REVIEW: Pillar

Let me preface this review by saying that I like Michael Hicks as a developer. He does not settle for predictable ideas, nor does he compromise on his original vision. He’s one of the guys behind XBLIG’s last Uprising, even taking part with his interesting (yet ultimately unsatisfying) Sententia. He cites Jonathan Blow as an influence (easy enough to tell in his own projects, really), which is certainly okay in my book. Video Games as a medium need more people willing to take a chance and tell a story that not everyone will get at first glance. That said, his latest, Pillar1 ($4.99) is yet another interesting project that’s lacking… well, much enjoyment.

Not that ‘enjoyment’ has to be everything in a game, but it plays a large part. There’s more to Pillar than what’s on the surface, but Pillar is a puzzle game, first and foremost. Well, a collection of minigames, I suppose. Its puzzles and its gameplay revolve around the idea of human personalities, its six characters built on traits like Giving, Enduring, Distant, Capable, etc.. There’s no dialog in the game, no written story of any kind, but there are connections and conclusions to be made. There’s plenty more to be said (and, more specifically, seen) about introverts, extroverts, and everything in between. Also the titular ‘Pillar’ itself, a supposed source of great knowledge that these characters are after.

The game takes that task and its cast seriously, letting you pick and choose freely between said personalities, even going so far as to ask you who you are, and where you are, in the game world when you continue. Each character is given an initial setup, letting you read into their personality type. One character spends all her time praying in Church, say, while another takes part in the rat race of Capitalism. One might avoid human interaction, while another seeks it out. Eventually, the game draws two of these personalities together, in order to solve a series of increasingly-difficult puzzle sequences.

Those puzzles vary in form and style. Distant / Focused uses a stealth mechanic of sorts, avoiding detection and using ‘voice’ as a distraction to lure guards (just normal people) and / or to unlock doors. Enduring / Renewing has you collecting orbs and opening life-depleting gates, while avoiding personal contact. Giving / Capable presents the most involving puzzles of the bunch, which sees you constructing and lighting various numbered lamps, using pressure plates in specific order. Regardless of character pairing, you can bypass most of the puzzles completely by ‘losing’ (which isn’t a bad idea2), but you’ll only be cheating yourself, not to mention missing out on the puzzle pieces that comprise the characters’ ‘notes’3.

Pillar - Screen2

The ‘lamps’ puzzles are easily the best part about the game.

Unfortunately, Pillar falls in love with its puzzles whether you do or not, throwing room after room at you in succession. Some ideas work better than others in longform, but the game would have been better-served to hand them out in moderation, rather than stretching its mechanics out to pad the puzzle count or drive the point home. Of course, you can always take a break or switch personalities, and then come back to a previous part, but the puzzles can play and feel like an extended slog anyway, in sharp contrast to the game’s quieter, contemplative moments. It seems bizarre to say this, but Pillar is a puzzle game that might be better off without its puzzles.

Much like Sententia, Pillar is a lovely idea that suffers some in its transition to videogame form. It tries to say important things about Life and about Us— and does, to an extent— but it ultimately feels flat-footed and outright dull in certain spots. No doubt the developer poured his heart into it, and he’s to be commended for it, but despite that care and lofty ambition, the end result is just not very fun or balanced. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t play Pillar. Just consider it more as a piece of self-explorative art, rather than a videogame you’d play for entertainment.


  1. Pillar marks the first XBLIG I’m reviewing that I didn’t actually buy on my Xbox 360. The game is also available on the PS4 (at a higher price), which is the platform I played it on. Sacrilegious? Perhaps. Supporting indie games on all platforms? Probably. 
  2. You totally should ‘lose’ on occasion, as some of the sequences that occur after you fail are worth a look, and give you even more insight into a character / personality. 
  3. Nothing groundbreaking, but completed puzzles (a la Braid) do offer some enlightenment (and trophies in the PS4 version). 

REVIEW: Air War

If Air War ($1.00) and its block-styled confines look familiar to you, you’re not alone / crazy1. A lot of its designs and assets owe their origin to Block King, developer Chris Antoni’s previous… um… block-styled confines. Much the same as in that game, Air War is an online shooter for up to eight players2, best enjoyed with friends and an unhealthy amount of trash talk.

Air War - Screen

And by shooter, I mean ship-based dogfighting in the first-person sense, with aerial battles taking place in three different arenas. Despite the visual similarities, each stage does an adequate job of varying the architecture, leading you through narrow gaps and around other obstacles, avoiding fire (and walls!) and trying to get the drop on your opponents.

