Tag Archive for game review

Play It: Howmonica

This time on Play It, we take a look at a deceptively hard puzzle game with one major control mechanic.

howmonicagameplay Play It: HowmonicaHowmonica is a gravity-based puzzle/platformer that does not want to make your life easy. You control a super cute cupcake-like creature who has to turn all of the boxes in the world pink. You move with the left and right arrow keys and flip gravity with the space bar. It’s all fun and games until the spikes show up and turn your kawaii puzzle game into a living nightmare.

With only three buttons to hit, the game becomes all about precision platforming by level five. If you are even the slightest bit off, you will hit the spikes and have to restart the level. This is before the game adds in trampoline boxes and levels where you have to manipulate gravity to fly through mazes.

howmonicachallenge Play It: HowmonicaHowmonica has a really pleasant looping score and cute sound design that makes the rage-inducing gameplay far more tolerable. You can’t get that mad looking at a cupcake bouncing against a pastel background while turning dull gray squares hot pink. Yet there you are, trying to loop from the top of the screen to the bottom with a one spike gap and hit it just right so you can flip the gravity and land on the last square in the level. It’s a huge challenge.

The challenge, thankfully, does not come from unresponsive controls. This game is tight. You get a feel really quick for how much you need to press the left and right arrow key to shift along the grid of the game and the momentum from gravity flips is constant. The challenge comes from a devious level design that tries your patience while making you want to play more and more.

Howmonica is a short little diversion for puzzle/platformer fans who want a free online game. You can play it right now on Newgrounds. For more great online games, check out the rest of the Play It series.

Play It: Folds

On this edition of Play It, we take a look at a game that turns a frustrating but beautiful paper art into a relaxing yet challenging game.

Folds is an online puzzle game where you fold origami. You have a limited number of moves to match your blank sheet to the dotted outline of the finished origami shape. These can be as simple as a triangle or as elaborate as…well…actual origami figures.

You use the mouse to fold and manipulate the paper. Each click counts as a move but you can keep moving the paper as long as you hold the mouse button. The paper moves and bends like real origami paper, giving you the best chance possible to get every detail just right.

foldsthistothis Play It: Folds

How do you go from this to that in six moves or fewer?

You’re scored on your accuracy. You have to reach at least 80% to move on and can score as high as 100%. To score high, your folded paper has to line up evenly with the dotted lines. No paper can appear outside the form and no empty spaces can appear inside the form.

Folds‘ biggest advantage is its soundtrack. The music is very relaxing. This could easily turn into a puzzle game that causes rage quits five minutes in; it doesn’t. The entire act of carefully lining up the paper becomes a meditation on art because of the music. It sets the tone for the Japanese art form and is interesting enough in its use of instruments to keep you focused.

This is a good thing because some of these stages are very hard. It took me far longer than I care to admit to turn a large square into a small square–about 1/9 of 1/4 of the paper. I never felt frustrated or bored. I just wanted to keep trying until I got 100% perfection.

Folds is not the flashiest game in the world. It has a very simple look–a pair of inked dragons sit on either side of the folding area on a background of parchment–that helps to focus you on the pastel paper. In an interesting touch of design, the paper darkens every time you fold it over itself. One fold is darker than no folds and two folds in the same spot are way darker than one fold.

This game is filled with surprisingly little flourishes that really elevate the experience. From the ruffling of the paper to the intricate puzzle design, Folds delivers. You can play it at Newgrounds.

Learning to Trust Again: Journey and Empathetic Game Design

I finally played Journey for the first time last night. Money is always tight around here and the idea of spending $15 on a two hour game seemed wasteful to me. With an after holiday sale and the discount afforded to me by Playstation Plus, I was able to pick up the game for a price I deemed reasonable.

I’m glad I finally got to play it. I’m mad I didn’t buckle sooner and just pay full price.

The beauty of Journey is how the game design forces you the empathize with everything happening around you. Early stages teach you to free bits of trapped scarves from ancient ruins while wandering through a desert filled with headstones. Soon you begin to encounter other players trying to accomplish the same unspecified goal as you. You begin to communicate without words and team up to create bridges, free scarves, and continue your journey to the mountaintop.

journeyfreedom Learning to Trust Again: Journey and Empathetic Game Design

How will you chose to play Journey?

The environmental design and score add on another layer of emotional reality to the game. The beauty of the scenery and music is undeniable. These are breathtaking landscapes that slowly shift from sand to caverns to snow constantly reformed through light and weather phenomenon.

