Thursday, December 19, 2013

AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! Humble PC and Android Bundle 8 is here

It's the season of giving, so what better way to celebrate than by giving yourself some more cheap games to enjoy on your Android device. The latest Humble Bundle includes Little Inferno, which will keep you cozy this holiday season as you burn countless objects in all sorts of fun combinations. AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! for the Awesome is base jumping, but more awesome. Jack Lumber is a casual wood-cutting game of sorts, and Gemini Rue appears to be a moody sci-fi noir point and click adventure. Those who beat the average will also get Hero Academy, a strategy board type game, and Anomaly 2, a tower-defense game. Those who beat the average will also receive additional mystery games once they're revealed. As always, you decide how much of your purchase goes toward Humble Bundle, the game devs, or the EFF and Child's Play organizations, which are this bundle's non-profits.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Review: The Room and The Room 2

It’s always surprised me that there aren’t more point and click adventure games on mobile devices. The genre seems tailor made for touch screen controls, and the slow, methodical pace of gameplay sits well on a device often used for brief gaming sessions on the go. Helping matters is that such games tend toward simple, easy to learn control schemes while the puzzle design handles the legwork of giving the game depth, effectively allowing the genre to bridge the gap between the casual and hardcore gamer markets.

But alas, the point and click adventure game is sadly underrepresented in mobile markets, so we’ll just have to be satisfied with The Room and its sequel, which at the end of the day isn’t such a bad thing because The Room is an excellent game.

As The Room begins, you find yourself in a room with a mysterious safe and an equally mysterious note instructing you to open the safe and find an item of great power within, and thus you are introduced to The Room’s primary thematic gimmick: puzzle boxes. Each chapter sees you attempting to open a new box contained within the one before. As you get closer to the center of the safe, you will discover notes left by your benefactor which provide context, and each layer brings you closer to the truth.

The narrative is light, but engrossing. I was eager to dig further to find out what was at the center of these boxes and why they were all locked up so tight. There’s a darkness to the narrative and a sense of grim inevitability that I found very compelling, like skimming the edges of a Lovecraftian cosmic-horror story. The Room could almost be called a horror game, but the story doesn’t have the necessary shock value for that. As it stands, it creates a creepy atmosphere that draws you in and makes you curious to know more, even as you know that no good can come of it. I love this kind of storytelling, and The Room does it better than many larger games.

Each box layer takes many steps to open, and the puzzles get gradually more complex as you go on. The fact that each chapter focuses only on a single puzzle box gives the puzzles in each chapter a very tight and connected feel, even when individual puzzles aren’t really related. Every box has numerous “stations” where you can zoom in for a closer look and solve localized puzzles. Puzzle solving involves using the touch screen to move switches and panels or picking up items like keys from one station to bring to another. Puzzles feel clever and intuitive, except for a few that require you to tilt your device, as the game never gives any hint that this is a mechanic. It’s always difficult to talk about puzzles without spoiling them, but I was very satisfied with the puzzle design. I rarely got stuck, but I always felt engaged and never felt like puzzles were too easy either. There is an in-game hint system to help if you just can’t figure something out, though, which is a welcome feature.

Perhaps my favorite thing about this game, however, is its incredible presentation. The visuals, while not exactly winning any technical awards in the modern graphics arena, show a dedication to aesthetic excellence. The game uses its lighting to establish and reinforce the atmosphere shared with the narrative given in the notes. Everything is illuminated enough to see clearly, but there are omnipresent shadows, which creates a striking visual contrast with the gleaming metal and polished wood that makes up the puzzle boxes. The way the boxes themselves are designed is also a pleasure to look at. The way panels slide and latches unhinge all feel like  these boxes could really exist.

Even more impressive is the sound design. The music and ambient sounds go a long way to building the game’s atmosphere, and every sound from the boxes themselves are extremely satisfying. If just feels good on a gut level to hear that loud “click” when you turn a key or to hear the internal cogs and gears of the box working as you progress. Good sound can elevate a game, and in The Room’s case, it definitely does so.

In brief, The Room gets a hearty recommendation. Fun puzzles, and engrossing atmosphere, and excellent aesthetic design combine to make The Room a very solid game. And better yet, at the time of this writing, it’s free! (Well, on iOS. Android and Kindle users aren't so lucky.)

