- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 29, 2008

A world-renowned board game designer is escorting players on a Brain Voyage (Eidos for DS, $19.99). Well, it actually is less of a voyage, but rather some repetitive trips to the local puzzle shop with a well-dressed, eccentric uncle.

Even though I never heard of Reiner Knizia, his resume as an award-winning expert on game design checks out. Strangely enough, however, none of his games was included in this collection.

In addition, Mr. Knizia’s in-game representation is not only not very flattering - he looks like a bigheaded entity that is a bit too arrogant - but he also has nothing to say about what any of the challenges do for the gray matter.

The player uses the stylus on the DS touch screen liberally as he first grabs a world map and moves to 16 cities around the globe to find five variations of puzzles in each.

In the games, a player tries to win a bronze, silver or gold medal and is awarded coins for his efforts. Coins then can be spent to buy new game locations and levels.

The challenges are often familiar fare and won’t impress the serious puzzle fan.

Take the case of the Mindsweeper/Battleship homage, Ice Cap, which is found in Greenland. It has the player break frozen blocks on a grid to unearth parts of equipment strings - nothing new here.

Or, Labyrinth, found in Knossos in Crete, is a hard-to-control maze game. It offers a miniature version of Mr. Knizia who follows the stylus through a web of corridors as the player guides him to the location of a relic.

Later levels of each game can get very difficult to the point that Mr. Knizia actually will throw some cash a player’s way (called perseverance coins) to keep him interested.

Players also can play a random assortment of puzzles (four, eight or 16 in a row) and share any of the unlocked games via Nintendo’s DS Download Play option.

Learning time: A few of the puzzles will help sharpen the noggin and even educate a bit. Especially grueling are the mathematical exercises found in London as a player balances the accounts of the Bank of England. He must place addition, subtraction, multiplication and division signs in an equation to either zero out or balance a problem.

Next, I liked the solitaire-style challenge Royal Flush, from Las Vegas, of course. No betting here as the player compiles poker hands made up of dealt cards he places in a layout grid. He scores on both vertical and horizontal levels for such collections as “three of a kind” or a “royal flush.” It mixes a bit of luck with decision-making and hones sequencing skills.

Age range:Only the most puzzle-starved tween and older casual gamer will temporarily embrace Brain Voyage. The average player has too many other great games to tackle.

Final advice:Brain Voyage won’t win any awards for its complexity or creativity. Suffice to report Nintendo’s casual brain-training titles still are the benchmark to beat.

Game Bytes

Here’s an abbreviated look at some multimedia items for the entire family:

Kung Fu Panda (for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, Activision, $49.99) - DreamWorks Animation’s current animal-themed epic is translated into a third-person action game perfect for the pre-tween to relive the film’s best moments.

A solo player works through an extended version of the film within 13 levels that mix exaggerated martial arts mayhem with platforming, coin collection (to purchase power upgrades), racing and rescue missions set in land, water and air.

He mainly controls Po Panda, but gets an opportunity to wield the powers of the Furious Five (including the deadly Tigress) and even Po’s teacher Shifu, who pulls off some mean Yoda-like attacks.

Lots of bad guys in the form of gorillas, crocodiles, wolves and even ax-wielding boars are found on Po’s adventure to become the Dragon Warrior in this beautiful-looking game. It’s especially eyepopping at 1080p resolution on the PlayStation 3.

A welcome set of multiplayer versus and cooperative games also is available, primarily concentrating on character fighting, but also sneaking in some matching puzzles and target shooting.

Boom Blox (for Wii, Electronic Arts, $49.99) - Steven Spielberg’s first collaboration with Electronic Arts yields a great Jenga-style action game loaded with destructive fun and strategy. Block manipulation is the goal of this three-dimensional, interactive experience as the player must knock down or rearrange sets of structures set in colorful, themed worlds.

It comes down to blasting (using items such as a fire hose or baseball), smashing, bashing and toppling a variety of almost 400 block configurations in the fewest steps to succeed.

Blocks also can explode, disappear or produce chemical reactions to further enter into a player’s plan of attack.

Of course, the player wields the Wiimote to identify a block and the controller becomes an extension of his arm as he motions toward the cube to attack, grab or twirl it about. Physics-friendly design with the magical motion-sensing console offers pinpoint accuracy and a very tactile experience.

Additionally, a collection of Wacky Blox, domino-shaped creatures that sound like Raving Rabbids, may join the action. They may attempt to steal blocks in some levels or assist in the protection of structures, changing the game from puzzler to all-out war.

Single, versus and cooperative modes bring the whole family aboard to test their skills. The sheer variety of challenges and addictive qualities of Boom Blox makes it irresistible. My advice is to take it slow - it’s so interactive and fun that wrists and arms will be hurting from the average session.

To extend its functionality, players can design intricate puzzles and upload them using WiiConnect 24 (the console’s online social network) for others to enjoy.

m Send e-mail to Joseph Szadkowski at jszadkowski@ washingtontimes.com.