Sawbuck Gamer is our occasional roundup of free and cheap games ($10 or less).
Platforms: Linux, Mac, PC, PlayStation 3, PlayStation Vita
Reviewed on: PlayStation Vita
Gravity is the best friend of a Luftrausers pilot. Within seconds of being launched from your aircraft carrier, gravity grabs hold of your stalling fighter plane like an eager dance partner, and the routine begins. The two of you gracefully weave through waves of bullets and suicidal jets. You climb to the clouds before letting gravity take the lead and spinning to the waters below, firing at everything in your path.
Primarily, you’re trying to take down as many enemy boats and planes as you can before your inevitable defeat. For the first few hours, though, it’s the constant barrage of in-game challenges—sink a submarine, encounter a blimp, defeat 20 enemies by crashing into them—that grabs attention. Completing challenges unlocks new parts for your plane. Your rauser is comprised of a weapon, body, and engine, and each one brings its own set of challenges. Every new rauser configuration changes the strategy of a run. The underwater engine turns the normally deadly ocean at the bottom of the screen into a safe haven. The cluster-bomb cannon rewards patience and accuracy with devastating results. No matter how you build your plane, embracing gravity to out-finesse the enemy hordes is Luftrausers’ greatest thrill. [MG]
Creator: Dinosaur Polo Club
Platforms: Browser; announced for Android, iPad, Linux, Mac, and PC
Reviewed on: Browser
Mini Metro constructs a city out of kindergarten shapes and leftover Lucky Charms. It’s a game—in unfinished preview form right now—that invites the player to imagine just who the little symbols filling the window might be, why they might need to go from circle to triangle or square to star on this particular day, and what they might do when they get there. Mini Metro, as its name suggests, is meant to simulate the construction of a subway system, but only up to a point. The game doesn’t have an obvious victory moment. Instead, players try to keep the trains running for as long as possible, delivering enough passengers to beat your own previous personal best. At all times, more passengers are crowding into stations, getting more and more agitated, ready to tear the whole system down.
Mini Metro thrives in the tension that grows between its addictive, weirdly fatalistic structure and the beautiful simplicity of its presentation. Utilizing classic subway system typefaces and bold primary colors, the game’s spare aesthetic is one of its chief virtues, making it all the more frustrating to watch as a station fills past capacity, with no trains due to arrive any time soon and no other solutions available (short of pausing the game and rebuilding from scratch). It’s the best kind of agony, though, felt amid cascading lines of color and small, vibrating shapes—beings who started the day just wanting to get somewhere and instead found themselves in the middle of a system-wide meltdown. You’d tear down the walls, too. [TV]
Jousting was largely discontinued after the grisly death of a French king from sword-related injuries. In its place, carousel—a new form of entertainment that saw daring knights toss a ball around in a circle—came into its own. This decision to stop jabbing one another made sense 400 years ago when life was precious, but what will become of competitive sports 400 years from now when our minds are uploaded into the cloud and life holds no meaning? LAZA KNITEZ!! offers one potential outcome by sprucing up the traditional joust with thick laser beams, neon lights, and outer space arenas.
Each game of LAZA KNITEZ!! finds four honorable space knights stabbing and shooting at one another until a competitor scores enough kills to be crowned the victor. Because this is the future, your horse moves super-fast and your lance shoots lasers. The deathmatch plays out like a modernized game of Joust set in the wrap-around world of Asteroids, where moving left off the screen teleports you to the right side. Setting the action in such tight quarters makes for pleasingly fast-paced combat, especially with a group of fellow humans controlling the knights. It’s simple enough to be picked up quickly and benefits from a bevy of amusing power-ups, like a supercharged laza steed that can’t stop dashing at near light speed. There’s also enough depth to the controls to suggest that with enough practice, you could become an ultimate all-caps LAZA KNITE. And that’ll be great until someone adds a laser beam to a ball and NEO CAROUSEL sweeps the space-nation. [MK]
Keep An Eye
Creators: BlackAsh, ArcadeHero, and DimLight
Of all our senses, sight is the one with which we primarily experience the world. We use vision in countless contexts—from interaction (“nice to see you”) to comprehension (“I see”) to danger (“look out!”)—and the complexity of our optical system has long been held up as “proof” of intelligent design. Perhaps because of this importance, we’ve always been sensitive to eye-related violence. The story of Oedipus ends with the disgraced king poking out his own eyes as retribution for incest and murder. The surrealist short film Un Chien Andalou famously begins with a razor blade slicing through an eyeball. Even animated assaults on the eyeballs are distressing—classic-era cartoons, for all their violence, had a moratorium on such injuries (a taboo gleefully transgressed by The Simpsons with Itchy and Scratchy).
Keep An Eye highlights the importance of eyes in a fun and novel game that’s at least a little squirm worthy. The goal is to help an eyeball reach a portal at the bottom of each level without sustaining too much damage. To aid you in your quest are three small cyclopes, each with their own unique power—one can swing the orb around, one can suck it toward itself, and one can freeze it in midair. You need to pass the eye from creature to creature without letting it hit any obstacles, or it will get bloodier and bloodier until finally popping—something that should be avoided, as you might imagine. The crafty puzzles escalate nicely, with additional abilities and hurdles cropping up just when you might be getting comfortable. It’s a shame there isn’t more to play. It’s possible to complete the whole thing with a perfect score in less than an hour. Here’s hoping the creators set their sights on a sequel. [MC]
Modernist architects rallied around Louis Sullivan’s design philosophy that “form ever follows function.” The thesis is that the shape of any structure should be defined by its intended purpose. Aircraft carriers shouldn’t be tall. Bridges shouldn’t have sharp turns. Candy bars shouldn’t be spherical. But what if your purpose is to make an audience rethink the way they approach a situation? To question why things work the way they do and to find another way?
This is the query posed by Monument Valley, a game largely inspired by M.C. Escher’s drawings of rooms with impossible staircases and similar optical illusions. By experimenting with the illogical architecture, you lead a princess up, down, around, in, and out of a series of towers, all the while helping her come to terms with what happened to her society. The story doesn’t matter much, though, because Monument Valley is more concerned with having you find your way with style and ease.
The game’s form follows its function. The towers are irregularly structured to keep you from growing complacent, yet they are also simple enough that you can easily settle into a whole new one. There is no real conflict. There are no means of failure, and the puzzles aren’t particularly challenging, but there’s something intensely relaxing about the soft colors, the gently shifting geometry, and the casual gate of the princess as she traverses the varied puzzles. Just as the princess works through her personal issues, so too can players find a sense of inner calmness, along with whatever the outer, sideways, upside-down, and backward types of calm might be. [DS]