The Room is available from the iOS App store, Google Play, and Kindle Fire.

“Now hold on,” one might say. “It says on the game page that The Room was the App Store Game of the Year for 2012. We’re almost at the end of 2013, and it's not an old enough game to be 'retro.' How is this review be relevant today?” to which I would reply first that good criticism is timeless and it can never hurt to see new opinions, but opinions on criticism aside, I do have a real reason for talking about The Room today because December of 2013 saw the release of a sequel, simply titled The Room 2.

The Room 2 shares many of the strengths of its predecessor. Unfortunately, everything it does differently only makes the game weaker.

The Room 2’s story picks up right where The Room ends. There are more notes to find, and this is still the primary means by which the backstory is revealed. Notes this time around, however, feel too disjointed and disconnected. They simultaneously explain too much and too little. The supernatural elements of the story are more obvious, but ill-explained. It looses some of the feeling of skirting the edges of something vast and unknowable. Yes, there’s still mystery, but it’s a mystery that can easily be explained with “it’s magic, just go with it.” There are attempts to ground the backstory by filtering it through the perceptions of people from varying historical and cultural backgrounds, but this only creates the feeling that the player is just a tourist passing through the story rather than an investigator focused on unraveling it.

The biggest difference in terms of gameplay is that each chapter, rather than focusing on one puzzle box, focuses on one puzzle-filled room. This too, I feel, is a step in the wrong direction, as there are still roughly the same number of puzzles per chapter, only now they’re spread out across several stations in a larger room. Spreading the puzzles out just makes them feel more disconnected. The sense of unity that existed in each chapter of the first game is lessened dramatically, and taking inventory items between puzzle stations feels like more of a chore than it was when each chapter was just one box.

This also creates problems for the narrative. In The Room, the boxes were explicitly puzzle boxes, made to test the intellect of anyone who desired entry. There was a reason the puzzles existed. The puzzles in The Room 2 have no such excuse. It makes one wonder just what kind of world this is where it’s considered normal to have to rearrange the beetles on a display and then direct a laser around a room every time one needs to change a blown fuse. It gives a sense that each room is itself a puzzle, much like the boxes in the first game, but fails to justify its puzzles.

On that subject, the puzzles in The Room 2 feel like they have taken a step down in quality from their predecessors in The Room. Too many simply boil down to flipping a switch or finding a key from station A to bring to station B. There are plenty of clever ones mixed in, and they’re as much fun as anything in The Room, but too often I felt like I was simply going through the motions of puzzle solving without any real effort or engagement. In many ways, it feels like the developers were simply running out of ideas. One type of puzzle that gave me particular frustration, however, is based around observation. There are many cases where the “puzzle” is simply in finding something hard to spot. In The Room, this type of puzzle felt fair and natural, since the scope of any such challenge was limited to a single puzzle box. It freed up the design to allow secrets to be hidden in really clever places. By contrast, The Room 2’s greater scope means that there is much more ground to cover to search for any given secret switch or compartment, and consequently such secrets are both harder and less satisfying to find.

Now, from all this, it might sound like I disliked The Room 2, but actually, I was quite fond of it. Every complaint I have given is simply an example of how it failed to live up to its tightly focused predecessor. I would call The Room great, and The Room 2 merely good. It is still wonderfully presented. The atmosphere and sound design are still some of its strongest points and hold up even in comparison to much larger console and PC games, and in its stronger moments, the puzzles are just as fun and engaging as the first game’s.

Get The Room on iOS, Android, or Kindle

Get The Room 2 on iOS

Publisher: Fireproof Games
Developer: Fireproof Games

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Review: Disney's Tarzan

Every new artistic medium undergoes a process of initiation; a collective hazing undertaken by talking heads trying to misdirect the masses while the truly evil forces behind the curtains carry on unnoticed. Video games are the newest scapegoat, and have arguably shouldered more blame than any other medium due to their interactive nature.  Those talking heads would have us believe that all it takes to turn an otherwise moral person into a deranged psychopath is to kill pretend people in a pretend world on a two-dimensional monitor. Hell, given the training tools used in the military, it's clear that simulation can be used to desensitize predisposed individuals to violence, turning war into a game. When people are reduced to tiny white dots on an infrared display and all it takes to make those dots stop moving is the push of a button, we should acknowledge the similarities, and realize that video games, like any other form of storytelling, affect a small percentage of the population in ways that should make detecting those at-risk individuals a priority. But we know regular folks can kill thousands of virtual people without developing a lust for blood. We're smarter than those empty-headed flap-jaws. We know the REAL danger posed by games; the thing that will take normal people like you and I and fill us with an unfathomable rage, a yearning for chaos, and a disdain for anything that isn't in absolute ruin: licensed games.

