July 18, 2011

Proun
Developer: Joost van Dongen
Platform: PC
Price: Varies (“pay what you want”)
Who cares whether games can be art? Proun poses a more interesting variation: can art be games? Proun is gorgeous, with an aesthetic drawn from 20th-century modern art. It’s a delight to listen to, with an upbeat, jazzy soundtrack perfectly matching its graphics. But the overall game is a bit lacking. It’s a racing game with a nice twist: You control a ball rolling along a wire and rotate the ball to avoid obstacles. It’s challenging, but other than the occasional turbo boost, extremely limited, which isn’t helped by only having three courses unlocked at the outset. Players who pay get another official track, and the developer has invited modders to create more. That’s a help, but not a full fix, for this beautiful, limited game… B+



Tiny Tower

Creator: NimbleBit (Ian Marsh)
Platforms: iPhone/iPad (Universal Binary)
Price: Free, with optional micro-transactions
Tiny Tower is like Farmville without the sensation that the developers would strip-mine your organs if it would make them a buck. Placed in charge of a fledgling skyscraper, you have to build up the tower with a combination of businesses and apartments, the latter of which house people to work in the businesses. This capitalist utopia packs your coffers with coins, which you can use to restock your commercial wares and to expand ever upward. It’s a slow process. It might take 45 minutes of real-world time for your Theater to replenish its supplies of, say, Interpretive Dance. So the game isn’t much fun for an extended play session, but there’s no need to attend to business at every moment anyway. The tower keeps humming along whether you’re playing or not. In occasional five-minute bursts, it’s a cute, fun little toy with a ton of nice touches, including a miniature Facebook knockoff populated by your tower’s “bitizens.” Tower Bux, the game’s secondary currency, can be used to speed along certain tasks, like construction of a new floor, and players can purchase a wad of Tower Bux with their real bucks if they aren’t willing to wait. Splurging on Tower Bux, though, upsets the game’s laid-back rhythm, so Tiny Tower is the rare “free to play” game that works better if you keep your wallet in your pocket… B



Jamestown

Developer: Final Form Games
Platform: PC
Price: $9.99
Pity the poor shoot-em-up. Not only does it have the ugliest genre name in gaming (“shmup”), it’s also a small niche, and it has been for a long time. But every so often, a game like Jamestown comes along and demands to know why that niche is so small. Flying a steampunk ship, dodging bullets, launching perfectly timed shields, building combos, just trying to survive—this is the stuff of gaming from Space Invaders to today. The game derives its title and subtle colonial theme from its story, which involves Walter Raleigh trying to redeem his name at a Jamestown colony that has been transposed to Mars. It’s nonsensical, but this is the genre that gave us “All your base are belong to us,” and by comparison, it’s practically Shakespeare. Jamestown doesn’t do anything especially new and exciting. It just does its style of controlled chaos really well. And if you have a friend or three to play co-op with, so much the better… A



Shop Empire

Creator: LittleGiantWorld
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Shop Empire follows a model similar to Tiny Tower, except with instant gratification. You travel to such cultural centers as Paris, Tokyo, and New York to give those cities what they so urgently need: another shopping mall. Shop Empire is a relatively fast-paced simulation, but it still manages to fit in plenty of tedium. About a third of your time is unavoidably spent in nighttime mode, where there’s little to do but watch your security guards hunt down the swarms of bandits that inexplicably plague your shopping center. During the day, you place new shops in your layout and watch the customers come in. That’s about it. Shop Empire does offer specific challenges for players to fulfill (e.g., “Build a sushi bar”), but none of those are difficult or particularly imaginative. There’s little strategy required to attracting customers to your mall, either. Simply build it, and they will come. A nice sentiment, but not a great premise on which to build a game… C-



Paul & Percy

Creator: Kipper Digital
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Paul & Percy is a fine game for puzzle fans who don’t have an Xbox 360 and $10 to spare. Everyone else should just download ilomilo, which has the same concept, but with vastly improved graphics and controls, far more detailed levels, and just as much whimsy. Like in ilomilo, in Paul & Percy, you switch off between controlling two characters who must work together to get through the gravity-defying levels. While the identical dapper gentlemen hunting for their lost biscuits make cute heroes, the premise’s novelty wears thin as it becomes apparent that while the looks of the levels change, the ideas don’t. Pushing a caterpillar to boost your partner to a higher elevation works just the same as pushing a pile of bricks. The controls are infuriatingly counterintuitive. If you aren’t careful about where your character is facing, you’ll wind up pushing a block instead of jumping onto it. Fortunately, the rewind key forgives such errors, and you can just restart if you get too lost… B-



