Tag Archives: Xbox Live Indie Games

REVIEW: Apple Jack 2

Hey… wait a minute. I know you, don’t I? Sure I do. Little green guy, apple for a head? Yeah, you’re Apple Jack! No, no you wouldn’t remember me. See, I’ve haven’t played you before, but I heard about you, buddy. One side says they love you, the other claims you’re a pain in the ass punishformer, foe to— What’s that, Jack? I got you all wrong? You’re a whole new man, er… whole new fruit? Oh, so you’re Apple Jack 2 (80 MSP), and you’re here to erase some of those ill feelings left behind by your predecessor?

Alright, I’ll bite. The sequel has Jack ditching his clothes / office job and setting off for the beach, jumping, rolling, and wall-kicking his way through colorful locales collecting coin and fruit, and dispatching the eclectic enemy cast. Jack squares off against pandas, pigs in tutus, floating eyeballs, laser-shooting owls, and washing machines… Moving on. In keeping with the ‘popular plumber’ motif, you are able to mount, capture, and toss foes a la Super Mario 2. 

The controls are dandy, there’s a high amount of polish to the game, and plenty of clever puzzles / solutions. Here’s the but. It’s still hard as hell, and wears its punishformer badge prominently. AJ2’s saving grace this go around is its ‘rewind time’ feature, which redeems your last six seconds in the event of a mistake, preventing many a disaster while causing a few more. It’s not foolproof; you can easily rewind out of trouble and into new trouble, and it does need to recharge after each use. That said, I was grateful for it more often than not.

Big Pandas need loving too.

Nine times out of ten you’ll be threading the needle. You will die, like, a whole lot, though your frustration level versus the Coldplay-esque soundtrack surprisingly offsets some of that anger. It also helps that the objectives (and challenge) change with each level. Sometimes you’ll only need to reach the exit, while other stages require you to terminate all enemies, occasionally adding color-coded smashing that requires a bit more finesse. The constant switching allows your nerves to reset before being tested again.

Punishformers are an evolution of the old guard, cartridge platformers that didn’t have the benefit of a spacious blu-ray or DLC, that relied on difficulty to increase playtime / money’s worth. Games like Apple Jack 2 have their supporters (like this guy) and detractors the same as any other genre. What’s not one man’s cup of tea is another’s gravy train… or something like that. I’m not usually a fan, but I have no objections to its style of play. Seeing 30 of its 60+ stages, I enjoyed my time with AJ2, and it’s competent enough that I’d recommend it, latter half unseen. If you’re going to throw near-impossible platforming bits at your audience, where repetition and skill will eventually win the day, you’re going to need controls and level designs that are fair and (mostly) above reproach. Apple Jack‘s are.

REVIEW: Mortal Legacies

Despite the allure of the bigger-budgeted, Hollywood-visuals RPGs, there’s plenty of market space left for independent role-players to set up pixelized shop. The Breath of Death / Cthulhu one-two, EvilQuest, and the upcoming Penny Arcade 3 are all good examples of indie development gone right. And while they can’t ever hope to match the look and scope of a retail release, I’m here to say they can beat the big guys at their own game, with quirky, original stories and / or characters that strike some chord with the player. It’s all about ideas.

Mortal Legacies‘ (80 MSP) box art (looks a bit like Desmond from Assassin’s Creed, doesn’t it?) seems to tease a darker, more modern take on old school turn-based JRPGs, though the truth is much duller. Assuming the role of blue-haired Valloc, you’re given a fateful directive (from your Mom, of all people), to explore the land of Elisia in search of the King’s lost crown and prevent the shadow from engulfing the world. Not that the world much pleads its case for salvation. It’s as bland as they come, and nobody has much to say to about it. From townspeople to party members, a sentence’s worth of exposition about does it. All the castle’s guards communicate via the Skyrim meme, which has seen enough use but to me never gets old.

What does get old is the combat. I realize the turn-based system is inherent to retro role-players, but here the random battles tend to come back to back a little too frequently, and you’ll constantly buff and restock those allies in your group with spells / attacks that hit multiple enemies, just to get the damn battle over with rather than necessity.

