Our cheap-game roundup ponders the afterlife of video game characters

Our cheap-game roundup ponders the afterlife of video game characters

Sawbuck Gamer is our occasional roundup of free and cheap games ($10 or less).

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Creator: Jason Oda
Platforms: iPad/iPhone (Universal)Mac, PC, Linux
Reviewed on: Mac
Price: iPad/iPhone (Universal)—$4; Mac, PC, Linux—$10

It’s the philosophical quandary that has plagued mankind for all of recorded time, explored by the likes of Plato, Kant, and Squirrel Nut Zippers. What happens to us when we die? Not our bodies, but our consciousness, our identities, our minds. Where do we go? What do we experience? The afterlife isn’t just a concern for flesh-and-blood beings. Video game characters die all the time. What happens to them?

In continue?9876543210, you’re a typical game hero, and you’ve lost your last life. Shuffling off to electronic limbo and awaiting data deletion, the hero decides to make a run for it in an attempt to survive digital slums and wilderness. Assist the other folks running from death—often by returning lost fortunes or answering their questions—and they will grant you either their prayer or their lightning. Deciding between these two is the key to what kind of afterlife you want to lead. Prayers will help to rebuild the refugees’ city while lightning will clear the path for your escape.

Do you run away as fast as you can from the hungry glitches that have come to gobble your code, or do you strive to build shelter and better the afterlives of so many others? Will either path lead to freedom and contentment, or is all of your effort futile? continue?98765432210 tempts players to second-guess themselves along the way, but it also encourages you to have faith that you’re on the right path. [DS]

Skydrift
Creator: Tyson Kubota
Platforms: iPhone/iPad (Universal)
Reviewed on: iPhone
Price: Free

The “dodge debris in freefall” set piece is a staple of action movies and games; in Skydrift, the freefall never ends. Billed as a “fall from the heavens down to the earth’s core,” that tagline undersells the vastness and vertigo that the game’s creator, Tyson’s Kubota, manages to convey in the modest space of a smartphone screen. The object is simply to fall without crashing into anything—you must pick up some deviously placed glowing orbs along the way to stay alive—so the focus is more on Kubota’s visual artistry than on tactics.

Fortunately for Skydrift, the visual art is beautiful, with an ever-changing feel. At times, it feels like you’re falling through the remnants of a long-forgotten advanced civilization. Then this gives way to a more natural landscape, or to claustrophobia-inducing mountain crevices (which can be extremely difficult), or to the digestive tract of some inconceivable beast. But this is not some slapdash pastiche of eye candy; each section of the skyscape has a pleasant unity that proves immersive and even calming as the scenery relentlessly hurtles past. Tilting the screen to move is an awkward control scheme, especially in this case when the natural urge is to just look at the images streaming toward you. Still, that’s a fair price to pay for an experience that’s unfettered by on-screen buttons or other gadgetry—one that keeps the focus on you and everything below. [JT]

Hotline Trail
Creator: Rezoner
Platforms: Browser, Android
Reviewed on: Browser
Price: Browser—free; Android—$1.50

An easy way to bring a 20-something’s blood to a boil is to mention Rainbow Road, the unforgiving racecourse that ends every iteration of Mario Kart. Set in outer space and littered with giant, pointy-toothed ball-and-chain monsters, the track bullies players averse to making sharp turns. The protective bumpers that help keep you on course are gone, so with one wrong turn, you end up spiraling into the starry abyss. Though the added thrills, frills, and red shells of Mario Kart are gone, Hotline Trail distills Rainbow Road’s frustrating essence into a pleasantly slight race against time.

Like Rainbow Road, you’re racing on a brightly colored track in the stars, except this time, there’s no finish line in sight. There’s no finish line at all. Styled like an arcade game, your race is a war of attrition against the computer’s never-ending track. To keep players on their toes, the road randomly builds itself from a couple of deviously tricky configurations as you travel, like a zig-zagging slalom section or a roundabout. At least, they’re tricky at first. There isn’t a wide variety of tracks, and before long, you’ll run into repeats. Once I got a hang of the loose controls, the game got a little too easy. But while that initial challenge lasts, Hotline Trail is a testament to the joy of repeatedly falling off the goddamn racetrack and saddling back up to take it on all over again. It does Rainbow Road proud. [MK]

Titan Souls
Creators: Mark Foster, David Fenn, Andrew Gleeson
Platform: Browser
Price: Free

Titan Souls combines the futility of dying repeatedly in Dark Souls and the futility of being a little David staring up at the Goliaths in Shadow Of The Colossus. All this futility comes packaged as a tidy Zelda-like adventure game. With no introduction whatsoever, your anonymous lead character ventures off in one direction or another, finding little except for a stray hedge maze and impressive, abandoned rock temples. Inside lay monsters made of the rocks themselves (and in one case a brain inside of a large ice cube) who end your journey with a single hit. Failure is common; starting over is a constant.

Fortunately, the monsters are easy to slay—a single arrow will destroy them. Unfortunately, you only have one arrow, so each time you miss, you have to go and fetch it. You can will the arrow back to yourself like a Jedi using The Force, but remember how the brain monsters move fast and kill you instantly? The deck is stacked. Still, apparent futility is not a guaranteed deterrent when it comes to video games. The higher the stakes seem to be, the more compelling it becomes to beat the odds. And only after the surprising ending of Titan Souls does your quest’s true futility come to light. [SH]

Virus Wars
Creator: Alexandr Lushpigan
Platform: Browser
Price: Free

Part of the appeal of apocalyptic stories is the chance to witness destruction on a gigantic scale—alien ships vaporizing the Empire State Building, a tsunami toppling the Statue Of Liberty, asteroids demolishing Central Park. Yet there are also doomsday scenarios that play out on the microscopic level, and this subgenre can be just as captivating and just as capable of obliterating chunks of Manhattan. There’s something particularly disconcerting about an infinitesimal agent of the apocalypse—a malevolent force that can’t be seen, much less stopped. Whether it’s the earth-freezing chemical Ice-9 or the self-replicating robots of the Gray Goo theory, terrifying things can come in small packages.

Virus Wars puts the keys to a pandemic in your tiny hands as you play as a virus fighting for control of an organism. Over the course of 21 experiments, you fend off enemy viruses and inject your DNA into living cells until you achieve genetic supremacy. Collect enough points and you can modify your virus, making it faster, stronger, and more pernicious. There’s a mix of logic and adventure to the proceedings that feels novel but intuitive. A Ph.D. in microbiology isn’t necessary to enjoy Virus Wars, but some quick mental math will aid in strategically dividing your DNA. This is perhaps the most disturbing element of a game tinged with disease outbreak and biological warfare: It makes learning fun. [MC]