Granted, not all licensed games are as bad as E.T. on the 2600. Many aren't half bad, managing to give the player enough things to play with, and a compelling enough reason to play with them. Some are very well-made, respectable games that can easily be played twice (Aliens: Infestation comes to mind). But the ones that linger in our memories like a skunk's spray are the absolute pieces of trash that dare to be called games when they're coming apart at the seams. These disgraces to the medium masquerading as must-play experiences certainly had an easier job back before we could tap into the collective consciousness of our fellow gamers using the very devices on which we play them. We went in blind, braving the concrete jungles in search of digestible digital fruit that would leave us feeling satisfied. Unfortunately, this wasn't always the case. We can only hope poisonous pieces of rot like Disney's Tarzan for the Game Boy Color didn't break the psyches of those children unfortunate enough to receive it back in 1999.

Disney's Tarzan was a great animated film. The Activision-published GBC game of the same name is the Buffalo Bill of video games, hiding under the skin of something beautiful. On the surface, Tarzan is everything a kid could want in a video game. It's got characters from one of their favorite movies depicted with crisp, vibrant visuals, and more than solid gameplay mechanics. But it's not long before the seams in this grotesque mask become apparent. Upon starting the game, we're greeted by a splash screen featuring young Tarzan and the words "Learning the Ropes". The level starts and we're told to collect 45 bananas. Given the title and task, it's only logical to assume this to be a tutorial of some sort. So you scour the level collecting every banana in sight, swinging on ropes, climbing vine-covered walls, avoiding hanging snakes and charging boars. But look out for that alligator lurking in the water! Be wary not to land right on top of it or it'll jump straight out of the water and... go right through you. Sadly, it only gets worse.

After collecting the arbitrary number of bananas for reasons, it's time to find Terk! Tarzan's hairy gorilla friend is hidden somewhere in the exact level you just laboriously combed for bananas. This segment continues play from the exact spot on which the final banana was collected, which in some cases will be directly beside Turk. At other times, he might spawn directly on top of a snake that they decided to suddenly add to the landscape, taking unavoidable damage. In one level I managed to make a snake vanish by moving it off-screen and quickly back on.

After finding Terk, it's time to collect more bananas. Then it's time to find Terk. Then it's more bananas, more hide and seek... What's this? We get to play as Terk? Finally, a change of pace. What are we--oh... more bananas. More seeking. She plays exactly the same as Tarzan. This pattern repeats more times than I dare replay to properly count, set to the same three-second snippet of crackly music looping over and over and over again. It's insanity. Time flies when you're having fun, but the only thing flying here are the insects swarming around this putrid piece of shit. Finally, after time ceases to exist, a true gameplay variation appears. Fleeing from a stampede of elephants, we guide Tarzan along the X axis, avoiding logs, and occasionally jumping to collect BANANAS. This segment is even more bereft of substance than the bananaganza hide-and-seek one-two punch the game's been dishing out up until now, never mind the fact that it's essentially the stampede segment in the Lion King game. 

But not to worry, it's promptly back to the same old routine. It's around this point the mind begins to crack. The fingers become sluggish, and the lives are eventually reduced to zero. Game over. Main Menu. Oh, you didn't notice that "Password" option there before? You probably should have taken a quick look at it before you started the game, because then you would have realized that those four square tiles displayed on one of the level's splash screens that you'd already grown accustomed to button mashing past by that point was a PASSWORD. Even if it were labelled as such, it's only shown for a few seconds before fading to the next banana-laden map.

