March 14, 2011

Bit.Trip Flux
Creator: Gaijin Games
Platform: Wii
Price: $8
So many indie games look backward at classic game forms that it’s something of a surprise that Pong and Arkanoid aren’t terribly well-represented. Bit.Trip Flux takes them as a model, giving you control of a paddle that traverses levels right-to-left, hitting square balls and dodging round ones, building combo streaks all the while. It’s controlled by holding the Wii-mote sideways and tilting it forward and back, a motion precise and relaxing at the same time. The game itself isn’t so relaxing, as the behavior of the blocks coming at you gets increasingly complex. They speed up, slow down, circle around, draw patterns, and generally demand your unrelenting attention. The difficulty is high enough that the long levels are somewhat frustrating. It’s made for longer sessions of slowly learning patterns and improving, until suddenly you break through a pattern that looked impossible at first, second, and third glances… A-



The Man With The Invisible Trousers

Creator: Radical Dog (Thomas Knight)
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
The first surprise in The Man With The Invisible Trousers occurs when your character takes his first step—or whatever word you’d use to describe a floating upper body moving forward an incremental amount. It's amazing how much of a cognitive tizzy it is to guide a gliding torso, especially when navigating the puzzling levels, which require jumping, running up walls, and dodging inconveniently placed spikes to find an exit. Invisible Trousers subverts its novelty premise, demanding players to constantly question the mechanics of how the character leaps and squeezes through tiny holes—or what even constitutes a hole when platforms are viewed at unexpected angles. The detective mystery starts in the background, but grows to envelop the mood in unexpectedly pointed ways. As with any good mystery, the surprises unfold throughout…



Tiny Wings

Creator: Andreas Illiger
Platform: iPhone
Price: $0.99
The question was heard more than once in conversations at this month’s Game Developers Conference: Is Tiny Wings the new Angry Birds? The resemblance is pretty superficial, though. Okay, they’re both popular iPhone games that feature cute birds. But the bird in Tiny Wings is a happy sort, and he plays the lead role in a game that, kinetically, is more like Hook Champ. Playing as the fat little bird, you use rolling hills like ski jumps to achieve the dream of flying in spite of your pathetically small wings. There’s only one control: Touch the touchscreen to fold in your wings and build up speed on a downslope, then release to let your freak flappers fly on the upslope. Once you build up a good rhythm, you’re soaring. The challenge is to keep up your speed and race the sun across the sky, as the arrival of night means game over. The action is somewhat limited by the fact that every game takes place across the same series of islands (although their cosmetic appearance changes every day—a nice touch), but the predictability of the terrain turns out to be an asset, as its curves take many two-to-three-minute play sessions to master. The game provides room for advancement by granting you a new, score-multiplying nest every time you complete a set of objectives. These pseudo-achievements steer players toward new ways to play the game, diabolically transforming what seems like a pretty little distraction into an obsession… A-



Cow Trouble

Creator: CosMind & Blue
Platform: iPhone
Price: $1.99
Tiny Wings may or may not be the new Angry Birds, but Cow Trouble definitely isn’t, in spite of its obvious aspirations to that crown. The bovine game has you hurling beach balls, bowling balls, and other objects from the heavens to knock cows off of clouds—they tried to jump over the moon, you see, but didn’t make it. Cow Trouble doesn’t make it, either. The trouble is the game’s core motion—dropping a tiny object, then swiping horizontally to make it dance a little just isn’t that satisfying. Even after some practice, the cow-toppling feels twiddly and imprecise. The presentation pours it on a little thick, too, testing players’ endurance for farm humor more fiercely than the folksiest Garrison Keillor county-fair special… B-



Beyond Good & Evil HD

Creator: Ubisoft
Platform: Xbox 360
Price: $10 (800 MS Points)
There was no predicting that a Frenchman most famous for creating a limbless cartoon man with a Zippy the Pinhead haircut would develop the most creative and well-executed successor to Zelda back in 2003, but that’s what Michael Ancel did. Beyond Good & Evil is an expert blend of Ocarina Of Time and The Fifth Element: You play as investigative reporter and orphanarium operator Jade, and you wander an archipelago on the planet Hyllis, working with the rebellious IRIS network to overthrow a corrupt military regime aiding an alien invasion. At its base, the game is simple: explore Hyllis, enter a dungeon, solve puzzles, photograph proof of the DomZ (evil alien overlords) conspiracy, repeat until dramatic space-bound climax. What distinguishes Beyond Good & Evil from imitators to Link’s throne, however, is Hyllis itself. While it’s as small as Ocarina’s 64-bit Hyrule, Hyllis is alive, with each character and corner of the world giving the impression of history. It’s also impressive that among the game’s disparate array of activities—hovercraft racing, stealth, one-button combat, nature photography—none of them drag the action down. This HD re-release on Xbox Live Arcade is now the definitive version of the game, thanks to a streamlined menu system and improved character models… A-



