April 25, 2011

Superbrothers: Sword And Sworcery EP
Creator: Superbrothers
Platform: iPhone/iPad (Universal Binary)
Played on: iPad
Price: $4.99
Sword And Sworcery is more videogame art installation than it is fun. It’s enjoyable, but it compels you to win not by skillfully overcoming obstacles, but by simply spending lots of time in its world, which is as lush an ambiance as pixels allow. You are The Scythian, a mysterious, silent figure at the center of a Zelda-tinged noir (narrated by a cigar-smoking man in a lavish lounge chair). When a nefarious dead antelope is released from a long-forgotten temple, you must harness woodland spirits and the moon’s many phases to track down the three pieces of the “trigon trifect.” The flight-of-fancy narrative confusion is mitigated by soft environmental touches—a distant running waterfall, the crackle of a roaring fire—and a grand musical score that punches the gut when it needs to. Each individual scene works on a purely emotional level, but while the boss fights are gorgeous, some are incredibly easy. Ditto for in-game puzzles, which rarely require much more than touching a few objects in sequence. (Do you like requests to tweet your exploits, though? There’s plenty of those.) This is an impeccably immersive game with no replay value—nor even really much to “play”… B+



This Is A Work Of Fiction

Creator: Eli Piilonen
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
This Is A Work Of Fiction’s helpful title does not prepare players for how aggressive Eli Piilonen’s game actually is. Even getting the game to start requires a bit more lateral thinking than the average videogame, let alone a browser-bound Flasher published by Armor. Once you get it running, the game offers 20 puzzles, four each in five categories. The categories are named in a way that provides a basic instruction. For instance, the initial Route puzzle requires you to create a path to a goal while also collecting objects, and Rotary requires you to manipulate objects on a fixed axis. While some puzzles are simple, most are infuriating (and thus satisfying) in their trickiness. The game blends active control with cerebral thinking, a rare balancing act. Each solved puzzle reveals a document allegedly sent to Piilonen from an anonymous source. These also claim to be a work of fiction, and their arcane messages, when coupled with David Carney’s spooky ambient tunes, give the puzzles a nice conspiracy-themed through-line… B+



Lesbian Spider-Queens Of Mars

Creator: Anna Anthropy
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
If sexploitation icon David F. Friedman made an arcade game in 1979 in the universe of The Simpsons, it would have been Lesbian Spider-Queens Of Mars. The majority of Adult Swim games that borrow the play, look, and sound of early videogames tend to only use those trappings for effect—they’re rarely used to create a game that actually feels like it was made 30 years ago, as Anna Anthropy does here. The stiff controls, janky animation, and thick-lined four-color art in Spider-Queens perfectly mimic the old school. On the one hand, this makes the play of surviving in a maze while racking up points as enjoyable as it’s always been. Then again, it also makes for unforgiving difficulty, as if Spider-Queens were expecting you to keep pumping in quarters. The exploitation theme is fun—you play as the titular queen using webs to recapture your harem of yellow-skinned, red-haired slaves. As you traverse 14 stages of simple mazes, the challenge comes from lining up your web with the revolutionaries before they run into you. The only thing missing is a piping hot plate of Bowie… B+



Mos Speedrun

Creator: Physmo
Platform: iPhone/iPad (Universal Binary)
Played On: iPhone
Price: $1.99
There’s a point at which “retro stylings” cross over into plain old ugliness, and Mos Speedrun straddles that line. Somewhat like Super Meat Boy, Mos places the conventions of early Mario games in a more frenzied context, with short levels, pulsing music, and rules that encourage players to seek the “perfect run.” The pursuit of perfection can seem like a cruel joke, though, with Mos Speedrun’s touch controls. The game offers two control schemes, neither one of them approaching the comfortable precision of a gamepad. It relies too much on its blocky aesthetic to charm players, and while the fat little ladybug is cute, other elements of the game look amateurish. As such, Mos Speedrun doesn’t have the visual pop that comparably simple iPhone platformers like Hook Champ and Doodle Jump use to solidify their appeal… C+



