Free-to-play games often look appealing, but it's difficult to know at a glance whether the business model is insidious and fun ruining, or reasonable and worth pumping a few bucks into. With Freemium Field Test, we'll take a recent free-to-play iOS game, put it through its paces, and let you know if it's really worth your time (and money).

While Disney has a tendency to slap its characters onto generic puzzle game retreads, or overextend its original ideas until they feel like generic retreads, the Mouse House does sneak out a fresh, fun mobile game every so often. The original Where's My Water? was one, before all the sequels and spinoffs grew tiresome, and now Dodo Pop is another.

In truth, it feels a bit like a mash-up of existing puzzle concepts. It's a color-matching game, like many others, and it has the unstable jumble-of-icons approach like Disney Tsum Tsum (made by Line, not Disney itself). But unlike that game, Dodo Pop is a slow-paced, methodical affair, tasking you to maneuver and clear enough of the colorful gumballs to complete each stage. Dodo Pop doesn't feel quite as inspired as Where's My Water?, but it's quite solid--and it's a very fair free-to-play entry.

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The pitch 

Dodo Pop quickly establishes the cute premise of helping a flightless dodo bird get back home by feeding him loads of bubble gum--so he can float home in a very Disney-esque manner, I suppose. But really, it's all about matching together like-colored gumballs that shift and drop in a big pile. Match two or more and they're cleared with a tap; the further down they are in the level, the more gumballs will fall and move to fill the space.

Since clearing gumballs always requires a tap on your part, you can't set up Candy Crush Saga-style chain reactions. However, you can strategically "move" certain colors into position by clearing the other gumballs below. And it's necessary to plot out your moves and try to remove big chunks of balls at the same time, as each stage gives you a limited number of moves to meet the objective.

Sometimes the goal is simply to clear a number of certain-colored balls: 36 green, 30 yellow, and 30 red, for example. In other stages, you'll find balls with numbers on them, and the only way to win is to pop those in bunches with at least as many like-colored balls as shown. Elsewhere, white gumballs with green stars are all you need to clear, but they're scattered all around the level, making moving them into close proximity the real challenge. 

Whatever the task, there's a nice, steady, and lightly strategic rhythm to Dodo Pop. This isn't the puzzler that'll have you biting your nails and screaming at a near miss--it's the game you play to wind down at night, or fill a few moments in your day with pleasant puzzle solving.

The stages occasionally throw in twists, like larger gumballs that must be used multiple times before disappearing, obstacles that prevent you from tapping certain balls, or moving pieces that shift the makeup of the grid. But I didn't encounter any huge twists along the way--and thankfully, no particularly awkward or off-putting monetization tactics.

The catch 

Calling Dodo Pop's free-to-play model a "catch" feels excessive, because there's really nothing out of the ordinary here for a freemium puzzler. It has a limited lives system and paid power-ups, but that's all par for the course. You can surely spend a load of money if you want, but the game doesn't feel particularly geared towards that, nor do the harder stages seem as nigh impossible as some of Candy Crush's.

In fact, you can't even beg Facebook friends for extra lives, or to unlock restrictive gates on the map screen--I didn't encounter any at all across the few dozen stages I played. Talk about a missed opportunity, Disney! Kidding, of course--perhaps to make things a little more friendly to kids, Dodo Pop keeps out some of the more egregious freemium irritations, and it's all the better for it. 

You'll have up to five lives to burn with stage losses, and each takes 30 minutes to regenerate--a long wait, for sure. You can spend 20 coins to replenish your lives, and the only packs sold are 20 coins for $1 or 110 coins for $5, so it's about a buck either way. Likewise, if you get to the end of a particularly tricky stage and you're only a couple moves away from completion, 20 coins will buy you five more moves. I did that a few times, having spent $5 on the large coin pack, but the investment never really seemed necessary. A little strategy and skillful popping can get you through most stages without too many headaches.

Dodo Pop also has a couple of paid power-ups: one that lets you eliminate any single gumball on the map (useful for clearing a path for big bunches), and another that turns all the balls around a chosen one into the same color. At first, I worried that stages would start to rely on these premium perks, making them feel necessary rather than optional--but it never panned out. This really is one of the more balanced, high-profile free games I've encountered in a while. 

The verdict

Dodo Pop goes for a cute and cuddly tone in all respects, whether it's the adorable look, the quiet appeal of the bubble popping, or the amenable business model. It may not generate quite as much excitement or addictive enthusiasm as some of the other puzzlers topping the App Store charts, but at least it never truly irritates with its freemium design. And that's a twist as sugary sweet as the gumballs you'll tap.