May 16, 2011

Pulse: Volume One
Creator: Cipher Prime Studios
Platform: iPad
Price: $4.99
Pulse is a deconstruction of a rhythm game. Gone is the guise of a guitar (or a “hero”). Players interact with complex melodies using a series of concentric circles arranged like an archery target. As the electronically composed songs play, dots appear along the rings, and tapping on each one in sequence brings you closer to completion. Only a handful of songs are included in Volume One, and getting through them all is a breeze—there’s no penalty for missing a chunk of notes. But scoring an elusive 100 percent is tough, especially when syncopated rhythms and multi-touch challenges present themselves. Little graphic flourishes, like colorful Kanye West sunglasses popping from successful notes, lend Pulse the same mesmerizing quality as, say, the Winamp visualizer. (That’s a compliment.) With such a limited song selection, though, the learning curve is steep; even the leap from “tutorial” to the second song is massive. It’s tough to judge Pulse before its universe expands—presumably with future volumes—though from what Pulse brings with Volume One, it appears to be a cohesive rhythmic experience… B+ 



By The Power Of Money

Creator: Enokidake Mushroom
Platform: PC
Price: Free
By The Power Of Money is sort of the polar opposite of the 1985 NES game Wrecking Crew. In Wrecking Crew, Mario and Luigi don their construction-worker helmets to evade weird walking purple wrenches and fireballs to demolish a series of concrete walls. In By The Power Of Money, your goal is simply to reach a precariously placed treasure chest and construct platforms as you navigate each stage, while evading weird silver jellybeans and their brethren. BTPOM adds another interesting wrinkle in that each object you place in the stage costs you cash. Your budget resets at the start of each new stage, and in the later levels, players need to be stingy with luxury items like those pricey, enemy-scattering bombs. It’s more cost-effective to use elevator blocks that move around the stage, but since your character’s movement is so slow, this strategy necessitates waiting until the last second before placing those blocks close to where you’re about to be. This game is entirely in Japanese, but it’s approachable for gaijins like us. Just double-click that treasure chest on the title screen, and the rest is intuitive… B



GemCraft Labyrinth

Creator: Game In A Bottle
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Like the original Gemcraft, Gemcraft Labyrinth at core is a basic tower-defense game: earn mana over time, convert it to gemstones that produce various attacks, place them in towers to eliminate waves of creeps. But players can choose a wide variety of play styles, due to a complex range of options. The many, many strategies include using traps instead of towers, merging the gems in various combinations, and rejiggering upgrade points between levels. The result is an intimidating amount of choice and replayability, particularly given the extensive map of unlockable levels, a bunch of new battle options, and the ability to customize levels with more or tougher or different monsters for additional XP. Play can be grindy and repetitive, but that just encourages players to try out all the options, and the slick, professional graphics and haunting music make returning to this one a painless addiction. With hours upon hours of basic play available, it’s a wonder that there’s anything left for the premium pay-upgraded version… A-



Upgrade Complete 2

Creator: Antony Lavelle
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Like the first Upgrade Complete, the sequel is more a joke on the idea (and addiction factor) of upgradeable games than it is an actual functioning game. The sequel naturally goes further than the original: You win money in simple space-battle shootouts to buy upgrades that will bestow decent graphics and music on the game. But this time, upgrades are also necessary to improve the game’s “politeness” and spelling, to remove an annoying monotone hum, to access the game’s “premium content” at a reasonable price (which is to say $0.00), and much more. Some of the game’s eager humor is pretty funny, but the core experience isn’t particularly functional; the ship-building system is ugly and clunky, and the actual shooter part of the game, upgraded or no, is rough-edged and sloppy. (In fact, the non-upgraded version, with its deliberately lousy visuals and all-vocal sound effects and music, has a handmade feel that’s more charming than the upgraded version.) Many of the game’s surprises are snicker-worthy, but this can be a slog just to repeat a gag that was handled well enough the first time around… C


Glo Flo
Creator: GameTantra
Platform: iPhone
Price: $0.99
There’s a reason those hoary variety-puzzle magazines at the airport newsstand have stuck around so long: They’re kinda fun. Glo Flo adapts a pencil puzzle that has been kicking around from the dawn of time. A bunch of points sit on a grid. You draw lines to connect A to A, B to B, and so on, without allowing any of the paths to cross. In the smartphone version of the format, the points on the grid are cute, colorful glowing bugs, because sure, why not? The puzzles are nicely paced, carefully growing the player’s concept of what can be accomplished in the cramped grid. The addition of a time-attack mode, in which players try to complete an unending march of puzzles as quickly and expertly is possible, is a welcome twist on the pencil-and-paper tradition… B



