Archive for the ‘ iPhone ’ Category

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+


Circa News (iPhone App Review)

Main news screen of CircaThese days I get my news mostly from Twitter and special-interest blogs. That doesn’t give me a very comprehensive picture, but it’s difficult to break the habits of our bite-sized info-culture. So I was very interested when I heard of Circa News, an iPhone app that promises to provide convenient news digests for the Twitter era.

It’s a very well-designed app, pulling the reader right in with large photos (beautiful in the retina display), and the story condensed into factoids one can flip through. Additional pictures and info boxes prevent the information feeling like a wall of boring text.

The first page of a story. Notice the “1 of 5” telling you the page count, and the top of the next page just barely visible to flick to. It does feel nice.

The news doesn’t satisfy me, though. It really doesn’t offer that much more depth than the Twitter culture I was hoping to go beyond. Circa’s editors summarize other news sites, sometimes with better success than others. Many articles lend themselves to a one-minute overview nicely, but others left me with no context to understand them. It turns out that there is a way to make the he-said/she-said style of political reporting even worse, and that’s to trim out all the facts for brevity. Circa provides links to the original articles, but that just eats up more time than it would to load the original in the first place. On balance, I did learn a lot, but I was also putting in a lot of time to give the program a chance. I didn’t see savings over going straight to a standard news site.

Circa’s editors do have a difficult task. I’m sure it’s harder than it looks to decide which stories make the cut, whether a certain factoid deserves its own story or should be part of an existing one, and when to link stories. But it feels rushed. It is just good enough to work, but you will still find the occasional typo, repeated item, or even false statement.

A couple of mistakes. The news feed shows one story twice. More seriously, the other article makes a claim (that the Pope’s tweets are infallible) directly contradicted by the first source article.

The other big selling point of Circa is that you can subscribe to a story that interests you. Updates will be added to the original story, so people who don’t care about it won’t have to see it again. While a good idea in theory, this again creates difficult choices for the editors. What deserves a new story and what should be added to an old one? In the end, it turns out not to matter: Most stories never get updates, and the ones that do usually (always?) end up back in the main newsfeed (sometimes with a new name) for everyone to see.

I’m also not sure what Circa’s business model is. It requires a paid staff to keep it going, but the app is free and has no ads. Either that’s about to change, or they have plans to gather your personal information. (You do need to sign up to subscribe to stories. Nothing seems too intrusive, though.) I know I’m in the minority, but I’d rather pay for a good service than get it for free and wonder when it will be ruined by lack of money.

Circa’s main advantage is the friendly UI and simple iPhone feeling, which will certainly make it easier for some people to keep up on news. For me, it didn’t pass a couple simple tests: It didn’t feel more time efficient than reading “regular” news, or more in-depth than following people with the right interests on Twitter. I’m glad to see people experimenting with ways to distribute the news, but that’s partly because I’m still looking for a solution myself.

Grade: C


10000000 and DungeonRaid: Dungeon-Crawling Puzzle Games for the iPhone

I’ve recently been playing two different iPhone games that mix casual game mechanics with a deeper dungeon-delving theme. 10000000 and DungeonRaid do very different things with this approach, but both of them manage to make something deeper and more interesting out of simple matching games.

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Letterpress (iPhone Game Review)

Letterpress in playThe new iPhone game Letterpress was just released last weekend, but it attracted enough players so quickly that people are wondering if it’s responsible for overloading Game Center. I wouldn’t be surprised: Game Center never gets much attention, and it’s an easily-ignored option in most apps that use it, so one big push may overload it. Personally, I think the fact that Letterpress requires Game Center is a major strike against it: The system feels a little sloppy, I didn’t like agreeing to the EULA for yet another information-gathering service, and as we just saw, the game is now at the mercy of hiccups in a service it doesn’t control.