Yet, as the environment begins to darken and dangers actually emerge from the shadows, the joy of discovery takes on a more somber tone. The shift really happened for me when I encountered the first group of scarves I couldn’t save. I could see them, trapped in a stone and glass tower, endlessly tormented by some glowing machine. I tried interacting through my bright white aura–enhanced by all the scarves who joined me on my journey–but nothing could free them. It saddened me. Then the light went away and the machines came after me.

journeytribute Learning to Trust Again: Journey and Empathetic Game Design

A deep cultural framework defines the morality of Journey

At first, I actually resented the help of other players in the game. This was my journey to complete and freeing that scarf or unlocking those relics meant I couldn’t solve the puzzle myself. I wanted to ride the scarf dragon, but my unwelcome partner stole the experience from me. I abandoned him as fast as I could and moved onto the next stage.

This distrust and resentment became my own downfall. Another player was up ahead when the enemies first approached and attempted to warn me again and again of their pattern. I refused to take their advice. I watched in horror as my beautiful scarf, twice the length of my body and constantly flowing behind me, was torn apart by the mechanical beasts that trapped the scarves in the impenetrable tower.

Had I cooperated with my unintended partner, neither one of us would have been hurt. Instead, a far more empathetic player risked their own safety to guide me through the level and there was no way to thank them. All I could do was extend my aura and hope they read my mistakes as incompetence rather than fall adversity.

journeycooperation Learning to Trust Again: Journey and Empathetic Game Design

Journey teaches you it’s okay to rely on others for help

Everything changed after that. I teamed up with whoever was nearby, stayed in constant communication, and crossed the finish line stride by stride with my new allies every time. Only when the path narrowed so much that we physically could not advance together did I reluctantly abandon our shared journey.

There have been a number of smaller games in recent memory that have tried to force you to think about your surroundings and your fellow characters. Limbo placed you in a child-kill-child world of death traps and massive spear-tipped spiders where your choice was fight or die. Dear Esther forced you to retrace your own steps and discover what happened in your life as you prepared for your inevitable death. The Walking Dead game literally made you choose who deserved to live or die as you couldn’t possibly save both people in time. Even flash games like Dys4ia forced you to assume an entirely different life to explore a very personal story.

If this is an actual trend, no matter how small the games, I welcome it. We can use a healthy injection of empathy in our lives. Learning to trust other people, cooperate, and explore how our actions impact others is a good thing. Games like Journey might not be the most exciting experience you’ll have, but they are strong and provocative ones that deserve attention.

Thoughts? Share them below.

When Challenge Trumps Fun: Quantum Conundrum & Puzzle Games

I love a good puzzle game. It’s one of the main genres in my wheelhouse (right behind music/rhythm games and the OCD madness of leveling up and resource distribution in a turn-based RPGs) because of the way I think. I love taking things apart and figuring out how they work.

Puzzle games normally have a breaking point where the learning curve radically shoots up after the basic mechanics are demonstrated. That’s part of the fun. You have to start putting together everything you know to succeed.

quantumconundrumcover When Challenge Trumps Fun: Quantum Conundrum & Puzzle GamesQuantum Conundrum has multiple learning curves happening at the same time. The game hinges on the manipulation of physics in a mad scientist’s world. You have very little time to master the intricacies of each of four variables before solving a puzzle demands precision control of various random elements.

You play as a young boy sent to spend some time with your uncle, the brilliant inventor Professor Fitz Quadwrangle. He transported himself to an alternate pocket dimension while testing his latest invention and needs your help to bring him back. Your goal is to start up the generators in the various wings of his mansion to help him return.

To do this, you must use a glove that lets you manipulate gravity and time through dimensional rifts. The Fluffy dimension makes everything super light. The Heavy dimensions makes everything super heavy. The Slow dimension drops everything but your character to one-tenth speed. The Reverse Gravity dimension flips gravity for everything but your character.

Once you get past the first few puzzles, you’ll be manipulating multiple forces at once. You quickly learn things like throwing a big box in Fluffy mode before shifting it to Heavy mode at the last second to smash through a big window or blocking lasers with the appropriate dimensional shift to pass by safely.

