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August 29, 2011 

Julius Styles: The International
Creator: Lapland Studio
Platforms: iPhone/iPad (Universal Binary)
Played on: iPhone
Price: $2.99
Wesley Snipes is in jail for tax evasion, so new films are out of the question. Instead, he’s lending his mug, though not his voice, to Julius Styles: The International. Julius is a crack agent working for a nefarious group that seeks to gain economic control of developing countries. While the concept of controlling a gun-toting Snipes is entertaining, the game is mechanically awful. It’s mostly a point-and-click adventure, where you’re forced to squint at the tiny screen to find the objects that will let you get past the current obstacle while making Julius awkwardly walk around the room. To its credit, it has a huge variety of puzzles, but they can be hard to understand and infuriatingly difficult. For example, a hacking puzzle asks players to navigate a maze on a blurry, dark screen with a bunch of glowing green symbols. In this maze, you have to move your fingers on the touch-screen in the opposite direction you want to go, and wrong moves mean you now also have glowing red symbols. Snipes has already said this is just episode one, so for his sake, let’s hope Lapland can improve the controls to make Julius Styles fun instead of just bizarre… C-


Creator: Damp Gnat
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Completing all 18 holes unlocks wonder. This is the promise made by Wonderputt, and navigating its compact world not only fills players with wonder, but also with deep satisfaction. Wonderputt is a single-screen miniature-golf game, and the course is an evolving, neon-and-pastel-colored series of dips, cliffs, and traps. You putt the ball by aiming a power meter and clicking. Completing a hole usually causes an enjoyable chain reaction that reveals the next one. And there are more delights after you complete the game. A second go at the course challenges you to collect four pieces of a rainbow on each hole in addition to keeping your stroke count down. It’s more entertaining to sink a ball that causes a ski resort to emerge out of a cow pasture than it is to walk to the next patch of Astroturf sadness at your local putt-putt joint… A-

Synapsis 2

Creators: robotJAM and Rob Donkin
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Synapsis 2, a point-and-click adventure set in a purposefully obtuse, low-resolution utilitarian space, shows reverence to the genre tropes. Rooms are decorated with symbolic props like clocks, typewriters, and CRT televisions streaming public-domain B-roll. Seemingly useless items like a worm and a hand crank solve puzzles that unlock additional knickknacks. And so it goes, straight through to the conclusion. What’s missing is story, so the game becomes a chore, like cleaning the bedroom of a compulsive hoarder. Who is the jerk leaving worms in the desk drawer and armor in the safe? That’s a mystery worth solving… C


Creator: Turbo Nuke
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
CycloManiacs2 developer Turbo Nuke threw everything against the wall for this bike-racing game, and here’s what stuck: 50 riders, a dozen or so tracks, hidden mini-games, customizable upgrades, and unlockable trophies that effect a bizarre, unexpected story. The art is squiggly and the controls are fussy. In fact, every aspect of the game falls a little short of greatness, but the complete product has an irresistible go-for-broke attitude. It’s like how Journey compiled its greatest-hits album: “Hell, let’s just give them everything we’ve got.” If you don’t like a bike, a track, or even the racing genre as a whole, then CycloManiacs2 has something else to show you. And something after that, and after that. A word to the wise: Turn off the music. If there’s one stain on this quirky quilt, it’s the jarring pop-punk soundtrack… A-


Creator: Loopycube
Platforms: iPhone/iPad (Universal Binary)
Played on: iPhone
Price: $0.99
If a bunch of game-developer cats set out to produce a piece of interactive cat propaganda, Pickpawcket would result. The premise: After a bunch of dogs filch a collection of feline art from cat civilization, you must steal the paintings back, for society’s sake. Playing as a sleek, urbane cat, you creep through gallery after gallery, avoiding the watchful eyes of the idiot security-guard dogs so you can grab the lost artworks and escape undetected. When one of the mouth-breathing canine scum happens to spot you, the level restarts, so you must time your moves carefully and navigate tight corners quickly. That’s where Pickpawcket runs into trouble. The game asks you to navigate around the patrol dogs’ lines of sight, but since your finger has to be mushed onto the screen to move the cat, your own sightlines are obstructed. As a result, the game never feels as agile as it ought to, although an optional virtual-joystick control scheme remedies the problem somewhat. The most delightful part of the game is the art itself. At the end of a level, you get a close-up look at the painting you’ve recovered, and the feline reinventions of such works as Edgar Degas’ The Star and Salvador Dali’s The Persistence Of Memory are pretty amusing, provided you aren’t a filthy dog-lover… B

