Category Archives: Puzzler

REVIEW: Avatar Maze Game

Avatar Maze Game (80 MSP)  is the sequel to Maze Game, and the bullet point on Willow Games‘ update is the inclusion of avatars. Much of everything else looks to be left untouched, which is to its detriment. As is the case in any endeavor that involves a maze, it all amounts to a bunch of trial-and-error pathfinding. Just ask mice.

Avatar Maze Game - Screen2

Hey, don’t tread on me, man.

It’s very straightforward; as your particular brand of avatar, find the correct route. Hey, sometimes the simplest concepts provide the most entertainment. In most levels, you’ll need to find keys that will unlock the way forward and /or lead to the exit heart. In between, it’s all dead-ends, backtracking, and key-swapping, with a soundtrack ranging from decent to innocuous.

This is countered a bit by the ‘shop’ in the world level hub (that contains twenty individual mazes that call upon four or five different styles). Gathering coins within each stage will enable you to buy certain upgrades and skills, like increasing the available ‘zoom out’ view, the walking speed of your avatar, or the ability to clear colored barriers that lead to stars, the game’s chief collectible (finding all of them and completing the game unlocks a few new visual styles). While not revolutionary, the upgrades and perks are a nice touch to encourage collection and give the exploration some purpose.

Avatar Maze Game - Screen

If you’re under the age of seven, this probably looks like fun to you.

Then it happened. Near the end, when I was ready to give the game a modest recommendation for the kindergarten set, Avatar Maze Game turned jerk-ish. It happened first on puzzle 11, then again (and more frustratingly) on stage 19, where it decided to marry the ‘starry’ theme of the level together with the floor you’re walking on, morphing the already trial-and-error wandering into trial-and-error-and-can’t-see-a-damn-thing-while wandering. Going slow and ‘feeling your way’ is the key, but who’s idea of fun was this? Note to developers: It is neither nice nor fair to booby-trap your game to the chagrin of others.

As a preoccupier (yes, I’m recreating it as a noun) for small children or the easily amused, you can squeeze an hour’s worth out of Avatar Maze Game, right up until the last few stages when the floor and background colors merge into a disingenuous pain. For grown-ass men and women, though, with much bigger responsibilities, better motor skills, and… you know… discerning taste, the prospect of wandering around simplistic or lost-in-the-dark mazes holds considerably less interest.

REVIEW: Scribendus

Word games are part of the human experience. They’re hard to put down even when the situation demands it (just ask Alec Baldwin). They’re fun for plenty of reasons, chiefly for the chance to make your friends and family look like vocabulary-lacking neanderthals. Scribendus (80 MSP), derived from the Latin word for ‘write’, itself meaning ‘really smart dude’ (loose translation), is not part of that fun, unfortunately.

Which is strange. To me, it sounds like a sound idea. Combine Scrabble‘s word-making (words can be built across, top to bottom, or diagonally), two letters at a time, which can be rotated as they fall, while being lulled by classical music (Bach). Imagine Shakespeare playing Tetris, and you’ll have a fine idea of what’s expected of you here.

The game contains three modes. Survival, which speeds up the drop rate after a preset number of words formed, Ascension, which leaves the speed alone but increases the minimum length of words each round, and Practice, which is… practice. Oh, and the minimum word length is four. Sorry, simpletons, none of that ‘cat’ in the ‘hat’ bullshit is going to fly in Scribendus. No cheating, either; the pause screen hides all the letters both incoming and on the board (yeah, I tried it).

Scribendus - Screen

No matter the mode, expect a steep challenge and plethora of brain farts. Even at its slowest speed, the game doesn’t give you much room to think or maneuver if / when you do spot a chain of letters that are conductive. The highest total I got in one session was eleven words, with three of those happening completely on accident. Yay me. Still, you shouldn’t beat yourself up over it. Having a deep reservoir of words doesn’t favor you nearly as much as having a sharp eye would.

Rounds can be torture in that it basically requires a quicker mind. Bottom line: it doesn’t suffer any idiots. Methinks the game doth protest too much in that regard. Therefore, I say onto you, unequivocally, that Scribendus is a game only suited for gentlemen / gentlewomen of means and aspiring wordsmiths, the 1% of Xbox Live Indie Games enthusiasts. Good on you, all you smarty pants.

REVIEW: City Tuesday

Having been affectionately refering to it as ‘Groundhog Day with bombs‘ for the past year-plus, City Tuesday (80 MSP) marks one of my more anticipated Uprising releases. Its originality doesn’t peak at the black & white art and stickmen, opting for story and gameplay elements that venture past the indie comfort zone.

