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March 5, 2012

Katawa Shoujo
Creator: Four Leaf Studios
Platforms: PC, Mac
Played on: PC
Price: Free
Hisao is in demand among his high-school classmates, in spite of a heart arrhythmia that might put a damper on the shenanigans of the average teen heartthrob. At the start of Katawa Shoujo, that illness literally lays Hisao low when a young lass confesses her feelings for him, and he responds with a major coronary event. After months of recovery, Hisao is off to Yamaku Academy, a boarding school for students with disabilities. There are plenty of new opportunities for companionship amid this student body, but while hooking up is certainly part of the game here, it isn’t the win scenario. Your real goal is to just steer Hisao’s life through choices in key conversations and watch as the story unfolds. The expectation is that you’ll go through the story more than once, so players can skip through previously read chunks of text. That’s a necessary feature, considering it can be up to 20 minutes between decision points. Shoujo has little cheesecake, and its history as a labor of love—fans of another visual novel spent five years making this game—is reflected in its tender exploration of growing up with a disability. The writing isn’t lyrical, but it’s warm and honest enough to be carried by the character art, photographed settings, and music that surround it… B

10 Bullets

Creator: Michel Gerard
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
10 Bullets is about making every shot count. You control one lonely turret in the middle of an airfield while fleets of presumably evil ships glide through the sky above. Their numbers are infinite, but you only have 10 shots to bring down as many bogies as you can. You’ve got this much going for you: When one of your bullets hits a ship, it sends a couple pieces of shrapnel flying out into the sky. And should that shrapnel hit other ships, they blow up too, of course, with even more spectacular explosions. Whether this chain reaction fizzles out or keeps building on itself is, before long, a matter of luck. But there’s still a pleasure in watching the sequence of destruction bounce back and forth across the screen, and knowing you were the progenitor of such hypnotic chaos… B


Creator: Peter Hastings
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Proke is ultra-simple, both in design and execution: You start off with a prefix, a suffix, a little yellow Eyezmaze-style humanoid standing on a platform, and a countdown. The challenge is to come up with words beginning with that prefix or ending with that suffix before time runs out. Pick the prefix, and the suffix will change, and vice versa, so there are always new options; using the same chunk of letters over and over gives you multipliers as your words build a tower for your little humanoid. There are several ways to gain multipliers and expand your tower faster, like boosting your character’s level by meeting increasingly frightening goals. (Ten words that include both Q and X? Yikes.) And meeting height requirements adds time to your countdown clock. But for the right kind of word nerd, Proke is utterly addictive, regardless of achievements, badges, or accomplishments. It moves quickly, it’s constantly changing, it’s an intellectual challenge, and it’s fun to see that ambitious little humanoid zoom up the tower as you prove what a vocabulary-rich smarty-pants you are… B+

Tales From Space: Mutant Blobs Attack

Creator: Drinkbox Studios
Platform: PlayStation Vita
Price: $7.99
Tales From Space: Mutant Blobs Attack, the sequel to Tales From Space: About A Blob, is a delightful comic revenge fantasy of epic proportions that has been confined to a modest downloadable release for the PlayStation Vita. After escaping a torturous science facility, your mutant blob wreaks havoc on mankind. Taking a page from Katamari Damacy, your blob can gather obstacles to increase in size, allowing it to breach barriers and take on larger threats. You begin by feeding off chips scattered about student dorm rooms, but by the midpoint of the game, you’re feasting on people, tanks, and helicopters. Controls are spot-on, with inventive level design requiring players to shift objects in the environment, toggle the blob’s magnetic charge to alter its trajectory around metal, and even fly. The environments overflow with clever advertisements that contain puns, memes, and references to other indie developers, while the Craig McCracken-esque art style gives the whole thing a snappy, upbeat vibe… A

Wind-Up Knight

Creator: Robot Invader
Platforms: Android, iPhone/iPad (Universal Binary)
Reviewed on: iPhone
Price: Free
Wind-Up Knight is a beautiful, propulsive game whose difficulty only makes it that much more fulfilling. The protagonist, a clockwork knight who is constantly running forward, has to dodge traps and slice enemies as he travels through each stage. Because of the intricacy of the levels and a diverse range of add-ons to the knight’s armor, the game’s toughness never turns into a slog. That’s important, since players may have to repeat levels many times before beating them. The game’s cheeky, self-referential sense of humor are added bonuses: Each stage provides tips for “how to be a proper princess,” and the villain sends out taunts via email. The only downside is the price. The game is free to download, but to play beyond the first few levels, you have to pay up… A

Hambo 2: Hamtouchables

Creators: Rob Donkin, RobotJam
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Hambo 2: Hamtouchables dresses itself up in gangster trappings to mask the reality that the game is Angry Birds, except players control a gun-toting, fedora-wearing pig instead of a snarling cardinal. Aside from coating the screen in references to The Untouchables, Hambo 2 brings nothing new to an already-tired genre. The different weapons, puzzles, and obstacles are all retreads, done earlier and better in countless browser games and apps, including the original Hambo. The result is competent, but boring… C-