The perspective can be a little jarring at first, yet the controls and the flying itself is pretty straightforward. The game allows you to tweak your ship and play style mid-flight, adding or subtracting points to laser power, shield strength, and speed. Your starting craft is similar to Star Wars‘ TIE fighters, but you can spend your banked points from kills on bigger, stronger ships that will last the duration of your next life. This applies a welcome layer of strategy and ‘risk vs. reward’ to the fighting, as you can morph from a lumbering fortress to a nimble jet in just a few seconds, adjusting to match the situation.

While Air War is doubtlessly intended as a multiplayer game, there is a single-player option that pits you against AI drones (with both air and ground targets). This functions more like a so-so ‘waiting room’ than a standalone mode. In a novel workaround to XBLIG’s notoriously-vacant online community, the game can change from that single-player mode to multiplayer on the fly, courtesy of a drop-in, drop-out option that will let players ‘invade’ your game.

Air War - Screen2

That multiplayer isn’t perfect, though. There’s some noticeable lag between the on-screen action and what’s actually happening, as well an issue that prevents you from having more than four players in a lobby3. There’s also the aforementioned lack of an online community to consider, as the single-player offering here doesn’t provide much of a reason to play, beyond being a distraction as you wait for friends / randoms to join.

Ultimately, Air War isn’t as fast and fun as Block King, nor does it offer much depth or replayability. At times, it can feel like an add-on or an elaborate test of working parts that might eventually comprise a bigger game. However, if you’re in the mood for some basic-looking air-to-air combat— and have friends willing to play with you— Air War fills a niche.


  1. I mean, you still might be. I have no way of knowing, and I’m not exactly a good judge of sanity anyway. 
  2. Although consider yourself forewarned; in my time with the game, Air War would never allow more than four players in one match. Oh, and much thanks to ‘ImTheMetalLord’, ‘andregurov’, and Chris Antoni for their help in testing the game’s multiplayer. 
  3. See #2 above. 

REVIEW: Pirates! Quest for Booty

Despite what the double entendre title and some of the screenshots may say, Pirates! Quest for Booty ($1.00) is a mostly serious attempt at an adventure game. And a legitimate one at that. Although the occasional skin and the entirely-text-based exploration aspect of it may bring to mind Team Shuriken, Bandana Games‘ newest take is a far more worthy (and far more lengthy1) idea.

Pirates! Quest for Booty - Screen

Seems like a trap… Is a trap.

If you can get used to that idea. Though I’m old enough to remember the days when these games were the highlight of digital adventure, the thought of rummaging through lines of text placed over stock photographs isn’t exactly appealing to the modern palate. It’s no surprise then, that ‘playing’ Pirates! requires lots of reading, lots of staring at same-y, reused images, and even more ‘Go North / East / South / West’ directional commands. Oh, and a healthy imagination to fill in what the words on-screen can’t completely describe.

As Pirates!‘s anti-hero / scurvy… well, pirate, you’re saved from execution and given a task to recover the missing fragments of a magical mirror, one that supposedly holds the secret to eternal youth. This requires you to purchase a ship and crew, then explore several islands / locations, gathering up the pieces and completing several side quests. Even with the limitations of text, the game manages to create an ‘open world’ of sorts, allowing you to freely explore most islands in the order you choose, coming back to them later once you’ve acquired certain items or advanced the plot.

These places vary in size, ranging from large ports and smaller settlements, to zombie ships, or an island inhabited solely by women. The game does a good job of making each area feel different from the last, despite the similar theme that ties them together. To break up the monotony of the text, there are side activities, such as gambling, and even combat …in a way. Random encounters pit your crew against an enemy, with you winning out by having a numbers advantage and / or by choosing the correct attack (melee, ranged, sneak attack, etc.). It’s not a particularly deep system, but it does toss a light dose of RPG tactics into the mix.

Pirates! Quest for Booty - Screen2

As with any adventure game, though, there’s a fair amount of backtracking and wandering around, either looking for the next story ‘trigger’ or randomly stumbling into a quest you can now complete. A handy map fills in as you explore and marks important locations, but it’s still largely up to you to figure out what comes next, or where to go. That’s both a vital part of games like this, and a shortcoming. Not all clues and / or directions are straightforward, meaning you’ll need patience for some segments or puzzles.

With all that considered, Pirates! Quest for Booty is still better than most games of this type that I’ve tried. The emphasis on exploration— and your choices regarding that exploration— gives it more playability and weight, with some very capable voice-acting adding personality to the environments and characters. It’s a decent-sized adventure that’s totally worth a look …if you don’t mind all the text …and don’t shy away from cheesy pirate jokes2.