What isn’t immediately apparent is how some of the forces link together. Even in some of the later Fluffy/Heavy-only puzzles, the solution to the puzzle isn’t always a logical one. You can block the right laser, but be off by just a slight amount and be stuck for a long time trying to figure out what else you missed. You didn’t miss anything other than the one spot on the wall that the box, held up by a large industrial fan, will line up everything; too bad the graphics already look like you lined it up perfectly even if you’re off by a quarter-width of a box.

portalinstruction When Challenge Trumps Fun: Quantum Conundrum & Puzzle GamesThe challenge of designing a good puzzle game is deciding where to draw the line between challenge and innovation. Portal, the previous release from Kim Swift (former lead designer at Valve, now with Airtight Games), does a remarkable job of balancing this out.

The only thing you’re told in Portal is that you’re a test subject with a gun that shoots portals. Place the orange on one side of an obstacle and the blue on the other and walk through to advance. There are frustrating spots, but only because of the wide variety of possible solutions and the omnipresent element of human error. The game is challenging in the best way possible.

Perhaps Quantum Conundrum‘s biggest challenge is not overly specific level design. It’s rare that you have to do something in just the right order or way to succeed. It could just be that the game guides your hand a bit too much with its training elements so that you expect certain elements to come into play that don’t.

When the techniques you were already taught aren’t relevant to the new puzzle, it’s frustrating. It’s like the moment in a Super Mario game where you first get the new power-up and have no clue what it does. Trading in for the Tanooki suit is great in a precision platforming area, but won’t help too much when the Fire suit would get you past a room full of piranha plants much faster. Some puzzle games introduce new gameplay elements with no explanation again and again as some way of ramping up difficulty.

Puzzle games only have so many ways of creating more challenge to keep a player interested. They can add new gameplay elements, like random enemies or new power-ups. They can expand on the scale of the puzzle, taking you from a single screen of material to a much more sprawling location. They can intentionally leave information out so you have to put the pieces together yourself. And they can also betray your expectations and cause you to break every rule you’ve already been taught to advance.

I love a challenging game. It’s not uncommon for me to spend weeks playing a single title that people can beat in a few hours of gameplay because I want the full experience. You better believe I’m going for all the side quests, meeting all the NPCs to get the full flavor text, or going for the full clear on my first playthrough.

puzzlequest When Challenge Trumps Fun: Quantum Conundrum & Puzzle GamesPuzzle games rarely allow for that level of variance. The entire point of the puzzle genre is to solve puzzles. You might couch it in a larger narrative like the Professor Layton series or put in a clear singular throughline like Braid. You can also just make it a series of individual challenges held together by style or character like Tetris or Lumines. You can blend in other gaming elements (music puzzle games like Amplitude or RPG-based puzzle games like Puzzle Quest), but the driving force is clearly the puzzle solving element.

So how do you actually maintain interest in a longer form puzzle game like Quantum Conundrum? It’s honestly a game of chance. People stop playing games all the times for any number of reasons. Puzzle games add on the challenge of taking a singular gameplay conceit–the time reversal of Braid, the black on gray mystery of Limbo, etc.– and expanding it to a full length game.

So many of the popular mobile games are puzzle games because they’re often best enjoyed in small bursts. Could you imagine sitting down for four or five hours at a time to full clear Angry Birds or Cut the Rope? I couldn’t. It might take me a few months to go through all the stages playing a handful of puzzles at a time.

The complications come in when selling a full length, full price console or PC puzzle game. Nowadays, people expect more than the singular action of Tetris or Breakout for the usual console price of $40-plus dollars. Developers add in extra modes or build an elaborate story around a game genre that, until pretty recently, was all about beating stages and levels for a high score.

limbopuzzle When Challenge Trumps Fun: Quantum Conundrum & Puzzle GamesIn many ways, these full-length, fully-featured console/PC puzzle games are still an emerging genre. The tricks that worked before–point and click mechanics, especially–don’t necessarily grab interest anymore. Experimental games with puzzle elements (like Journey or Limbo) tend to work best as adventure/platform games with some light puzzle elements rather than puzzle games with some light platforming to get to the next puzzle.

Injecting a traditional narrative into a puzzle game comes down to the story being told. Sometimes, that story isn’t worth dealing with the seemingly random introduction of new gameplay elements just to make the game harder. The line between challenge and obstacle is a fine one. In the puzzle genre (where some gamers are naturally going to be better at certain styles of puzzles than others), that line can be as fine as it is arbitrary.

