Jacob Jones & The Bigfoot Mystery and Quell Memento

Puzzlers are the absolute toughest games to write a review for.  I’ve spent hours staring at my monitor trying to figure out how to describe these games in an entertaining but informative way.  Good games mind you.  But still puzzle games.  It’s a genre that doesn’t lend itself well to the types of reviews I write here.  If I didn’t love them so much, I would probably quit covering them.  They do the lowest page views too.  And yet, they’re an absolutely essential part of gaming.  I would be beside myself if I couldn’t have a puzzler on my handhelds.  It just seems like it would be wrong otherwise.  I’m also not looking for games to sit down and play through all at once.  That’s why this review took so long to go up.  Because I played these games the way they ought to be played: little bits at a time.  To do otherwise is to maximize a puzzler’s potential for stagnation.

Then I realized I had promised these reviews over a week ago and had still not come close to completing them.  So I embraced the stagnation, like a naturist who thinks showers are for conformists.

Not all the puzzles in Jacob Jones require anything resembling brain power.  This puzzle, over half-way in, took me all of twenty seconds to solve.  In fact, I sort of solved it on accident while I was trying to figure out which moves to make in my head.  Um, I don't think it was supposed to happen like that.

Not all the puzzles in Jacob Jones require anything resembling brain power. This puzzle, over half-way in, took me all of twenty seconds to solve. In fact, I sort of solved it on accident while I was trying to figure out which moves to make in my head. Um, I don’t think it was supposed to happen like that.

First up is Professor Layton and the.. excuse me.. Jacob Jones and the Bigfoot Mystery.  Sorry about that, but let me explain how I can make such a mistake.  The game is a set of various logic/math puzzles that are strung together with an utterly nonsensical, raving insane storyline.  The same type of puzzles you would see in the Layton series.  Similar hint system too.  And a  similar “find stuff in the backgrounds to help you buy hints” setup.  Plus, pretty much an identical scoring system for the puzzles.  Or a notepad you can overlay on top of the puzzles.  You know, Lucid Games, in some cultures they cut off your hands for this sort of thing.

The two big differences are in the art style (which looks very similar to Costume Quest) and the episodic setup Lucid is going with.  Here, $3 buys you the first chapter of the game, which gives you 25 puzzles to work on.  This is a very good idea.  I’ve owned all Layton games, but the only one I played through all at once was the first one.  Mostly because the game was such an anomaly that the novelty held up.  For the four sequels, it did start to drag a little.   So breaking up Jacob Jones was a masterstroke.  It doesn’t become “that game that I played so much it got boring.”  They should space out the chapters three months at a time.  Give players just long enough to forget how the story bogs down at the end of each episode, and how the puzzles are not really all that original to begin with.

The real problem is the game is more about the story than the puzzles.  With the Layton series, the story is just there because having 150 random, unrelated puzzles in a package would be a tough sell.  Well, more so than your average puzzler.  Ultimately, I find the Layton games as well written as glorified place-holder stories can be.  But they work because it’s more about the puzzles.  That’s why it’s so funny to encounter a random character on the street who will only give you the clue you need if you can solve a riddle for them.  It’s so stupid, yet charmingly so.  In Jacob Jones, the opposite is true.  The game is over-saturated with dialog.  Not awful dialog, mind you.  The writing can be sharp at times, even if all the characters but Jacob himself are flat-out unlikable.  But the attraction should be the puzzles, or at the very least, an equal blending of both.  In Layton, some of the puzzles can be tricky to the point of being boring.  Nothing in Jacob Jones is that difficult, and instead boredom comes in the form of scenes that feel like they just fucking refuse to end.

