Archive for the ‘ iPhone ’ Category

BADLAND (iPhone Game Review)

BadlandBADLAND is a side-scrolling puzzle/platformer designed for the iPhone. That means simple controls on top of a powerful engine, beautiful graphics, and gameplay designed to be broken out into two-minute chunks. In a lot of ways, I appreciate that. I mean, I wouldn’t be playing it if I had to sit down for an hour at a time. But on the other hand, this makes me miss the more involved platformers of the past.

In fact, maybe “platformer” isn’t the best term for it, since your avatar floats through the air rather than jumping between surfaces. And it’s easier for me to appreciate when I don’t use the term. There is a lot of great stuff here. Frogmind has taken a very simple concept – tap to fly up and forward, do nothing to fall back down – and built almost every conceivable idea they could on it. There are power-ups that make you smaller, larger, bouncy, sticky and even change the flow of time. Some also give you “clones”, sometimes allowing dozens of your characters on the screen at once. This is necessary for some puzzles, since you may need to pick up items or flip switches in both a high and a low path, or trigger a deathtrap while other clones sneak through. It’s also fundamental to the scoring in the game, since you can keep replaying the level to see if you can save more clones next time. (Each level also has three missions, which include saving clones, but also picking up all the items, exploding all bombs, completing without needing a respawn, etc. Being a smartphone game, most of the gameplay comes from going back to old levels to try to do better.)

Badland 2The atmosphere is the most distinctive part of the game. Your character is a circular flying blob in an otherwise-unpopulated world. It appears to be an idyllic land that was turned into the dumping ground of a technological society. You have to maneuver around gears, buzzsaws, bombs, loose pipes, and more (though the main threat is often just keeping up with the scrolling screen). These foreground items are so iconic that they’re shown mainly in silhouette, while the background is defined by a beautiful color palette that changes as the levels progress.

Everything about BADLAND seems designed right. The rules are taught in-game. The difficulty curve is good. The puzzles and unique situations keep things varied and leave no idea undeveloped. It’s memorable, instantly recognizable, and easy to keep playing for just one more round. I like it, but feel like I should like it more than I do. It’s not really compelling. I’m not getting anywhere in the end or finding secrets, and when I put it down, it’s pretty easy to ignore for days at a time. But when I pick it back up, I always remember how fun it is.

Grade: B

Steve Jackson’s Sorcery! (iPhone Gamebook Review)

Sorcery 1Steve Jackson’s Sorcery! is an attempt by Inkle Studios to update classic RPG gamebooks to the iPhone. It’s actually a new version of an old Fighting Fantasy volume. Never having played that, I can’t comment on how much this edition changes, but it obviously does adapt quite a bit. Many choices that you have are dependent on other events, and where the book would have to say “if this has happened, you may turn to this page”, the app simply doesn’t show you the choices.

The design does a lot of things right: Your story is shown on a virtual parchment, and after you make a choice, that list of options disappears. That means that the results show up as another paragraph right after the earlier one, creating an appearance of one cohesive story rather than a scattered collection of pages. The writing from one paragraph to the next flows smoothly, with good reasons given for why you made your choice and some variations in the text based on things that happened earlier. The app seems to support many small choices that would feel awkward in book form, but are fun when you’re simply tapping buttons. (And even things like “do you take the right or left path?”, which normally annoy me in these games, are tolerable when making and undoing decisions is so easy.) After every small scene, your next choice is shown as a series of locations on a map. This gives you a visualization of your hero’s cross-country journey, and also provides an easy way for you to tap the old locations to rewind the story. Unfortunately, if you’re interested in reading your whole “story”, you can’t see the previous locations’ text again without rewinding and playing through that point. I didn’t really mind this, because while the text is well-written enough to enjoy in the moment, it wouldn’t really be worth re-reading without the fun of having choices.

The combat system is also very clever. Virtual dice are not as interesting as physical ones, so instead there is a mini-game in which you and your opponent simultaneously choose how much energy to put into each attack. The higher attack always damages the other, but if you “defend” with a very low attack value, you’ll be able to deflect much of the damage while recovering your own strength. Battle has been turned from a passive luck-based experience into one in which you make a lot of important decisions. Even if you don’t have too much information about what your opponent may do, this is still a big improvement.

