Category Archives: Puzzler

REVIEW: Bubble Booster

Whatever name you ascribe it, working to align bubbles of a similar color and shooting them down is a pretty timeless recipe of the puzzle shooter genre. It was a guaranteed staple of the earliest game consoles (see Puzzle Bobble and the like), and it’s a damn near regular appearance on mobile devices of all kinds these days. Bubble Booster ($1.00) is yet another example of that tried-and-true formula.

Here, the setup retains the classic conundrum of bubble busting; orbs of various colors spread across the stage, some in noticeable, ‘easy to shoot’ patterns, others less so, and in harder to reach areas. You can control your shots and / or fine-tune your aim, sending your own orbs ricocheting off walls or stacking them aside for later use. You complete any given level by clearing out all of the bubbles on that stage, one way or another.

This gives the game its simple hook on the surface, with some strategy and mindfulness needed to actually increase your scores to a boastful level. While you can always just match the color (three or more) in a line of some sort to remove bubbles from the playing field, you gain more points for ‘dropping’ other bubbles in play around where your shot hits. In this regard, it makes more sense to ‘pick and choose’ your moves, placing your shots where they’ll do the most damage and clear out more of the board.

It’s a clever trick, one that’s made all the more tricky with the added complication of having a limited amount of time to take your shots, as well as the level ‘ceiling’ pushing the stack of bubbles closer to game over every few moves you make. To motivate you to do better, the game offers online leaderboards, tracking everything from practice scores to fastest level completions, overall high scores, and highest level reached. You can also earn new bubble skins (like individual country flags) and wallpaper backgrounds.

Bubble Booster - Screen

It’s all superficial stuff, mind you, but it’s a decent amount of unlockables to earn. With all that said, though, Bubble Booster is an also-ran, with plenty of better examples in the genre released well before it, or for free1, for that matter. There’s literally dozens of this game type out there, and that has to hurt its bottom line.

So while it’s far from original or unique in its execution, Bubble Booster is a fun enough puzzler to waste a few hours on. What worked ‘then’ still works ‘now’, albeit in smaller doses. The online leaderboards further extend that lifetime if you’re the competitive type, just be aware that there isn’t anything here that you haven’t already played in years (possibly decades!2) past.

  1. It’s arguably easier to aim and play these games with a mouse, too. Controllers are nice, but they’re not always the best option for all game styles and genres. 
  2. If so, congrats! You’re old (like me)! 

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: T-Kara Puzzles

I’m not exactly sure what the ‘T-Kara’ in Mexond‘s T-Kara Puzzles ($1.00) stands for, but it sounds like some KPop Supergroup culled from my beloved T-ARA1 and fellow group KARA2. Sadly (for me, at least) it is not. Rather, it’s a Match-4 puzzler in the vein of so many Match-4 puzzle games that have come before it. That said, it’s still not a bad time-waster / brain-twister at that.

T-Kara Puzzles - Screen

T-Kara Puzzles is comprised of a variety of play modes, most built around the idea of matching four similar colors in a row and / or column. This is accomplished by ‘dragging’ said rows or columns in either direction3, sliding blocks into place and removing matched-up blocks from the board in order to increase your score. The robust ‘Campaign’ setting takes this simple idea and expands on the theme, adding in modifiers like scoring within a preset zone, maneuvering around ‘locked’ blocks that cannot be moved, and forcing you to acquire a certain amount of each ‘color’ to move on.

Besides being a much needed refresher (this type of game can tend to wear on you over time), these clever conditions for victory inject a fair amount of strategy, considering you usually only have a certain number of moves to make per round. The difficulty ramps up as you unlock the next stage in line, natch, but the game does an adequate job of explaining the rule sets and giving you ‘hints’ on which row / column to move next. Often times, you’ll need to play it off like a long con, setting up ‘combos’ that can save you a turn and clear larger parts of the board like falling dominoes.

T-Kara Puzzles - Screen2

Impressive, old man.

Outside of the dozens of levels found in the Campaign, you’ve also got a ‘Score’ and ‘Picture’ mode to mix things up. The Score scenario gives you one life to— you guessed it— score as many points as possible4, while the Picture gametype scrolls back the match-4 rules and modifiers, and just has you dragging puzzle pieces to eventually form a completed picture. Both modes are worthy accessories to the campaign, adding even more variety.

The game has charm, too, and working smartly around the various conditions and caveats that each board requires definitely gives you a sense of completion and satisfaction. It still boils down to being ‘another match such and such’ game, and I really wanted it to be a KPop supergroup, but if you’re hard up for a thoughtful and clean-cut puzzler, T-Kara Puzzles is a nice fit.

  1. T-ARA video included for… um… footnote purposes
  2. KARA video included for… um… footnote purposes
  3. A mechanic obviously meant for mobile platforms, so it’s no surprise the game is also available on the go. 
  4. Also includes a ‘Time Attack’ modifier and another that limits the number of moves you can make. 

REVIEW: Fat Cow – Hot Air

Fat Cow – Hot Air ($1.00) may be a slightly-less awesome title than one of 20 Goto 10 Games’ previous works, Magic Thighs & Slightly Phil, but it’s no less literal; you are indeed a large cow stuck in a bubble, using ‘hot air’ (…I’m assuming farts) to propel and boost yourself around some very claustrophobic stages. But that this particular cow’s name is ‘Hans Gruber’1? Now that’s awesome.

Fat Cow - Hot Air - Screen

It’s just too bad ‘Hans’ finds himself trapped in an otherwise familiar and pedestrian-playing Maze game. Not that there’s anything ‘wrong’ with Fat Cow – Hot Air mechanically. The usual tricks apply— you navigate2 the increasingly-complex layouts, searching out other animal friends that double as ‘keys’. Collecting all of your pals opens the ‘exit’, allowing you to progress to the next stage.

Each level is timed, natch, and there are roadblocks thrown up to detour you. These include other floating balls that magically ‘warp’ you back to the starting line, and lava-lined walls that quickly suck precious seconds off your remaining clock. To counteract the hazards, you can collect coins to increase your time, and ‘zoom out’ to see a given level’s design, charting a route around dead-ends and avoiding any enemy-choked corners. Subsequent stages will up the number of foes or key-friends you’ll have to rescue, requiring more dexterity.

Fat Cow - Hot Air - Screen2

A zoomed-out look at a stage, obviously.

Despite the worsening odds, the game keeps things moving at a breezy and (mostly) casual clip, with you finishing one stage and quickly cycling onto the next without too much trouble. The only ‘challenge’ of it really comes from making a wrong turn, or trying to rush past a defender. Online leaderboards will track the fattest scores, and even then you can always retry the stage you failed, albeit with your previous high score erased.

And that’s about all there is to Fat Cow – Hot Air. Without any original bits or clever hook to the gameplay, it’s likely the game will deflate your enthusiasm after the first couple runs. If you’ve played one maze game, you’ve played ’em all. Poor Hans. Perhaps we’ll see him again someday. Godspeed, good sir… er… cow!

  1. I’m hoping for the ‘Hans Gruber’ from Die Hard, yippie ki-yay and all that, and not just the Austrian / Canadian composer. 
  2. The controls are initially a little funky, but you adjust pretty quick. Granted, I was still zig-zagging around half a dozen stages into it, but nothing that caused any catastrophic issues. Cows aren’t known for their agility, you know. 

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