As the man in the red shirt, you’re out to stop a terrorist group that’s bent on bombing heavily-populated areas throughout the city, hidden behind or within simple to moderate puzzle situations. That group, called the Black Fang, is never given any backstory or reason for its ‘some men just want to watch the world burn’ attitude. Though for a lawless sort, they do have a lot of rules to abide by (over a hundred, at least).

That same lack of context applies to you, the supposed protagonist. Forget how you caught wind of the plot and insist on stopping it yourself, why are you reliving the same day and able to fast-forward it, the same few minutes, Bill Murray / Jake Gyllenhaal-style? And as an added gift (time-travel and immortality not enough?) you can read the minds of those around you, gleaning personality quirks and personal details that factor into the puzzles and give insight into the daily schedules (also of importance) of the populace. The bombs you’ve disarmed during a day stay so on subsequent runs, and failure (sometimes the only way to advance) or not, you’re as good as new each time, not a scratch on you, not a dent in the fender.

Using the frozen-in-time Vignelli Station as a sort of hub level, you can branch out to a further three areas. The world map is slickly-represented as a series of subway stops. Ridding each ‘line’ of its explosives extends a bridge at Vignelli Station by one length, getting you closer to reaching the ‘big bomb’ and clearing up the surrounding mystery. After the tutorial level in the museum, followed by a slightly longer level that also eases you into the flow of the game and the concepts of its puzzles, you’re given the promise of a huge city to explore (well, medium-sized), and set out to disarm the rest of the bombs.

You see, kids, before Blu-ray and streaming video…

This final section of the game is much larger and diverse than the previous two primers. It open its petals slowly to reveal a layered puzzle with interesting routes you’ll need to learn and follow to achieve your goals. It’s fun and necessary, watching for the patterns and observing the events from different angles, even seeing the intersecting paths of some of the bombs and knowing you’ll be following up that lead the next (same) day. Given the terrorists’ actions and your bizarre circumstances, you’re intrigued and getting settled in for a deeper adventure. Yet after a few more mind-reads and defusings, it just ends without explanation, in an odd and anti-climatic fashion to boot.

Truth be told, I was expecting a lot more from it after the long run-up to its release, but City Tuesday earns its dollar price tag despite the short playtime (certainly under a half-hour for most players) and pedestrian use of its unique premise and art, but just barely. A sequel is teased, or is seemed to, in the denouement. Here’s to hoping for an extended story that builds on the bedrock of this city and trusts its players with a little more responsibility and ingenuity.

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Review on The Indie Ocean

Review on Indie Gamer Chick

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Review on The Indie Mine

REVIEW: Entropy

Entropy (80 MSP) does not back down from its initial visual promise; it is the most beautiful XBLIG in three dimensions that I’ve laid eyes on. So much so that I find myself blushing when in its presence, and I don’t care who knows it. From the foliage to bloom effects (yes, at the cost of an occasionally sputtering frame-rate) this game is hawt.

Sadly, pretty moving pictures and the compliments they inspire do not a well-rounded review make, so take my previous fawning over its technical marvels for what it is and let me move on to the bullet points. You, you little amnesiac you, wake up to find you’re facing a series of test chambers that must be solved. I’m sure that probably sounds familiar. Guided by the balls of colored energy that roused you, that seem to be neither friend nor foe, you’ll work to add other balls, these being comprised of elements (stone, fire, water, acid), to various scales within the levels that measure weight, temperature, or the pH content, thus opening the exit.

The game doesn’t explain much, and what little it does is done through images and paintings on walls, or a subtle sign. Thankfully, it doesn’t take long to see that certain elements will not mesh (fire and water, for instance), and this is actually core to the game’s puzzles. Water will cool fire, turning it to a touchable (and moveable) stone. The other elements have similar relationships. Trial and error all you like. Nothing is permanent in Entropy. In a very smart design move, if you make a mistake or die (you’ll do both) all you have to do is rewind time and do it differently.

And it helps to explore. I did notice that certain levels have a few different solutions. The first path opens up your standard exit (dropping through a hole) from the stage, while another, more arcane route, can open passages that lead to uncovering hidden paintings (a total of 12). What effect finding these has (if any), I don’t know. I wasn’t clever enough to spot more than one. I also wasn’t dedicated enough to finish the game, stopping at stage 10 (of 26) after having put around four hours into it.

So pretty. And so dull.

