November 23, 2009

Broken Legs
Creator: Sarah Morayati
Platforms: Mac, PC, Linux (interactive fiction interpreter required)
Price: Free
A theater brat with delusions of grandeur isn’t anyone’s idea of a sympathetic protagonist, so feel free to hate Lottie Plum, the prepubescent whelp of a songstress you play in Broken Legs, which won second place in the 2009 Interactive Fiction Competition. Author Sarah Morayati channels a pageant princess’ soul in her prose, bringing life to six girls who are auditioning to enter Bridger, a performance academy for precocious young starlets. The atmosphere of petulant backbiting among the passive-aggressive (and aggressive-aggressive) personalities is hilarious, but the story is held back by a clumsy conversation system and incredibly obtuse puzzles. Even with a hint system that fits the context—you call your vindictive stage mother for tips on sabotaging the other girls—the game is essentially impossible to win without a cheat sheet. But perhaps little Lottie is meant to lose… B


Rover’s Day Out
Creators: Jack Welch and Ben Collins-Sussman
Platforms: Mac, PC, Linux (interactive fiction interpreter required)
Price: Free
The top vote-getter in this year’s Interactive Fiction Competition;, Rover’s Day Out, constructs a seemingly impossible story on three levels. You start out in a humble cottage with a picture on the wall—standard text-adventure stuff. The cottage is revealed to be an artificial-intelligence simulation, programmed by scientists on a Martian colony. And then you realize that your actions in the cottage have real consequences for a search-and-retrieval mission in deep space. The narrative spirals off in other directions from there over the next 90 minutes or so, building a fragmentary consciousness so vivid that it transcends the medium’s rudimentary text interface. It’s an engrossing science-fiction experience to rival the genre’s best short stories… A


Guns Of Icarus
Creator: Muse Games
Platform: Browser
Price: $8
The sun rises and sets above your zeppelin, but little else changes in the skies of Guns Of Icarus. Each level follows the same basic format, which amounts to surviving until a timer runs out. Difficulty is measured by how many ships are attacking at once and how many hits it takes to bring them down, yet there’s little visual variation between the tiny crafts blasting at Icarus. While you’re constantly manning turrets to blast airships out of the sky, Icarus is more of a time-management game than a shooter. Players control the pilot, who must run around the deck between different weapons, since each gun can only attack a small portion of the sky. Enemies often swarm your ship from different directions, so it’s nearly impossible to nail them all before they do some damage. As a result, you also have to repair your engines, which keep the timer moving, and your cargo hold, which provides money to trade in for upgrades. While equipping your ship with different types of weapons can provide some variety in play, there just isn’t enough diversity in this short game to make it compelling… C-


The Marionette
Creator: Team Effigy
Platform: PC
Price: Free
The Marionette is built in the icon-driven, point-and-click fashion of adventure games’ heyday in the late ’80s and ’90s. Those games were beloved for their environmental puzzles and storytelling, and The Marionette is certainly a worthy heir. It casts the player as Martin, a sculptor who finds himself in a strange, sad old house with no memory of how he arrived—and who soon learns his only chance to escape death is to participate in the increasingly surreal lessons of a dangerous, traumatized little girl named Alice. Martin’s own emotional damage seems evident from the beginning, staging the mystery of his hazy deeds even as he struggles to make sense of his environment and its antagonist. How players interact with the environment determines Martin’s fate, and the game has several different endings on offer. In many respects, it owes a great deal to cult favorite Silent Hill 2, a breed of pure psychological horror rare in games and outright scary at times, thanks to The Marionette’s rich illustration, engrossing mood music, and compelling imagery: vacant-eyed porcelain dolls and ominous hanging ropes. Though relatively brief and not terribly challenging, it packs a punch… A


Jules Verne’s Secrets Of The Mysterious Island
Creator: Chillingo
Platform: iPhone/iPod Touch
Price: $6.99
Not many games link to a walkthrough from their own main menu, but Jules Verne’s Secrets Of The Mysterious Island is apparently well aware that players will occasionally want a push in the right direction. The style is cut from the same 1990s point-and-click cloth as The Marionette, with an emphasis on creative uses of your inventory, à la Monkey Island. There are interface annoyances—touches sometimes register where you don’t want them to, and the fingertip-controlled camera is disorienting at first—but overall, this large (704 megabyte) game is a pleasure. The tropical-island setting is rendered in lush, modern visuals that render quickly even on older iPhones. Playing the first game in the series, Return To Mysterious Island, will help players understand the story, but it isn’t necessary for enjoying this more polished sequel… B