As far as any reasonable person should be concerned, that's where the game ends. Sure, the passwords are probably all easily found in some online walkthrough, but given the era in which the game was released, it should be held to the standards of someone without access to that information. Maybe later levels feature adult Tarzan with cool moves and no bananas, and maybe they don't. It's simply unfinished. The only way to return to the main menu is to soft reset. The bananas scream placeholder, probably acting as a way for the developers to test each layout before adding the actual gameplay in later. If the game does switch things up in later levels, then it's not so much unfinished as it is artificially expanded. Arbitrary collectathons and backtracking do not a game make.

Believe it or not, there are additional features. Paint'N'Print apparently allows those with a Game Boy Printer to print their own arrangement of characters and props over various backdrops. The Hide'N'Seek game mode is the only slightly redeeming quality to be found. Working within a time limit, one player hides Tarzan in one of the dozens of available spots before passing it off to a friend who then searches for him. Then the roles are reversed, as it is with real hide and seek, which is exponentially more fun than this game, though it might be fun for a car ride.

The developers built a solid foundation, threw up some cardboard walls then proceeded to draw on windows and doorways with their own feces. In the kitchen you'll find a refrigerator, door hanging on a single hinge, overflowing with bananas. Upon closer inspection, they're just dry turds painted yellow. In the bathroom, you'll find a toilet. Aim for the bowl. To your left, you notice a deep pit dug into the floor. Looking in, you notice a copy of Disney's Tarzan on DVD, plastic case shattered to bits. You hear a soft 'clack' behind you and turn to face it. It's a copy of Disney's Tarzan for the Game Boy Color.

It puts the bananas in the basket.

Find Disney's Tarzan on ebay | Amazon

If you enjoyed this review and want to see more like it, please consider a small monthly contribution via Patreon.

Released: 1999-06-29
Publisher: Activision
Developer: Digital Eclipse Software

It's National Streetpass Weekend right now

Been itching for some streetpasses? Need some puzzle pieces? Or maybe you just want your plaza to look a little bit more lively? Fear no more, the 3DSweekend is here and it’s time to get those streetpasses! “But Alex” you may ask “I never get streetpasses, I wander the earth alone in search of soldiers for Find Mii, the only streetpass I ever get is from the creepy kid who lives at the end of my block”. “Well young padawan” I would respond “ take yourself to your nearest Starbucks, Best buy or other Nintendo zone you should, and quit complaining you will.”  

You may have heard that you can get streetpasses from “Nintendo Zones” now if you’ve updated your 3DS recently. This weekend (until the end of Sunday), Nintendo will be pinging around street pass id’s all across the county. That means that if you walk into a Starbucks in, say, New York with your 3DS or 2DS you can get a streetpass from, say, Nebraska. Any Nintendo Zone will hold up to 6 completely random streetpasses from anywhere in the U.S. If this seems slightly inconvenient and like a bit of a marketing ploy, it’s because it is! But the upshot of this is that Nintendo is highly encouraging 3DS owners to get out and share. This is an amazing opportunity for anyone who owns Fire Emblem, A Link Between Worlds, or any other streetpass compatible game. More people should be carrying around their Nintendo handhelds this weekend so who knows? You might make some friends? Then maybe that creepy kid at the end of the block will be jealous.

Happy Passing!

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

This month's Club Nintendo rewards include Mario's Picross, Starship Defense

This month's Club Nintendo rewards on the 3DS side of things include Mario's Picross, a classic puzzle title, and Starship Defense, and excellent tower defense game at 100 and 150 coins, respectively. If neither of these tickle your fancy, or if you've already grabbed them in previous months, Super Mario Bros. 2: The Lost Levels is well worth owning on your WiiU at 150 coins, or you can get, wait for it, Balloon Fight for 200 coins. Don't ask me how Balloon Fight is worth 50 coins more than The Lost Levels, but there it is.

Pokemon X/Y cloning method discovered

Using the age-old turn-off-the-game-mid-trade method discovered back in GENERATION ONE, youtuber Mootypwns has managed to clone a shiny Charizard. It's baffling that this wasn't found during testing. Here's hoping it's patched promptly. Wouldn't want those hundreds of hours spent IV breeding and EV training to be rendered pointless, because it wasn't pointless to begin with, right? RIGHT!? COMPETITIVE POKEMON IS SERIOUS BUSINESS.

