Level Zero

REVIEW: Level Zero

Level Zero ($1.00) is actually quite prophetic for a game title. A side-scrolling shooter in the most basic application of the term, it never quite starts, or goes anywhere meaningful. Instead, it feels like a demo, a ‘proof of concept’, full of placeholder art and text, scraped together and shoveled onto the marketplace like a discarded child.

Level Zero - Screen

Now before you accuse me of being unfair / dramatic, take a look at the screenshot above. Besides breaking the unwritten rule1 of indie game marketing (never use captures of your menu / title screen as part of your promotional screenshots), the proof is in the pudding… er… the screen grab. Level Zero was made in five days, the result of ‘messing’ around with XNA. To be fair, plenty of games have stewed for even less time in the developmental soup2. The amount of days spent working on something versus the end quality of that game doesn’t automatically equate to bad.

It doesn’t inspire any confidence, either. And for good reason. Level Zero IS a shooter, one that functions and has a definite objective: shoot everything that comes on-screen, and survive for as long as you can. Basic, yes, but it’s a viable foundation. Now, stop me if you’ve heard the rest. There’s powerups, like a temporary shield, or a temporary increase in firing speed, and ‘nukes’ that predictably clear the screen of enemies. Bullets can harm you, as can asteroids, and some kind of gaseous fog that occasionally drifts on-screen.

Level Zero - Screen2

As exciting as it looks?

Sound familiar? Of course it does. We’ve all played this game a hundred times before, under a hundred different names. Sure, Texel Games has built a shooter. It’s a noble pursuit, and a great personal achievement. They should be proud. Yet minus a unique graphic style, an intriguing storyline, or some other interesting mechanic to tie the parts together, all they’ve got is a game that works. That’s hardly a good reason to ask others to buy into it.

Everyone has to start somewhere. XNA and XBLIG were made to be that ‘start’, but that doesn’t mean everything that is created in XNA and XBLIG is created equal. As I write this, there’s plenty of ‘side projects’ and ‘late night hobby’ games being made. Plenty that have came before, and just as many to come. Games that are totally going to be worth your time and money. Just not Level Zero. Not when it’s so basic, and so drab, and so damn uninspired.

  1. Although, really, somebody should be writing this down. 
  2. Rome wasn’t built in a day, but videogames? No problem. 
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REVIEW: JewellCity

As far as videogames go, both Sim City and Tetris are part of the lingua franca. Almost everyone has at least heard of them, if not played them to death in some form or port on one system or another. Pairing the two play styles into one ‘supergame’ sounds like a super idea. In fact, we’ve seen it on XBLIG before, with City Rain. Now we get a more traditional Tetris-like (and more yellow1) version from developer LittleGreenBob, with JewellCity ($1.00).

JewellCity - Screen

See this, kids? Take notes. It will be on the test.

And like Tetris, the idea here is simple, but layered. Randomized block sets fall from the top of the screen, and it’s up to you to do your best ‘valet’ impression and park those blocks in the most appropriate (and lucrative) open space. Each block costs money to play, and represents a ‘city piece’, with specific tiles for homes, shops, parks, factories, electricity, etc. As in real life, the key to building and maintaining a thriving city lies in making said city attractive to incoming tenants. Drop housing blocks next to lakes and shops, and watch your population swell. Put them by dirty factories or near a power plant, and you’ll find you can’t give the property away.

Just don’t stack too much of a good thing. Your instincts will tell you to drop the blocks in rows and attempt to ‘match’ them, but matching ‘three of a kind’ is verboten in JewellCity, and liable to trigger the very foundation of your city to come crashing down around you. Should you align three of one block type in a row or on a diagonal, those tiles will disappear, potentially taking some of your revenue— and destroying other tiles— in their wake. Clearing space and building anew is part of the process, sure, but separating whole parts of your city from a power source can have devastating effects.

JewellCity - Screen2

Even if you’re an excellent city planner, disasters (both natural and the man-made sort) will occur. Special ‘protection’ tiles can mitigate some of the damage, but often you’ll be reacting to random tiles and events just as much as you will be thinking about where to place the next block. This constant threat of trouble (and bankruptcy from overspending!2) gives the game an addictive quality, despite the amazingly-plain visuals and setup. Though besides a tally of your in-game stats and medals to be awarded, there’s little else to it.