Jacob Jones and the Bigfoot Mystery was developed by Lucid Games ($2.99 can't believe they introduced the bigfoot as a main character this early into the series in the making of this review)

Jacob Jones and the Bigfoot Mystery was developed by Lucid Games ($2.99 can’t believe they introduced the bigfoot as a main character this early into the series in the making of this review)

Regardless, I do highly recommend Jacob Jones, especially to you Sony diehards who’ve never owned a DS and thus missed the Layton series.  It’s not an original idea.  In fact, it’s about as blatant a clone-job as you can get.  I’m actually stunned that my good buddies at PSNStores.com could interview Lucid Games without once bringing it up.  Talk about failure to address the elephant in the room.  In this case, the elephant is holding a bloody machete and standing over a pile of dead cheerleaders.  How can you NOT bring it up?  But the puzzles are well made and very satisfying.  The “find the soda cans” hook for the backgrounds is a huge step above Layton’s “just poke randomly and hope you stumble upon a coin” setup.  And sometimes the dialog is genuinely funny.  I probably won’t fully review the remaining chapters, but I think unless they’re outright broken, you can pencil all of them in for my seal of approval as well.  Probably.  I mean, it’s a pretty hard formula to screw up.  Especially when someone else has so beautifully laid it out for you and your job consists of tracing the lines.

Every time you submit a puzzle to see if you guessed correctly, the game does overly-dramatic close-ups on Jacob (pictured) and whoever is asking the puzzle.  It's supposed to look like "gee, I hope I got that right."  Instead, it looks more like "I wonder if they realize it was me who farted?"

Every time you submit a puzzle to see if you guessed correctly, the game does an overly dramatic close-up on Jacob (pictured) and whoever is asking the puzzle. It’s supposed to look like “gee, I hope I got that right.” Instead, it looks more like “I wonder if they realize it was me who farted?”

Up next, Quell Memento.  This is one of those rolling-a-ball-in-a-maze puzzlers.  I’ve played dozens of these since gaming hit cell phones, and there’s even been a recent one to hit Vita called Chronovault.  Well, saying it “hit” Vita might be a bad choice of words, since the game missed the mark completely.  It was, quite frankly, awful.  The touch-controls were poorly handled and the level design was overly long and dull.  Right out of the gate, Quell Memento proved to be a better realization of the concept.  Puzzles are all single-screen affairs, and movement is simple and accurate.  It also has a clean but distinctive and pleasant art style.  I can’t stress enough how important accessibility is for you potential puzzle developers out there.  Nobody is going to buy your game because of amazing graphics or expansive 3D worlds.  They just care about the puzzles themselves.  You’re not making the next Skyrim.  You’re making a game that appeals to only those who wish to test themselves, and the likelihood of you wooing non-puzzle fans to your game is slim.  So design your game to appeal to your base.  It’s rare that a puzzle game becomes a break-out hit, and when it does, it’s never because of the art style.  The only time art matters is when it’s ugly to the point of being a turnoff.  Otherwise, it’s always about the puzzles themselves.

In that spirit, Quell Memento succeeds because it does more than just “get ball to exit.”  Some stages are still that.  Others have you lighting up all the blocks, or positioning a ball in a way where it causes crystals to reflect.  It certainly keeps the game fresh throughout.  But, while some of the puzzles can be clever, I really didn’t find Quell to be all that difficult.  I breezed through most of the levels in just seconds, clearing many on my first attempt.  Part of that is on me and just simply having played so many of these type of games.  But part of that is, this sub-genre is inherently simple.  If you make a mistake, just don’t repeat the same moves.  Unlike something like Lolo, there’s only so many different ways you can move the ball.  While many of the solutions are self-evident, those that aren’t become apparent immediately after your first mistake.  I’ll admit right here and now, I did use the hint system for Jacob Jones once.  I never had to for Quell.  The difficulty never really ramps up all that much either, leaving the final stages lacking in a climatic feel.  While it never fully crosses the line to being too easy, it does dip its toes in it a little bit.  Also, the system in place to give the game replay value by awarding you trophies for completing stages in the fewest possible moves isn’t all that significant either.  Again, once you know how a stage is finished, it’s simply a matter of subtracting the wrong moves.  It doesn’t require you to be a genius to figure out.

This is one of the light-reflecting puzzles, which I found to be the easiest of the lot.  You can immediately identify where the ball (or balls) have to go to properly reflect the light.  But the really insulting thing is, the entire first part of it actually marks the ground with an X.  Guys, it's not THAT difficult to figure out.  Anyone who needs that type of hand holding would never have bought this to begin with.

This is one of the light-reflecting puzzles, which I found to be the easiest of the lot. You can immediately identify where the ball (or balls) have to go to properly reflect the light. But the really insulting thing is, the entire first part of it actually marks the ground with an X. Guys, it’s not THAT difficult to figure out. Anyone who needs that type of hand holding would never have bought this to begin with.