Despite all that, Letterpress is worth checking out for its clever approach to word games. Players make words from the letters of a 5×5 grid, and each tile becomes “owned” by whoever used it last. But if a player manages to own a tile and every one it touches, it cannot be captured even if their opponent uses it. The unique thing about this system is that letters can be used without being adjacent, but the system of ownership and protection creates a map of shifting territories. You need to create a word not just from the 25 letters available, but using the specific letters that will most help your position. Another thing I appreciate is that the game rewards long words, which means that they’re almost always familiar to the players. It feels like a more natural use of language than word games that require you to memorize words like “QAT” and “XU” in order to be competitive.

The dark blue tiles are protected, as they are surrounded by light blue ones. The blue player is close to victory.

Also, of course, the quantity and positions of the letters change from game to game. A game with multiple ‘E’s, ‘R’s, and ‘S’s available plays very different from one with lots of ‘Q’s and ‘Z’s.  You’re never allowed to play a word if it has been used before, or if it is entirely contained within a previous word. This means that variations of words might come up repeatedly, but you’re forced to move forward without getting stuck in a repeating loop.

The app is well designed, but bare bones. That Game Center integration, for example, lets the game match you up to network opponents with little effort on the developers’ part, but adds a few seconds of delay every time you launch the app to play your next move. It has a clean interface that makes it easy to play, though I miss features like chatting. And given that this game works best when played quickly back and forth, this game screams out for options such as time limits and in-person games shared on one phone. (The app itself is free to try, and 99 cents for the “full” version which allows multiple games at once. The first time your game gets hung up because an opponent stopped responding for a while, you’ll realize how vital that multiple-game option is.)

I haven’t had any issues like the network trouble other people allege, but I have run into one annoying bug: Ever since a player resigned against me, the Letterpress icon on my home screen has told me I have one game waiting for my move. Even turning the phone off doesn’t make that go away.

As for the game itself, the beginning and middle are great (other than my aforementioned wish for time limits – this really is a game that demands to be played quickly). The endgame can be frustrating, though. Whenever all tiles are claimed, whichever player owns the most has won. Since the score tends to seesaw back and forth with every move, you’ll want to make sure you leave enough tiles neutral to keep your opponent from ending it. This is clever in theory, since your territorial considerations now include which tiles you need to leave untouched. In practice, though, that means that if players are fairly evenly matched, neither dares open an endgame opportunity for the other. It can be obvious who is going to win long before it becomes viable for that player to claim a victory.

Letterpress has the potential to become a great game, but it isn’t there yet. I’m not sure if the developers plan to keep adding to it, or if they consider it to be complete. Either way, though, it’s fast and free to try out, so it’s easy to recommend that you give it a chance. As long as you’re willing to give Game Center a chance, too.

Grade: B

Quick Update:One week later, I am still enjoying this, and have learned to play so that my issues with the endgame aren’t as significant. I also managed to get rid of that extraneous notification about a waiting game by deleting that one from the history of played games. I’ve run into enough other issues to reaffirm my belief that this feels rushed and incomplete: After the multi-second delay for the app to log you in to Game Center, there is another pause before your games are updated. Since there is no visual clue as to whether this is still loading, and also no hint about whether it is your turn in games other than the one you’re currently looking at, playing multiple games is frustrating. When a game ends due to my opponent’s move, it is moved immediately into the app’s list of my previously played games, and I won’t notice it ended unless I think to look for it. And this morning, I finally did experience several hours in which my games wouldn’t update even though I knew one of my opponents had moved.

My basic conclusion is unchanged: This is an addictive but clunky implementation of a clever game that would be best played in person.

Jason Shiga – Meanwhile (Comic, Game AND iPhone Review!)

Meanwhile cover

Jason Shiga - Meanwhile

After looking at the way that some computer games played with the Choose Your Own Adventure mechanics, I searched around to see what other ways the genre had evolved. For the most part, it was disappointing. Books in that format are strongly influenced by the original ones, and seem to be poorly-written and arbitrary children’s stories. But I did find one work worth noting: A comic by Jason Shiga named Meanwhile.

Meanwhile is structured so that each panel has a line leading to the next. When there are choices to be made, that line branches, presenting two or more simple choices to follow. Each page has a tab on the side, so that a line that leads off the page can easily be followed to a tab on another page. It sounded a little confusing at first, but turned out to very easy to follow.

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