January
 
Creator: Rich Vreeland
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
It’s hard to argue January is a “game” in the traditional sense. It’s more a mood piece, or a tone poem, or a software toy. Players control a man suited up for winter’s chill as he heads out into the snowy fields for a walk. As he walks, players are invited to stop, look up, stick out their tongues, and catch snowflakes. As the snowflakes hit the man’s tongue, notes play, with different flakes producing  different tones, providing an instantly formed, ever-shifting soundtrack, though one that always tends toward a minor key. There’s little more to it than that—well, that and the welcoming view of a warm house on a cold night—but the whole experience is suffused with peace, tranquility, and a strange melancholy. Gamers looking for a respite from more tension-ridden challenges will likely find it a soothing balm, and even those more skeptical of its charms will like that it’s over in roughly five minutes… A-



Spent
 
Creators: McKinney and The Urban Ministries Of Durham
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Spent tends to boil everything in its game universe down to a series of binary choices, rather than giving players the full range of freedom they might expect in a more traditional text adventure. But as a game designed to show how hard it can be to live as one of the 14 million unemployed people in the United States, it works well. Spent posits that you’re a single parent, down to your last $1,000 and desperately looking for work. Unlike many unemployed people, you’re able to find a job straight off, but it’s a low-income job at a restaurant, warehouse, or temp agency. (To get the temp job, the game makes you pass a typing test.) From there, though, the game ramps up the challenge of how you’ll spend what money you have and what sorts of things you’ll give up to scrape together more cash and keep your job. Will you give your kid money for after-school programs? Will you attend your grandfather’s funeral out of state? Will you have that tooth looked at, even though you don’t have dental insurance? It’s easy to “win” Spent, in that it’s easy enough to get to the end of the month with money in the bank (though all but impossible to have enough money left to pay the next month’s rent), but to do so, you often have to ignore all other obligations to family and friends, hoarding money obsessively and buying only the bare necessities. You might even have to euthanize the family pet. (Cleverly, the game lets you ask friends for help on Facebook.) For some, Spent will be too close to their own reality to be fun; for those with full-time jobs, it will be a sobering reminder of just how terrible things are for many out there… B



CreaVures

Creator: Muse Games
Platform: Mac, PC
Price: $9.99
Playing CreaVures is like taking a leisurely stroll through the woods. There’s very little intensity, but it’s damn beautiful at times. You play a handful of “CreaVures,” technicolor forest animals that each have a slightly different skillset; you must use their talents to overcome obstacles in this puzzler/side-scroller akin to The Lost Vikings. It takes a while for “puzzles” with non-obvious solutions to emerge, and a set of collectible lights in each level add nothing other than distraction. On the other hand, the game looks really good, with a dreamy, color-tinged forest at night, and the CreaVures themselves have interesting concepts and smooth animation. It’s just a pity that the gameplay never rises above relaxing diversion… B



Sushi Cat 2

Creator: Joey Betz, Jimp, and Dave Cowen for Armor Games
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
How do you improve upon perfection? Such is the dilemma facing Armor Games when creating a second sequel to Sushi Cat, a game whose praises we were singing just a year ago. (We missed covering the interim game, Sushi Cat: The Honeymoon, which continues the story.) The solution? Put Sushi Cat in a goddamn ninja costume. Sushi Cat 2 is the Platonic form of a great sequel: It’s a bigger and better version of the pachinko-based, excessively cute fat-cat adventure where the solution to romantic difficulties is to overeat. The levels are bigger, with more moving parts, the special moves are more exciting to use, and the original game’s biggest annoyance—Sushi Cat getting stuck when he’s too fat—has been tweaked out. Treasure Sushi Cat 2, before the inevitable gritty reboot that is Sushi Cat 3A-



Battleheart

Creator: Kelli Bordner
Platform: iPhone/iPad (Universal Binary)
Price: $2.99
There’s a slickness to Battleheart that makes it easy to forget that it’s a very basic real-time RPG. So basic, in fact, that even though you must choose which four of 12 characters you send to each battle, there are really only a few types of characters. Same goes for the armor and weapons you adorn the characters with; in practical terms, there are only four—well, five if you count the bard, but the bard has been the suckiest choice since the days of Edward in Final Fantasy 2. Still, even though the barbarian and the pirate are essentially the same thing, the animation is cartoonish enough that a fondness for each ally is inevitable (mostly the pirate, because c’mon). And though battle entails a string of familiar bad guys coming at your party, as it always does, the game’s intuitive touch controls and smart auto-command system make Battleheart an engrossing, frantic strategy title… A-