Thor: Bring The Thunder

Creator: Marvel
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
A browser game can be a rich, artful, time-sucking experience, or it can be a “game”: a cursory series of beeps and boops, jumps and thwaps. Guess which one Thor: Bring The Thunder is. It’s probably crazy to want anything artful from a dumb little marketing gimmick for the Thor movie—by the way, have you heard about Thor? Thor Thor Thor! There’s a thing called Thor, the movie!—but throwback graphics have a way of inflating expectations. The aesthetic is the only thing in Thor: Bring The Thunder that’s remotely interesting (and nowadays, nailing the 8-bit aesthetic is hardly worth more than a golf-clap, unless it comes with a Gatsby-level of commitment). Thor: Bring The Thunder involves a hammer. It involves collecting apples for points. But mostly it involves Thor jumping and thwapping, beeping and booping his way past repetitive enemies and obstacles called “spikes.” Have you heard of those? They’re all the rage in “games”… D-



Soul Brother

Creator: Jasper Byrne
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Soul Brother starts off in all the right ways. It’s fast, endearing, the jams are crunchy, and the game tells you to kill yourself within the first 60 seconds of play. You will be doing this a lot in Jasper Byrne’s pixelated jump-and-puzzle game. Navigating the interconnected maze of screens requires careful timing and speed management, which is standard twitchy fare, but Soul Brother distinguishes itself by making the use of different characters into another managerial task. The goal is to reach the end of the stages while also collecting glowing gems and avoiding traps. In order to achieve these goals, you have to constantly slip into different bodies: a cat who can double-jump, a bird who can fly over gaps, etc. Many of the screens require you to jump between three bodies in a specific order to get through, which adds a cerebral edge to the action… B+



Spike: A Love Story

Creator: Matzerath
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Do you think the Thwomps—those grim-faced slabs of concrete and pointy death—get bored waiting in Bowser’s castle? They’re fixtures, but they’re also clearly sentient. Spike: A Love Story ponders the plight of the trap-based enemy and its lonesome existence. You are a googly-eyed, jagged-edged spike trap hanging from the ceiling of some woeful fortress when a running, jumping adventurer comes along. You press the space bar to smear him on the ground in a cartoonish, gruesome manner, with 25 tries to do so. At the end, you receive a rating on how many kills you landed, and you unlock an extra survival mode. The game makes a number of silly references to other games through the little hero’s attempts to dodge you. It’s cute and surprisingly challenging. There are no huge laughs, but the orgasmic look of pleasure on the spike trap’s face when you land a kill is funny enough that it doesn’t get old… B



Transylvania

Creator: BeGamer.com
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
It’s rare for a game to casts players as somnambulistic tubers, let alone a potato who can drive himself across large swaths of Eastern Europe while sleeping. Transylvania is, disappointingly, not a weird fable about the dangers of Ambien, but a simple, spooky point-and-click adventure. Mr. Potato Man is lost in the hometown of Bram Stoker’s famous vampire, and must be guided home across a series of booby-trapped screens. You click on objects in the environment to clear the way, eliminating dangers and solving simple puzzles. A gargoyle’s wings must be tweaked to lower a bridge here, a set of mirrors arranged to evade the devil there. The puzzles aren’t liable to keep players up at night, but they do require a moment or two of thought… B



Dwarfs!?

Creator: Power Of 2
Platform: PC
Price: $9.99
A certain kind of great Sawbuck game acts as a distillation, assembling the best parts of more complex games, and filtering out everything else, like Desktop Dungeons did for RPGs. Dwarfs!? is a perfect example of that model. It’s a real-time strategy game built around moments of panic. You control an underground colony of warriors and diggers, who quickly set out on their own to improve their tunnels. (The creators acknowledge getting inspiration from the indie favorite Dwarf Fortress.) Your job? Stop them from ruining everything. Often this means screaming at your idiot dwarf to hurry up and plant the dynamite before the damn lava spills into your base and destroys everything, ruining the high score you’re so close to posting. Compulsively playable, Dwarfs!? makes losing even more fun than ever… A



Alphaland

Creators: Jonas Kyratzes and Terry Cavanagh
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Alphaland plays on the experiences of any player who might venture into a game’s command-line console to turn on “no_clip” or has “fallen through the world” when a bit of buggy code sputtered and died. And while Jonas Kyratzes gets points for the clever concept, the execution feels like an afterthought. The game opens with an email from the creator thanking you for helping him alpha-test his new game about a big, chunky pixel grabbing a power-up. Within a few seconds, you’re falling through screens of garbled graphics while the droning soundtrack that signals “art game” fades in, alongside some reversed speech. Onscreen text cues display what’s either irrelevant information about player position or hints on how to solve puzzles. There’s no real difficulty, though, and the melancholy, caps-locked hand-wringing of “WHAT AM I?” and “WHAT WILL HAPPEN TO ME WHEN I DIE?” that pepper the background feel like a parody of highfalutin gaming… C+



Coin Drop!