Quell Memento was developed by Fallen Tree Games ($4.99 said their logo is more like "Fallen Branch" games, but branches fall all the time so I guess that would be a silly name in the making of this review)

Quell Memento was developed by Fallen Tree Games ($4.99 said their logo is more like “Fallen Branch Games” but branches fall all the time so I guess that would be a silly name in the making of this review)

So did I like it?  Yea, a little bit.  That’s really all I ask of from games, to enjoy them.  So it gets my approval.  But the breezy puzzles nearly mute that amazing “TA DA!” feeling I crave from these types of games.  I wasn’t interested in the story in the slightest bit, and I really didn’t go back to find all the hidden gems (one in each level, though I use the term “hidden” very loosely as most of them you can’t help but stumble upon).  You can’t help but like it, because it’s well produced and charming.  It won’t bend your brain too much, but perhaps that does make it more accessible for those non-puzzle loving fans.  Of course, they’ll skip right past it anyway because puzzle games are skateboarding giant emus on parade.  That makes no sense at all, but everyone quit reading one word into this review when I started the first sentence with “Puzzlers.”  I can pretty much say and do whatever I want from here on out.  I think Half Life is slightly overrated.  I have a Sonic the Hedgehog tattoo nobody knows about.  I hate children.  I periodically let the air out of my parents tires.  That penis that someone drew on Brian’s forehead while he slept?  That wasn’t Bryce.  It was totally me.  And nobody will ever know because when it comes to puzzlers, nobody seems to give a shit except me.  Well, me and the skateboarding emus on parade.

My friend Kyle Lock of Vintage Video Game TV is doing a marathon to raise money for the Lung Cancer Research Foundation.  Be sure to check it out starting tomorrow (Friday, June 14).  He’ll be giving free games away and raising money for a good cause.  And hey, as a smoker, I might end up needing their research someday 😛 Donate here and watch the stream here.

Jacob Jones and the Bigfoot Mystery and Quell Memento are both Chick-Approved and will be ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard on July 1.

IGC_Approved

Thomas Was Alone (and Benjamin’s Flight DLC)

Early on in Thomas Was Alone, I really didn’t get the hype for it.  “THIS is the game all the cool kids are talking about?” I tweeted, somewhat baffled.  I mean, don’t get me wrong.  The game was alright.  But my fans had been trumpeting this one since it launched on PC last summer, promising me that it was a platformer unlike anything I’ve played before.  To a degree, they were right.  You just can’t tell right away.  Thomas Was Alone is one of those slow-starters that wakes up at seven but doesn’t get out of bed until eight.

At heart, Thomas Was Alone is a minimalistic platform-puzzler with the hook being an eccentric storyline that gives personality to the squares and rectangles you control.  Again, it’s something that didn’t grab me at first.  It came across as artsy-fartsy, bordering on pretentious.  But, about a third of the way through, it started to grow on me.  Who would have guessed that it was possible to give such distinct traits to fundamental shapes, with no animation sprites or anything resembling humanity?  It does it so well that I would think one could consider Thomas a candidate for strongest writing of the year.  But I have to disqualify it for that, on account of a couple groan-inducing references to the Cake is a Lie and the Arrow to the Knee.  God damn it so much.  Is there some kind of code on the indie development scene that I’m not aware of?  Like a secret handshake or something?  Two guys go up to each other at a developer conference, lock pinkys, touch ring-fingers with the other hand, say “The Cake is a Lie!” and then fall down laughing until it hurts because that will NEVER EVER grow old or stop being funny ever no matter what?  Well it’s not funny and it hasn’t been for years.  No matter how many ways you guys try to make it work, it never does.  You’ve beaten this dead horse into dust, and now you’re just beating your fist on the blood-soaked ground underneath it.  STOP IT!!

I think everyone's favorite character is Claire, the big blue block with delusions of grandeur.  I would love to get more of her story.

I think everyone’s favorite character is Claire, the big blue block with delusions of grandeur. I would love to get more of her story.

