Nov. 21, 2011

A flying whale eats rainbow bubbles, and a man pursues a hat

Mushroom Madness 3
Creator: Silen Games
Platforms: Browser
Price: Free
Each subsequent Mushroom Madness game has preserved the original game’s cartoony-cute design and basic functions, while considerably expanding the experience, and game No. 3 is no exception: You’re still protecting your mushroom patches from marauding animals, but now there are more weapons, more play modes, bigger upgrades, more new goals, and more critters—each of which pose specific challenges. This is essentially a gussied-up take on whack-a-mole (and perhaps in recognition, the moles are the most annoying opponents in the game), but it features an impressive amount of gussying, with tower-defense levels, “adventure” levels, a survival mode, different flavors of pure whacking mode, side goals, and more. It’s also professionally slick-looking and smooth, with a well-balanced difficulty system that still lets players charge ahead if they’re enjoying themselves, or drop back to earn upgrades to make things easier if they aren’t. This is a speed game rather than a thinking game, but for speed-game fans, it’s one of the best, most polished freebies out there… A



Whale Trail

Creator: Ustwo Studio
Platforms: iPhone/iPad (Universal Binary)
Played on: iPhone
Price: $0.99 
Whale Trail is just plain awesome. It’s quirky but not twee, simple but not rudimentary, and difficult, but not hard enough to push players to give up. Players control Willow the Whale as it flies across the sky, eating rainbow-colored bubbles and dodging evil clouds. The bubbles generally form a wavy line to be easily scooped up, but as the game goes on, they split off, creating different paths to follow. This, and the fact that the levels are randomly generated, gives Whale Trail a looseness that distinguishes it from similar games such as Tiny Wings. Instead of just piloting the whale across a set path, you can loop-de-loop back for missed bubbles, or careen up to the highest part of the playing field before free-falling back down. It also comes with a theme song (and kick-ass music video!) from Gruff Rhys of Super Furry Animals, and to sweeten the deal, the promise of frequent updates and add-ons… A



Nick Toldy And The Legend Of Dragon Peninsula

Creator: Red Herring Labs
Platforms: Browser
Price: Free
It’d be nice if someday, videogames found a better motivator than “You’re a dude, so go rescue a princess.” Especially if that rescue is going to wind up like the one in Nick Toldy And The Legend Of Dragon Peninsula, the kind of humor game that assumes players all have the same immature-male sense of humor. Framework aside, though, it’s a reasonably deep, well-illustrated point-and-click game of the “gather items, solve puzzles” variety. In the game’s favor, the goals are almost always clear and sensible, and the problem is just figuring out how to accomplish them. To its detriment, it’s sometimes harder than it needs to be, largely due to design flaws—it’s obvious enough when you have to combine four items to make the one item you need, but it turns out that for no good reason, you have to combine them in the specific order the designers had in mind. And periodically you’ll need to “wait” to accomplish a goal, often by stepping out of a room and back in, again for no good reason. But these irritations are usually minor, and the puzzle solutions are often clever and even entertaining on their own. It’s worth playing through just for the moment where you figure out what to do with the intoxicated parrot… B



Cursed Dungeon

Creator: Awoker Games
Platforms: Browser
Price: Free
The auto-attack mode in Cursed Dungeon means it almost plays itself during the battles that make up most of the game, as two static figures face each other across the screen and a blur of numbers goes by to indicate the damage they’re doing to each other. But as the opponents get tougher (nominally, you’re working your way down through a dungeon, apparently of the cursed variety), players will have to get involved by stabbing frantically at the special-attack buttons, trying to get in more powerful magic attacks and effects to sway the direction of each fight. Not that it much matters; death is a minimal barrier, unless you’re playing in hardcore mode. Which is good, because the difficulty ramps up fast, and you generally won’t know how much it’s changed until you abruptly die—especially since there’s no way to back out of a battle. It’s a curious mixture of passive play and speed game, and it’s hugely repetitive—enter a battle, watch it skim by, get a pile of upgrade points and treasure to blow on better armor and weapons, then whiz through more battles. But combats zip by so quickly (a one-on-one combat takes about five seconds, a serial battle more like 15) that it’s easy to get into the upgrade-fight-upgrade-fight rhythm and make it through the whole game. The elaborate art and the variety of opponents helps, but ultimately, this dungeon becomes a grind with little reward, apart from a cap on the barely there frame story… C-