I haven’t exactly rage quit Quantum Conundrum at this point. I really enjoy my time playing the game. There are just points where the level of frustration created by a particularly inflexible puzzle outweighs the joy of solving the puzzle. I just have to walk away and play something else for a few days.

quantumconundrumprecision When Challenge Trumps Fun: Quantum Conundrum & Puzzle GamesIf the gameplay was the same in each stage, I would get bored and walk away. If it changed radically in style, I would get frustrated and walk away.

There’s just no way to predict how a gamer will react to a title, puzzle games especially. You can have the best, most inventive conceit to come around in years and fall short because one hard puzzle doesn’t logically flow with the gameplay up to that point. How we respond to games is up to a wide variety of factors that cannot be predicted. I’m not going to be my best at a puzzle game when I have a migraine the same way an arcade fighter fan is going to struggle to adapt to a fighting game that only uses the Wiimote.

The only thing that can be controlled is the actual functionality of the game and story. Do the controls work throughout the game? Does the story make sense and have a logical conclusion? Are there enough hints in the game to at least clue the player into the tools needed for a level? Everything else is up to the gamer’s preferences.

What do you think? Where do you draw the line when it comes to challenging video games? What are some of the puzzle/hybrid games that balance this out well? What game could you just not finish because the whole package didn’t work for you? Sound off with your thoughts below.

Play It: Pokemon Black & Blue

I love the Pokemon games. They hit on so much I like in gaming. They’re turn-based RPGs, they feature adorable creatures, and they require an obsessive knowledge of an absurd fighting rubric to really succeed. They also feature game mechanics that reward “full clear” gameplay. You just have to catch’em all. You just have to.

PETA has long had problems with the Pokemon games. They believe that the games are a pastel illustration of animal abuse. You’re trapping wild animals and forcing them to fight until they’re severely injured for profit. They see parallels to dog fighting, exotic animal capture and breeding, and straight up physical, emotional, and psychological abuse.

pokemonbwparodybattle Play It: Pokemon Black & BlueIn anticipation of Pokemon Black/White 2, PETA put out a strong satire of the game series to argue their perspective on Pokemon as exploitation. You play as Pikachu escaping from his trainer’s house. You are covered in bandages and not in great shape. Half of your moves are traditional physical attacks; the other half are methods of fighting against animal abuse.

As you progress in the game, you encounter more injured Pokemon and more archetypes from the series. The Nurse has abandoned the corporate system to protect wild Pokemon. Team Plamsa shows up and is praised for their Pokemon liberation efforts before revealing their sinister turn at the end of the last game.

If you’re going to make a politicized game, it better be an entertaining one. Otherwise, you’re going to lose your potential audience. PETA has succeeded in crafting a fun and thoughtful parody in Pokemon Black & Blue. It plays just like the highly addictive game series, only laser-focused on a particular social message.

pokemeonbwparodymap Play It: Pokemon Black & BlueIt’s not an irrelevant or absurd notion, either. The goal of the game is capturing wild creatures for combat. The only way to catch them is to stalk them in their natural environment and beat them until they’re about to fall over from damage. Your game only stops momentarily when all the Pokemon on your active team can no longer fight.

Whether or not the real game actually reinforces this critique is beside the point. PETA has managed to produce a polished argument against the series in a format that appeals to the game’s fans. In coopting the format of the series they don’t like, PETA is able to make a stronger argument in favor of their view of the game.

I’ve embedded the full game below. It shouldn’t take more than 10 minutes to play through. Just a warning: some of the presents you receive are the graphic “Meet Your Meat” videos. You don’t have to open the gifts to keep playing.

Play It: Super Hexagon

I think it’s pretty clear by now that I like a well planned game with simple mechanics. Gaming should not be difficult because you struggle to memorize the control scheme or the controls don’t even work. The challenge should come from the game design itself.

Super Hexagon is the hardest simple game you’ll ever play. Terry Cavanagh, the evil genius behind the so easy to play you forget it’s insane puzzle platformer VVVVVV, has created an action/maze game that you will never be perfect at. You can’t be. The levels are randomly generated and continue until you die.

You are a triangle on a hexagon shaped field. Using left and right alone, you must avoid the ever enclosing series of panels crashing toward you. These can come in any combo from one to five walls in an endless assault on your mind and reflexes. The triangle moves quickly, but so do the wall. Hold the left or right control too long and you’ve lost.

