If you didn't know better, you might think that King was contracted to make an Angry Birds version of its very popular bubble-popper. In fact, I fully expected the birds to be dressed up like wizards, with the pigs patterned as fantasy ogres. No such luck. Still, if I had to pick between the two games based on App Store listings, I'd take Stella Pop in a heartbeat. King's generic aesthetic is handily topped by Rovio's boldly colored and lavishly animated offering.
And despite its questionable origins, Angry Birds Stella Pop is an enjoyable bubble-popper. There's nice variety in the level objectives — clear the screen with limited bubbles, race a timer to the top, smash a pig-centric puzzle that spins with each hit, etc. — and the controls feel more responsive than in Bubble Witch. And it doesn't come off as mindless, either: There's skill required to get through many of these stages. Well, right up until the point in which freemium balancing butts its head.
The free-to-play model at work in Angry Birds Stella Pop is a very familiar one, reminiscent of those seen in games like Candy Crush Soda Saga and Peggle Blast. It hangs in the background for a while, letting you play a solid opening stretch of the game, right up until the point where you struggle. And it's then that you realize that the odds aren't tuned in your favor. Which is neither surprising nor even particularly devious: It's just the nature of many free-to-play games.
Stella Pop's energy system gives you five hearts to work with, which take 30 minutes apiece to regenerate. Lose a few level attempts in a short span of time and you'll be waiting to play, bugging Facebook friends for free lives, or spending premium in-game coins to carry on. That's pretty typical. Also typical (and frustrating) are the difficulty spikes — the levels that seem like they can only be cleared with the perfect lineup of colored bubbles, which rarely pans out. Maybe they're not impossible, but they stick out like sore thumbs and seem expertly crafted to drive you crazy.
So what do you do, aside from bashing your head against the virtual wall over and over again? Well, you spend precious coins to purchase a few extra bubbles, an additional stretch of time, or special power-up bubbles. Do so and you can push ahead. But there's a cost, of course: Coin bundles range from $1 to $35, and the "popular" $3 bundle gives you about four continues worth, or the ability to fully refill your lives five times.
Stella Pop also makes you wait for 24 hours to access a new world of levels, unless you annoy your Facebook buds or spend coins. Ultimately, I spent about $9 on coins, and used those to continue on in various ways: bash the barriers, get an extra few shots at finishing a stage, or continue on when my lives were tapped. I was happy to no longer be stuck, but there's little satisfaction in paying your way out of problems — particularly when they feel so contrived.
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