Anyway, mostly strong writing.  However, it ended without giving me a sense of closure for the characters that I had grown fond of, or anything resembling a satisfactory conclusion for the overall story.  It just sort of ends.  And don’t look for the DLC to provide the comfort of an ending either, because it doesn’t.  I guess Thomas Was Alone’s finale is supposed to be open to interpretation or something, but I was left disappointed.

You know what?  I don’t play platformers for their stories.  If they’re decent or better, that’s just a bonus.  For this genre, gameplay is king.  In which case, Thomas Was Alone is at best a knight, bordering on a rook.  After a mind-numbingly dull start, the level design picks up momentum about one-third of the way in.  By time you’ve reached the finish line, you’ll have played some of the most inspired levels seen in platforming in a long while.  But, the ratio of slog-to-awesome is not so great.  A good portion of levels revolve around stacking your characters in a way to make a staircase for the less jumpy in your squad.  A handful of these would have been just fine.  But sometimes you’ll have to build the exact same staircase five or more times in a single level.  It’s tedious busy-work that needlessly cramps the game’s whimsical style.

When Thomas Was Alone’s level design is good, it’s really good.  So good that my ear-to-ear grin was in place because of just how clever a world was designed and not because of the narration.  Quite frankly, after a way-too-long tutorial sequence with levels and platforming so basic that it makes Atari-era stuff like Pitfall! look advanced, I wasn’t expecting it to be as good as it was.  Then I would be hit with some pretty ingenious stages that involve timing, precision platforming, and thinking outside-the-box.  I loved these moments.  I’ve always said I’ll take those “ta-da!” moments in puzzlers over the best headshots in shooters or game-winning shots in sports games.  Thomas doesn’t provide a lot of those moments, but when it does, it’s special.

My only possible complaint about the controls (outside of the DLC pack) is switching between the characters always felt a bit cumbersome. I'm not sure if the Vita handles this with touch-controls, but if it doesn't, that would be quite a good idea.

My only possible complaint about the controls (outside of the DLC pack) is switching between the characters always felt a bit cumbersome. I’m not sure if the Vita handles this with touch-controls, but if it doesn’t, that would be a good idea.

Don’t worry, puzzle haters.  There is nothing here that will bend your brain or make you have to consult GameFAQs.  At most, Thomas will ask of you to apply some forward thinking and course plotting.  Most of the puzzles revolve around what order you guide the blocks to the goal of each stages.  Victory is achieved through having all blocks in their unique exit doors at the same time.  Once you have a feel for the abilities and limitations of each block, figuring how to get them to the doors comes naturally.  Actually, it almost becomes instinctual.  It’s so rare that a puzzle-platformer does that to me that I can’t help but be impressed.  It also helps that the controls are smooth and the main game never asks more of a player than can be reasonably expected.  I don’t consider myself especially skilled at platformers, but I must be getting better.  I figure I died probably around a dozen times over the course of the game’s one-hundred levels.  Thomas Was Alone gives a trophy out for dying 100 times, but by time I had finished the game, I still hadn’t earned it.  I’m pretty proud of that.

I’m not here to give the game an undeserved blowjob though.  There’s plenty of problems with it.  I’ve described some above, but the one that gets me the most is the difficulty curve.  Or lack thereof.  Other critics have noted how perfect the curve is.  It makes me wonder if they played the same game as me.  Even late in Thomas Was Alone, I encountered stages that offered no challenge at all to finish.  The sixth world (really the seventh world, since the world numbering starts in the zeros) especially stands out.  I wasn’t timing it, but it probably took between ten to fifteen minutes to complete while possessing the most basic and dull stages since the opening tutorial.  Just weird that this would pop-up over half-way through.  But stages like this are all over the place.  I guess the excuse for these (and the overly long fish-in-barrel stages that start this thing) is they’re there as place-holders to drive the story.  Well that’s a shitty excuse.  A platformer should never let proper storytelling get in the way of proper pacing.  People probably should buy the game for the game.  I mean, it’s a pretty good game.  So while I enjoyed the story, I almost resent the fact that the vastly superior gameplay was in part sacrificed for it.  The result is a curve that appeared to be drawn by someone laying in a hammock during an earthquake.