Woozzle

Creator: Lukas Korba
Platform: iPhone
Price: $1.99
The aesthetic of Woozzle is liable to shape the way people play it, and for the better. The game is an escalating series of logic puzzles that involve directing marbles throughout a network of turntables so they fall into tidy patterns. (Early on, the goal is always to fill a turntable with the same color, but it gets more baroque after a while.) With myriad complications like teleporters, junction switches, and one-way paths, Woozzle sets itself up as a high-stress game. But then the jungle theme and chill island music invite players to take it easy and simply figure out the twisting contraptions one step at a time. That’s probably the right approach on the first playthrough, although Woozzle can be played with an emphasis on speed, too. Players earn higher points and ratings on an Angry Birds-esque three-star system for more efficient marble-wrangling, adding another layer to an already-great game… A-



Chili ’Em All

Creator: Xplored
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Chili ’Em All has a lot going for it on the surface. You play as a cowboy-pepper-man trying to protect his lover, a cactus-senorita who takes 20 minutes to bloom, from a marauding army of “gringo” bugs. There’s a touch of tower defense and a pinch of Smash TV in Chili. You have a bird’s-eye view of the action, and you shoot the bugs as they come in waves. You also have to maintain the tumbleweed barrier around cactus lady, and heal her if bugs get through the defenses. Grenades, turrets, and a variety of weapons are acquired as you go, as well as the ability to level them up—there’s a lot going on. Problem is, it’s all happening at once. Even on the easiest setting, it’s difficult to learn the controls and contend with the encroaching beasties, leaving players to constantly juggle tasks and lessons, with little time to absorb any of it. Add some polish to the controls, plus bigger characters and enemies, and Chili ’Em All 2 could be something special… C+



Stalwart

Creator: Jonathan Whiting
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Jonathan Whiting’s previous offering, Love Letter, was almost more gimmick than game: The first player to beat the pixelated platformer got to write a message of love into the title screen for all to see. Slightly more fleshed out, but still a bit lean, is the new Stalwart, which plays like the rhythmic dodger Bit.Trip Runner if it were ported to the Colecovision. Players control an unusually acrobatic knight who must back-flip and high-jump over low-flying meteorites and gaping pits while dodging the occasional UFO-guided blast. The graphics are primitive but pleasant, and come with the option of switching between neapolitan, handheld, spectrum, and scanned flavors. Also solid: Demoscene Time Machine’s score, which is like a house remix of Zelda’s dungeon theme, and syncs up with the action onscreen. This is a short game—that is, unless you opt to play the accurately titled “Hell” mode, which grants a single life and a huge point multiplier… B-



I Have 1 Day

Creator: Cellar Door
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
I Have 1 Day is a charming point-and-click adventure that forces players to go beyond the standard strategy of going everywhere and clicking on everything until the plot lurches forward. Traveling to different areas and gathering clues takes time—which is your most precious resource, as a cursed ex-heir apparent with 24 hours to live. So you got all the ingredients to that potion you need? Perfect! Except actually preparing that potion takes 15 hours, leaving you with no time to return to the castle. Game over! Fortunately, a convenient logbook interface allows players to backtrack and see just where they dawdled, and with two endings, this slight-seeming puzzler reveals some unexpected depth and calls for some clever solutions… B+



Monster Castle

Creator: Fliptic
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Monster Castle flips the script by requiring players to protect an evil queen from invading do-gooder heroes, but that little inversion wouldn’t mean bupkis if the game weren’t so fulfilling. Tough even from the first round, Monster Castle calls for careful positioning of spitting flowers, skeleton knights, and passively powerful, movement-slowing blobs. There are a variety of humans to plan for: suicidal saboteurs, fleet-footed Hermeses, and tough-as-nails heavies. It takes some trial and error to capitalize on some of the game’s imbalances, like the overpowered ranged plants. Once the somewhat simple mechanics are mastered, however, it’s intoxicating to watch your lines of defenses swell, level up, and take on new sprites and abilities. As in Pokemon, there are times when evolving a monster isn’t recommended, and the game becomes frustrating when otherwise-invincible guardians get destroyed by an errant bomb, ruining carefully constructed bottlenecks, but a range of difficulty settings are there to ease the pain. The cutesy graphics and frenetic gameplay would make this tower-defense game stand out, even minus the role-reversal hook… A-