Ascension: Chronicle Of The Godslayer

Creator: Playdek
Platforms: iPhone/iPad (Universal Binary)
Played on: iPhone
Price: $4.99
Ascension: Chronicle Of The Godslayer was released in actual-decks-of-cards form in 2010. Now Playdek has provided an excellent electronic interface to let you play the deck-building game on the go. Much as with Dominion, players start with a deck of basic cards, which they use to buy better cards. Strategy is the key as you choose between cards that increase your purchasing power, allow you to defeat monsters, or let you cull bad cards to improve the overall quality of your deck. Some cards are nearly useless, but provide big points when the game is over. You can play offline against three tiers of AI, or test your skills against other players. A particularly nice touch is that you can have multiple online games going at once, so you don’t have to sit around waiting if your opponent has to put a game down for a while… A


Creator: Willem Rosenthal
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
A trip to Willem Rosenthal’s website gives the impression that he’s more illustrator than game designer, and five minutes in TransDimensional’s blocky, quirky multiverse confirms that suspicion. That’s partly because five minutes is all it takes to guide the mute, robotic hero to another plane of existence and back home for the game’s elliptical finale. That shortness is a shame, because there’s some of Cave Story’s somber sophistication here, and with a little more world to explore, this could be a great title. Still, the kooky cast and wonderfully weird writing don’t make up for the fact that the controls aren’t tight enough to meet the challenges of the cheap, deadly platforming areas. And the fact that TransDimensional awards you a flamethrower for completing the story—but doesn’t bother to throw any more enemies your way—is just more evidence that this was a potentially great game that isn’t carried across the finish line… B-

Symphonic Tower Defense

Creators: Matt Ackerman and Jon Sandness
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
At some point in the near future, we will reach the Tower Defense Singularity, in which the subgenre is successfully combined with every other genre of gaming, and becomes the dominant form of videogames. We’re one step closer, thanks to Symphonic Tower Defense’s fairly successful integration of rhythm games. But Symphonic doesn’t actually integrate rhythm-based play. Instead, it incorporates the aesthetics of a Dance Dance Revolution with a simple tower-defense game. The idea doesn’t seem to work at first, but then the trance music kicks into high gear and the screen gets flooded with notes, causing you to lose in exactly the same way you would have lost at Dance Dance Revolution. Yeah, that’s when a rhythm tower-defense game makes sense… B+

Vision By Proxy: Second Edition

Creator: DeLeonGames
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Seeing the world through someone else’s eyes may be an admirable notion, but Vision By Proxy: Second Edition takes that idea in the most gruesomely literal-minded direction possible. As a giant ocular alien straight out of It Came From Outer Space, you’re stranded with scant options and a physiology poorly adapted for life on Earth. The solution: gingerly plucking an eyeball from a gardener, an architect, or a small child in order to view the world from their perspective and gain access to areas previously blocked. The puzzles are yawningly simple, and while this installment has a fresh coat of paint, the game still isn’t road-ready. Underneath the bland level design and creepy execution is a moral message, just barely. Other than that, all Vision offers is a post-game challenge mode that highlights those imprecise controls… C-

Tanooky Tracks

Creator: Ben Radish Games
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Tanooky Tracks is a beautifully packaged riddle book that calls on players to point and click their way through a cozy cartoon home, searching for the items that will bring 12 tanookies out from their hidey-holes. The loveable scamps could be anywhere, and the game does sometimes devolve into pixel-hunting, but Tracks is short, sweet, and good-natured enough to justify the eye strain. It helps that the riddles hit a sweet spot where they’re just difficult enough to satisfy, but not so difficult that you start to wonder why you’re looking for these mangy beasts in the first place. One puzzle might require the player to search for 10 of an item, and another might call for extremely careful reading of a clue, but if the seeking starts to sag, there are hints available with a few shameful mouse-clicks. Polished but short enough to fit into a lunch break, Tanooky Tracks is a good warm-up for more challenging puzzle fare… B