  1. I guarantee you won’t finish this game in fifteen minutes. Team Shuriken should take notes. 
  2. What is a pirate’s favorite letter? RRRRRRRRRRRRRR

REVIEW: AvatarFortress

Part of me dies inside every time I see a new online shooter for XBLIG. That’s almost certainly linked to the indisputable fact that most multiplayer-only games on the service simply do not have an audience, or, at the very least, enough players online at any given moment to make for interesting matches. Games Brothers1 AvatarFortress2 ($1.00) is the latest proof of that fact.

AvatarFortress - Screen

Its particulars are the stuff that any standard arena shooter is made up of— a castle map layout with long corridors and a centrally-located killing pit, multiple tiers and varied environments, including exteriors and an underground cave system. It allows for up to 12 players in a Deathmatch flavoring, with a handful of weapon types and more unlockable guns earned by leveling up.

Nothing you haven’t seen or played before, of course, but it works as designed. The map is large enough in some rooms to enable you to escape an ambush, but still claustrophobic enough to funnel players into its inevitable firefights. If you look hard enough, you can almost see the makings of some potentially fast and furious battles.

AvatarFortress - Screen2

And that’s about as close as you’re likely going to get to finding any action. The entirety of this game is dependent on other people. There are no AI bots to spar against, or any local modes, making the single-player portion of it rather meaningless (short of exploring the map). Online play is clearly the only way to go, but, predictably, I never once found a single match to test out the multiplayer.

Which is, sadly, par for the course on XBLIG. AvatarFortress dresses the part of a shooter, and handles as well as any budget FPS would, but without even a hint of an online community around to actually play it, you’re better off to let this one pass by.


  1. Developers of the retro-fine (and probably overlooked) gem, 8BitsRetroZSurvivals. It’s the ‘Nazi Zombies’ mode from Call of Duty, in pixel form. And it’s pretty great. 
  2. Not sure if this will be the same for everybody, but there’s a strange stutter on the main screen that outright refuses to let me scroll down and make selections in anything less than five minutes time. It’s weird, and an absolute pain in the ass to navigate. 

REVIEW: Ghouls N Gals

Ghouls N Gals ($1.00) is a Team Shuriken game, so you’ve probably got a decent handle on what to expect already; suggestively-clothed, two-dimensional women, and a paper-thin, one-dimensional plot. It’s the standard all-text, choose-your-own-adventure stuff you’ve seen before, slathered on top of some nifty visuals / slight animations. And it hasn’t hurt the developer yet, so why fix what isn’t broke1.

Ghouls N Gals - Screen

The job doesn’t pay enough to afford more clothing, however.

This game2 finds our pair of ghoul-hunting heroines exploring a haunted mansion, of sorts, trying to banish a curse / kill zombies / do something or another. It’s not really important. Rather, you pick from a number of highlighted paths in any given room, cross your fingers it’s the ‘right’ choice, and repeat. These choices take you on a tour of the house, winding through several repeated hallways and navigational choices. Eventually you encounter another character, or observe an object in the environment, and a line or two of throwaway exposition is tossed around.

As an additional challenge, Ghouls N Gals does feature ‘combat’, in the form of occasional QTE events placed over static screens of enemies (oh, and a guy eating a cheeseburger, for some odd reason). If you’re not quick enough, or if you press the wrong button, you’ll lose one half of your ‘health’… meaning one of the girls will die. Fail twice, and you’ll restart. There are two checkpoints that you can reach to minimize the amount of rooms you’ll have to replay, but even without that help, you won’t have to work too hard.

Ghouls N Gals - Screen2

Overall, it’s a predictably short journey that meanders to an anti-climatic ‘ending’, which really just makes Ghouls N Gals a glorified teaser to a sequel that may or may not ever exist. The game earns some bonus points for its playful nod towards P.T.— aka Silent Hills— at one point, but there’s really nothing else here that warrants a careful look, or purchase.

Wherever you stand on Team Shuriken and its catalog of ‘adventure games’, Ghouls N Gals is simply just another release from them, with no reason whatsoever to play this version over any of the last half-dozen cleavage-centric releases. The visuals may change from game to game, but the tired, repeating design and the criminally-short playtimes3 are always the same.


  1. It’s rhetorical, hence the absence of the question mark. Team Shuriken knows exactly what they’re doing, and no amount of questioning on my end (or anybody’s end… hmm… end, hehe) is going to give us the answers we’re looking for. Play on, friends, play on. 
  2. A ‘Chapter 1′ of an unknown amount of chapters. Funny thing is, most of Team Shuriken’s stuff starts out with a ‘Chapter 1′, but no additional chapters show up, despite the promises. That’s a pretty spotty track record, so take this whole ‘Chapter 1′ stuff with a healthy dose of skepticism. 
  3. It will literally take you 10 – 15 minutes to ‘finish’. 

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