Sorcery 2The app does a great job of updating an old game system that had been heavily dependent on a specific technology. I was a little more frustrated with the plot they chose, though. You play a promising young hero sent off on a mission of great import to your people, but it’s possible to play through the whole thing without getting a clear description of what that mission is or what this world is like. Yes, an opening dream sequence mentions a magical crown, but it wasn’t clear to me until halfway through my first game that that was my real goal. And even then, I had no good understanding of why it was urgent to find this item that was lost to the ages, what kind of culture my people had (aside from a few undeveloped hints), or even why I was chosen to seek the crown alone. I spent the first half of my first game feeling absolutely no connection to the events in front of me, even less than I’d expect from a physical gamebook. Though the whole thing plays through in a matter of hours, it still took me a few weeks to find the motivation to get through it.

I tried a second time, though, and that went much better. The knowledge of my first game gave the second more of a purpose, and I enjoyed seeing a lot of the different results available. Though you keep returning to the same general path, there are a lot of major branches, and also very different choices within them. This isn’t just a matter of playing through two or three times to see every result, because a lot of encounters will go differently if you found items or information from earlier in the journey. I’m sure this would feel repetitive after another couple games, but I’d probably still be making some major discoveries beyond that point.

A couple other notes: The game has a magic system with many spells, but only a few available at a given time depending on “the stars’ alignment”. Most of the spells require ingredients that you’ll only have if you made lucky discoveries earlier, and because you actually “line up” the star symbols when casting a spell, it’s not always obvious which choices you’d have anyway. In my first game, I thought this was annoying and unnecessary, especially since you are only given the chance to cast spells at specific times. But on my re-play, I found a few interesting things to do that were not immediately obvious, and I see that this system provides a lot of hidden options for people who want to search for secrets. The system of “gods” fared less well, though: As you make choices, your spirit animal changes to reflect the personality you’re displaying. Each one has a flowery, full-page description of its attributes, and this was one of the things that first drew me into the game. After all, traditional gamebooks can’t keep statistics that you are unaware of. But before long, it became obvious that the various gods all offer the same limited options. If they ever gave me new opportunities or changed the results of my actions, I didn’t notice.

The bottom line is that Sorcery! is a huge leap forward for a game system that I thought was bound to old technology. I have more mixed feelings about the story they chose, though. It eventually won me over and proved that it had more subtleties than expected from a 1980’s gamebook, but I can’t overlook the fact that it did not seem interesting for the first couple hours. Knowing what I do now, though, I can recommend it both for its design concepts and as a story worth the time to explore.

Grade: B

Comic Chameleon (iPhone App Review)

Comic ChameleonThough Comic Chameleon isn’t the first iPhone app devoted to web comics, it bills itself as the first one made with the comics creators’ permission, and to share revenue with them instead of stealing their audience. That’s an admirable goal, and I was excited about this project. Unfortunately, so far it’s just not worthwhile. It’s telling that I put this review off for a while, always telling myself that I should use the app more before writing about it. I’ve finally accepted that I’m just not going to use it much more, because it doesn’t offer me a good comic reading experience.

Looking at individual comic pages isn’t a bad experience. I mean, the comic is there on the screen. You can read it just like you would in a web browser, and swipe to move through the archives. It does let you view alt text, which is something that is otherwise inconsistent on the Safari app. But if you want to read the news posts and comments that go along with the posts, see the jokey titles that each episode of Dinosaur Comics gets, or otherwise see more than the comic, this app will not match the web site experience.

The big innovation in Comic Chameleon is that it lets you browse panel by panel instead of scrolling and zooming manually. This is an impressive achievement, as I’m sure it took the creators a long time to mark each panel (sometimes with creative choices when the divisions aren’t clear). I use this feature sometimes, but usually prefer not to. The layout of a comic is important, and these comics were designed to be viewed one page at a time. You could make a comic designed to be viewed panel by panel, but these ones weren’t. If the page doesn’t fit on the iPhone screen, I prefer to zoom and scroll myself. At least that keeps my relationship with the page intact. The knowledge that I’m the one looking at a piece at a time allows me to appreciate the page as a single unit in the end. Yes, that usually requires one hand to hold the phone and another to pinch and zoom, so the app’s system is better if I’m holding something in one hand and want to scroll through comics with only one hand free. But that’s maybe too specific a niche for this app to target.

A webcomics app should do more than just let you browse through comics, though. As a way to keep up with your favorite works, Comic Chameleon fails. The main screen is a scrolling list of every comic supported by the app. There’s no way to make a list of favorites or hide the ones you don’t want to read. It also doesn’t track what you’ve read in each comic, so you have to open up a comic to find out if it’s been updated. If the comic tells a story, and you are more than one update behind, then too bad! You’ll start at the most recent one and have to scroll backwards through possible spoilers to manually find the right point. (Yes, you could also find the sub-screen that lists all comics by date, but do you really remember the exact date you last checked in on the comic?)

