Developer: ngmoco, Inc.
Price: $0.99 (introductory price)
Version Reviewed: 1.0

Graphics / Sound Rating: ★★★★☆
Game Controls Rating: ★★★★☆
Gameplay Rating: ★★★★★
Re-use / Replay Value Rating: ★★★★☆

Overall Rating: ★★★★½

WordFu is making its debut in the App Store! For those poor souls who aren’t aware, it’s coming from ngmoco, the team that created Rolando and Topple. With such an auspicious company behind WordFu’s development, you’d expect only the best from their newest game. WordFu is certainly different from ngmoco’s previous releases, but it’s got the same polish as their other titles. I’ve already admitted to being a literary junkie, and I’m picky about word games; too many are too similar. WordFu, however, has won my admiration, and I’m already veering off into “addicted” territory.

WordFu is a dice-based word game that blends kung fu flair with many of the best elements of the word game genre, and the resulting gameplay is fun and easy to pick up. Your task is to assemble as many words from the given letters as possible—old news, right?—but there’s a lot more here than initially meets the eye. Instead of the traditional locked grid of many games like Boggle, in WordFu, you pick your letters from your nine rolled dice, so there are no limitations based on shared edges or anything like that. A number of other features ranging from “belts” (achievements!) to elements of luck make WordFu standout amidst a crowded field. The Asian theme and kung fu sound effects are nice, but it’s really the gameplay that carries the title.

At the start of the game, you have forty-five seconds to make as many words as possible, preferably using higher-point letters (a Y, for example, is worth four points, while an A is worth one). You tap dice to string them together, and you shake (or, more likely, flick) your iPhone to submit words; it seems gimmicky at first, but it soon feels absolutely natural. Oh, but don’t worry—there’s more than simple anagrams to be solved here. Completed words add two red segments to a circle in the center of the game board. Fill the circle, and you’re rewarded with a bonus elemental die. Tap it, and you get one of a few perks, based on the die: the ticking clock might freeze, you could be awarded double points for your next few words, or perhaps you’ll get a chance to re-roll one of your dice…

Ah, dice. That’s another one of the things that separates WordFu from all of the look-alikes in the App Store. When you start the game, you’re given a few seconds to re-roll your dice as many times as you want; this element of combined luck and strategy really affects your game, and contributes to WordFu’s depth. A bad hand will ruin you; a great one will catapult you to the top of the high scores. Thankfully, there’s that elemental die that lets you re-roll one die, in case you’re stuck with a lousy letter; this, too, is based on luck (what’s on the other faces?), so the elemental dice aren’t surefire saviors. Q’s, by the way, are bundled as a “Qu” die, so don’t worry too much about them.

That’s the basic gameplay, but WordFu has more to offer. There are “belts” to be earned for completing certain tasks (achievements), and the game keeps track of your best games and your best words (based on both length and point-value). It even announces in-game when you beat a high score! There are two different modes to chose from: Shaolin, or normal mode. In Shaolin, each die can only be used once per word; in normal mode, you can use each die an unlimited number of times. This dramatically alters your strategy, as repeat dice are a burden in normal mode but are often a necessity in Shaolin mode. The most intriguing feature, for me, was multiplayer mode. I was unable to test it out, but supposedly, you can challenge other players over email or over wifi, though wifi challenges must be on a shared network. I’d love to see this in action, but for now, it remains a tantalizing menu option, as I didn’t have anyone around to test it with.

There’s something addicting about building strings of letters, especially as you’re racing the clock. The frenetic pace keeps you hooked throughout the game, trying to frantically assemble as many words as possible. And then there’s the strategy aspect. You don’t have much time to think, but you have to weigh your options nevertheless. Do I go for short words, and get more elemental dice? Should I be looking for longer words instead? What about point values? Do I care? Oh, crap, there goes the timer—I need to freeze the clock!

I can’t really offer many criticisms on WordFu. I don’t think that there are global high score boards, and there isn’t a way to challenge an unknown player to a game over the internet (unless, of course, someone in your immediate vicinity is randomly hunting for a partner). While both of those features would be absolutely amazing, solo mode was enough to hook me instantly. WordFu feels complete. The graphics and sound effects are both well done, the options are just fleshed out enough, and the game itself feels so well-planned. The kung fu theme doesn’t even feel that cheesy. I did have a bit of trouble with the shake-to-submit control scheme at first, but you can configure the iPhone’s sensitivity to shaking via the options menu. Obviously, I can’t vouch for the lasting appeal of the game just yet but I can confidently predict that it’ll be taking up some prime real estate on my front page of apps for some time to come.

If you can’t tell, I’m enamored. I’ve been hunting for a really solid word game for a while—the typical Boggle-style games didn’t really catch my attention, and the official Scrabble requires actual thought and a lengthy game. WordFu is great for brief gaming, which makes it a perfect fit for the iPhone/iPod platform. By the same token, it can easily take up an hour of your time. Bottom line? If you’re a word buff, WordFu is right up your alley; even if you’re not, the ease of play makes it a great game for anyone. Ngmoco just keeps adding to their archive of awesome apps.

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