Pigs Can Fly

Creator: Elliot Pace
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
If nothing else, Pigs Can Fly is damned adorable. Players guide cute little pigs—all pink and blobby—to a vial of potion that will cause them to sprout wings and fly off into the sky, out of the weird little prisons they’re trapped in. How is this accomplished? Various vials change the color of the cursor, and you use that cursor to move blocks and other items of that color to clear the way for the little pig. In later levels, there are more colors, and you must carefully time certain events with one color cursor to ensure that there will be maximum room to maneuver the other colors. And while that might sound complicated, the game isn’t especially difficult—even the final four or five puzzles are fairly easy to figure out. But the relaxing aesthetic invites players to come back and try to find simpler solutions to levels they’ve already cleared. And there’s an addictive quality to carefully balancing an intricate series of events, step by step, until the little pig flaps heavenward… B+



K.O.L.M.I.A.M.

Creator: Antony Lavelle, Daniel McNeely, Tommy Robin
Platform: 
Price: Free
Previously, the only reason to play Metroid as fast as possible was to see Samus Aran in a bikini. (And they say videogames can’t teach the youth of America.) K.O.L.M.I.A.M, which stands for Kind Of Like Metroid In A Minute, introduces a new reason: Because the game says so. In this spin-off of Lavelle’s recent K.O.L.M. (reviewed in a January installment of Sawbuck), your little square robot guy must complete each level in less than a minute, each time starting over from scratch—and “scratch” means a robot who can’t jump, shoot, or do anything aside from running around. Collect powers in the proper sequence to beat the level, and don’t tarry, as even a flawless run can leave just seconds to spare. Instincts take over, years of playing Metroid manifest in frantic weapon-firing and desperate leaps of faith; one missed jump can mean starting the entire level over. There isn’t much variety to the challenges, only more space to run around wasting time. Still, it’s a compelling twist on the classic Metroid formula, leaving you pulling your hair out for entirely different reasons than the original… B+



Dragon Age: Legends

Creator: EA 2D
Platform: Browser (Facebook)
Price: Free (with optional microtransactions)
Misleading advertising for Dragon Age: Legends that calls it “the first real game on Facebook” has apparently confused linearity with reality. Unlike in most Facebook games, you take your character on a journey from one point to the next using simple RPG mechanics. While the bulk of the game is spent in simplistic, Dragon Quest-style turn-based combat, Dragon Age: Legends doesn’t take advantage of its linearity for storytelling purposes—you just go to the next area, fight, and repeat over and over. A castle in which you can build and develop items serves as little more than a nod to Facebook game conventions. Still, hype aside, there’s a certain elegance to Dragon Age: Legends, especially in its social mechanics. Designer Soren Johnson (Civilization IV) has a history of applying slight mechanical tweaks that yield tremendous in-game effects, and that design pedigree is evident enough in Dragon Age: Legends enough to wash away the aftertaste of idiotic advertising… B



Jhink-Toy

Creator: OUEU factory
Price: Free
Platform: Browser
The core idea of Jhink-Toy is interesting, but the higher-level game doesn’t support it. On a Connect-Four-style grid, you move columns of different-colored dots up or down, in order to create rows of matching colors. Get multiple dots in a row, and you get a higher score. The problem is that the game is nothing but this mechanic. At the end of a level, you’re told how well you did and whether you have a new personal high score. You may think you did fine on one level, only to be informed that you did poorly, while the opposite could occur on the next one. Tiny tweaks, like specifying the “ideal” number of turns or a minimum score on a board, would have gone a long way with Jhink-Toy. At least an included random board generator can help keep things fresh for a little while… C+



Protector IV.V
 
Creator: Undefined
Price: Free
Platform: Browser
Protector IV.V raises the question of how far the tower-defense genre of games can go. It’s a tower-defense game with depth: Players have to pay attention to upgrades, inventory, factions, gold, heroes, side quests, and branching main quests, not to mention an assortment of mêlée, missile, and magic attacks. It's also occasionally difficult, but it never punishes overmuch for failure. The overarching structure is impressive, but it still boils down to putting your units in the most efficient corner and hoping enemies don’t sneak by. Protector IV.V occasionally feels like all icing and no cake, but icing can be delicious on its own. B+

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