Comic Chameleon arguably works as a hub to check out comics you might not have heard of before, but honestly, I have no need for that. I don’t have enough time to check out all the recommendations I already get. What I want is a simple way to find out which comics I like have updates, and to see those updates in order. Right now, a basic RSS reader works a lot better than this dedicated app.

So far, the only comic that has been interesting to follow through this app is A Softer World. The comics are short enough to be readable on my phone in landscape mode, there is no plot so I don’t have to worry about reading backwards until I have caught up, and since the website only has new news posts every few weeks, I don’t feel like I’m missing anything. Also, it comes alphabetically at the start of the list, so it’s not a pain to get to. No other comic can replicate those benefits, though.

It feels churlish to complain about a free app, especially since the ads go towards people who deserve the money. But it makes comics harder to follow, not easier. I’m still hopeful about this concept in general. It’s always been difficult for webcomics to find revenue streams, and inexpensive apps sound like a perfect fit for them. In fact, I don’t even count Comic Chameleon out yet. It could easily add subscription features in the future. It seems that all the work for version 1.0 went into setting up the technical features, including the (significant) effort of a protocol to let it see full comic histories and panel breakdowns. Right now, though, it has the building blocks but no useful UI. I worry that as it is, the app just won’t bring in enough ad revenue to keep them working on it. If they do, I’ll definitely follow up with a new review. For the time being, though, keep reading your favorite webcomics on RSS and websites, and find other ways to support them.

Grade (version 1.0): C-


Board Games on iPhone: Le Havre and Ticket to Ride

For years, I’ve insisted that board games were designed to be played in person, and therefore were generally best that way. But since becoming a father, it’s been a lot harder to find time for in-person gaming. I’ve finally started playing more online, and found that a lot of turn-based games are fun that way. The results are mixed – if there are going to be long delays between turns, it’s generally best to play weightier games where each turn is significant instead of ones where people make frequent simple moves.

Today I’m looking at two iPhone board game apps. I’ve found myself with very mixed opinions about iPhone gaming. It is very convenient to have the apps everywhere I go, and to find out it’s my turn through push notifications. On the other hand, Apple’s Game Center is still pretty frustrating. It’s fine for starting games with friends, as long as you know enough people who have iPhones and want to play the game, but it almost always fails if I try to start a game against random opponents. It seems to be at least partly because Game Center looks for people trying to start exactly the same game as you. I may be happy to play a three, four, or five-player game, but I still have to choose one before Apple will match me. It would be nice to know that, for example, there was a four-player game just waiting on one more person to join before it could start up. It’s even worse when the games have multiple set-up options, because whatever you choose has to be matched exactly by someone else or they won’t join your game. For anything with more than two players, it seems that usually by the time the game starts up, at least one player has wandered off and never thinks to check back. At this point, I’m willing to say that Game Center games are good only for friends or playing against a single random opponent.

The two games I’m reviewing today are ones that I already know and like in tabletop form. I’m not focusing too much on gameplay here, but rather in how well they provide the same experience in mobile form.

Le HavreLe Havre

Le Havre is a long, complex game that requires a large table and involves a lot of cards with detailed text and symbols. I was curious to see how someone could fit all that into a playable iPhone game, and the answer turns out to be that they couldn’t. They make a valiant effort, with different areas of the board that you can tap to expand. In the normal collapsed view, the cards are “stacked” so that the titles are readable as long as there aren’t too many yet. It even shows everyone’s play areas, with the current player’s given a little more space. All the information is there as long as you tap the right spots to get into it. However, it’s very hard to follow. I’m an ok Le Havre player, but I act like a complete novice in the iPhone app because I don’t notice everything that’s going on. Yes, all the information and actions are there (including a slow-to-page-through log of past turns), but I just can’t take it in on the phone.

Part of me feels like cutting the creators some slack, because this was a valiant attempt to fit so much complexity onto a small screen. They definitely did a better job than I would have. But the ads in the app destroyed my good will. It’s a $5 game, a premium price by App Store standards, but it still has frequent ads. Admittedly, they’re for other games by the same company rather than third-party ads. But still, they appear frequently and have “close” buttons that are almost impossible to hit on the first try. I’ve never had so much trouble just trying to hit a simple “X” button, and every time I fail, it takes me out of the app and into Safari. (Also, sometimes you may tap an option on the normal menu, and the app decides that you clicked a not-yet-seen ad.) I don’t know whether or not they intentionally tried to increase their hit rates by making it so easy to follow the advertised links by accident, but they couldn’t have done a better job if they had tried. (Oh, and did I mention that the screechy in-game music is so bad that I need to keep my phone on silent whenever I play?)