Casting Devastating Blow? Yeah, to Fun.

The game is too linear and too short to set up a decent plot or characters, with party members that fill every RPG support role stereotype (mage, rogue, priest), and have zero personality, backstory, or reason to be there. Same too for the quests and objectives. It’s all stuff you’ve seen / done previously (pirates, bandits, oh my).

You also level up at an incredible clip; on medium difficulty, it’s nearly every other fight. I’m sure good intentions were there (making it easier to pick up and play, and thus, more enjoyable), but the lack of proper balance favors the player in almost every battle, leaving the endgame devoid of any challenge or joy. The game’s brevity (hour+) is therefore a blessing. Beating the game unlocks a new mode that turns Valloc into a demon (no explanation given, and the narrative doesn’t change). With the weapon and armor you’re able to then equip, you’re over-powered from the start, which just highlights the game’s balance problems even more.

There’s no need to go on. With the absolute barest of character-building and story-telling frameworks in place, a cumbersome inventory, and frequent, protracted fights, it’s no surprise that Mortal Legacies is a completely skippable experience.

REVIEW: MiG Madness

When it comes to videogames and explaining one’s passion for them, the majority of gamers tend to invoke the familiar mascots and titles. I owe a debt to Mario the same as the rest of you, though one of my earliest game accomplishments to cement that love involves an unlikely duo— Time Pilot (on the ColecoVision console, no less!), is probably the game and system responsible for you reading this. I was so proud of the ending screen in that instant that I asked my mother to take a photo of me standing next to the TV (couldn’t find it for the review, but I know the picture still exists). It was, as some say at a defining point in time, a watershed moment, a word I was aware of but hadn’t considered usable vernacular or of significance until after reading Stephen King’s latest, a time-traveling (how very fitting) jaunt to prevent the Kennedy assassination. Only tangentially-related, I know, but I needed an opening.

MiG Madness (80 MSP) tries to reestablish that link to my childhood, pulling off a lot of the same moves (with equally well-done controls) and nostalgia I expected, while donning a prettier exterior and adding four-player co-op, locally. For the uninitiated, you steer your aircraft around the screen, taking down waves of enemy planes and picking up the health and limited upgrades (wider / heavier shots, homing missiles, invincibility) they drop upon annihilation. Differing from the Time Pilot approach, there is no time travel or Zeppelins to be had, sadly, just day & night cycles and differently-hued planes.

Also missing are ‘levels’ and any sense of progression. Using the format of ‘waves’ would substitute well, if those waves lasted longer. Too much stop and go. Even as you climb the ranks into double-digits, each enemy formation can be dealt with in twenty seconds. With four players, it’s even less. And with the added planes on-screen, bullet detection (both yours and the enemy’s) is almost impossible. Many times I waded into a group of fighters at full health, mingling in the impressive-looking clouds, only to emerge a second later depleted and in flames, without ever knowing my attacker. Another recent XBLIG, Spitfire, had the same problem with shot visibility. Devs, you have to playtest these things. There’s also the issue of difficulty. As in there is none. Even accounting for the familiar arcade gameplay and aesthetics, I shouldn’t be able to mow through 35 waves in my very first playthrough, solo.

There’s not much depth or variety save for endless waves and jousting for round wins in co-op. The lack of other game modes or online leaderboards sap that replayability further, but the co-op is fun if you have willing friends / extra controllers. Gripes aside, MiG Madness is a solid effort that’s capable of reminding some of us of its classic arcade sensibilities; it’s enough, though I wish it could have done a little more.

REVIEW: Lolita of Labyrinth

Besides the unfortunate abbreviation (LOL) and its no-relation-whatsoever to the Miley Cyrus bomb, platformer Lolita of Labyrinth (240 MSP) carries with it the uncomfortable burden of promising underage girls and mazes (I mean, I wouldn’t mind trying this, but I’m not even sure I’m should be talking about these things outside of Japan). This being the internet, of course, there has to be an audience for it.

The story taps a bored baroness named Audra, with talking pigs for servants, that wakes up one day wanting a little excitement in her life, and rather than take up a safer hobby like a book club, decides she wants to venture into a living painting and fight monsters in order to (I believe) retrieve a vintage wine. To each his or her own, I guess.