Pursuit Of Hat

Creator: Anton Rogov
Platforms: Browser
Price: Free
So you’re a little floppy rag-doll creature with a purple hat, except the hat keeps rebelliously disappearing and popping up on the far side of a series of obstacles. What to do, given your general lack of resources? How about ripping off your own stripy limbs and potato-shaped body to use as weights and triggers? After all, you only need a head to wear a hat. Pursuit Of Hat’s 20 levels all play with this startling yet adorable premise, asking players to puzzle out the various ways their limbs and body can be used to hold down buttons and shift balances in order to get to that escaped hat. The puzzles get tougher toward the end, but they’re mostly pretty simple—this is one of those games that seems like a proof of clever concept, just waiting for some fiendish players to start generating their own levels. Until then, players can enjoy the sweet, vaguely Seussian pastel design, and the well-animated way their hat-craving avatar slopes around the screen, determinedly tearing limbs off and sticking them back on… B+



W.E.L.D.E.R.
 
Creators: Ayopa Games, Highline Games
Platforms: iPhone/iPad (Universal Binary)
Played on: iPhone
Price: $1.99
W.E.L.D.E.R. is like the puggle of iOS games, a shrewd crossbreeding of two popular breeds—in this case Scrabble and Bejeweled—to create one universally lovable mutt. A third-grade writing level is the single barrier to entry. Create words of four letters or longer by swapping letter tiles on an eight-by-eight grid. The longer the word, the more points. The more points, the more swaps. Run out of swaps, and game over. In theory, the goal is to survive all 12 stages, carefully conserving swaps and forming multi-word combos. Played this way, W.E.L.D.E.R. is challenging, yet tedious, like a Sunday-morning crossword puzzle. However, players may find casual pleasure in using the game to expand their vocabulary. When the falling tiles inadvertently create an unusual word, the in-game dictionary becomes a learning tool. In that way, it transcends its board-game inspiration: Instead of punishing players with dictionary checks, it turns new knowledge into a reward… B+



Mage Gauntlet
 
Creator: Rocketcat Games
Platform: iPhone
Price: $2.99
Mage Gauntlet’s 16-bit world might as well have been drawn on trace paper over a Chrono Trigger strategy guide. This isn’t a particularly original way to develop a videogame, though it can prove lucrative. Many an indie developer has made a modest living doing as much. The differentiator here is quality. From the melodramatic score to the goofy character art to the deep character-customization menu, Mage Gauntlet tirelessly imitates its inspiration down to the pixel. It’s as though the warm feelings from JRPGs of the ’90s are being called to attention all at once. Which is sort of the problem. It feels as though Rocketcat Games would like nothing more than to recover the lost Saturdays of childhood. That isn’t in the cards—barring downloadable content that doubles as a time machine, which, let’s be honest, could be used for better purposes, like preventing World War II or canceling a Duke Nukem Forever pre-order. Mage Gauntlet is a link to the past, but it feels like its creator would be happier if it were literally A Link To The Past… B



Hood: Episode 2

Creator: Lorestrome
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
The second part in a point-and-click series re-imagining “Little Red Riding Hood,” Hood 2 improves on some of its predecessor’s flaws, but still remains mired by its poor structure. The idea of recreating the fairy tale as a mystery where the big bad wolf is a well-spoken witch-hunter is intriguing. The difficulty with getting puzzle games like this right is making sure that the tasks are challenging without being too dependent on chance, and both Hood games fail in this respect. Players have to click with abandon across the various stages, hoping a helpful item will appear. And since items only become available once certain plot points are passed, endless backtracking is needed to go over all the ground covered. Even with all the excess clicking, Hood 2 also only clocks in at about half an hour, making it thankfully short… C-



