbs up for tedium in this case.
One excellent feature is the tutorial system included for every variation. Rather than the mind-numbing reams of small print normally employed for mobile game instructions we're given a fully animated lesson using the game's card-playing engine. This makes it remarkably simple to learn the many different variations of solitaire, and (more importantly) to remember them the next time you load up that particular strain. Otherwise, what else is there to say? It's solitaire on your phone, and it's about as comprehensive and competent as we could ever hope to see.
So, into the café. For N-Gage users who may not be aware, these cafés are essentially online community hubs you can create yourself, and invite friends and other gamers to visit. At first glance, the most significant use of these online hubs is quite similar to Xbox Live's achievement ecosystem – gathering statistics from your gaming career and displaying them as trophies and leaderboards within your café for others to see, laugh at or envy.
But once connected to a different café, the other visitor's essences are downloaded for you to interact with asynchronously. This is a system mainly concerned with giving and taking quizzes – answering questions set by this other player who then learns of your answers later on, and perhaps visits your café to talk with your 'residual self image'. A very unusual type of community that uses very little data, as people aren't really connecting to the same hub at the same time and interacting in a live fashion – more of an offline pen pal kind of communication (not unlike the way in which Spore works, really).
However, hoping people visit to view your trophies doesn't quite seem to fulfil the entire purpose of Digital Chocolate's cafés – though what the entirety of that purpose is I'm not entirely sure. Perhaps it has yet to be revealed but for now – placed within the context of the N-Gage arena – it's a small, pleasant nicety that comes bundled with a very decent solitaire compilation. It could be a lot of fun in the right hands, but in my clammy palms the café never really felt populated.
Still, the cards never lie, and Café Solitaire provides everything it promises in a very aesthetic package – just remember that all it's promising is a bunch of one-player card games and you won't be disappointed.