Creator: Full Fat
Platforms: iPhone/iPad (Universal Binary)
Played on: iPhone
Price: $0.99
In the highly polished Coin Drop!, players drop a limited number of coins from the top of the screen and have to clear the board of four bad pennies to advance. High scores can be obtained by hitting every peg, having the coins land in a sequence of buckets at the bottom, and completing other objectives, like chipping away at little structures that dot the coinscape. While the game resembles Peggle in that it’s also clearly inspired by pachinko, levels of Coin Drop! are more complex than anything in PopCap’s game. Pegs rotate, coins can bounce off patrolling objects, and tactics are involved in deciding how many coins to drop at once. There’s even the matter of deciding when to shake your iPhone to redirect a coin’s momentum. Some boards are so chaotic that it feels nearly impossible to do much more than drop coins and hope for the best… A-



Squid Drop

Creator: Nor Eagle
Platform: iPhone
Price: $0.99
Escaping Cthuloid monsters has never been so cute. Squid Drop puts players in control of a small black squid that’s trying to get as deep as possible in a sea filled with treacherous ledges and squamous creatures. Each board is randomly determined, and you guide your perpetually concerned-looking cephalopod with the touch screen. Achievements are well-integrated, rewarding you with special bubbles that can increase your score, say, or provide brief invulnerability. Constant death is anticipated, with a misstep causing your squid to burst into orbs of ink. (There’s even a bonus for dying within 10 seconds of starting a level.) This would be fine if losing was always a matter of skill, but some levels are practically impossible, with the only safe passage down depositing your squid onto a hazard that you have no chance to evade [Note: See the comment from developer T. Benjamin Larsen below regarding impossibility. —ed.]B-



Universe Sandbox

Creator: Giant Army
Platform: PC
Price: $9.99
“Physics are fun,” says Universe Sandbox. The gleeful moment when you explode Jupiter—only to see its smaller spheres immediately gloop back together—indicates that indeed, physics can be surprisingly enjoyable. The game/plaything possesses a powerful system in which players can create and reshape planets, stars, and moons. Observing the behavior of altered solar systems can be a stellar experience—maybe even educational! Unfortunately, with great power comes great opacity. After a helpful (though light) tutorial, Universe Sandbox offers little guidance for aspiring unmoved movers. A more robust set of tutorials, a manual, or even the use of Steam Achievements to encourage varied behavior would go a long way toward helping players make their own music of the spheres… B



Langman

Creator: Von Lehe Creative
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
“Attach a platformer to everything!” seems to be the credo of some indie developers. So why not Hangman? Langman does a fine job of infusing the old car-trip letter-guessing mainstay with run-and-jump action. Your character stands on the guessing letters in order to select them. As you progress, it becomes harder to jump over to different letters, and falling will cost you a guess, while correctly chaining multiple letters in a row garners you more guesses. The balance is slightly off, and there’s no real depth, but Langman does enough things right that it’s far better than its high-concept premise might suggest… B+



Appy-1000mg

Creator: Bart Bonte
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Made for the 48-hour Ludum Dare game-making contest, Appy-1000mg is a forgettable platformer from a notable developer: Bart Bonte. His recent game Sugar, Sugar was an original bit of brain-warping fun, but it’s probably best to chalk up the mute, anodyne world of Appy-1000mg to bad luck and unforgiving time constraints. Clumsy controls and molasses-slow action give the impression of playing one of those diminutive “games within a game” that sometimes appear in adventure titles, and even allowing for the conditions of the contest, there’s no kernel of a compelling concept to be found. During the day, players only have to avoid pools of water, but at night, the landscape goes all Simon’s Quest and transforms loveable pink blobs into monstrosities who explode on contact, taking chunks of the environment with them. Until the game’s final moments, it’s unclear what the antennaed hero is even up to. Aside from that tiny question mark, there’s little to justify clicking through Appy-1000mg’s two-minute quest… D+



Have You Considered The Benefits Of Life Insurance

Creator: Justin Smith
Platform: PC
Price: Free
Actuarial action doesn’t get much more gripping than this. Another Ludum Dare 20 entry, Have You Considered The Benefits Of Life Insurance places players in the role of a harried life-insurance salesman who must pacify his trophy wife with precious baubles like a convertible, a designer handbag, and a giraffe. The only way to pay for all these things is by signing up new insurance customers. Unfortunately, your customer base is an anonymous tribe of wandering idiots with a propensity to stumble into bottomless pits of death. Each person you sign up pays a hefty $1-per-second premium, but if a customer dies, you pay out $100. The general strategy is to insure the safest-seeming plebes and fill in the most threatening pits—at $20 a pop—as they spawn on the field of play. Aesthetically, it’s pretty spare, as most game-jam productions are. But Have You Considered has traces of the humor that informed Justin Smith’s previous effort, Enviro-Bear 2000, and the originality of the idea carries it home. B

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