Shore Siege 2

Creator: Armor Games
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Plants Vs. Zombies becomes Pirates Vs. Sea Creatures in Shore Siege 2, which is unfortunate, since most tower-defense games pale in comparison to PVZ. Yet Shore Siege 2 fares better than most, and it adds some ideas that make the experience more efficient. As your pirate brethren shoot at incoming monsters (many of whom look like marshmallows), you can speed up the action with a fast-forward button, making what would be an hourlong level go by in a flash. That’s a relief, since the game is fairly long, but it also makes the entire experience feel a little rote: you set up your defenses, hit fast-forward, rinse, and repeat. While PVZ changed the playing field as a way to stave off boredom, Shore Siege 2 keeps its field static. Yes, there are new weapons and upgrades as you go along, but that isn’t enough… B



Focus

Creator: Jesse Venbrux and Joseph Ivie
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Focus isn’t really a suggestion: It’s more an imperative. If you don’t pay attention to what you are doing at every single second in Jesse Venbrux’s spartan puzzle-platformer, you won’t progress past the first handful of stages. The game’s first task is to escape a small cage, as you control a little googly-eyed head with feet around black rooms filled with brown blocks. Each room has a locked door that must be opened by hitting multiple yellow switches. At first, it’s simply a matter of walking up to them, but soon, you have to trick missile launchers in the rooms into firing on the switches to trigger them. While you can move and jump normally, the real action comes after you collect the blue gems in early stages. These allow you to “focus,” creating a blue sphere that slows time around your tiny head and allows you to fling yourself in whatever direction you want, even through walls and floors. Each collected gem expands the outer limits of the sphere. By the eighth room, multiple heat-seeking missile-launchers are firing on you in a room predominantly filled with spikes, making for harried, brutal challenges. Focus recalls Super Meat Boy in its practice-makes-perfect cruelty, but the precision necessary here quickly makes it exhausting, even if you aren’t playing on Insane difficulty. The simplicity and challenge is appealing, but only the most masochistic will play it all the way through… B



Gyossait

Creator: Amon26
Platforms: Browser
Price: Free
There ain’t no poetry like bad goth poetry: “Down with all of your hate / This steely totem of rage / You’re becoming as the wrath of the forgotten one.” Humdingers like that are all over Gyossait, but while it initially makes an impression as some lost 1995 collaboration between Trent Reznor and Clive Barker at their most self-serious, the game is remarkable. Genuinely unsettling at times, thanks to a mixture of excellent sound design and chunky, impressionistic pixel graphics, Gyossait is an Orpheus story. It’s a platformer about descending into the underworld to rescue someone you love, and the difficult decisions that descent entails. The play is simple: Beneath the gnarled visuals are eminently familiar platforms, pits, and enemies that are fulfilling and difficult, but the best part is halfway through, when the game gives you the option to do violence. It doesn’t explicitly spell out some overwrought moral choice, it merely gives you the option to defend yourself or become aggressive, a fitting embodiment of the choice to give up your humanity for what you want. Saying more would mean  giving up Gyossait’s admirable ghosts. Take the game’s advice at the beginning. Play in low light with few distractions… A



Yeti

Creator: “Mennonite Software” (a.k.a. Metanet Software)
Platform: PC
Price: Free
A precursor to Metanet Software’s upcoming Office Yeti, Yeti tells the story of the mythological mammal’s journey from the snowy Himalayas to the bustling metropolis. This is presented as a documentary, with players controlling the camera. Most of the screen is a blank black background, with the field of vision limited to what you can capture through the lens. This creates undue pressure where priorities are split between examining the environment and tracking your subject. Unfortunately, it soon becomes apparent that this doesn’t matter, as progression through the plot is impossible until you click on a handful of hidden objects. While your agency is limited, the script is amusing, thanks to the Yeti’s nonchalant reactions to absurd predicaments, complemented by the narrator’s pretentious commentary. As a prologue, it’s intriguing, and we actually learn the origins of how this woolly creature got his conspicuous red tie… C+