A good chunk of that time was spent fighting with the game’s physics, either in ‘pushing’ elements to where I needed them to be, careful not to burn or corrode myself, or in using the ‘gravity bubbles’ to group and / or sort others. It’s one thing to craft interesting puzzles around a mechanic, it’s quite another to ‘see’ a puzzle solution, and then take twenty minutes or more trying to tiredly will that solution into being.

I didn’t find manipulating the pieces myself to be all that bad, as I had physical control (mostly) over where they ended up. With the bubbles, though, you’re either ‘inching’ elements along at a snail’s pace, or ‘resetting’ them (rewinding time) just to continue inching. It adds a degree of complexity to the solving that is not needed, and, more unfortunately, not fun. I didn’t get far enough into the game to (according to the trailer) mess with the gravity in some stages, so I can’t say for certain whether the early frustrations increase or start to level off.

I dislike posting a review on something if I haven’t seen it through (or in the least, halfway-through). It’s sloppy journalism for one, and two, it can’t give anyone the whole picture when so much is left unseen. At the risk of losing credibility, I’m going to assume that large parts of Entropy‘s second half will play out much like its first part did; gorgeous scenes with the occasional flash of brilliance, mixed in sparingly with much bigger portions of clunky, molasses-slow puzzle-solving. It’s worth the look and MSP, but you might not stick with it.

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Review on Indie Gamer Chick

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Review on The Indie Mine

REVIEW: Gateways

I think we’re all in agreement that Portal was a great game, and (if indie games are the barometer) quite the inspiration to a number of developers. I’ve dished out plenty of admonitions right here on the site, to studios that have either lifted the storyline wholesale for their own use, or shoehorned the idea into their game when it didn’t even require it. Smudged Cat Games‘ Gateways (240 MSP) is probably the most blatant offender of them thus far. Scientist-type ‘Ed’ finds and uses a ‘gateway gun’, which is Valve’s portal gun in every way but name.

Though Ed isn’t content to take on a talkative sidekick and work with the standard portals. He wonders aloud why he’s being led to different parts of the facility to find his experimental weapons, bopping escaped monkeys on their domed-helmet heads, but the story never takes off. It’s just an impetus to drive the different gun types and equipment you’ll use.

They’re the real story in the game anyway, adding clever puzzle ideas and gateway attachments that Portal could only ever dream of, from the mod that shrinks or grows Ed to fit the environment, to one that bends gravity and rotates the whole level, or the time portal gun, that allows you (and plenty of ‘you’ clones) to be in multiple places (and on multiple switches) at once. The way they all work together is flawless.

The lab you find yourself in is one giant, seamless level, with areas and secret nooks filling in as you explore, Metroidvania-style. The mapping feature is tremendously helpful in Gateways, not only serving to track Ed’s location, but as an objective marker (a red arrow always points you to the next goal) and a record of unfinished business; for five orbs, the game’s scattered (and limited) currency, you can find out whether a puzzle is solvable with your current setup. If not, the map obediently marks it and tells you once you’ve found the requisite stuff.

And with puzzles popping up at every bend and intersection, you’ll work for each inch of ground covered. It’s definitely not meant for the easily frustrated; Gateways makes you look foolish time and time again, despite some obvious (well, in hindsight) solutions. This is lessened somewhat, in that you can literally buy yourself out of any puzzle that gets too… puzzling, provided you’ve saved up enough orbs. It’s not the most dignified way to play, but there’s no shame if the option is there. Later in the game, when you unlock the use of all the guns at once, ushering in multi-part puzzles that will stagger the stoutest of brains, you’ll give in as I did.

Oh yeah, this shit’s crazy.

So there is a downside, and, oddly enough, it’s that the puzzles are too good. The amount of effort it took to build them is duly noted; I considered it a victory just getting to the last puzzle (about five hours playtime). And after (spoiler!) watching the solution video, there’s no way I was even going to attempt it. You can’t purchase your freedom regardless of orb count. The last few puzzle rooms in general were stubborn, lasting over an hour from ‘hmmm….’ to ‘ah-ha!’, but that final one takes it, hands down. 98% completion is good enough.

Though don’t let my defeatist attitude sway you. I still consider it one of the more unique, exquisitely-constructed games around. Gateways handles its puzzles and open-world progression as skillfully as any arcade or retail game I can think of, and then some. It’s not only the best game to come out of the Uprising so far, it’s one of the best XBLIGs available. Do yourself one of the biggest favors you’ll ever do for yourself and plunk down the MSP for the game, play it, then come back and thank me.

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Review on Indie Gamer Chick

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Review on The Indie Mine