I’m told that Le Havre is playable on the iPad, and I can believe that. But it’s sold for the iPhone, and that’s what I’m reviewing. In that format, it’s a confusing, unplayable mess. I give them some credit for the complexity of the implementation, but that’s the best praise I have.

Grade: D

Ticket to RideTicket to Ride

The physical version of Ticket to Ride is one of the classic “gateway” Euro games, and from what I hear, the app has been just as successful. I think it deserves that. It’s a near-perfect implementation of the board game, with all information fitting neatly on the screen. Your hand goes across the bottom, the cards you can draw from across the side, and your specific “tickets” (missions) down in a corner. You do have to cycle through the tickets one at a time, but that’s rarely necessary because the app automatically highlights every city you need to connect. The view of all required cities is usually all you need to know, unless you’re trying to decide which missions to give up on. Keeping track of those locations on the map yourself can be the most frustrating part of the game, so the app has a big advantage over the tabletop version. Though there’s no log of all past turns, it also does a nice job of displaying everyone’s most recent move in a status bar across the top. That bar also summarizes the number of cards and train tokens players are holding, so everything you could normally need to know is covered at a glance. I can think of several more obscure things I’d like to know: How many wild cards did an opponent use when they built that last track, or at which specific point since I last checked in did the available cards refresh? However, I would rarely use this information.

The app’s main flaws are outside of the game. The Game Center hassle goes without saying, and it’s debatable whether Ticket to Ride should be blamed for that. But it’s also difficult to enter and leave your existing games. When looking at a gameboard, the only way to back out to the main screen is a (hard-to-find) button labeled “Quit”, which I was scared to press at first. Then from the home screen, to get back to a game in progress, I have to go through all the steps of setting up a new game, even going as far as the Game Center dialog that looks like I’m going to invite new people! The news items (all ads for Days of Wonder products) can also be annoying, since they add to the count on the app’s icon, making it look like you have games waiting for your move. And you need to scroll all the way to the bottom of the news post to clear it from your count.

Still, all these hassles are peripheral to the main experience. Once you actually get a game going, this feels exactly like playing classic Ticket to Ride.

Grade: B


GyrOrbital (iPhone Game)

GyrOrbitalA space station in the middle of nowhere is under attack from all sides, and needs you to defend it. It’s a pretty common video game premise, but the thing that makes GyrOrbital unique is what it means to be attacked “from all sides”. Using the built-in gyroscope, your iPhone requires you to physically turn around in order to watch for attackers around you. It’s not a game you can play everywhere, since you need to be able to stand up and spin around like an idiot, but it’s a pretty fun gimmick when you’re able to try it.

GyrOrbital is a very simple game other than that: Basic vector art portrays missiles streaking towards the spherical base, and a field of stars moves when you do to maintain the illusion that you’re peering through a porthole into space. Tap or drag over missiles to lock on and destroy them. (It’s not an option to spin around and swipe your fingers across the screen wildly. In a clever bit of game design, the base doesn’t fire shots until you’ve lifted your finger.) It’s very simple, and admittedly looks pretty pointless in still screenshots, but it’s the simplicity of a game like Pac-Man. It doesn’t need to be more complicated.

There is one serious weakness that undermines the comparison to iconic video games, though. To play the game, you stand in one place and spin around, so it should feel like you’re on the central spot that missiles are converging on. Instead, though, the view is perpetually looking towards the base from a little ways off. When you spin, the camera is actually rotating around in a fixed orbit. I understand why this was done, because when a missile gets within your orbit, you can see it approaching the station no matter which way you’re facing. This gives a little warning and makes the game feel fair – if you constantly got hit from behind without any notice, it would be too frustrating. On the other hand, this way I don’t feel like I’m actually spinning around. It seems more like a traditional scrolling view on a video game, just with an unusual way to control the movement. While playing, I’ll catch myself thinking things like “move back to the left” rather than “turn left” or “it’s coming from my left!”. It’s a subtle distinction, but it means the game failed to erase the abstraction between me and my avatar.

What is left, though, is still a fun little video game with a unique control scheme. It’s a cool experience, and based on how well I’m doing in the Game Center rankings, it’s being unfairly overlooked. Go check it out.

