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January 10, 2011

One Chance
Creator: Awkward Silence Games
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
One Chance has an unimpeachable premise: You only get to play it once. You play a scientist who appears to have successfully cured cancer, but instead triggered the end of life on earth. With only a handful of days before the end, you can try to find a cure, spend time with your family, or bang lab hotties. One Chance’s presentation does a fine job of conveying the end-of-days mood, but its adventure-game interface prevents it from achieving its potential. Accidentally talking to a coworker on the roof of your building provides good background, but it also prevents you from doing anything else that day. For a game that’s all about consequences, One Chance doesn’t do a good job of spelling them out. The premise deserves better, and the designers should take advantage of another chance to improve on the idea… B-

Mother Robot
Creator: Increpare (Stephen Lavelle)
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Subterranean worlds are videogame fodder. The unexpected is not only in front, but above and below. Loneliness is a given. And oh, the unrelenting darkness. Mother Robot’s explanation-free beginning thrusts its world into the light, literally and figuratively. You’re in a cave illuminated by only a single light source. There’s a lone robot with a beam attached to its head, capable of pointing in any of the 360 degrees. After some trial and error, players can determine how to cast light farther down the cave. Suddenly, there are two robots. As players proceed deeper into the world, a third joins, then a fourth. Soon the puzzles become too complicated; a robot slips into the darkness, only to instantly fizzle along with his brothers. The robots work together, digging down into nothingness, praying their light isn’t extinguished by a careless slip-up. Perhaps there’s a mother waiting at the end. Or perhaps there’s only darkness… A

Effing Meteors
Creators: Jacob Grahn, Arseniy Shkljaev, and Greg Wohlwend
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Most meteor-impact fiction is written from the perspective of people who would prefer not to have their world vaporized in a rocky, space-borne apocalypse. The makers of Effing Meteors are tired of these one-sided accounts. In their game, you fight on the side of the rocks, driving planet after planet into extinction so meteors can take their rightful place as kings of a barren universe. You play the role of a gravity well, helpfully attracting pieces of space dust toward each other until they coalesce into one massive blob, which then gets hurled toward the ground below—careful, aiming is trickier than it looks—in the hopes of spawning an epochal shockwave of death. The style is appealingly clean, and there are a few nice twists as the rocks take on increasingly sophisticated civilizations, but the game leaves a lot on the table. It’s over in 10 minutes, in spite of a concept that feels like it could evolve for much longer… B

Tentacle Wars
Creator: Lumarama
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Infect-and-spread games have become increasingly common, and few of them do anything new with the idea of breeding colonies that send out little armies to beat down and conquer enemy resource centers. Tentacle Wars offers a twist on the genre: Instead of dispatching armies, you latch onto enemy colonies with a tentacle, attacking them according to your colony’s size and power. That makes the strategy more complicated: Sometimes it’s better to breed up to significant size before launching any attack, and since your tentacles draw from your colony size, sometimes you have to breed up to even reach your enemy. You can also cut the tentacle and send its population over to the enemy as an instant attack, which has advantages and disadvantages and provides another axis of decision-making. But the enemy won’t wait while you get strong, so strategies change over time, depending on obstacles, colony positions, and more. What initially looks like just another nicely designed copycat game gets increasingly difficult, which is much of the fun… B+

Desert Moon
Creator: Nico Tuason
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Essentially a tower-defense game where the “towers” are all-too-mortal men, Desert Moon charges you with defending your downed spacecraft for five days by placing gunners on the board to mow down marauding aliens as they come in, zergling-rush-style. Slick design buoys the game—you control your men’s firing arcs as well as their physical placement, which adds more strategy to area coverage, and the little running aliens are authentically creepy, as is the bloody result if they manage to get through to your defenders. But while different days offer new attackers and new weapons, the days are painfully long and unvaried, and since you can’t move or add men during an attack (the only available activity is to launch fairly feeble secondary attacks), there’s little to do but sit and watch… or go get a snack while your little dudes deal with things. More interactivity, shorter rounds, and more varied challenges would go a long way toward making this game as exciting as survival ought to be… B-

Creators: Antony Lavelle, Dan McNeely, Tommy Robin
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
“Survive and escape in spite of the deceptive, self-serving narrator trying to control you” has become its own game genre since Portal, and it’s a favorite for little desktop games, since the unreliable guide-voice is so easy to add to a game, and so tonally effective. K.O.L.M. does it about the same as any other such game, and the infinite-lives platforming play style isn’t exactly new either, but it’s still an eerie, enjoyable challenge. You start out as a legless, eyeless robot fumbling around in an oppressive grey world where a voice called “Mother” berates you as a worthless disappointment. Getting your legs and eyesight back is just the first step in an epic quest of gigantic hazard-filled rooms, scattered keys, and Mother-nagging. At times the quest seems endless, and the game could use a few more rewards along the way to keep you plodding along. But the individual rooms are well-designed puzzles, challenging but not punishingly so, and who wouldn’t want to prove that hateful Mother-voice wrong by finally reaching the end?… B+