After finishing the final stage, you’re treated to an extremely brief ending, and then the credits roll.  I was disappointed not just by the ending but by the last level.  Thomas Was Alone goes out with a whimper instead of a bang, which left me wanting more.  After stewing on it overnight, I decided to grab the overpriced DLC pack.  My intent was to get my craving for more Thomas out of my system.  Mission accomplished, but not in the way I intended.

The DLC levels are so horrible and mismatched with the main body of the game that I actively questioned whether developer Mike Bithell had entered his emo phase in life when he designed them.  Thomas Was Alone was a quirky logic-puzzle-platformer.  The DLC levels alternate between back-to-basics platforming (that you have to pay extra to suffer through) and punisher-stages designed with nothing else in mind than a huge body count.  What a stupid decision on developer’s part.  These levels do not remotely have the almost childish innocence the main game does.  It’s also the first time the controls didn’t feel right.  Benjamin, the star of the DLC, possess a jet pack, but the only use they could come up with for it was navigating narrow corridors of spikes.  The controls here are so touchy and the margin for error so low that any possible fun that could be had gives way to frustration and boredom.  Benjamin’s Flight has twenty stages, and while the cutesy story is present, I can honestly say that I didn’t find one single stage of this pack to be worth paying any amount of money for.  It might be the worst level pack I’ve ever purchased.  I just don’t get why the tone changed so much.  It would be like announcing that they’re going to make a new Dark Knight movie, only this one will be a buddy comedy and Batman is being recast as Adam Sandler.

Submitted for your consideration: level 11.6 of the DLC.  I nominate this for "worst stage in a good game" ever created.  It's repetitive and insanely long for what it offers.  Like the rest of the pack, it adds no value to the overall game.

Submitted for your consideration: level 11.6 of the DLC. I nominate this for “worst stage in a good game.”  It’s repetitive and insanely long for what it offers. Like the rest of the pack, it adds no value to the overall game.

So here’s where I stand: Thomas Was Alone is pretty decent, but it takes a while to get that way.  I wish the developer had focused more on ingenuity.  When the levels in Thomas are clever, it’s one of the best of its breed to come out in a while.  There’s just enough meat here to call it a must-buy.  At the same time, the story ultimately left me feeling unsatisfied, and the game only has enough “this is amazing!” moments that it ultimately feels under-realized.  You can’t count on the DLC to drown-out those thoughts, because it feels rushed and sort of half-assed.  So different from the feel of the main quest that I was a little surprised to learn they came from the same guy who had awed me just yesterday.  If I had my way, Thomas Was Alone would be alone, because I would bury that DLC in the desert next to unsold Atari carts.

Thomas LogoThomas Was Alone was developed by Mike Bithell

IGC_Approved$7.99 with PlayStation Plus discount (normally priced $9.99) plus $3.49 (Benjamin’s Flight DLC) said “hey now, Red Kryptonite has caused all sorts of problems, so don’t go there” in the making of this review.

Thomas Was Alone is Chick Approved, but for God’s sake, skip the DLC unless it’s free.  And even then, you’re not missing anything by ignoring it. 

Castle Invasion, Life of Pixel (Second Chance with the Chick), and Super Skull Smash GO!

I figured it’s time for another kick at the PlayStation Mobile can.  While my previous efforts to didn’t turn up any original games that I could point to and say “see, PlayStation Mobile is off to a decent start”, I figure it’s worth a second look.  At least it would be, if games weren’t priced like this.

PSM Store 2

Or like this.

PSM Store 3

Or this.

PSM Store 1

Okay.  Just to be clear, you guys want people to actually buy your games, right?  And you also realize that you’re on PlayStation Vita, where a PlayStation Plus subscription can net you AAA games for free?  Or where standard discounts can get you some really great games for around that price?  Hell, you’re also competing directly with Android phones, where you can get some of the best games of this generation for $0.99 or less.  You should make some effort to be competitive.  You already have no demos, making your games high-risk to consumers.  Why make them so out-of-bounds high risk that nobody in their right mind would take a chance on them?  I would gladly fork over $3 for what looks like an FMV fishing game, because that sort of quirky weird shit is right up my ally.  $5?  That would be a tough sell for actual fans of FMV fishing games, which is a large and robust fanbase to alienate.