There is a free to play version of Super Hexagon available online (I spotted it on Newgrounds first, so that get’s the link) but it’s not what the game is optimized for. This is an iOS game that understands the needs of a mobile gamer. You hold the iPad or iPod with two hands and tap the left or right side of the screen to move. That’s it. No tilting, no zooming, just touching. It could not be easier to control.

For a game that will most likely kill you in the first 10 seconds on your first play, Super Hexagon has a very high replay value. The whole presentation is so slick that you’ll want to come back and do better. I’m quite proud of my high score of 15.8 seconds. I’ve played at least 50 times since scoring that high and haven’t come close to repeating it. That should be a pretty good indicator of difficulty.

The game is on sale at the iTunes app store right now for $0.99. It’s worth a lot more. It’s crazy to think that a maze game for iOS should be up for Game of the Year consideration, but this is no typical action/maze game. It’s one of the more user friendly mind benders to come out in years. We’re talking Tetris level accessibility with [insert FPS of choice] Insane level difficulty.

Thoughts on Super Hexagon? Share them here.

Game Review: Plague Inc.

Plague Inc. is a real time strategy game for your mobile devices with a dark twist. Your goal is to eradicate all of humankind with a plague of your own creation. You micromanage symptoms, transmission methods, and abilities (heat resistance, genetic coding, etc.). Starting with one infected person in a country of your choosing, you have to grow the little plague into a global event before a cure is developed.

You control the game through the touch screen. Collect infection and DNA bubbles to boost your points and pop blue research bubbles to slow down the cure. You interact with menus, news, and data by clicking. The controls are easy to pick up and make sense.

Yesterday, the game updated to fix a few bugs. Too bad Ndemic Creations didn’t address some of the game-killing flaws.

Mark my word, Plague Inc. will crash on you. It might crash in the beginning. It’s more likely to crash when you’re about to win. You can save at any time and quit back to the menu, but a game isn’t fun when you have to keep taking yourself out of the action to preemptively strike against bad coding.

plagueinchome Game Review: Plague Inc.

You can’t click through the active buttons on top, but you can see through them

Just as bad is the layout of the screen. Ndemic Creations put clickable news, speed/pause, and menu bars at the top of the screen. They actually sit on top of the world map that you play on. That means you can miss out on popping bubbles because you physically can’t reach them. The map does not fit on the screen–you have to slide back and forth to reach the sides–and zooming in does nothing but block out other countries as the game goes on. If you can’t click the bubbles in time, you can’t win. You need the points to upgrade your plague and you get them either by clicking bubbles or a random (never explained) incremental scoring system.

There are other issues with the game. The random symptoms that evolve on their own are typically the symptoms that actually hurt your fight against the cure. If you’re awarded tumors, you’ll get a news pop up a minute later saying scientists have an advantage against tumors. It no longer matters that you are infecting people with paralysis, insanity, and hemophilia. Suddenly, the cure is only days away because tumors are easier to treat than paper cuts.

There are other simulation games that do what Plague Inc. tries to do available for free online. I recommend Pandemic II as a free alternative. It’s not a real time game, but it provides the same strategic experience with fewer problems.

Thoughts? Love to hear them.

Play It: Psychout

In this edition of Play It, we’re focusing in on a puzzle platformer that refuses to play by its own rules.

Psych Out is a curious puzzle platform game. You play as a mental patient tied up in a straight jacket. Your goal is to break out of the lockdown facility. Unfortunately, you aren’t very reliable. Every single time you open a door, you find a new way to complicate the rules.

psychoutthumb Play It: Psychout

He's not even playing the same game as you.

Maybe you can get by with just running and jumping in one stage. In the next stage, you’ll have to run across the ceiling to reach the key and open the next door. After that, you might defy gravity and run straight through the air or have to flick a two way switch three times to create a safe path. The rules change with every room and that’s what makes Psychout tick.

The controls are WASD or the arrows and nothing more. Up/W is jump, left/A and right/D are left and right, and Down/S is action. That’s all you need to play. That and the ability to keep re-configuring your brain to play with new rules every stage.

A lot of puzzle platformers try to make you feel hopeless and confused. Psychout does it in a fun way. Is it frustrating at times? Yes, but there’s always an easy solution. You’ll know as soon as you enter a room what the options are. It’s just a matter of figuring out which option is the right one.

There are some tricky timing issues with some of the jumps and a few places where Kongregate was perhaps a bit too specific in location to be a super casual platformer. If you’ve played this kind of game before, you’ll figure it out. If not, the learning curve might be a bit steeper than expected.

