To be honest, Bejeweled clones are ten-a-penny, and the original game was designed so concisely there's almost nothing a game developer can do to evolve the gem-swapping gameplay. Samurai Puzzle Battle holds at its core an almost basic version of Bejeweled, and therefore places itself in the long line of clones queuing up for a few moments' audience with pocket gamer's thumbs.
But this game is so much more than a clone. True enough, it's built on object-swapping 'match-three' gameplay foundations - making little attempt to alter that immortal formula. But it adds a spectacular and unexpected turn-based strategy peripheral around the Bejeweled mechanic. The match-three aspect of the gameplay is simply used to represent the many battles and achievements you secure as you wring your conquest of Japan, and the game uses it quite seamlessly to create a whole new style of puzzle/strategy gameplay.
Where Samurai Puzzle Battle falters, perhaps, is that it's mightily confusing, but this isn't the ball and shackle it might first appear to be. Neither does the attempt to infuse mediaeval Japan with a steampunk element particularly work; but again, this barely affects the overall game. Despite the fact that it's very easy to lose track of what's going on, the controls and gameplay are at once addictive and simplistic, so forging ahead with your Shogun's campaign is never a chore.
You're placed in charge of one region of a civil war-ravaged Japan. A number of other feudal lords are dotted throughout the country and surrounding islands, all vying to administer the supreme Shogunate of a united Japan. Naturally, the only way a country can be united is through war, and one of the few uncomplicated aspects of Samurai Puzzle Battle's plot is the objective - wipe out the competition.
The game is divided quite evenly between turn-based strategy elements and the object-swapping battles. Beginning from your castle on the map overview, you choose which units to move into neighbouring territories. Units range from expected regiments such as archers, Samurai and fighting monks, to obscure additions like zeppelins, ghosts and spiders. As stated, it's pretty baffling as to exactly what's going on, but pushing out an eclectic mix of available troops seems to work pretty well, so no harm done.
Once you meet up with another army, mythical creature, ghost or other obscure entity in a territory (or if one invades yours), the battle begins. Instead of jewels, the game features icons representing various aspects of your army; Strength, Attack, Ki (energy), Magic and Healing.
When facing off against an opponent, you take it in turns to move an object as you would in a game of Bejeweled, and each move represents an aspect of combat. Lining up a row of three attack icons strikes at the enemy, for example, while lining up three healing icons restores some of your strength. This is the method by which the surprisingly strategic combat takes place, and the troops you position inside a particular territory each have their own strengths and weaknesses.
There's a huge variety of possibilities when you enter a new region, from mining for gems to fund your cause to subduing a dragon or ghost so it joins your side and adds its unique powers to your army. Working your way around the map and hunting down the other Shoguns is your route to ultimate victory, though dominating the sizeable country is definitely no small task. A full campaign could take days to fully enact (that might be a small exaggeration), but the hours will undoubtedly melt away into bushido-fuelled excitement.
The controls, like the visuals, are concise to the point of being pristine. A single thumb will carry you around the map and the battle sequences, while the simple and stylish graphics present all the data you need in a clutter-free screen. A little extra help on exactly what each of the units are capable of would be beneficial when sending troops out into the war, but a vague tactic of ensuring there's an eclectic mixture of regiments in the field seems to do the trick, so it's not much of a gripe.
The unerring quality and sheer addictiveness of both the puzzle and strategy aspects of Samurai Puzzle Battle more than makes up for the baffling and sometimes difficult to follow events that transpire in this fantasy Japan, and the extra dimension of the strategic sequences breathe vibrant new life into this loose Bejeweld clone. This is a truly surprising and impressively deep gaming experience that deserves as much recognition as the games that inspired it.