So instead, I grabbed Castle Invasion for a measly 49 cents.  And I definitely got what I paid for.  Simple concept: shoot dudes before they reach the castle wall.  Gallery shooters like this are a bit relicy (that’s a word as of right now), but I figure there’s all kinds of neat twists developers can slap on them.  Not here.  Dudes run at you, and you shoot them.  Stronger dudes run at you.  You shoot them.  Faster dudes run at you.  You shoot them.  Sometimes you use arrows, sometimes you use spears that can penetrate multiple enemies, but otherwise it’s the same shit over and over again and it’s boring.  Not only that, but it had a tendency to crash.  Spring for the extra penny and sink your money in a gumball.  The flavor will last about 90 seconds, which makes that a longer-term investment than Castle Invasion.

Castle Invasion. The most excited thing since buttered toast.  Which I don't find to be particularly exciting.

Castle Invasion. The most excited thing since buttered toast. Which I don’t find to be particularly exciting.

Up next was Life of Pixel ($1.99), which has been patched.  I played it last month, and found the graphics to be authentic, but the control was sketchy and the level design focused a little too much on leap-of-faith gameplay.  That’s mostly fixed now.  Controls are silky smooth, double jumping never failed, the frame-rate never dropped, and some of those leaps-of-faith are now a thing of memory.  Some.  There were a few sections of the game where you simply have to leap blindly and hope for the best.  Some call this “trial and error.”  Bullshit.  The “trial” part suggests you have a fighting chance.  Blind luck is not a fighting chance.  It’s fucking blind luck, and there’s still a lot of it in Life of Pixel.  I call this “gotcha gameplay.”  And I’m sick of it.  It pops up too much on the indie scene.  Yea, I know games used to be like this, but that doesn’t mean they still have to be.  And I’ve got a solution.

I’ve arranged for every indie development kit, across all platforms, to come bundled with a man named Roberto.  Now, Roberto will pretty much stay out of your way.  Just leave some bread and something to drink out for him, but otherwise you shouldn’t notice him.  Unless you start to put “GOTCHA!” moments into your game.  Unavoidable deaths, blind leaps, hidden traps that are impossible to see or avoid, etc.  When you attempt this, Roberto will come out of hiding, place a pot on your head, and bang the pot sixteen times with a five-pound, stainless-steel soup ladle.  After this, he’ll remove the pot, look you in your now vacant, concussed eyes, and scream “GOTCHA!”  Then he’ll slink back into the shadows and allow you to undo the mess you just made of your game.  I think this idea is a good one.

I fucking HATED HATED HATED this level of Life of Pixel, which featured more blind jumps than Lighthouse International's annual hurdles race.

I fucking HATED HATED HATED this level of Life of Pixel, which featured more blind jumps than LensCrafter’s annual hurdles race.

Despite Life of Pixel being my inspiration for the Roberto Policy, I have to say that the game is vastly improved.  By that, I mean it’s playable, and hey, even a little fun.  They even included a soundtrack that, gasp, somewhat matches the classic gaming eras that were the inspiration in the first place.  I mean, it was downright boneheaded to not include such soundtracks in the first place, but I’ll let it slide.  I did just give the team at Super Icon  multiple instances of brain damage by testing the Roberto Policy on them.  They deserve a break.  They also deserve an Indie Gamer Chick Seal of Approval.  They took a shitty, broken game and made it fun.  That’s a sign of a developer with true talent, and I salute them for it.

Roberto, pot their head one last time.  Just out of principle for making me eat my words.

Finally, Super Skull Smash GO!  It’s a retro-style puzzle-platformer that was priced at $3.29 last week, but it’s down to $2.79 this week.  Is that a good price for it?  Hmmmmm not really.  I can get better games on my iPhone or on XBLIG that offer more play value at half the price.  Is it a bad game?  Not at all.  You play as a dude who has to hop on skeletons, grab their skulls, and smash them against a giant, golden cross.  Glad to see Yale’s fraternal initiation turn into a full-fledged video game.

Super Skull Smash GO

I would call the graphics fossilized, but considering Super Skull Smash GO! stars a bunch of skeletons, I’m guessing that was the point.