So are you going to give Psychout a try? Sound off below and let me know what you think.

Play It: Orange Roulette and Last Guardian

On this edition of Play It, we look at two static shooter games that are worth a try for online gamers looking for something a little out of the norm.

First up is Orange Roulette. This is a dark and disturbing static shooter about an anthropomorphic orange forced to play a series of Russian Roulette games to earn his freedom from jail. The style of the game is undeniable. The content is questionable but surprisingly engaging.

orangeroulette Play It: Orange Roulette and Last Guardian

What would you do to break out of prison in Orange Roulette?

What sells the game is the level of suspense. You only have three possible moves in a turn: spin the wheel, shoot yourself, or shoot your opponent. The entire time, the two competing oranges are eyeing each other up, grimacing, or losing their minds. One of them will be pulp on the walls of the jail. The other might get to walk out alive. I never thought I could empathize with a piece of fruit. Now I know I just hadn’t been forced in the right circumstances.

The downside to the game is the randomly generated stages. The constantly shifting story–each time you lose, you basically get a new identical orange with a variant storyline–is intriguing. The inability to know for sure what the pace of the match is becomes frustrating. It’s not like you can memorize the sequence of events and play to the end. It changes every time.

It’s a tense and quick diversion that’s worth a look if you can handle the subject matter.

The second game is Last Guardian. This is a bit more traditional only in its framing as a tower defense game. You are an archer defending the castle from wave after wave of mythical beasts.

lastguardian Play It: Orange Roulette and Last Guardian

Think before you loose your arrows in Last Guardian

The novelty comes in the mechanics. This is not a “close enough” shooting game. Placement and power will are the difference between a high scoring headshot against a flying dragon or losing the kingdom. Though you only use the mouse, the combination of power and angle seems unlimited in the game.

Then you start to upgrade your arsenal. Will you focus on better arrows for stronger attacks? Faster reloads so you can take more shots? Or will you spend your experience on magical spells that call upon mythological creatures to defend the gate while you aim for trickier shots?

There is no right or wrong strategy because no method is easier than any other. That’s the novelty of the game. You can’t go wrong unless you don’t experiment with how to shoot the arrow. Everything else is at the mercy of a very tight and balanced game design.

What do you think? Will you be giving either game a shot? Orange Roulette is a bigger draw for me, but I do like dark content. Share your opinions below.

Play It: Dead Pixel

Looking for an easy time waster? Try Dead Pixel from Rzook over at Newgrounds. It is a point and click puzzle game that anyone can play with ease. I recommend wiping off your monitor before you start. No reason.

deadpixelfeature 300x224 Play It: Dead Pixel

In Dead Pixel, all you need to do is click the tiny square that's slighly off-color from the other tiny squares.

The object of Dead Pixel is to pick out the discolored pixel on the computer screen in the game. Click right and you earn points. Click wrong and you lose life. It’s all fun and games until you realize that the faster you click, the more points you earn. Then the pixels start getting smaller, the color differences more slight, and your ability to discern which dot of green on a screen filled with green is the wrong shade of green diminishes.

It’s a surprisingly fun online game that you could pick up as a quick distraction during the day. That’s why you should Play It. Not every game needs to be a marathon and a marathon of Dead Pixel might have a negative impact on your eye and mental health.

Have you checked out Dead Pixel yet? Know of any other new puzzle games of interest? Sound off below. Love to hear from you.

Play It: Happy Dead Friends

On this edition of Play It, we look at a creepy and cute online puzzle game about making friends.

Happy Dead Friends is a cool little linking puzzle game from rhinogames on Newgrounds. The goal is simple. You have a series of hexagon maps filled with sad zombies. The only way to make them happy is to make them all hold hands. Each zombie must be connected to another zombie with all of their open hands.

happydeadfriends Play It: Happy Dead Friends

A happy zombie is a safe zombie.

It seems simple until you realize that these zombies have more than two arms and choose the darnedest places to hang out. Why would a zombie chain himself against a rock so he can’t make friends behind him?

Instead of just making increasingly strange maps, Happy Dead Friends starts introducing other undead creatures. Zombies will move their arms automatically to complete links. Skeletons, however, must be manipulated to make friends. They’re a little stiff. This keeps the gameplay fresh and challenging without overwhelming the screen with too many monsters to link too soon.