Grade: B


Two iPhone Games – Ruzzle and Take It Easy

Today, here are two quick reviews of iPhone games I’ve played recently.

RuzzleRuzzle is a 2-player Boggle-like game played over the internet. Each person tries to find words on the same board of letters, though not necessarily at the same time, and compares their score. It has an intensity that Boggle doesn’t have, partly due to the short two-minute time limit on each round, and partly because the board has letter and word multipliers similar to Scrabble. This makes scoring a little more varied from round to round, but it’s also a fun, quick fix. The available multipliers increase over the game’s three rounds, keeping the game interesting even if one person gets an early lead.

The banner ads on the main screen plus full-page ads, sometimes with video and delays, between each round, really interfere with that simple Boggle-on-steroids rush. There is a premium ad-free option, but I don’t see much reason to pay for it since my friends have given up on the game. Notifications about your turn can be inconsistent, and if you go a couple days without thinking to check you’ll forfeit. (I’ve found this game is best for matches against random opponents, because then you’ll both want to play through quickly. This isn’t good for that Words With Friends experience of challenging a friend, since the waiting isn’t fun. With only a few rounds, and only being able to play one round ahead of your opponent, it has a weird flow.) Even worse, when my games have been interrupted by a phone call, I was kicked out of the round with a zero score.

All together, this is almost a very fun game.

Grade: C+

Take It EasyTake It Easy is a puzzle game in which you line up hexagonal tiles on a board. Each has three numbered lines, and the goal is to make unbroken lines across the board. Each of the three directions has only three possible numbers, so there will be plenty of possible matches, but there’s no way to handle all the intersecting lines at once without blocking some of the possibilities.

The design makes all the chaotic pieces easy to follow, with lines sparkling when they score and fading out if there is no way for them to complete. Even so, the basic game, a solitaire experience of receiving and placing one tile at a time, is pretty boring. Reiner Knizia did it better with Robot Master, which felt less chaotic due to its simple two directions and knowledge that tiles came from a “deck”, so you can consider the odds of what the next tile will be. Being a Knizia game, that also had more interesting scoring. This one gives you the points for the number times the number of tiles in that line. Obviously, the key is to focus on 8s and 9s and ignore the 1s and 2s.

Despite that, Take It Easy manages to succeed through its eagerness to do everything possible with its system. In addition to that basic game, there are Progressive and Puzzle versions, as well as several options for multi-player games. I didn’t find the Progressive version that appealing; It’s just the standard game played over multiple rounds with increasing target scores and a few new obstacles. But the Puzzles change things up by giving you a full board in which you need to swap tiles around. It isn’t especially original, but the game is more fun without the random solitaire aspect, and there are many different puzzle goals (from points to creating lines with specific numbers or in a specific position). With multi-player, every person plays the same game and competes to either get the high score or finish first. Even the standard game becomes a little more interesting as part of a competition.

It’s not ground-breaking or addictive, but Take It Easy is worth coming back to from time to time.

Grade: B-


Astronut and Pangolin: Two iPhone Aiming Games

For today, here are two quick reviews of iPhone arcade games. I wouldn’t quite call them puzzle games, but both are based more around timing and aim than standard arcade elements. Both are also available for free, with in-app purchases used to purchase the whole game if you like the early demo levels.


Astronut is a few years old; I remember it being one of the first games to use that in-app purchasing model. In it, you play a sort of base-jumping spaceman who leaps from one rotating planet to the next. Instead of directly moving him, you have to wait for the planet to rotate to the right position and jump at the right moment. This makes the Jump button about the only control in the game, though there is also a “Boost” ability that lets you shoot straight ahead for a time, passing through planets and destroying enemies.

As it was made by the design experts at the Iconfactory, you’d expect Astronut to handle this simplicity well. It does, to an extent. The game is quick to learn, and the different kinds of monsters are planets you encounter are all easily recognizable. It’s enjoyably cute, without being busy or distracting. However, the controls aren’t as elegant. In a game in which one basic action is used 95% of the time, I’d expect to be able to just tap the screen to use it. Instead, both Jump and Boost are accessed with little buttons in the bottom corners, and the rest of the screen is a giant pause button. It’s easy to pause this by accident, which is really frustrating in a timing-based game.