Ultimately, you may not mind the singular focus. JewellCity won’t be winning any beauty awards anytime soon, but what it lacks in looks it makes up for in brains. Playing Mayor and turning your city into a well-oiled and well-funded machine— and keeping it that way— won’t be easy, but getting there is half the fun.

  1. Developer of EscapePod. Also heavily yellow-ish / yellow-brown. Seriously, what is it about that particular color? 
  2. China won’t be around to buy up your bad debt in JewellCity

REVIEW: SuperCollider

SuperCollider ($1.00) seems like the end result of a feverish Red Bull1 weekend and a marathon session spent in Microsoft Paint. Between the ‘loud’ backgrounds and the cringe-worthy visual style, I can’t think of any other explanation. It would certainly explain the attention given to the design and gameplay (or lack thereof), which feels ‘rushed’ and without any kind of iterative refinement.

SuperCollider - Screen

A platformer that plays more like a timed race, SuperCollider stars a nameless female science experiment gone wrong / right, on the run from the spelling-challenged crew of G-Tonw.  Each level starts with ‘Here, have a plot sequence’, some swearing and / or misogynistic banter, and then its off to races, fighting (if you consider ‘running into’ enemies to equal combat) featureless, grayed-out foot soliders and other assorted baddies, in a mad rush— er, brisk walk, I mean— to reach the exit before your declining health reaches zero.

Your HP functions as the vital ‘seconds’ ticking off the clock as you go, with the levels gradually becoming longer and more maze-like. You can earn a scant amount of health back by defeating foes, but the real key to finishing subsequent stages is in acquiring permanent boosts to your HP and / or running speed, via powerups peppered throughout the maps. It’s not a bad system, in terms of ‘Risk vs. Reward’ for the player to weigh out, but it’s implemented piss-poor.

SuperCollider - Screen2

Don’t ask the how or why a shark is shooting out of a solid floor. Best not to dwell on such things.

Most of the upgrades are placed in out-of-the-way nooks, the path not always immediately clear or certain at first glance. A few of them might even be considered ‘trolls’, egging you on to reach them, only for you to discover— after the fact, natch— that you won’t have enough time to reach the exit. And with no checkpoints or continues to erase a fatal mistake, you really won’t want to sit through the terrible writing or mosey through the same stages again.

Nor should you. What potential the game has to entertain is wasted on bland visuals, even blander storytelling, and gameplay that punishes more than it enables. Despite the urgency the game goes to great lengths to stress, SuperCollider is ultimately just like its enemies— featureless and dull.

  1. The energy drink, of course, not an actual bull. Those things are dangerous in high quantities. Red Bull, that is, not an actual bull. 
The Party

REVIEW: The Party

The Party ($1.00) is dreadful stuff. I probably could have used a better lead-in to that statement, but I figured it was best to get it right out there in the least amount of time, ‘time’ being something that The Party doesn’t do too well with. Team Shuriken‘s newest pseudo text adventure drops most of the requisite tits and / or any semblance of character development, and instead focuses on a college party that quickly gets out of hand. Sort of.

The Party - Screen

Oh, if I had a nickel for every time this happened to me…

You see, as soon as this party is, quote, ‘getting started’, it ends. That’s right, the game just ends, ten minutes in. All you get is a smarmy / smug ‘Congratulations!’— as if you’ve accomplished some great task— and an invitation to drop another dollar if and when the second chapter is released (and given the developer’s track record for finishing what it starts, you could be waiting indefinitely). I could leave things right here and let us both get on with our lives like The Party never happened, but I suppose I should give some specifics.

After Bro’s1 computer gets fried, he decides to give his buddy Spencer a call to lament the loss. Spencer’s solution is to throw a party, but Bro isn’t feeling it. Also, they know like zero girls between the two of them. Doesn’t matter. Spencer is hell-bent on throwing this party with— or without— Bro’s approval. To do so, he needs to assemble a group of ‘babes’ by guilt-tripping them into coming, and this sets up the primary ‘guesswork’ in The Party. It’s the same trial-and-error stuff you’ve come to expect, mixed with some light animation work and the obvious choices that will instantly ‘game over’ you, even if they might be worth a chuckle.