The goal of the game is to complete the chains in as few moves as possible. You can earn up to three gold skulls for each completed stage. The game is more forgiving as the levels advance, but that doesn’t make it any easier to navigate a stage with 10+ creatures that just don’t seem to add up. The challenge is fun, not frustrating, and that’s what makes this game work.

The sound design is quite unobtrusive for a modern puzzle game. Too often, sound design in a puzzle game is an endlessly looping synth track to set the mood. Those games normally leave me searching for the mute button in a minute. Happy Dead Friends only uses select moans, groans, and a synth ta-da effect at the end of a stage to set the mood. It works. You are messing around with monsters. Why would there be pretty music or lots of bells and whistles? I don’t recall zombies being the best conversationalists.

For providing a solid puzzle with lots of challenges and a creepy/cute aesthetic, Happy Dead Friends is a game you should check out. There’s something to be said for pick up and play games that are easy to understand. Games are meant to be fun. If you can’t play them without wanting to throw your computer out the window, what’s the point?. This is one of the fun for anyone games.

Thoughts? Love to hear them.

Video Game Review: Twisted Metal (PS3)

The Twisted Metal series has always served one purpose in the video game universe: fast-paced car combat. Sure, there is an ever growing cast of demented characters and ironic twist endings that wish they had the clout of The Twilight Zone, but the draw is the fighting. The series has staked out a brand in being the violent car game and nothing will change that.

Does the new Twisted Metal for PS3 meet that standard? Yes. Once you get used to the control quirks, it’s easy to turn on a dime and gun down your opponents in interactive death arenas. You unlock vehicles, weapons, and racers quickly.

There is a problem with how the controls are taught. The online demo immediately showed you how everything from jumping to reverse driving worked. In the game itself, this is skipped over unless you catch a random loading screen that says what to press to use an item or do a driving trick. The controls make sense when you learn them, but they aren’t presented in game like they could easily be.

twistedmetalps3 Video Game Review: Twisted Metal (PS3)

Even the font stays true to the tradition of Twisted Metal.

As always, each vehicle has its own unique advantages that allow for every imaginable style to be playable. Will you race through the stage to stockpile weapons and avoid conflict? Track each opponent down one by one as the big aggressor? Use precision attacks to snipe out anyone who crosses your path? Or, as this version adds in, soar above the competition in a helicopter and track the action without getting into the fray? The choice is yours and, for once, the balance between speed, armor, and specialty powers feels fair.

Twisted Metal does have a problem with repetition in the story mode. At one point, story mode was the real focus of the series. There has always been multiplayer combat. The original completion goal was to go through many levels of combat with each combatant, learning their story and watching them face the reality of their short-sighted winning wish at the hands of game maker Calypso.

In this latest edition, the story is a progression through a few of the more memorable characters. This avoids some of the “and now do it again with him” pitfalls of the original structure. Unfortunately, for all the effort put into striking cut scenes and character development, the stages quickly repeat themselves with minor alterations. Instead of gunning down one tractor trailer that hatches extra opponents, you gun down two. Instead of fighting in electric pens in a city, you fight in electric pens in a theme park. There is no relationship between the drivers, no major hindrance or challenge thrown up, that makes the diversity in the stages go beyond window dressing. Co-op is a nice addition, but it does nothing to alter the basic problems of the story mode.

I can only assume that most people interested in a Twisted Metal game in 2012 are more concerned with online play. The PS3 is more than ready to handle the task. You connect quickly, set your options, and get right to fighting over and over in various modes. You can fight against random opponents, online friends, or even with friends sitting next to you on the couch and the Internet.

Twisted Metal succeeds in providing a stylish makeover to a longstanding franchise for multiplayer games. It falls short in providing a satisfactory single person story mode. However, as the focus of the series has always been (and will always be) combat, it only makes sense that the online multiplayer was given the most attention. It shows. Fans will be satisfied and casual players might find some value in a rental.

Thoughts? Love to hear them.

Play It: Dys4ia

On this edition of Play It, we look at a deeply personal biographical game. The experience is all about using the form of video games to create a sense of familiarity with a less discussed subject.

Dys4ia has been getting a lot of press, for better or worse. The concept receives praise even if the execution has been criticized. I’m willing to argue that issues that people have with control and style are an essential part of the gameplay process.

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Anne Anthropy's story is her own, but she does introduce these struggles to a wider audience.

