Words for Evil

Small puzzle games crafted around a neat, little concept are often very appealing to me. It’s cool to see a developer explore some very specific puzzle mechanic and what they can do with it; see for example Baba is You. While I didn’t expect a game-of-the-year candidate out of Words for Evil, I do have to say that the game left me quite annoyed with its design.

The concept for this game is fairly simple. It’s a randomized word-search puzzle tied into a basic RPG system. You got a grid that fills with random letters and you have to find words by connecting these letters. You don’t have to go in straight lines or anything, you can snake your way through the grid as long as you eventually spell a real word. You can’t reuse the same letter twice, however, and of course each letter you use has be adjacent to the previous.

Meanwhile, you play as a band of adventurers that automatically walk from encounter to encounter. When fighting a monster, a number of letters on the grid get a color matching that of your characters. The bigger your party, the more letters light up. If you spell a word using these colored letters, the corresponding heroes launch one of their attacks. The bigger the words and the more colored letters you use, the more powerful they will be.

This is meant to add some tension to what is otherwise just a word search puzzle, but it also kind of ruins the game. The game is not turn-based; you attack as fast as you can spell words and enemies will similarly keep attacking you as they please. Stopping to look for powerful words takes time, during which your health will quickly deplete. Even the game itself acknowledges that the best strategy is to spam small words of 3 or 4 letters each, which isn’t very intellectually stimulating.

In fact, this system shines the most in the smaller side-puzzles. When you find a treasure chest you get 5 columns with 2 letters each and have to figure out which 5-letter word to make, picking one letter from each column. Or when you find a trap and get a smaller grid of letters that disappear when you use them; use up all the letters in the time-limit and the trap is disabled.

The RPG presentation also means that the game is severely overextended. My one successful run took 6 hours to beat and that’s literally just 6 hours of watching pixelart characters walk around automatically until they need you to type out some words. There is no strategy, no variety, just hours upon hours of finding short words in a random grid.

This gets particularly annoying in the later levels where enemies are incredibly beefy. They take long to beat and dish out a lot of damage. Opportunities to heal are few and far between, so hitting 0HP is almost inevitable. When this happens you get 7 random letters and if you can’t find a word of at least 6 letters with them, that’s instant death.

Getting pulled out of the game to do these puzzles every 20 seconds adds a lot of frustration, especially because some of them were near impossible. I actually tried using apps that let you cheat at Scrabble to try and figure some of them out, sometimes with no result. Then you die and it turns out the one possible word you were looking for was some obscure East-Asian dish.

Besides the unreasonable difficulty, the game also feels rushed and underexplained. There is no tracker for how many enemies you need to beat before advancing to the next stage, which made me wonder if some levels were endless by design. Equipment you can buy is also not explained at all. There is no inventory or character screens, so do the bonuses just stack or are you replacing gear when you buy it? The game also has some bugs like traps triggering way before their timer expires, the game auto-accepting words when you weren’t done yet, or the letters you have selected resetting for no apparent reason.

Words for Evil is frustrating, to say the least. Having beaten it now, I probably will never want to touch it again. However, I hope a game like this can serve as a baseline for future puzzle games to draw from. The word-search X RPG genre may be fun for other developers to explore some day.

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