Despite the primitive graphics, Super Skull Smash GO! is a fairly clever puzzler that keeps throwing new twists in until the end.  Having said that, the collision detection is too sensitive, and the jumping physics are a little heavy.  By far the biggest thing I had to struggle with was jumping through narrow corridors and repeatedly fucking up because the spot you can jump from or to is so small and unforgiving.  Plus, lining up a skull to throw at just the right height can also be troublesome.  The game seems to have issues with following parameters.  I’m not going to be too hard on it for that.  I can relate.  I have the ankle monitor to prove it.

I still recommend it, because it’s a fun little game with puzzle design unlike anything I’ve ever played.  And hey, I’ve now found two original PlayStation Mobile games that are priced to afford and worth your time to play.  It’s a step in the right direction.  I do wish developers would be smarter about how they market their games.  That overhead airplane fighter game thing above, Blue Skies.  For all I know, it might be a good game.  It looks like it’s based on some classic games that a lot of people would be interested in.  You know, the type of games you can routinely buy on platforms like PSN, XBLA, and Virtual Console for under $7?  This is one of those “what were they thinking?” moments.  Without the benefit of demos (and hell, most PSM games don’t even bother with trailers on YouTube), all PSM games are a risk to consumers.  How many people will take a $7 for one game risk when the same $7 can net them multiple games, some of which they’re bound to like.  I got two pretty decent games in Super Skull Smash GO! and Life of Pixel for $5.28.  That’s $1.71 less than the risk of buying Blue Skies and hating it.  Fuck that.  That kind of money buys a lot of gumballs.

Super Skull Smash GO! and Life of Pixel are Chick Approved

IGC_Approved

Gun Commando, Samurai Beatdown, Cubixx, and OMG-Zombies!

Today we’re playing the Lightning Round of game reviews.  I played four PlayStation Mobile games this week in a quest to find something fun and original that justifies the existence of the platform.

First up was Gun Commando, a neo-retro Doom clone.  I have no idea why such games fascinate me, considering that Doom was well before my time.  I don’t know.  It just seems to me like the classic formula should be able to lend itself well to hit neo-retro indie titles in 2013.  However, Gun Commando is not that game.  It feels like Doom, what with brain-dead enemy AI, retro graphics, and labyrinthine levels.  Where it falls apart is the God awful controls.  Adjusting the sensitivity settings doesn’t seem to fix button-based controls, and thus lining up enemies to shoot is damn near impossible.  You’re forced to do everything on the touch screen, and this would work except any slight twitch of your finger forces you to fire your gun.  This is combined with enemy fire that is nearly impossible to avoid, dull weapons, and an absurd difficulty spike about halfway through.  It looks the part, but in truth, Gun Commando was doomed from the start.

Yea, that was lame.  I’ll move on.

Gun Commando was developed by Green Hill Games ($2.79)

If Doom was set in a trucking scrapyard and demons were replaced with angry football players.

If Doom was set in a trucking scrapyard and demons were replaced with angry football players.

Up next was Samurai Beatdown, which was free last week, normally priced at $0.99.  It’s alleged to be a rhythm game, but I found the actions on screen rarely seemed to synch up to the generic beat.  The concept is operating-a-light-switch-simple: enemies run at you from both sides.  Tap the left side of the screen to kill enemies running at you from the left, and the right side to kill enemies running at you from the right.  Again, even when you’re perfect, the enemies don’t seem to match up to the beat of the music.  I’m not musically inclined, so that was fine with me, but even on the hardest difficulty setting, Samurai Beatdown is so easy that it’s insulting, and it gets boring quite fast.  Not really worth the bandwidth when offered for free, I can’t even fathom paying money for it.

Samurai Beatdown was developed by Beatnik Games ($0.99)

You can enter an indestructible mode if you're running out of health.  This will never happen.

You can enter an indestructible mode if you’re running out of health. This will never happen.

