August 30, 2010

Depict1
Creator: Kyle Pulver
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
What better place than 2010’s deception-themed Global Game Jam to explore the gaming equivalent of the unreliable narrator? Depict1 opens with a shadowy instructor urging players to use the arrow keys to move. A quick experiment proves that they do no such thing, and the results are explosive if you heed the advice to “use the space bar to jump.” Similar to Alexander Ocias’ arty side-scroller Loved, Depict1 requires players to take the onscreen instructions with a grain of salt—or better yet, the whole shaker. Spikes and pits, those classic videogame staples, are similarly untrustworthy, but once you commit the game’s scrambled rulebook to memory, the 30 levels don’t offer much challenge. After all, they aren’t there to stump players so much as shake them up… B



Norrland

Creator: Cactus (Jonatan Söderström)
Platform: PC
Price: Free
Games from indie auteur Cactus tend to vibrate with creative energy; Cactus may not be the most focused developer on the indie scene, but he is among the most expressive. One of his latest games, Norrland, is a David Lynch-ian assault that follows a lonely rural Swede on a hunting trip. The poor soul’s excursion immediately devolves into bizarre stream-of-consciousness mini-games, revolving around the hunter’s bodily urges, terrifying encounters with animals, and a series of nightmares he experiences when he beds down for the night. Cactus likes to work with huge pixels and basic synthesized tones, an audiovisual toolset that comes off as both crude and pure. In Norrland, he uses the sharp edges of his aesthetic more powerfully than ever to excavate raw emotion from players. (One way he accomplishes this is with extremely graphic images, so this isn’t a diversion for work.) It isn’t “difficult” in terms of player skill, but finishing Norrland is a harrowing 20 minutes nonetheless. Not many developers, indie or otherwise, can create a game that's so personal and unabashedly alive… A



Heir

Creator: Antony Lavelle
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
At first, it’s hard to see how a simple platform game like Heir could be conceived as a tribute to Team Ico’s classic Shadow Of The Colossus, as the developer claims. Then the camera pulls out, revealing that all the cliffs and outcroppings in each level are actually the anatomy of a huge, ancient monster. Beyond that superficial resemblance, Heir also mimics its inspiration with a gentle but deliberate ambiance. The music is unusually distinctive and atmospheric for a Flash game, and designer Antony Lavelle has constructed levels that, appropriately enough, seem to have an organic wisdom. Each stage has little surprises that hint at an ineffable logic as you play, and when you finish a level and get a wide shot of the epic creature you’ve just traversed, it all clicks… B+



Achievement Unlocked 2

Creator: John Cooney
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Delighted by inane Xbox 360 trophies like the Command & Conquer 3 zero-point achievement for skipping a tutorial? Then Achievement Unlocked 2 is the sequel for you. It’s a meta-gaming riff on piddling awards doled out for ultra-trivial accomplishments, and includes such gems as “Mission Accepted” for starting the game, “Silence is Golden” for pushing the mute button, and “BILLY MAYS” for enabling caps lock. Instead of the original’s 100 nigh-random tasks and its single room full of lifts and death traps—themselves required to access medals like “Impaler” and “Multideath”—this installment stretches the running gag across 250 achievements and five floors, most of which are only accessible after you exchange your elephant’s easily earned cash for ineptly “marketed” expansion packs. The joke holds up surprisingly well, but look elsewhere if you don’t consider goofing on games a worthwhile time-sink… A-



Color Theory

Creator: Groovemastercox (Joseph Cox)
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Forget the Benjamins. Sometimes it’s all about the primaries. Joseph Cox is the man behind Color Theory, a devious game of inertia-shaped logic puzzles. You guide a pixel stick figure to a glowing orb at the end of 30 stages. In order to get to the orb, you have to figure out how to get over red, green, and blue platforms. If a red block is in your way, you hit a red plus-sign, turning your stick figure red and making same-colored blocks disappear. Simple enough, until the game starts mixing in combination plus-signs like yellows and magentas to add a layer of complexity. All 30 levels are different and engaging, none feel cheap, and each one has a single solution that’s sometimes painfully frustrating to solve. Cox’s minimalist beats complement the play perfectly. While pixel-art platformers are a dime a bazillion these days, Color Theory’s solid elegance is noteworthy… B+