Corpse Craft: The Incident At Weardd Academy
Creator: Three Rings Design
Platforms: Browser, iPad
Played on: iPad
Price: $3.99
Two years after Corpse Craft debuted for browsers, the folks behind Puzzle Pirates have re-animated their Edward Gorey-inspired strategy game for the iPad. Though a little long in the tooth, the game feels no less fresh, thanks to a novel blending of match-three puzzle-solving with real-time strategy. Players touch and eliminate groups of blocks to rack up the resources they need to summon undead minions. There’s no micro-managing these creeps. Once set loose, they automatically home in on enemies. That means smart timing of attacks is paramount. Demo players get seven story missions for free. Don’t be fooled by those early softballs: As soon as you pay for the game, the challenge mounts. If bots just aren’t tough enough, the game supports online head-to-head duels and two-on-two brawls where the competition is deadly… B

Creator: Robox Studios
Platform: iPhone
Price: $0.99
Another recent iOS game that evokes Edward Gorey is less of a success. Grimm begins when an absent-minded Victorian couple forgets their baby carriage—and the infant within—at the train station. The object of the game is to use tilt controls to navigate the carriage through the sooty, hazard-laden landscape and deliver the baby back to the loving arms of England’s worst parents. It’s a smart-looking game, but the carriage moves along with all the grace of a rusty shopping cart. Grimm mixes tilt-to-move controls with onscreen virtual buttons (to jump and brake), which is a dicey combination. The clumsiness compounds itself with puzzle sections where players fling the baby out of the cart—to trigger a switch, say—then pick it back up. Each of these little moves is over-animated, taking three times as long as it ought to. Given the herky-jerky tedium that results, it’s easy to see why Mummy and Daddy “accidentally” left the little bastard behind… C+

Chroma Keys
Creator: Willseph (William Thomas)
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Veteran gamers know and love the Zen-like state that can occur during the simple action of games like Lumines or Guitar Hero. The conscious brain seems to shut down, while the fingers continue to press the buttons faster than seems possible. Chroma Keys tries to take a shortcut to that state of mindlessness. As a circle moves through different fields of color scrolling across the screen, you respond by pressing the corresponding keys. It’s sort of like Canabalt without the animation and simplicity, or a rhythm game without rhythm. That's the essential problem with Chroma Keys: It's all mechanics, no motivation… C-

Tag Attack
Creators: Bitsofbas and Fran Ferriz
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
With all the hubbub about touchscreens, Kinects, and Wii-motes, it’s easy to forget that the computer mouse was the first great motion controller. Players get a nice reminder with Tag Attack, a Galaga-style shooter controlled entirely by pointing the mouse at targets. The shift in focus from shooting toward aiming has a subtle soothing effect. It doesn’t hurt that Tag Attack is gorgeous to look at and listen to, with great sound effects and delightful firework explosions with each alien ship destroyed. Too-easy opening levels are the only real strike against it… A-

Neon Race
Creator: Long Animals
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Racing games are typically about cars (or anthropomorphics driving go-karts) vying to place first in a series of increasingly difficult race courses. Back in the day, though, it wasn’t uncommon to run into racing games that were more about surviving to the finish line than beating other vehicles there. Neon Race has an ancestor on the NES in that mold, namely the Square-developed racer Rad Racer. As with Rad, you view the Neon Race action from behind your car, which is made of glowing blue neon lines—a little bit of Tron, a little bit of Dire Straits—and rush to the end of each course, trying not to crash into the side of the track while building up your score. Players fill a turbo meter by ramming neon-red vehicles on the road, while purple vehicles can run you off the track. It's simple stuff, but attractive, and a nice example of an all-but-forgotten style of racer… B

Creator: Austin Breed
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
While high drama isn't essential to an interactive romance—subtle understatement more often gets the job done—Austin Breed’s brief game could use sparks of any kind. It’s more a visual comic strip than a visual novel. You click through a series of identical images representing the daily lives of a young woman and man. The woman has moved to a new city, and the man lives where they first met. You see the same images of their daily lives—showering, eating breakfast, watching television, and playing videogames—with only slight changes coming later. The only decisions come at the end of each day, when you select from two dialogue options while the couple talks on the phone—will you choose to be engaged, or aloof? The premise is good and the overly large pixel graphics have potential for complex expression, but the whole thing is so dull that anything noteworthy is squelched. It's just as easy to keep the couple together as it is to split them up, which is a missed opportunity. Making a long-distance relationship work is a challenge… C

Creator: Messhof (Mark Essen)
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Under the eye of 8-bit fever-dreamer Messhof, the unspectacular tasks in Pipedreamz become both addictive and infuriating. It’s a binary proposition: You’re either earning “meat points” by pushing a button or two, or spending them in a rudimentary surfing game reminiscent of Epyx’s 1987 California Games. The jittery pixel characters—most look like horrified ghosts; one’s a suave pig named Steve—are accompanied by a buzzing “musical” score that’s usually two low piano notes being alternately hammered on. It’s all unsettling, but the game finds a comfortable groove when the action matches the ambiance. At one point, for example, you are tasked with shoveling meat into your mouth so long as no one’s looking. If you’re caught, you throw it all up and start over. But after flipping dozens of burgers and endlessly surfing (in spite of way-too-sensitive controls) back and forth, the game’s restlessness feels like nothing more than repetition. C+