Experimental Shooter

Creator: Vitalli Zlotski
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Rarely has a game done so much with so little. Experimental Shooter consists of a square playing field with a tank in the center, amid a swarm of white spheres. The point of the game is to shoot down the bouncing balls, but the question is how you shoot them down. It’s different for each of the 21 levels.  In one stage, you’ll have to use the tank as a pool cue, and in another, you’re invited to play freeze-tag. The combination of puzzle-solving and smart level design turns what would just be a simple Asteroids clone into an ingenious little game. The designer has a sense of humor, too: The tank gives running commentary each time you complete a level, and the soundtrack is elevator music. The game saves your progress, so the more interesting challenges can be enjoyed again without going through the entire game. The only downside to Experimental Shooter is how short it is. Here’s hoping for a sequel sometime soon… A

Anomaly Warzone Earth

Creator: 11 Bit Studios
Platforms: iPhone/iPad (Universal Binary)
Played on: iPad
Price: iPhone—$1.99; iPad (“HD” version)—$3.99
At first glance, Anomaly Warzone Earth feels like an impossible game, but closer inspection reveals that it's merely extremely hard. It’s a concept hardwired to be challenging: Survival in Anomaly means guiding a convoy of tanks and supporting units through mazes of alien weaponry using the simple iControls. Though you’re free to choose your route through the urban battlefield, there’s very little avoidable conflict in the game. Most of the enemy towers have incredible range, and no matter how you work out your route (usually in “Tactical Mode,” which resembles a scene from War Games), you’re going to hit heavy firepower. Strategy, then, comes in the form of choosing which units are in your convoy and how they’re arranged, as well as the use of special abilities like decoy tanks or a smoke screen. Strength is relative, though. You could be flush with powers, but the dusty post-apocalyptic landscape makes it difficult to see which tower is firing at what unit, and units are often gone in the blink of an eye. (The terrain is incredibly detailed, though.) You may wind up directing your units in a circle, away from enemy fire, to gain respite from the marathon. Anomaly sucks players into its treacherous world, raising the stakes until there’s nothing to do but press dutifully on—or pray for death… A-


Creator: Coleislazy
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Miner tasks you to raise $20,000—proof to your future father-in-law that you can provide for your wife-to-be. And given how quickly Miner morphs into pure money-collection mode, you’ll feel like you’re earning every penny. Your worth goes up every day you enter the mine, which is a vast, empty world of dirt that your 8-bit character slogs his way through, searching for valuable ore to sell at the county store. The amount of mining you can do in a day is dictated by your energy, your health, and the size of your loot bag. All three can be upgraded, but only twice each; after that, there’s nothing to do but go deeper and deeper, searching for an untapped stock of gold that never appears. This is the vast majority of the game, and though the drudgery feels on-point for what Miner is going for (even with its very little backstory), it’s still drudgery. There are no shortcuts in Miner, but there are also no new challenges that present themselves as the game starts to feel like work… C+

Pixel City Skater

Creator: A Small Game
Platforms: Browser, iPhone/iPad (Universal Binary)
Played on: Browser
Price: Browser—Free; iPhone/iPad—$0.99
The one-button game is an admirable thing, provided it’s pulled off correctly. Pixel City Skater comes close, but like the many deaths visited upon the blocky little Tony Hawk fan in the game, developer A Small Game just misses the mark. Pac-Man has a more complicated interface than Skater. After you press start, a 16-pixel skater automatically rolls across a blocky terrain. Pressing any key makes him jump. If he runs into a roadblock or hits the ceiling, he explodes in a little splash of blood. There are 59 levels and an endless mode where a high score is the goal. It’s simplicity itself, and it can be addictive on trickier levels, where the necessary jump timing isn’t automatically clear. Every few levels, the skater goes faster, amping up the tension and need for precision. The pretty Atari-styled look and bumping soundtrack from Boy Vs. Bacteria are tasty for sure, but the levels are too simple to elevate the game beyond being a pleasant diversion… B-