Ms. Particle-Man

Creator: Michael Falk
Platform: iPhone/iPad (Universal Binary)
Played on: iPad
Price: $0.99
Ms. Particle-Man is really hard, but in the same way Pac-Man was hard: Levels are won or lost by the tiniest movements, and dying only fuels the desire to achieve perfection the next time around. Unlike in Pac-Man, movements that make or break a run will vary level by level. In your search for the Higgs boson, Ms. Particle-Man must navigate around glowing walls, defy gravitational fields, and occasionally leap onto nearby platforms to collect energy particles. One minute, you’re swiping your finger across the screen to narrowly avoid neon dust, and the next, you’re frantically swiping upward so your character doesn’t plummet to her doom. Then you’re standing back and taking in an entire level, timing your jumps to hit at just the right time. The mechanics of Ms. Particle-Man are always in flux, but the proto-8-bit aesthetic remains the same, including menacing low-tone music and odes to the original Pac-Man and Super Mario Bros. sprinkled throughout. The difficulty means players will often retrace their steps, but with just a few pixel strokes, Ms. Particle-Man has created a rich world that isn’t laborious to re-explore… A

Mardi Gras Mayhem

Creator: Nerdook Productions
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Mardi Gras Madness skews Mardi Gras as much as it celebrates Mardi Gras. Your character just proposed to his girlfriend, and she says “no,” unless you can afford an expensive ring. So naturally, you bounce on the heads of Mardi Gras patrons, shaking loose money that will buy mobility-boosting upgrades—and eventually the ring. To be successful, you have to completely give in to the chaos of the event and let yourself be flung across the landscape, unencumbered by the energy-sapping underwear that comes flying at you. Amid the chaos, you still get to ogle the weirdos parading around in garish hats, or the abundance of topless hairy men with blurred-out man-boobs. (Funny, but sometimes the world can feel overly cartoony.) Mardi Gras Madness allows you to control your environment with power-ups, but most don’t really have much of an effect until much later in the game… B


Creator: Joliner
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Crumpled should be used to fend off Alzheimer’s disease, at least if it’s played solo. When it comes to mental multi-tasking, this little puzzler about jumping has you navigating both a stick figure and a shape-shifting blob through a series of 30 mazes. Some walls only let the stick man through, while others only permit access to the blob. Spatial awareness is only half the challenge, though. Complex challenges test players’ reflexes, too—like one early stretch in which you must bend time and keep the blob hovering in midair so your man can hop across a gaping chasm. It only gets more taxing from there, which means the wisest approach is to team up with a friend to play as the blob. To force your brain and hands into some potentially life-extending exertion, though, do it alone… B


Creator: Zimzam
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Quantum may or may not take place in the same world as Jim Henson’s Labyrinth. Your creepy, google-eyed wheel monster—who poops portals, no less—looks a lot like those eyeball-covered vines that Jennifer Connelly passes by when she first gets to the Goblin King’s neighborhood. Though based on the woodsy surroundings and droning ambient soundtrack, Quantum might also be inspired by a Nature Company store circa 1997. It’s hard to tell. What you do in Quantum is equally inscrutable at first. The first few of the game’s 25 stages hints that you’re just pitching your heavy wheel across a woodsy landscape. Then comes the portal-pooping. Double-clicking the mouse will pitch a white portal door that sticks to some surfaces, but not all, and the game quickly becomes a tricky game of shots, both of portals and your wheeled self… B

Snow Drop: Twisted Fairy Tales

Creator: DifferenceGames LLC
Platform: Android
Price: $1.99
Snow Drop is well-made, but it’s hard to justify paying for a game that’s over in 30 minutes. The game is a picture book where you reveal the next page by playing Concentration. You have a moment to try to memorize where all the beautifully drawn images are, and then they flip over. You earn points by getting streaks of correct matches. When the board is cleared, the narrator tells a bit more of the story, a version of Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs with a charming twist ending. Once the story is done, you could go to the next difficulty level, but the lack of a scoreboard gives no meaningful incentive to replay the game… B-


Creator: SpikeVallentine
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
The latest release from veteran flash game developer SpikeVallentine is the gorgeous point-and-click adventure Memohuntress. You play as a young runaway trying to earn the money to return home by finding people’s lost items. The poignant, well-acted story takes you through gorgeous, lively scenes filled with bizarre characters and creatures. Hints are available as often as you want them, so the later levels’ difficulty doesn't need to get in the way of enjoying the story. Stop to watch the figures in motion, not just because they can reveal the items you’re looking for, but because seeing an amorous ninja fox steal a kiss while sharing berries with his sweetheart is just awesome… A

Zombies, Inc.

Creator: AethosGames
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
A strategy sim game where you manage a corporation producing the zombie apocalypse sounds fun, but Zombies, Inc. is too easy. You’ll win so long as you can manage the basic math needed to ensure your expenses never exceed your income. There’s never any external pressure, so all you need to do is buy all the upgrades that make you more money, and slowly take over the world. Humans will periodically rise up and retake cities you’ve conquered, but so long as you still have an army, or the money to buy one, you’ll regain your territory easily and just get more money and income in the process. You can even walk away from the game and leave it running, endlessly generating more money, to make your eventual win even easier and more thoughtless. C