Office Trap

Creator: Nitrome
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
The booby trap, laid under some innocuous-looking ground, ready to drive a spike through your character when you least expect it, stands among the lamest forms of “gotcha!” game design. (Then again, Aban Hawkins & The 1000 Spikes took this gag to a demented, hilarious extreme.) There’s no “gotcha” to the traps in Office Trap, though, because sudden peril is the norm. Each level is set in an office building where practically every inch of the floor is wired to unleash some horrible instrument of death, whether it’s spinning chainsaws or a kitty with a temper. The trigger switches are marked with cryptic icons, so the fun of the game is looking at the little pictures and wondering what special kind of pain Office Trap is going to bring THIS time… B



The Haunted Ruins

Creator: Gamedesign.jp
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
When it came to role-playing back in the day, your choices weren’t limited to either guiding a band of anime ladyboys and catgirls on a mission to steal a blimp, or picking one of Bioware’s ethnically neutral mannequins and cherry-picking their platitudes to save the country. Back then, you got some numbers, a dungeon, and some uglies to fight. The Haunted Ruins recalls a style of RPG not seen since Wizardry’s heyday, where progress is marked by walking through blocky hallways step by step, slicing up bad guys and finding ladders so you can descend deeper into enemy territory. Ruins has all the necessary ingredients: simple but memorable enemies, scarce resources, catchy tunes, and simple rules. The challenge is in resource management. Is it better to warp out of the dungeon to restock, or should pushing on to the next floor be the primary goal? Ruins’ biggest concession for modernity, though, is both a blessing and a curse. Dying doesn’t penalize players apart from sending them back to the start of a floor, meaning that progress is inevitable as long as you keep killing bad guys. It makes the game invitingly beatable, but it strips The Haunted Ruins of the satisfaction born from overcoming steep odds… B



Async Corp.

Creator: Powerhead Games
Platforms: iPhone
Price: $0.99
Abstract puzzle games need to do two things well: They need to create wicked tension, and they need to have great theme songs. Powerhead Games fulfills one of these requirements with its new iPhone puzzler, Async Corp. The game has one badass theme song. It fails to meet the standards of the best puzzle games, though. It’s addictive, but hardly tense. The game gives you two columns filled with a trio of colored blocks, which must be exchanged between columns to create larger rectangles. Once a rectangle is formed, it can be tapped to make it disappear, thereby logging another unit of productivity for the almighty corporation. Async grabs the attention and amuses with its presentation. The corporate-drone theme is executed well, with a bathroom-stick-figure-sign minimalism and neat hooks like a company e-mail inbox. But none of the modes instill the kind of panic that the rising speed in Tetris or falling ceilings in Bust-A-Move do… B



Pocket Academy

Creator: Kairosoft 
Platform: iPhone
Price: $3.99
Kairosoft is a monster, even more sinister than Farmville creator Zynga, with a portfolio of games that amount to something like a digital opium den. While Zynga doesn’t really lie about its ambition to addict you to a dangerous shallow high, Kairosoft pretends to be your friend. That attitude makes Pocket Academy, the latest in the studio’s series of management games such as Game Dev Story, approachable and easy to learn. And then it sucks you in. Pocket Academy starts you off with a little more than $20,000, two students, and a teacher. The next task is to expand and improve a school, spending resources accumulated through classes, research, and other mundane tasks, most of which are performed autonomously by the students and faculty. You build new classrooms, gardens, and so on. The larger and more efficient the school, the more students to populate it and resources to improve it. The game is warm and pleasant, but it’s ultimately a vapid exercise. As with the worst role-playing game, the only pleasure comes from watching numbers inevitably get larger… C+



58 Works

Creator: 58 Works
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
58 Works isn’t a single game, but a growing compendium of small puzzle-based adventures, a creative box of infuriating chocolates that can take hours to unpack. The small creations that make up 58 Works are escape games, in which players make their way out of a room by uncovering cryptic clues amid seemingly innocuous surroundings. In Escraft, an easy claymation escape, the goal is to collect five colored balls and feed them to a monster in front of the door in the correct order. Others, like Snowing, are more complex. Though the difficulty fluctuates, all the escapes are strange. Snowing seems like a straightforward Christmas scene until a giant whale jumps out of a snowbank. The games are Japanese in origin, and only some are presented in English, but they’re simple enough to be accessible to anyone… A-



