Video Game Review: Four Houses

First posted in January, 2007

There is certainly no shortage of matching puzzle games these days. Zuma, Bejeweled, and their thousands of mostly unoriginal offspring seem to be all the rage on Big Fish Games, PopCap, RealArcade, and the like. I suppose this stems from the fact that matching puzzle games are fun, but people eventually grew bored of the original designs and were looking for innovation. In general, what they got were a few nice alternatives and an abundant supply of uninspired rip-offs.

Four Houses stands apart as an inspired spin-off and a lovely variation of the matching genre. Its innovative rules, combined with a high-quality soundtrack, beautiful art, natural themes and timeless meditations makes it a pleasure to experience.

The most similar game to this one that I've played is Alchemy. In both games, you place different colored images within a grid in an attempt to make matches. Make an entire row that contains a single sort of shape or particular color, and the objects disappear. Careless placement leads to a cluttered board with no moves. Occasional broom pieces allow you to sweep away images you might have misplaced, and wildcard pieces also exist to help get you out of tight spots.

That's where the games start to diverge. Four Houses allows you to place items with more freedom, and you can match by color, image, or the number of objects on the pieces. You can acquire bonuses by making a row that matches in multiple ways (say, all the same color, with two objects on every piece) and increase the amount of time left. Four Houses is also more forgiving in that you have more than one life, making it easier for you to experience the trickier upper-levels.

Boards vary in shape from level to level, mixing things up a bit and making some parts of the grid more difficult to fill. Some boards come with an image or two already placed - and on higher levels, you may have to make more than one match to clear the space.

Unlike Alchemy, Four Houses allows you to see what images are coming next.

There are two different play modes. In the Timed mode, matches add to the time you have left, and the level is complete when you've filled up the timer. In the Journey mode, each square on the board must be cleared at least once, and each square that's been used to make a match is marked with a Chinese coin; on upper levels the marking coins fade over time, but there is no 'loss of life' for allowing too much time to pass - it just means you have to make the matches again so that the board can be filled with coins.

Seasons change as you progress through levels, a very lovely touch.

It's graphically stunning, but not in the shiny overly-polished sort of way that's so common these days. The game is set on backdrops of watercolor paintings and realistic renditions of handmade paper, and to keep you from getting too bored, the backgrounds and types of images change a bit from level to level.

Chinese proverbs or quotations add to the meditative feel of the game.

All of this is polished with a wonderful soundtrack that I would describe as New Age Orient - lots of Chinese strings and flutes coupled with occasional nature sounds. It's the sort of music that I tend to use in my yoga or meditation practice.

I highly recommend downloading a trial version.

Even if you can't afford the $20 for the game (or a Big Fish Game Club membership that allows you to get games for under $7), it's worth downloading just for the one hour of playtime that you'll get. Save it for a day when you need something soothing to help you unwind after a stressful day.