Chantelise: A Tale Of Two Sisters

Creator: Carpe Fulgur/EasyGameStation
Platform: Windows
Price: $9.99
There are three important things to note about Chantelise: A Tale Of Two Sisters. First, it’s a ridiculously difficult action role-playing game. Second, it has nothing to do with the cult film of the same name. Third, it’s a disappointing second effort by the translation team behind delightful indie darling Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale. But while Chantelise is a disappointment on those terms, it still has its own charms. The faux-3-D graphics call to mind the original PlayStation, and the game’s simple, clever magic system adds depth to its otherwise-straightforward hacking and slashing. But above all, Chantelise is a challenge, and one that may be too high for its rewards… B-

The Asskickers

Creator: Ago Games
Platforms: Mac, PC
Played on: Mac
Price: $4.99
Beat-’em-ups require a gourmet’s touch. Throwing a couple of characters into a rough city where there are hordes of identical bad guys entering from the right and left waiting to be pummeled isn’t enough. The great beat ’em up requires smooth animations, colorful backgrounds, desperate situations, expertly placed items and health refills, and a ripping soundtrack. It needs to give the feeling that each punch, dropkick, and throw feels thick and mean. With all the ingredients included and baked to perfection, the result is a rising soufflé of sweetness like Castle Crashers. Under a hasty cook’s eye, games like The Asskickers get made. It has the basics: Three selectable characters; two dudes and a chick in the balanced, quick, and bruiser roles; a dopey premise where the characters need to beat up frat boys and their corporate overlords in a false utopian future. Even the tunes aren’t bad. The stiff control and animations coupled with the bland art keep it from becoming a delicacy, though. The ingredients are nothing without the skill… C+

Pigs In Trees

Creator: PAN Vision AB
Platforms: iPhone/iPad (Universal Binary)
Played on: iPhone
Price: iPhone—$0.99; iPad (“HD” version)—$1.99
Pigs In Trees has the same cutesy cartoon style and pig-bird antagonism as Angry Birds, only in this game, players control a pig in an airplane as he defends his treetop home from rampaging avians. Play involves drawing a line between the flying pig and his enemies, a pack of overzealous woodpeckers. Your pilot uses the air routes you draw to target his weapons fire, shooting the birds from the sky. Pigs In Trees starts out as an easy time-waster, but later levels become frustrating, made all the worse by the poor controls. The pig won’t move unless he is touched in exactly the right way, and he’ll sometimes inexplicably refrain from shooting at a bird, even after you’ve supposedly locked on the target. For the first 20 levels or so, these problems are easy to overlook, but they render levels with hundreds of targets nearly impossible. The game looks great, though… B-

Mario Remix: Boss Edition

Creator: Phendrana
Platforms: Browser
Price: Free
Mario has been a part of the videogame lexicon for so long, his DNA has been mixed and mashed countless times by nostalgic indie developers, occasionally to great success. Mario Remix: Boss Edition pits our beloved plumber friend against bosses from vintage titles like Mega Man and Metroid. Bosses are ostensibly the most nostalgia-laden parts of games (who among us hasn’t been stuck on a particularly nasty guy at some point?), and Mario Remix squeaks by on this nostalgia alone. The game involves only boss fights, and stripped of the unpredictability that made them so compelling, Mario Remix simply rehashes patterns of movement, ad infinitum. The thought, “Hey, that’s Bright Man!” quickly vanishes when you’re desperately trying to bounce on his head, which is made even more difficult by clumsy implementation of Mario’s movements. Of course, all games involve some repetition, but it’s much more infuriating to, say, jump on an angry tree for five minutes than it is to shoot stars at him, like players did in the tree boss’s original Kirby milieu. Mini-games add little variety and even more uncomfortable control schemes. Mario Remix is a remix that highlights the worst in its source material. D+