Stealth Bastard

Creator: Curve Studios
Platform: PC
Price: Free
In spite of the name, Stealth Bastard’s protagonist is a scholar and a gentlemen compared to his covert brethren in the videogame world. Solid Snake slits throats, Sam Fisher snaps necks, and Adam Jensen impales guards with blades emanating from his elbows. Hacking terminals and avoiding detection by security drones in Stealth Bastard is downright tame by comparison. Since the player lacks any offensive maneuvers, Stealth Bastard’s infiltration is more cerebral than the crude title suggests. The clever design effortlessly combines sneaking, navigation puzzles, and traditional platforming. Though your abilities are limited to jumping and interacting with switches, illumination plays an important role. Taking a page from Splinter Cell, the game lets the the color of your glowing goggles dictate visibility, so reconstituting light sources becomes crucial. Aside from the campaign’s 28 stages, there are options to create and share your own as well, adding more value to an already-impressive package…



Pole Riders

Creator: Bennet Foddy
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Where most games act as wish-fulfillments by letting players achieve the impossible with few button-presses, QWOP creator Bennet Foddy is interested in doing the opposite: turning simple tasks into Herculean efforts. This is done with a smile, though, transforming failure into ludicrous physical comedy. Foddy’s new title, Pole Riders, continues his trend of starring athletes with impaired motor skills, this time putting you in the sneakers of a pole-vaulter. While a clumsy jumper isn’t as humorous as QWOP’s marionette-like runner, who could hardly walk without flipping backward, Pole Riders makes up for its less-inspiring premise with the addition of competitive multiplayer. Sharing a keyboard, two players must compete at maneuvering their wobbly apparatus to kick a horizontally tethered ball toward their goal across the field. Too silly to inspire any serious rivalry, the competitive aspect merely provides a framework for guffaws… B+



Dark Dot

Creator: Gambit Game Lab
Platform: iPad
Price: Free
Dark Dot is a free game, which bears mentioning because when the game fizzles out after only four levels, it’s at least somewhat forgivable. Dark Dot is a promising vertical scroller where you’re given an army of dots that shoot down cloud monsters automatically. The strategy comes in how you place them on the board as rocks and shrubs come into view and obstruct your path. At the beginning of each level, you draw a circle, and your guys stay within the area you’ve laid down. To get them to spread out, you spread out the circle; to get them closer together, you pinch it closed, or draw a new shape with your hand… you get it; you know how iPads work. Dexterity means survival, and the game progresses lightning-quick, so there’s a brisk momentum to the learning curve. Then, four levels and about 30 minutes in, it’s over. It’s hard to judge a game based on its length, but in this case, Dark Dot feels too much like a missed opportunity… C+



Sota

Creator: Exelents
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to be the guy who configures wi-fi routers at the office… no, you haven’t. But somebody made a game about it anyway. It’s called Sota, and the idea is to place a limited number of wireless access points around a playfield so that every inch of the place (or close to it) can receive a signal. The little cell towers appear to be using Zack Morris-era wireless tech, though, because their radio waves can’t even penetrate a measly sheet of drywall. As a result, the broadcast from each widget is limited to direct line of sight. It seems like it’d be tough to ensure blanket coverage under such limitations, but in Sota, it really isn’t. The majority of the levels amount to some variation on “an open square with a couple of triangle walls in the middle”—okay, sometimes there are THREE triangles. Calling the game easy to figure out implies that there’s any figuring-out to be done. A glimmer of challenge only arrives around level 35 or so, after which the game abruptly ends. C-