In all seriousness, this can only hurt the game's economy. It's extremely rewarding working to craft the perfect killing machine, and exciting knowing that an intense battle went in your favor because you settled for nothing less than perfect stats where they mattered. But even more significant to the average player is the value of shiny Pokemon. Using this method, they can be duplicated tenfold in a matter of hours and sent out over Wonder Trade without the recipient knowing they've been giving an exact non-unique replica shiny with the same exact stats as the original. That 1/8192 chance of encountering a wild shiny Pokemon, or however long it takes to chain one, becomes meaningless.

See how it's done in the video below, but please keep your duped Pokemon to your own game, and don't use them in online battles. Better yet, just don't do it. 

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Review: Kingdom Rush

Kingdom Rush by Ironhide Games is a tower defense game, the main object of which is to defend your home base by optimally placing structures to fend off the waves and waves of enemies trying to overwhelm your forces with a snowballing determination. You have four different classes of towers to build: magic (ranged and powerful, but some enemies are immune), Archer (ranged and weak, but cheap to build), Barracks (ground soldiers with little range who can slow down the enemy), and Cannons (ranged and very powerful but slow). The enemies are widely varied (goblins, trolls, bandits and other baddies) and almost every level presents a different challenge, be it giant bosses, new mechanics, or added lanes for enemies to attack you.

Kingdom Rush feels good on a mobile device. Every tap feels crisp, the accuracy is perfect and even on the screen of my phone I always felt like I had just enough room to maneuver without being cramped. The music fits the game, which is really the most I can say about it. Characters you tap make sound effects or shout movie references and the art style is cartoonish… but not cute. The layout fit my device, and I had no frame rate stutters or other issues I’ve come to associate with mobile titles. Overall, Kingdom Rush has an incredible amount of polish. From the menus to the in-game actions, the game looks and feels miles ahead of nearly any other mobile title.

This is not a game brimming with story, customization or really any other bells and whistles. The only addition to the core game is an encyclopedia which has specific descriptions of each enemy you’ve encountered. It seems as though rather than including anything extra, the developers decided to perfect every feature thinkable in the core game. Tap on any of your ground forces and you can read their names and stats, tap on any enemy and you can see their health bar along with their attack damage. This is by no means a mind-blowing feature but it’s the type of little touch that makes Kingdom Rush feel like a fully realized game.

This game does get quite punishing towards the end stages; I had to roll the difficulty down to casual on a few of the final stages. At points I did feel as though the game was impossible without add-ons and upgrades. I should note however that unlike entirely too many mobile games lately, all of the items purchasable in game can only be purchased through currency earned in-game. NO MICROTRANSACTIONS!

In writing this review, I tried to come up with a few criticisms. I was mostly unsuccessful, save for two issues. The first, and my only serious issue with this game, is that it is not at all feasible as a quick pick up and play game. One level would typically take me 25 minutes or so to complete. There is also no option to save progress through a level or hold your spot--exit the game for a moment to check something, and your progress is gone. My second and much smaller criticism is the lack of customization. With the attention to detail this game exhibits, I would have enjoyed some way to make my experience slightly different from others. Something as simple as changing the names of heroes or the colors of their clothing would have gone a long way for me. 

Overall, Kingdom Rush is great; I would even go so far as to call it an exemplar of the tower defense genre. Without a doubt, this is the best tower defense game I have played on mobile, and I’ve played plenty. This mobile title is polished, funny and addictive; most of all, it’s enjoyable. It’s not exactly a new game, having been out on mobile devices for well over a year at this point, but it’s a steal at $3 ($1 for the standard version).

If you enjoyed my review feel free to comment and let me know what you think I should review next!

Buy it for iOS (HD) | Android

Released: 2011-12-19 (iPad) 2012-06-28 (iPhone) 2013-05-15 (Android)
Publisher: Armor Games
Developer: Ironhide Game Studio

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Review: Aliens: Infestation

Super Metroid is hailed as one of gaming's timeless masterpieces, Fusion was great all around (though some fault it for being relatively linear) and Zero Mission took the classic that started it all and made it playable by modern standards. Despite the collective cries of Metroid fans the world-over, we have been given no indication Samus will ever return in a sidescrolling format. Luckily, there are games like Aliens: Infestation to fill that unknowingly large gap.