A Short History Of The World

Creator: State Of Play
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
A Short History Of The World adds an ostensibly educational through-line to the Wario Ware-style mini-game romp. Instead of thumb-wrestling or frantically shaving a face, however, you'll be presented with a paint-by-numbers Mona Lisa, or asked to sketch a schematic for The Great Wall of China. In spite of the title screen’s promise to test your “quick-wits,” the history angle is more about bringing thematic cohesion to the 36 boards than providing chunks of infotainment, so the game can be forgiven for including a mythological beast or two. But is coherence even a worthy goal for the genre with the shortest attention span? Some of the more difficult levels are made especially loathsome by the game’s linear construction, since there’s no chance of lucking past them entirely. Good thing, then, that A Short History Of The World offers a few checkpoints along the way—all the better to enjoy the graphical pop State Of Play brings to all their titles. Just don't try it with a trackpad… B-



Test Subject Blue

Creator: Nitrome
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Not every Nitrome game can be as singular as The Bucket, with its raccoon-transportation dynamic. But while Test Subject Blue owes its battery-of-science-experiments conceit and momentum-conserving wormholes to Portal, it delivers those familiar elements in the appealing, goofily retro Nitrome house style with thoughtful level design and plenty of polish. You star as the blue enzyme, enemy of all things orange, and wielder of a big-ass gun that lets you destroy the different varieties of blob (regular, shield-carrying, dodging) and trigger switches that temporarily dismantle the game’s ubiquitous transporters. The same task lies before you at the beginning of every stage: Reach the keycard that opens the way to a tasty pill. The variety of obstacles you’ll face in order to reach that pill keeps the game’s 25 levels fresh, with some relying more on fancy footwork and bullet-dodging, and some calling for a bit more gray matter… A-



Interlocked

Creator: We Create Stuff
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
It's unfortunate that every minimalist spatial puzzle game is soundtracked by tranquil New Age jams. Tinkling atmospherics can be infuriating when you’re struggling to solve a tricky brain-bender. Interlocked should have Mastodon’s Crack The Skye playing throughout the struggle to separate individual parts of the game’s structures—something super-aggressive about madness seems appropriate as players are going crazy trying to figure out the game. There are 20 models, each one made out of interlocking blocks. The goal is to take them apart. Interlocked is low on frills: There’s a secondary challenge mode that has you try to complete puzzles as quickly as possible for a five-star rating, but not much else… B



Go Go Sunshine

Creator: Gameshot.org
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
If its play window were shrunk to a 250-by-250-pixel square, you might think Go Go Sunshine was some obnoxious browser ad, with the happy little sun and freakish little cartoon people offering you weight-loss tips or insurance savings. Ugly Flash animation or not, Go Go is actually a tight little puzzle game. You play the sun, but instead of doling out scoops of raisins, your goal is to clear the sky of clouds. Jumping atop a cloud makes it evaporate, so the trick is getting to each one and hopping off before plummeting to the ground, and presumably ushering in a fiery apocalypse. The challenge escalates over 40 stages, introducing thunderclouds and pesky critters like birds and jumping fish that kill you if you touch them. Rather than cluttering the stages with collectibles to tantalize completists, Go Go rewards you with bonus points based on how close you are to the ground when the final cloud disappears, asking you to risk failure for leaderboard fame… B+



BattlePaint

Creator: CFumo
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Games where shapes shoot at other shapes certainly aren’t new in the cheap-/indie-game world, but the action-packed BattlePaint adds the unprecedented touch of paint smears to the aesthetic experience. Really, there’s nothing in BattlePaint that hasn’t been done many times before. Fans of Geometry Wars, say, will recognize the template. But BattlePaint is well-suited to playing a game or two between doing other things, getting immersed in your little yellow square firing upon the endless swarm of colored squares spawning all over the map. Really, the game might be a touch too easy—even when there are multiple spawn points popping up all over the map, it’s simple to run around, firing blindly backward, as enemies chase several steps behind—but it’s gratifying to see the enemy squares explode in showers of paint that stain the floor, and the pacing ramps up nicely… B



Sugar, Sugar

Creator: Bart Bonte
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Whether you’re playing Bart Bonte's frenetic, literal-minded Klikwerk or his latest game, the meditative Sugar, Sugar, it quickly becomes apparent that the man knows how to make simplicity satisfying. Deft cursor-work is a must in this sucrose-wrangling game, as players attempt to guide localized sugar-storms from the title’s comma down to the waiting cups of coffee by doodling peaks for the sweetener to tumble down and valleys to contain it. The sugar can be maddeningly slow—especially when it piles up in drifts—but the reduced speed is part of the game’s appeal, and you’ll likely need those extra moments once gravity-reversal buttons and dyes get thrown into the mix. The absence of an eraser tool means that the reset button will get quite a workout, but if you manage to complete all of the game’s 30 levels without suffering a severe sugar crash, you'll gain access to the tantalizing freeplay mode. B

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