The goal of the game is simply to dash forward to the end of each level, and it’s fun when everything goes right. But sometimes it’s annoying how easy it can be, as most enemies only hurt you when you’re in space, and most planets in the early levels let you hang out on them harmlessly as long as you want. Your Boost power takes time to recharge after each use, but that’s not actually a problem. On the other hand, it can feel difficult sometimes, because timing your jump can be difficult. But failing in that just feels arbitrary, rather than a punishment for a mistake.

This arbitrariness is largely because, if you jump farther than a short hop, your character starts to drift in space, spinning wildly but attracted by the gravity of nearby planets. The game encourages this (long hang times are even worth points), but whether you land safely or not is completely left up to chance. Especially when later levels add barriers to bounce off of and planets that push you away, sometimes it just feels like watching a pinball bounce around.

Grade: C


A pangolin is a scaly tropical anteater, but you don’t need to understand that to play Pangolin any more than you need to recognize a hedgehog to play Sonic. The animal’s one relevant feature is that it rolls up into a ball when threatened. Here, your character spends the whole time in ball form, trusting you to bat it through an obstacle course. You have a limited number of shots to make in each level, but because the pangolin is almost always flying through the air, it’s much more hectic than golf. Also, you’re rewarded for finishing with shots remaining and for picking up the coins and gems on each level. That gives each course multiple levels of difficulty: First you can try to make it to the end at all, and then you can try to redo it better. Thanks to this, even the free teaching levels offer a good deal of challenge and replay value.

To bat the pangolin around, you tap two fingers on the screen to make a platform it can bounce off of. The position and angle matter a lot, of course, and even the distance between your fingers determines how much force the bounce will have. As you can imagine, this is easy to mess up, especially since the pangolin’s constant movement means that the view you’re trying to tap on is always scrolling by. However, the difficult aiming never becomes as annoying as Astronut. Most importantly, it’s because levels take under a minute each to complete. Retrying a shot that happens ten seconds into a level is hardly frustrating at all. Also, Pangolin lets you restart the current level by swiping your finger to the right. I was suspicious of this non-standard UI control at first, but it really works. Before long, restarting after a mistake becomes so reflexive that the action never stops at all. It’s actually easy to retry than it is to leave the game, which makes this dangerously addictive.

Once I do stop, though, Pangolin’s addictive hold fades. It’s simple and repetitive enough that I can go days without thinking about it again. The next time I do try it, though, I’m always surprised by how immersive and fun it is. It has a unique cartoony appearance (I especially like the textured look of the backgrounds), a physics model that feels very natural (among other things, it lets the pangolin hug the insides of curves, which is necessary for a lot of the moves in the game), and challenges for different skill levels. I’m looking forward to having more level packs to buy in the future.

Grade: B


Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes (iPhone Game Review)

Might & Magic battleThe first thing you’ll see when starting Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes is a warning that quitting the game at the wrong time will corrupt all saved game data. That’s just not an acceptable flaw for an iPhone game to have, and it’s the first sign that this Nintendo DS port may not have been planned very carefully.

I bought Clash of Heroes because, after trying 10000000 and DungeonRaid, I was curious to see another cross between an RPG and a Match 3 puzzler. This game also rewards planning and puzzle solving, but it’s much more of a traditional turn-based RPG than those other two. Not only does it include normal JRPG elements (including exploration, a verbose but half-hearted story, and unnecessary mini-puzzles), but higher-level characters will crush weaker ones no matter how well or poorly each side plays the Match 3 game.

Judged by RPG terms, the battle system is very clever. Your hero leads units of three different colors that go in a grid formation. If you create three matching ones in a column, they will attack up that column, destroying opposing units and hopefully reaching the far end to damage their leader. If you match three in a row, they turn into a defensive wall to block attacks. Combos give you extra actions, and proper positioning can “fuse” and “link” attacks to make them stronger. There are also larger “Elite” and “Champion” units, which become especially powerful if normal units are lined up behind them.

A boss battle

A boss battle

It’s fun, especially since the campaign comes up with a lot of clever twists on the basic system. Some battles require you to attack targets in specific columns, maybe also in a certain order, or planning ahead as they move around. Bosses have unique patterns and attacks, and you can plan ahead by swapping around the units and magical artifact you’ll take into battle. Plus, as this is a Might & Magic game, you know that there will be several different factions, each with units that have their own special ability. If you take the time to get familiar with all of them, you’ll find a lot of depth behind the simple, logical battle system.

Will you take that time, though? Probably not. This game just doesn’t feel designed for an iPhone screen. Everything on the battlefield is very tiny, and it’s easy to make uncorrectable mistakes. (It’s sort of a mixed blessing that the opponent AI is so bad, because they messed up even more often than I did.) When not in a battle, I had more trouble tapping hotspots than I ever have in any game before. Perhaps this would be more playable on an iPad, but it was sold as one usable on iPhones, and that’s how I’m considering it.