The Party - Screen2

Once Spencer has gathered the girls, he goes to Bro’s apartment, only to have a group of college dudes show up. Turns out they were expecting hot chicks at this party. The group is instead dismayed to find out they’ve come to a full-on sausage fest, so Bro and Spencer get themselves tossed out of their own party. You skip to a ‘few hours later’, after Bro has supposedly been The Hangover2-ed (new ‘haircut’ and all), and this is when the game ends.

Lucky for you, I’ve essentially laid out the game in abridged form here, so there’s no reason for you curious types to even download it. Sadly, it seems that for every small step Team Shuriken takes forward, it has to take one giant leap backward3. The Party certainly resets any recent progress I’ve given them credit for. Ugh.

  1. I’m sure he has a name, but ‘Bro’ is the only title that Spencer ever calls him by. Also, ‘Bro’ is the same dude at the desk from Venus Explorer. In fact, maybe that’s the ‘game’ that fries Bro’s computer in The Party. I don’t have any clever remark for this, I just like the possible continuity and thought you’d like to know. 
  2. And if we’re talking The Hangover films here, Part II is clearly the best one. It beats the abysmal third act by miles and miles, and it’s funnier than the original because it uses those same jokes from the first film to better comedic effect with already-established characters and situations. This doesn’t have anything to do with the game, by the way, I’m just sayin’. 
  3. Did I just use the Neil Armstrong quote to describe Team Shuriken’s game catalog? Sorry, Neil. 
Halloween Scream 2

REVIEW: Halloween Scream 2

A long time ago, in a galaxy… uh, exactly like this one, actually, text-based adventure games were the extent of the world’s interactive entertainment possibilities. There were no such things as high-definition graphics, procedurally-generated everything, or decent animation, really. If you wanted to experience a story, you had to click through screens of semi-descriptive text and essentially create that story yourself, imagining the environments and the characters that occupied them. Halloween Scream 21 ($1.00) is a throwback to that bygone era.

Halloween Scream 2 - Screen

Nothing ‘screams’ excitement like a visit to a stuffy museum.

And it probably should have stayed there. Halloween Scream 2 is all-text on repeating stock photo backgrounds, a ‘choose your own adventure’ game without the ‘choose your adventure’ part. The story— a continuing yarn about a girl vampire seeking to end the curse on her family’s bloodline— is a mostly linear one. Her travels to find an ancient amulet and avoid a mysterious foe take her through the heart of Europe, with stops in England, France, and Germany.

Breaks for puzzles typically ask you to find a certain item or tool, or click through an old-school, North / East / South / West-type exploration segment (you may even need to draw your own map on notebook paper to keep track of things; how older-school is that?). Those same bits may be the cause of some frustration. While the route you need to take to progress the story isn’t exactly hard to see, the clues and conditions that need to be met may not be as obvious. If you’re not the patient sort, this’ll likely devolve into clicking on every available option until you hear the requisite ‘chime’ of an important detail being discovered.

Halloween Scream 2 - Screen 2

You’ll notice ‘A bit of enjoyment’ isn’t part of this inventory.

That linear format and the ‘only one solution’ gameplay don’t help matters, as the only branching paths lead to some sort of end, with you returning you to the last checkpoint (and possibly having to run through a puzzle or item sequence again). And while the story in Halloween Scream 2 isn’t half-bad in summation, a handful of spelling errors and story inconsistencies (a French-speaking desk clerk in a German hotel, for instance) may take you out of the narrative.

Even that’s less likely to bother you, if you have any interest in what Halloween Scream 2 is selling. It’s clearly a niche game for a niche audience, meant for those strange connoisseurs of text-heavy passages and trial-and-error puzzle-solving. For the majority of us, however, this trip down Gaming’s memory lane to ‘the simpler times’ would be better off left in the past.

  1. Yeah, little early for the holiday, I know. Hey, not my fault. I didn’t release the game in July! Take it up with management! 

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