Tasked with rescuing what is suspected to be the sole survivor of a mission gone awry, Fire Team Fox, consisting of four marines, is deployed to the USS Sulaco. As is the case with any "metroidvania", access to the majority of the area is blocked, requiring the player to locate keycards and tools to open up additional paths. Some doors are welded shut, for example, while others are stuck closed with Xenomorphic gunk that needs to be torched with a flamethrower. Obstacles such as steam vents and piles of rubble are also present.

Colonel "Stainless Steele" serves a role similar to that of Adam in Metroid Fusion, feeding objectives to the marines and remotely assisting them when possible. Interaction with the colonel is frequent, and serves to keep the pacing tight and the player entertained as they navigate the desolate ship. The sense of dread and isolation is intensified by the game's excellent score, but the marines are not alone as there are plenty of Xenomorphs on board to keep them company, forcing the player to remain vigilant. Despite the radar revealing Xenomorph locations, the constant, looming presence of lurking aliens ensures there's never a dull moment. If anything, the anticipation is more taxing than the reveal. These life forms are renowned as the ultimate killing machine, and they have been programmed with a ferocity and intellect worthy of that title. 

In contrast to the predictable patterns of early-game gun-wielding drones, Xenomorphs don't fuck around. They launch their offense by emerging from the scenery, dropping from the ceiling, or by charging the marines head on. Their deadly repertoire consists of slashing, spitting acid, retreating then charging, and climbing the walls and ceiling to get the drop on the marines. The first few encounters are particularly tense, but facing them one-on-one soon becomes routine and a little boring. However, fighting two or more in tight quarters is a frequent occurrence, and often makes taking damage from one's own explosives a wise maneuver. Throw some facehuggers into the mix and things can get ugly.

Combat is a balance of shoot-em-up action and quick tactical decision-making. Marines have limited stamina, which is depleted upon running, jumping, and rolling. Rolling consumes the most stamina by far, and it's easy to repeatedly roll in a panicked attempt to put some distance between the marine and Xenomorph, leaving the marine at the mercy of the alien's claws, but players will soon learn to keep their cool in the face of these beasts once they lose a marine or two, because once they're dead, that's it. The game's life system is novel in that each one is a literal marine's life with their own personality and backstory. Other marines can be found hiding away on the ship, but cannot be recruited unless someone has fallen in battle, effectively setting a cap of four lives. 

For most of the game, a crew of four is plenty, but in the face of, say, a Queen Xenomorph, it becomes clear just how few in number and fragile the team is. Players can expect to lose three of their crew in the span of a minute while learning a boss's attack patterns. However, unlike most games of this nature, a lost life doesn't mean restarting from a checkpoint and starting the fight anew. Instead, the selected marine jumps in from where the other left off without breaking the game's flow. Like a swarm of ants conquering a spider, casualties are inevitable, and this reinforces the contrast between the ultimate Xenomorphic killing machines and the fleshy, fragile human form. 

What inter-species conflict would be complete without petty civil conflict among humans? To nobody's surprise, there are those who wish to capture and weaponize Xenomorphic life forms to replace human soldiers. The figurehead of this operation, referred to as Generic Company Man, is a constant pest, taunting the marines over the PA, locking passageways, and sending goons to intercept them. It's just the plot twist needed to tie the bow on this neat little package.

Aliens: Infestation can be completed in five hours on the first run through, which sounds like a fault, but is actually a strength as there just isn't enough to extend the game beyond that point. In Metroid or Castlevania, new upgrades, weapons, or spells add gameplay mechanics. While new guns in Infestation certainly help to keep combat from growing stale, they can't broaden the game in the way that the freeze beam or screwattack do in   Metroid. And that's fine. The game has just enough meat on its bones for a sitting or two and is made more memorable, not to mention replayable, for it. Though it stands on the shoulders of a giant bounty hunter (and movie franchise), both veterans of the genre and the uninitiated will want to track this one down.

Find Aliens: Infestation on ebay | Amazon

Released: 2011-10-11
Publisher: Sega
Developer: WayForward Technologies, Gearbox Software