Fishbane

Creator: Droqen
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Remember when a friend would design a Lode Runner level and the result would be a dizzying mess of ladders, mummies, and impossible-to-reach treasure? Make it through Fishbane’s first half, and the harpoon-chucking hero will have to contend with similarly busy environments that look like the contents of an NES graphics card dumped onto the screen. The apparent chaos hides some incredibly trying puzzles that build force fields, platforming, and scads of buttons around the game’s central mechanic: launching Fishbane’s spear into the air and then using it as a combination surfboard and remote control. There’s an optional quest to collect all of the game’s goldfish, but chances are that players will have their hands full already, especially once spear-reflecting mirrors and double harpoonage are introduced. In an interesting nod to realism, spikes kill only when you fall on them—not when you walk into them—just like in the old Prince Of Persia games. But that won’t do much to get Fishbane any closer to the golden harpoons that are required to continue to the next round… B



Binary

Creator: Ansel
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Binary is only six puzzles long, but those puzzles are doozies. Players control some poor sap who’s just touched down on a pair of pint-sized planets linked together at the poles. They can be circled in a matter of seconds, Super Mario Galaxy-style, but there’s nothing to see beyond some low-lying cloud cover and the hatches that contain the game’s handful of sliding-tile puzzles, which appear impossible, then simplistic, then impossible again as the tricky relationships between elements become apparent. Spending a few minutes formulating a strategy is important, but rotating and swapping out tiles willy-nilly until an idea coagulates can work too. And a score that sounds like Polvo after downing some Zaleplon supplies the creepy undercurrent to all the fist-pumping exultation and/or hair-pulling exasperation. These are satisfying brain teasers, but Binary is so slight that, like the ex-planet Pluto, it practically warrants reclassification… B



League Of Evil

Creator: WoblyWare
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
League Of Evil is a retro platformer built on split-second decisions. Your little muscly man must hop over spikes and scale walls to destroy the scientist at the end of each level, and your only abilities are a rudimentary double jump and a flying bodyslam. Problem is, the enemies you encounter all have guns, and they’re trigger-happy even when you’re far away. Thus a question of how you navigate a level compounds with when you can best knock out the bad guys with an elbow to the ribs; being off by even an instant means a quick death. The levels are short, but packed with wall-climbing electric shocking robots and near-suicide maneuvers to make instant reactions a necessity. If only the controls didn’t make in-air redirection and shades of jumping near impossible… B



So Long, Oregon!

Creator: Blinkbat Games
Platform: iPhone
Price: $1.99
Reinventing the RPG-tinged Oregon Trail classic as an Excitebike-like octane challenge, So Long, Oregon! has a promising concept marred by shoddy physics. The goal remains the same: Get your wagon across the country, collecting food and avoiding “diphtheria” and “other diseases you probably forgot about.” The difference is that you travel by throwing your wagon, full-throttle, over mountains and rivers. Arrow keys on either side of the screen control the direction, and touching the screen fires bullets at passing buffalo or bandits. There’s a health bar for each of your party members, healable at nearby towns. The thrill of seeing a classic flipped on its head diminishes once you try doing some actual flipping. Landing at just the right angle rarely keeps you steady (neither, obviously, does landing on your oxen), and some hills are damn near impossible to traverse without a mammoth running start. These physical conundrums serve as a distraction from an otherwise beautiful merging of two game concepts… C-



Victorian BMX

Creator: This Is Pop
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Victorian BMX opens with a prayer, delicate chamber music, and an image of Death pulling a sweet trick while tossing the horns. It’s the most promising start to anything involving BMX bikes since the release of Rad. Broken into five levels of six stages apiece (most only take about 30 seconds to ride through), Victorian BMX is both a score attack and a game of survival. Each stage is a hilly, Edward Gorey-inspired landscape of craggy trees, crows, spikes, and sweet jumps. Get air, do tricks, build points, don’t crash, and reach the guillotine at the end of the stage to progress. Extra points are given for collectibles like flaming skulls, Queen Victoria’s head, and souls. The latter can be harvested from gentlemen riding big-wheeled old-timey bikes and ladies pushing baby carriages. It takes a while to get the rhythm of the stages down, but after that, the game is a speedy confection, perfect in small doses. The soundtrack is also, naturally, totally metal. It’s one of the better entries to appear at Adult Swim Games this year… B