Eden
Creator: mocolatte
Platform: iPhone/iPod Touch
Price: $2.99
Part of the joy of puzzle games is getting helplessly stuck, then somehow managing to work your way out of the corner. For those seeking hair-pulling frustration, Eden’s control mechanism gets you there faster and lets you quickly find your way out. Each level—there are 40 in all—has you steering a little girl to pick up pieces of fruit, then navigating her to the exit. To do this, you literally flip the square maze on its side with a flick of your fingers, and the girl falls down as gravity would dictate. You’re able to rotate the map 90 degrees in either direction, which means you have to always be thinking a few moves ahead, guiding the girl into the proper spot so that when she does fall, she’s right where you want her to be. Gamers will need time to adjust to the control scheme, as each rotation requires a new survey of the maze landscape—it’s easy to wind up stuck, even on early levels. But while the added dimension in gameplay adds to the anguish, it also allows a new dimension of satisfaction after conquering each perpetually pivoting world. Yet another example of using iPhone controls to move a game genre forward… A-


20 Heroes
Creator: H. Inada
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
20 Heroes is a great reminder that every gaming convention can and should be turned on its head in the pursuit of new ideas. In this case, it’s the notion of having extra lives. The aptly named 20 Heroes puts the lives of 20 heroes in your hands, either all at once, or in any configuration you deem necessary to achieve the sole aim of the pajama-wearing, toothpick-sword-wielding adventurer: reaching the exit sign on each screen. Sometimes it’s advantageous to send a scout ahead, as some platforms will crumble under the weight of your extra guys. Or it might be wise to send an army of clones to more easily thwart the game’s kooky bosses, like a pulsating piñata cat. Though the levels are initially unremarkable, after a couple of stages, 20 Heroes’ unpredictability and weirdness serve as inspiration for finding out what’s up next—like a level with a nod to Space Invaders, and another where a horny man takes your heroes to the restroom to turn them into ghost ladies, which must be used as platforms to escape a return trip to the bathroom stalls… B+


Fetus
Creator: Ted Lauterbach
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Free-games host GameJolt established a theme of minimalism for its third competition, and Fetus certainly is barebones. That doesn’t mean the game is simple or unchallenging, though. It’s an eerie puzzle-platformer where you navigate a gray body to a static-y TV screen. You can walk all the way left and reappear on the right side, or fall down to land on top of platforms high above. The harsh bursts of static between levels and the other bloody gray bodies strewn about give the game a chilling sense of life, even though the action is pretty routine. Some puzzles are simple, like reaching a goal by holding down the right arrow key; others are more thought-provoking, and each move and its consequences should be methodically weighed like a cutthroat game of chess. Toss in fatal laser beams and a few tricky lock-and-key puzzles, and it’s hard to believe something so simple can be so complicated… B


Dungeon
Creator: Cactus (Jonatan Soderstrom) and Mr. Podunkian (Arthur Lee)
Platform: PC
Price: Free
“A horribly hard platformer with bad graphics? This is indie, people,” a forum user commented on Dungeon, a new project by Swedish indie legend Cactus and collaborator Mr. Podunkian. Cactus is renowned for developing inscrutable but progressive games and concepts in just one or two days; Mr. Podunkian claims to have been developing games since he was 5 years old. Thus this joint experiment, cranked out for the regular two-day theme challenges at Ludum Dare, is about as indie as it gets, and “horribly hard” is a spot-on assessment, too. In the sidescrolling platformer, players have only left or right arrow-key movement and a jump of miserly height—it’s as coarse and crude to play as its flickering green-and-white graphics and clomping old-school music. Exuberant captions narrating each screen suggest the developers’ amusement at frustrated players. It’s well-constructed sadism, but the number of players likely to make it past the first two or three screens—let alone feel like they’re in on the conversation—is depressingly small. C

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