Anne Anthropy, aka Auntie Pixelante, makes art games. Dys4ia is her online video game memoir. Anne is a trans woman who faced a lot of struggles to transition from medical, psychological, and social perspectives. She stresses that Dys4ia is not a reflection of every transgender person in the world.

That last statement is the key to understanding and appreciating Dys4ia for what it is meant to be. It is a computer simulation of one woman’s life experience. The fact that Anthropy is willing and able to share her individual story at this level of detail and receive positive attention is reason enough for people to play this game. She is not a statistic or novelty. She is a person whose story deserves to be told.

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No matter how hard you try, you just won't fit in at the start of Dys4ia.

Dys4ia is broken into four levels, each comprised of multiple mini games. These include tasks such as fitting an odd shaped peg into a too small hole, avoiding detection in a public restroom, and keeping your blood pressure down while a doctor lectures you on you why you aren’t a good candidate for hormone replacement therapy. The controls are explained onscreen before each task and you advance in the game no matter what happens.

This last element, the automatic advancement, is the one that has created the most controversy in discussions of the game. Is Dys4ia still a game if you can’t lose? Should it just be called a simulation or interactive video instead?

There are a number of reasons why I believe this is a narrow-minded view of video games. For one thing, there have been big video game titles in the past where you can do every task right and still fail in the end. It’s an intentional decision on the part of the game makers to create a novel experience. Why can’t the opposite also be considered a valid strategy to tell the same story? I feel like some games could benefit from a more realistic view of the world. No one ever succeeds at everything they try, so why should a game based in reality be discounted for reflecting that?

Second, just because you fail the task the first time and advance doesn’t mean that it serves the story to do the task again immediately. The structure of Dys4ia is built on the conceit of challenges and setbacks. Just because you fail the first time does not mean you won’t try again later. It just means that you might need more experience to know how to best handle a situation in the future.

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Is it a traditional game? Why not? Because you can fail and move on?

Most importantly, this game is Anne Anthropy’s experience. She knew that she was going to transition no matter what. She faced setbacks and challenges that she learned to overcome. She was going to finish her journey no matter what. The only way for that mindset to truly be shown in a video game was to have the game move on whether you were ready or not.

The result of this auto-advancement in Dys4ia is a beautiful and memorable game experience. It will be hard to shake off Anne Anthropy’s story after you finish. Best of all, you, too, will most likely be compelled to share the game experience. Anne may not represent the experience of all transgender people in the world, but she is giving the actual experience of transition an accessible voice.

Thoughts? Love to hear them.

Play It: Ace Pilot

On this edition of Play It, we look at an ambitious game that manages to look great, have a story, and handle well.

Ace Pilot is an overhead shooter with a great look to it. The gameplay is all well and good, but the look of the game and storytelling is the star. You play as an ace pilot in an intergalactic fleet. You have been tasked with stopping the invasion of Kim Jong Krill on an uninhabited moon.

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Simple controls do not mean simple gameplay in Ace Pilot.

The controls work. They’re not anything to write home about, but they’re efficient. You aim your ship with the mouse, fire with the left button, speed up/slow down with W/S, and quickly dodge left/right with A/D. You quickly gain access to other weapons as the story advances.

The draw of Ace Pilot is the quality of animation and storytelling. It’s beautiful for an online only game. It makes great use of perspective, has strong character design, and really captures the feel of fantasy space art. The game also isn’t afraid of color, which is a nice change for a shooter.

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Just look at the art of Ace Pilot. Beautiful.

More importantly, there’s a good story going on here. It’s funny–if a little crass at times–and it keeps you playing. The game is so sure of its story concept and your desire to keep playing that you will have an opportunity to finish each stage. Your computer tech shows up to fix your downed ship every time it can’t fly anymore. Once you clear the stage, you’re right back into the great cut scenes.

If Ace Pilot were just an online video, it wouldn’t be nearly as effective. The story works because you get to play a part in it. Let’s face it: a wisecracking captain fighting an evil empire is nothing new. An online overhead shooter that actually focuses on a fully animated story is a novelty.

Ace Pilot takes a bit of strategy to get through the levels and the difficulty ramps up with each stage. It’s easy enough to understand that anyone could pick up and play, but hard enough that more experienced games will feel some challenge as the it goes on.

For having a whole lot of style and a focus on storytelling, Ace Pilot is a game you should play.

Thoughts? Love to hear them.