Divergent Shift

Creator: Intrinsic Games
Platform: DSi (DSiWare)
Price: $8
Divergent Shift is very hard. It’s also very good. Like DSiWare’s other crown jewel, WayForward’s Mighty Flip Champs, Divergent Shift is a game about helping a lady—in this case, Kirra, who’s like Lara Croft’s less-busty cousin—on a hunt for a mystical, reality-dividing mirror. It’s a running-and-jumping obstacle course, but the twist is the mirror images of the action on the top and bottom screens, which force players to navigate different challenges simultaneously. Controlling things on two screens at once is difficult (as many botched DS games have proven) and it’s even more confusing when the bottom screen is oriented upside down. Mighty Flip Champs worked around the problem by making the game’s puzzle-platforming methodical and slow, but Divergent Shift is all about speed and precision. It ups the ante halfway through its 25 stages by un-syncing your mirror selves, making for some infuriating challenges that tax players’ reflexes and problem-solving skills. Divergent Shift is everything a DSiWare title can be: an original, simple, but deep game that uses the hardware toward a meaningful end… A-



BlayzBloo: Super Melee Brawlers Battle Royale

Creator: Arc System Works
Platform: DSi (DSiWare)
Price: $5
What a waste! BlayzBloo: Super Melee Brawlers Battle Royale sounds great on paper: Hello Kitty-fied characters from Arc System Works’ 2D fighter BlazBlue battle in an arena-bound free-for-all. They have access to zany items and weapons, and they have to avoid traps while knocking the crap out of each other. Four characters fight at a time, in either single-player or multiplayer mode. Arc System Works’ great art direction, play that recalls Capcom’s cult classic Power Stone, and a title that hints at a Smash Bros. parody: a promising recipe. The illusion vanishes as soon as the game starts, though. Rather than Arc’s lovely hand-drawn art, everything is rendered in blobby, muted polygons. It’s difficult to tell when your attacks connect with an opponent. And the single-player mode can be completed in eight minutes… D+



The Incident

Creator: Big Bucket Software
Platforms: iPhone/iPad (Universal Binary)
Reviewed on: iPhone
Price: $1.99
The Incident’s premise sounds like a rejected Radiohead music-video idea: You’re just some schlub on the street waiting for a cab when random debris starts crashing all around you. You must climb higher and higher, jumping around detritus like rakes, arcade cabinets, dinosaur skulls, and desks as they form piles, before eventually completely ascending the stratosphere and discovering the “incident” that made this all happen. As is the style now, the game is rendered in faux 8-bit graphics with charming chiptune music and an unforgiving difficulty curve. There isn’t much reward for enduring the punishment, other than the simple joy of watching something drop from the glowing ridge at the top of the screen and then hopping your way along the top of it, using the tilt sensor to move left and right, and tapping the screen to jump. The Incident won’t hold up under marathon sessions, but it proves engaging and challenging in short bursts… B



Tower Of Heaven

Creator: Askiisoft
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
The central idea of Tower Of Heaven is straight out of freshman-year dorm-room philosophizing. It’s someone making a game out of that guy who got really high and said, “Hey, did you ever notice God’s kind of a dick?” as though this were a trenchant observation. Fortunately, the game built around this notion is so addictive and fun to play, it almost doesn’t matter that the central idea is carried off with a lack of subtlety. The protagonist is a tiny ragdoll of a man who longs to reach the top of a tower. The tower’s owner sets out a variety of rules he must not disobey (all in the “Thou shalt not” format), but our hero plunges forward nonetheless, as the rules get more and more ludicrous and the master’s wrath grows ever more vengeful. By the time the game insists the little man may no longer run left, lest he be smote, while a giant saw blade bears down on him immediately from the right, it reaches a level of ultra-difficult insanity that few browser games achieve. Tower Of Heaven is too short, the look is too ugly, and the philosophizing is too basic to get the highest marks, but what’s there works very, very well… A-