Everything from the character and level designs to exotic creature types (Flying octopi? Butler-pigs pushing chicken carts?) screams ‘I coulda been in Castlevania!’, mixed with Deathsmiles’ fixation on gothic lolitas, though the controls are some of the most user-unfriendly I’ve felt in a platformer. I’m not entirely sure what even prompted me to continue (eh, probably the butler-pig strangeness of it), but I did just long enough to realize it wasn’t getting any better.

Combat is a chore, as your basic attacks (punch, kick) are usually ineffective against the game’s cornucopia of airborne and projectile-tossing enemies. Magic cards that give you limited offensive and movement-based abilities mitigate this a bit, but the cramped levels and shorter platforms often mean you’ll jump awkwardly out of one problem and right into the next. Stunning an enemy (only some can you kill outright) allows you to ‘stamp’ them in order to weaken and eventually kill a baddie, but stun times seem arbitrary and turn what should be a simple jump into a horribly-orchestrated cheap hit fest.

Even the candles in LOL are out to get you (shouldn’t I be able to kick/punch these open for hearts?) Add to this a soundtrack that belongs in a Western and barrels that can roll up a flight of stairs… I mean, how does a barrel roll up stairs? It’s all so unforgiving. You get five continues and then you’re done, either stuck to reload your saved game and inch through avoiding contact, or forced to start over. No thanks.

Lolita of Labyrinth is a feckless mess that delivers wince-worthy text dialogue, clunky controls, and a sampling of the absolute worst level layouts I’ve encountered, none of it meant for a sane player’s consumption. Its art and style resembles a Castlevania, sure, but checking off that box isn’t a guarantee of quality. LOL won’t make you laugh out loud so much as it will eternally reduce your Microsoft points by 240, resulting in  ; _ ;

REVIEW: Birth Order

I can’t sit here and type with a straight face that Shooters are underrepresented on the indie channel. Hear that, I was just laughing. The short of it is, you could throw out a Bing search on the Xbox dashboard and get more results than you could handle before the ‘Sh…‘ sound leaves your lips, ending in ‘…it! That’s a lot!’. Although a smaller sub-genre, the marketplace isn’t hurting for Bullet Hell(s) either, but Birth Order (80 MSP) attempts some out-of-the-hit-box thinking.

Rather than a traditional, numbered stage progression, advancement is handled via a grid-like game board, with you choosing a route (from a handful of repeated stage themes— City, Forest, etc.) towards the final boss, locked away at a seemingly safe distance. Bonus-granting cards earned in-game give you various powers (extra firepower, sidekicks) to use between levels and that last the duration of a stage, which is a unique touch, and adds some strategy to your chess moves (Hint: save ‘shield’ cards for later battles). Also novel is the ‘shooting’ itself.

‘Just Press B. It’s easy.’ Lies I told myself.

All of your shots are homing. An enemy’s weakness is visibly mapped to the face buttons. Match to kill. Sounds cut and dry, and it is, to an extent. See, there will be bullets. Lots of bullets. The pink variety can be converted into stars (the game’s energy currency) upon an enemy’s death, but other shots you’ll have to avoid amid a multicolored-chaos without end. I can’t stress enough the importance of having threat-assessing eyes. There’s the Quick, and then there’s the Leo… eh, you know the saying. And don’t expect any mercy from the start. If you’re not paying attention, the first stage will kill you immediately after the introductory handshake.

It’s not a Bullet Hell in the traditional sense. You’re not learning shot patterns through repetitious death; you’re just getting lucky after repetitious death. And therein lies the caveat, if you’re the type that goes looking for caveats. There’s a degree of chance at play here. While you will certainly improve at Birth Order and its enemy recognition over time (via that pesky death part), sometimes success will be had purely through the luck of the draw, either in the aforementioned perk cards or extra lives found on the world / game board.

Birth Order is short on playtime (my routes through the game ran about 25 minutes each), and the only nudge towards replaying it is to see where the chips may fall / if Lady Luck is on your side this round, but for the buck it’ll run you, it’s worth it to step outside the usual XBLIG shooter comfort zone.