Game Reviewers Have No Idea When It Comes to Chess

I was at Best Buy the other day checking out the PS4 game selection because I still only have the one physical game for my system, Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection. Several games were discounted to $20, including Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition, which I had in my hands for several minutes. Ultimately, I went with Bloodbourne (a game I’ve been dying to play for forever!) and Pure Chess.

Yes. Chess.

I’m a huge fan of chess. I was a tournament player for a few years spending many nights studying opening theory in an effort to scratch out enough of an advantage to win some games and maybe even win some money. My last tournament, the 2004 Colorado Open, saw me finish in 3rd place in my section…but it was my last. Exhausted from so many hours studying, and with so few dollars of profit to show for it, I gave up my serious study to pick up a new hobby: mobile apps. Twelve years later, it’s my career, but I still love to play chess and I do whenever I can get some free time.

With the Chessmaster series all but dead, and at $20 ($16 if you factor in the Best Buy Gamers Club program), I decided to give Pure Chess a try. Why not? On the back, there was a quote from Kotaku that said, “It’s stunning.” I was actually optimistic when I started it up. I couldn’t wait to try some lessons, play some AI opponents with personalities, and who knows what else…the screenshots looked really great.

Yeah. Pure Chess sucks.

I should’ve seen it coming, too. The online industry has always had a hard time reviewing chess games. Frankly, nobody really plays chess anymore. The typical review only comes from the perspective of a muggle. Take Push Square’s review for example:

Nevertheless, if you haven’t played the PS3 or Vita versions, and you’re eager to enjoy some virtual chess, then this is the best option currently available, as it really looks sensational.

It “really looks sensational.” That’s fine and dandy, and to a point it’s true. Pure Chess put a lot of effort into their incredibly polished 3D graphics that would be great if it was coupled with a great game…but one can only dream. In reality, the “looks” are the only thing its developer, VooFoo Studios, put any care into. Their failure is what they missed.

Does this look beautiful? Yes! Is this how you're looking at the pieces while playing an actual game of chess? Heck no.

Does this look beautiful? Yes! Is this how you’re looking at the pieces while playing an actual game of chess? Heck no.

First, the game lacks any kind of campaign. Take a game like Chessmaster 9000, for example. In it, there’s a whole host of AI opponents all with some form of personality and tendencies as well as a picture and profile. This goes a looooong way towards making computer play fun. You’ll face an elderly woman who hang rooks a lot, some kid who loves to attack early with their queen (don’t they all?), and a middle-aged man who’s poor at opening play. Each set of tendencies allows you to strategize in a unique way that helps fine-tune your game. So, in order to beat that bratty little kid, you need to bounce their queen around and be confident in your ability to ward off his threats. When you win, you can advance up the ladder to the next opponent. It’s great fun to see how high you can go and you make these imaginary little rivalries in your head to keep things interesting.

Pure Chess has none of that.

I'm taking you down, Wendy!

I’m taking you down, Wendy!

Another big issue is the piece selection. Yes, Pure Chess provides lots of possibilities, but most of them are color swaps. Even then, you really don’t want to use anything other than a standard Staunton set. My son was excited to use the “Roman” set for his game and almost immediately rued that decision. It was virtually impossible to tell the pieces apart from the standard view. You had to zoom in pretty close to differentiate them, and you wouldn’t want to play from that close either. Even more alarmingly, they don’t include a 2D view as an option. Every chess game I’ve ever played has offered this. It’s like turning the 3D off on your 3DS. Sometimes you want to give your eyes a break and see a flatter view akin to online play. VooFoo spent so much time on their fancy 3D environments they forgot this essential mode. The closest they came was a Checker set, but close is no cigar.

With every piece having a square base and similar look, analyzing a position is impossible with the "Roman" set.

With every piece having a square base and similar look, analyzing a position is impossible with the “Roman” set.

Finally, the camera is a living nightmare. The standard angle is overhead at about 65 degrees which is too much. I don’t know, maybe it’s not enough, or maybe the squares are too small, but the pieces visually overlap and are very hard to discern. So, can you move the camera? Yes, with the L stick. This would be handy, but VooFoo made a very unfortunate decision to make the camera reset back to the standard view as soon as you let go. Every time. Why?! You have to actually hit the L button (not very intuitive) to lock it, but if you so much as accidentally tap the stick again, the view unlocks and resets. Why are they so obsessed with the default view? Why not let the camera stay in position? It’s very hard to tweak the view just a tiny bit. It would’ve helped if a camera could stay locked even while you move it. STOP RESETTING, CAMERA!

Any chess aficionado would see these issues in a second. Even online sites like Chess.com make it much easier to play a game. So, what’s with these reviews? Metacritic ranks the game a 6.0 with users coming in a little lower at 5.7. Here are some more quotes.

Pure Chess looks gorgeous, and offers an excellent single-player experience.

Oh, really? The “single-player experience” is merely the ability to play the computer with about a dozen different difficulty levels. That’s not “excellent,” that’s as bare bones as you can get. Anything less and Sony wouldn’t even allow the game to be published. Here’s another dandy:

You can play against the computer, which is fine because it does not do the same moves every time.

Even if this were true, is this really what we dub “fine.” Do we not ask for anything more than this basic minimum? Sadly, the computer actually does repeat itself. The first two games I played went exactly the same way up until about move 10 where I’d missed an obvious move the first time. I missed it because I couldn’t get a good view of the board. So, yeah…it’s not as randomized as you’d like.

This is chess, is there anything else to say…

Well, if you played a quality chess game, you’d definitely have more to say about this mess.

Now let’s get back to that Kotaku quote on the back of the game, “It’s stunning.” Kotaku actually did say that in their review…of the demo! That’s right, this was said about a 50-second demo which literally featured not a single animation. No piece is ever seen moving in it, no game modes, no tutorials, no nothing. It was just renderings of chess boards and a camera moving around. How out of context can you get?

I wanted Pure Chess to be something better than this. Give me something engaging. There was nothing engaging. The tutorial modes are all text-based, there’s no audio dialogue and no teaching classes. The custom pieces don’t put any consideration into usability, and the various environments are so brutally unimportant to playing a game. It’s impossible to change your pieces during play (in case you don’t like them) and you have to actually start a new game against a computer opponent to change them. The online play is bland and confusing to boot.

Maybe one day we’ll get a good chess game on a modern console like the PS4…but Pure Chess doesn’t even come remotely close.

And that make me sad. :-(

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About John Blanco

John Blanco is an avid game collector and loves to write about his hobby as much as he participates in it. He run the Denver Retro Gamers Facebook group in Denver, Colorado, and coordinates swap-style meetups with dozens of other collectors every couple of months.

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