Might & Magic dialogEven with a bigger screen, there would be other problems. The fights don’t become interesting until you gain a few levels and earn enough units to fill the battlefield. You need to wait for frequent load screens. Worst of all, the gameplay is slow, with the “minutes played” counter on the save screen feeling less like an interesting fact and more like a note about how much time you’ve wasted. Once your units are ready to attack, they take a certain number of rounds to charge up. This is important to the strategy, since you may use that time to set up combos, and your opponent may try to prepare with walls or by setting up a faster attack in the same column. However, it means that you may still have a few rounds left to play after the outcome of the battle becomes obvious. And the rounds play slowly. With the animations of each unit charging up or fighting and the slow-paced opponent moves, you’ll often need to tap your screen to keep it from falling asleep between the time you end one round and begin the next! That feels way too passive. By the higher levels (which you get to quickly, since the game is a series of campaigns), the no-risk battles against minions can easily take eight to ten minutes, and a battle featuring defense and healing abilities could feasibly take half an hour! They never feel meaty enough to justify that time.

The pick-up battles outside the campaign can be more fun, with evenly-matched high-level fighters and no distracting plot. It still suffers from a too-small screen that will guarantee mistakes, though, and you need to play through the campaign to unlock everything. After more than thirteen hours, I’m apparently halfway through, but I have no motivation to keep going. There are a lot of great ideas that make me want to like Clash of Heroes, but the flaws usually dominate.

Grade: C-


Juggernaut: Revenge of Sovering (iPhone Game Review)

JuggernautJuggernaut: Revenge of Sovering is an attempt to translate the feel of a big-budget video game to handheld devices. They found a lot of interesting ways to make the combination work, but main effect was to make me think about how the line between hardcore and casual gaming is a lot finer than most people think.

Juggernaut has many of the hallmarks of a hardcore RPG, from the good (3D graphics largely unparalleled on the iPhone) to the bad (atrocious voice acting and a haphazard story). But the game initially feels like a casual time-waster: You move on rails from one enemy to the next, and attack by choosing one of three directions, avoiding the direction of your opponent’s “gaze”. It’s simple, and at the end of each battle you get a reward by choosing a chest, an extra interactive step that really isn’t different than the game randomly choosing for you.

But then, after you clear an area, you can keep returning to it (while the next enemy waits patiently) in order to tap around and collect “tribute” from the people there. Every now and then, wandering monsters appear there, and you take a break from the pre-planned battles to protect the village that’s giving you money. This made me wonder: Is the time-consuming click-fest to collect coins a remnant of casual games and their easy rewards, or is it really any different from the level-grinding of a classic RPG? The offhanded treatment of civilians as nothing more than a way to get resources could, honestly, fit in either gaming culture.

An example of less-than-stellar writing. ("We have reached the desert, my brave warrior. It is so hot here that you want to peel off layers of clothing!")

An example of less-than-stellar writing. (“We have reached the desert, my brave warrior. It is so hot here that you want to peel off layers of clothing!”)

New elements and mini-games keep appearing, from the tile-matching locks on buried treasure to the magical bits of “Mana” and “Fury” that you need to tap on during fights. But as those elements keep adding up, your battles become more complex. Eventually, you are husbanding that Mana and Fury to use for special moves, making your attacks in a prescribed order to execute combo blows, and trying to use three types of purchasable artifacts as efficiently as possible to win without wasting money. Each individual piece of that is a simple matter of tapping or swiping in response to some stimulus, but isn’t that true of any game? By introducing this system gradually, Juggernaut reveals that an intricate, strategic system can be built on top of game mechanics less interesting than Fruit Ninja.

When everything comes together, Juggernaut’s battle system is a lot of fun. There are a decent amount of things to keep track of, various areas of the screen to manage, and several little tricks that I eventually figured out to make the resources go farther or to save up powerful strikes for the right time. But not every battle is like that. The fun ones are on the main path, where it’s worthwhile to burn through expensive items to progress. Fighting the wandering monsters is only fun when you need to use the system in certain ways to unlock achievements (of course) that lead to special areas. Otherwise, those side monsters are dull: You can usually win without trouble, so you shouldn’t waste special items on them, and you’ll use them as an opportunity to build up Fury and Mana rather than to unleash it. The only thing worse than those those repetitive battles is when you have to aimlessly move around collecting money and waiting for one to appear, because you need to build up more resources before you can handle the next main fight. Grinding is a time-honored part of RPGs, but it feels especially mundane and reductive here.