e7

Creator: Jonas Richner
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
The look of e7 is almost a stereotype for a browser-based game. It’s minimalist, done mostly in neon-bright colors and black silhouettes. Yet that look remains stunning, and it’s well-implemented here, in a story of a little probe sent from Earth to a distant, hostile planet with a surface like a bouncy castle. For a while, e7 is a lot of fun, but the way it ramps up its difficulty feels too sudden, particularly given the game’s wonky controls. It’s far too hard to bounce off the surface into enemies, whose concentrated beams are constantly blasting at the little probe. The game’s look is beautiful, and its feel is like nothing else —Richner’s programming creates a nice tactility when the probe sinks down into the soft planet’s surface—but the minimalist controls strip too much away… B-



Pac-Ball

Creator: Corv Studios
Platform: Android
Price: Lite version—Free; Full version—$0.99
Pac-Ball combines two tastes that should have been a natural combination, yet somehow hadn’t been mixed up until this point. Taking the basis of Pac-Man—a ball rolling around a maze—and combining it with the classic marble-rolling board game Labyrinth, the game takes advantage of Android phones’ positioning sensors to maneuver Pac-Ball around each level. Players collect dots (and power dots) and avoid the game’s version of the little ghosts, robots who make a clanging noise when they lock onto the ball’s presence. What’s amazing is how the need to slowly coax the ball around the maze, rather than guiding Pac-Man around with a joystick or controller, radically alters the gameplay. It becomes less a game of derring-do and more a game of hide and seek, waiting in far-off corners for the robots to wander by, until it’s safe to dive back into a particularly twisty section. Getting that final dot is far more frustrating than it ever was in Pac-Man, and the power dots become less about chasing down enemies and more about buying time to grab dots. All these design decisions make what could be a relatively simple clone something appreciably new… B



Puzzle Cosmos

Creator: PONOS
Platforms: iPhone
Price: $3.99
A hybrid of Tetris and Lumines, Puzzle Cosmos puts you in control of a rolling box comprised of up to four smaller, differently colored squares. Place your box where you want it, and a new one falls down. The goal is to get four squares of the same color to touch so they’ll disappear. You can chain together bigger masses by lining up even more squares of the same color as the original combo fades away. Like Tetris and Lumines, the concept sounds easy, but it quickly proves difficult. The OCD temptation is to rotate your box along the edges of existing squares to align everything perfectly and avoid clutter, but all that rolling eats up valuable time. New squares are always rising from the bottom of the screen, pushing everything else up toward the dreaded game-over line at the top. A handful of different modes, like Dead Line (which moves the boundary further down) help give the game longer legs, as do the shimmering visuals and chill vibe… A-



Enjoy Your Massage!

Creator: Microforum
Platforms: WiiWare
Price: 500 points
When playing Enjoy Your Massage!, you’ll likely ask a lot of questions (like “What the hell is a beauty farm?”), and you won’t learn anything about being a masseur. You’re an anonymous apprentice back-rubber, faced with the unenviable task of rubbing down six angry, shirtless women—from a racecar driver with a backache to a bride-to-be hours before her wedding—in less than a minute apiece. Curiously, little of the Wii’s motion-control technology is put to use. Instead, every woman’s back appears as a 3-by-3 grid, and easing tension is done by recreating the sequence of squares that glow red (presumably with pain). Do so successfully for about a minute, and happy tension-owls will creep out of the lady’s back. You’ll subsequently be “rewarded” with the priviliege of zooming in on a shot of your client, fully clothed. In the case of the bride, she’s shown in her wedding dress, with her husband’s face thoughtfully cropped out. Goofy writing and the creepy, tame attempts at being pornish aside, EYM is worth a chuckle and not much else. C-

More Sawbuck Gamer