Vertex Dispenser

Developer: Smestorp Limited
Platforms: Mac, PC
Price: $9.99
With its abstract style and dull name, Vertex Dispenser doesn’t make a stellar first impression, and even once you get into it, something still seems a little off. It’s a mash-up of a strategy game and an action game, and it doesn’t do either satisfactorily. You steer a small vehicle on a multicolored grid where you can fire a beam to control adjacent vertices. Creating shapes from the vertices builds defenses, and larger domains grant more energy to put toward special abilities. But a few levels in, the game suddenly drops some surprising depth: The colors of each vertex change according to what you’ve built nearby, adding a third dimension, a sort of logic game in the Minesweeper vein. The action components are still somewhat forced, but Vertex Dispenser succeeds at engaging the brain on multiple levels… B+



Victorian Mysteries: The Moonstone

Creator: Freeze Tag
Platforms: iPhone, iPad (“HD” version)
Reviewed on: iPhone
Price: iPhone—$1.99; iPad—$2.99
Victorian Mysteries: The Moonstone is a detective story that lacks intrigue or suspense. Players take on the role of Detective Cuff as he searches for clues to determine which of nine people present on the night of a diamond heist is responsible for the crime. The dull game consists of locating hidden objects in a variety of rooms, which gets even more tedious as the scenery gets recycled in later chapters. In addition to sorting through visual clutter, players must gather a series of three clue-unlocking tools for each investigation. Once you have the right tool and clue, you play an unchallenging mini-game like matching cards, unscrambling a picture, or putting together a puzzle piece to uncover the evidence. The sound is awful, with bland, stilted voice acting and a hideous noise when you make a mistake, even if it’s the sort of “mistake” necessary to complete a puzzle… D-



Snailiad

Creator: Crystal Jacobs
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Lots of games in the Sawbuck domain attempt to capture some of the Metroid magic (including one literally called K.O.L.M.—“Kind Of Like Metroid”). But Snailiad is a surprisingly strong heir to that throne for one simple reason: Once you’re done traversing each platformer world, having collected weapon power-ups and armor upgrades, you’re an unstoppable machine of destruction. Unlike Metroid’s Samus Aran, the hero of Snailiad can slide up walls and receive advice from fellow snails to guide his quest, which is simply to take out the mysterious Moon Snail. Weapons come in only a few varieties, but each becomes more frantic with the addition of add-ons that increase your firing rate. Snailiad isn’t so difficult until the end—the final boss is impossible. But then Act II begins; the worlds now contain hidden shells that when collected, power up your final weapon, and it’s time to forge on through a second time. There’s little indication as to where the final few shells are hidden, and the discrepancy between Snailiad at its easiest and hardest can be vast. Still, Snailiad captures a lot of Metroid’s firepower and vigor… A-



Curvy

Creator: FlamingLunchbox
Platforms: Browser, Android
Price: Free; ad-free Android version is $1.50
The coolly involving Curvy is a basic puzzle game, yet it’s so easy to pick up and play that it makes for the perfect occasional diversion. Players are asked how many rows and columns (which can extend to the infinite in the browser version, though anything more than 10 is not recommended) they would like in their puzzle, as well as whether they would like one or two colors of lines in that puzzle. The game then generates said puzzle, which is a field of hexagons, decorated with colored lines that dip and curve toward and away from each other. The player rotates the hexagons to hook the lines up so there are no loose ends anywhere, eventually ending up with long, curving snakes of completed lines, often ending in oblong loops. The game is both incredibly easy to play (though the web version is much more precise than the Android version, with more robust options) and intriguingly tough. And once you’ve mastered, say, a 5x5 grid with two colors of lines, there’s always 6x6 or 7x7 or 15x20 waiting to draw you in… A-



Wasted Youth, Part One

Creator: GP Studios
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
There’s little challenge to Wasted Youth, Part One. The game’s simple adventure-game puzzles and missions are rarely more complicated than knowing that the best place to find hamburger patties is probably the kitchen. And it’s all but impossible to interact with most objects in the environment, aside from items that are obviously the solutions to puzzles. But the best adventure games have always been about exploring new worlds, and Wasted Youth has plenty of fun nooks and crannies to poke around in, even though the main missions and side-quests are duds. Set in an odd boarding school where everybody has strange secrets and students rarely go to class, Wasted Youth lets players explore every inch of the grounds and have brief (though unsatisfying) dialogues with a wide variety of quickly sketched but fun characters. The humor tends toward the juvenile, and few characters extend beyond genre stereotypes, but there’s something ineffably fun about traipsing around the school grounds, feet pitter-pattering against the floor, mischief on your mind. B-