You could advance faster by opening ads or roping in friends via the “Store”, in an annoying freemium section of the game. I can’t complain too much, though; I completed this without ever using that, and given the game’s technical and artistic aspects, I can’t imagine that this free download has turned a profit. (I assume, the publisher, justifies this as marketing for their MMORPG Juggernaut. Strangely, though, the app never mentions the game it’s based on.) I only finished it because it was an easy time-waster during late nights with a newborn baby, though. The full thing easily took over one hundred hours to complete, and the majority of them were boring level-grinding or frustrating attempts to advance when the only paths available to me were too much for my character. At its best, this was addictive, rewarding, and encouraged me to squeeze the most out of a deceptively simple system. It just wasn’t at its best very often.

Juggernaut Action

Overall, it just seems like Juggernaut: Revenge of Sovering was a good RPG with too many cut corners. The battle system is cool, but every enemy fights exactly the same, whether a dumb animal, a skilled warrior, or even a group attacking together. The balance is mainly good, but the material and number of missions aren’t planned well at all for the sheer length of it. And the little bits of story they bothered to include rarely seem to go anywhere, presumably because they were referencing elements of the main game. It’s easy to like this a little bit, as a free experience that looks like a $60 console game, but don’t plan on sticking with it like I did.

Grade: B-


Hundreds (iPhone Game Review)

HundredsThe most notable thing about the iPhone game Hundreds is its design sense. Simple but visually arresting, it just features black and gray circles on a white background, with the occasional burst of red. Items fade in or roll onto the screen after you win or lose a level, and the level select menu punctuates its whitespace with circular symbols that are labeled “statistics” but may as well be an artistic flair. The soundtrack, naturally, is simple looping music that always seems to mesh perfectly with whatever just happened on screen.

The gameplay has the same understated elegance, without even needing a tutorial. The first level has a single circle with a “0” in it. When you touch it, it grows and the number increases. It reaches “100”, and the level is complete. Future levels introduce multiple moving circles (generally in different shades of gray) that bounce around each other with a smooth Brownian motion. The goal is always to grow the circles until they total 100. The game continues to add new pieces with special abilities, but always with a simple internal logic. The only written instructions the game provides are “if they touch when red then you are dead”, a reference to the fact that the circles turn red as they are growing. The challenge lies in making them grow when there is space around them, and then stopping in time to let them bounce off each other safely.

HundredsThe game is at its best when it lets you enter a simple Zen-like state. With no time pressure, you can watch the circles bounce around harmlessly while waiting for the right time to increase one by a point or two. (SemiSecret Software, also the publisher of Canabalt, seems to have a thing for simple games that reward a relaxed mind.) However, most levels don’t let you do that. The game introduces other types of objects, including non-growing ones you can drag around yourself, ones that shrink down towards “0” when left alone, and ones that reset anything they touch back to “0” immediately. Some of those add a time pressure, especially the ones that stay red, forcing you to complete the level before they bump into anything. (New rules about “frozen” pieces add some exceptions, but that isn’t worth going in to here.) Suddenly that meditative gameplay goes out the window, and you need to outrace objects that will undo all your work.

The problem is that Hundreds is a very unforgiving game. Make one mistake with the dozens of items moving around the screen (while your own fingers are obscuring the view), and “you are dead”. Most levels are easy to complete – sometimes there is a trick or two to decide on, but this isn’t a “puzzle game” in the strict sense of having a precise solution. In fact, sometimes you’ll rush through several levels in just a few minutes. But others are very challenging. And those ones, with tight quarters and enemy pieces, are where the frustration appears. They demand near-perfection, and when you do finally win, the screen just fades away to an underwhelming “100”. Reaching that threshold doesn’t feel like an accomplishment in the way that crossing a finish line or clearing out enemies does. Most of the time, it wasn’t even obvious to me that I was about to win. Picture that: repeating the same actions, over and over, continually making it halfway to your goal, and then suddenly being told that you can move on. The level transitions have the same smooth, iconic design of the rest of the game, which makes it easy to keep going, but it doesn’t provide any visceral satisfaction either.

Hundreds is a well thought-out puzzle/action game that’s almost worth experiencing for its sense of style alone. However, it feels hollow beneath that. It’s also notable an an example of how a by-the-books game can fail to hold your interest.

Grade: C+