As it turns out, the best PlayStation Mobile games are actually ports of existing PlayStation Mini titles.  Cubixx is free this week on Mobile.  It’s basically the exact same game as the PlayStation Mini title from a few years back, only the graphics are ever so slightly improved and it weighs less (22MB) than the original Mini version (29MB).  If you don’t already own it somewhere, shame on you.  It’s a fantastic take on the classic Qix formula.  I would actually recommend Cubixx HD on PlayStation 3 first and foremost, but Cubixx on Vita for free isn’t a bad alternative.  Draw lines on a cube, avoid enemies, fill in as much area as possible, move on to the next level.  It sounds dull, but if you’re gutsy, it can be an intense, extremely rewarding experience.  However, I can’t really get too excited over it, because I’ve played Cubixx to death over the last four years and it has nothing new to offer me.  If you haven’t already played it, it’s one of the best neo-retro games of the last generation.  If you have, there’s absolutely nothing new here.

Cubixx was developed by Laughing Jackal ($2.99, free right now)

Probably the most unenthusiastic I've ever wrote about a game I loved. Sorry, but after four years it's tough for me to get excited about the same game.

Probably the most unenthusiastic I’ve ever wrote about a game I loved. Sorry, but after four years it’s tough for me to get excited about the same game.

Finally, OMG Zombies, by the same guys that made Cubixx.  It’s also a PSP Mini port, but I somehow never played it despite apparently owning it.  The only explanation I can think of is I must have gotten it for free with PlayStation Plus and never touched it because I avoided zombie games like the plague before I started Indie Gamer Chick.  My loss really, because OMG Zombies is fucking awesome in a time-sink kind of way.  The idea is a field of zombies shamble around aimlessly, and you have a limited number of shots to pick them off.  Shooting a zombie causes them to explode, and if another zombie is close by, it detonates them too.  You have to set off a chain reaction that clears as many of them as possible.  There’s five classes of zombie.  Normal ones explode, fat ones explode bigger, cop zombies shoot bullets in a straight line when they die, commando zombies fire off a round of Uzi bullets when they die, and acid zombies turn into a pool of acid.  As you beat levels, you accumulate money that you can spend to upgrade the strength of your gun, or the potency of the damage zombies do to each other.

Where's Waldo has gotten pretty dark lately.

Where’s Waldo has gotten pretty dark lately.

OMG Zombies is so smart, because you can’t abuse the upgrade system with random grinding.  You can only earn each stage’s  four monetary rewards once.  It makes the gameplay so very engaging and rewarding that I almost forgot that OMG Zombies is much more based on luck than skill.  I would often restart levels multiple times because the exploding barrels were randomly placed together instead of spread apart.  Or there are stages where every enemy is one of the cop zombies, where no amount of skill is going to help you make sure that when the bullets start flying, they fly in the correct directions.  It can be frustrating for sure, but I never grew bored with it.  Everything you need to know about OMG Zombies can be summed up with the following two statements.  #1: I ran out my Vita’s battery twice playing it.  #2: I can’t even remember the last time I felt compelled to achieve 100% completion of a game, but I simply had to here.  I would say that qualifies OMG Zombies as a worthy use of your time.  My boyfriend might disagree.  He says with the amount of time I spent with it, it qualifies more as a hostage situation.

IGC_ApprovedOMG-Zombies! was developed by Laughing Jackal ($2.99)

Cubixx and OMG-Zombies! are Chick Approved.

escapeVektor

Alright, so this is awkward, but I didn’t like escapeVektor on the Vita.  Apparently I’m the only person in the entire world who didn’t, so I guess I should explain myself.  Often, when I dislike a popular game, I’m asked “what did you expect?”  As if I hold every game to such unreasonably high standards that nothing can possibly please me.  My honest answer is “all I expect is to have fun.”  If I don’t get that, I don’t give a game a pass because it looks good, plays well, and has a nifty concept.  If a game bores me, I say so.  And escapeVektor bored me to fucking tears.

This is one of those rare times I wish I had bought the 3DS version of a game.  I bet it would have looked pretty cool in 3D.

This is one of those rare times I wish I had bought the 3DS version of a game. I bet it would have looked pretty cool in 3D.

Going off screenshots, I figured it would be similar to Qix.  Watching it in motion, I figured it would be a little like Pac-Man.  Once I started playing, I wished it had been closer to those games.  At least they were fun.  Here the idea is you have to guide an exceptionally slow-moving ship around a grid, filling in all the lines, opening up either an exit or more lines, which open up different exits.  Along the way, a variety of enemies tries to kill you.  There’s a storyline involved, but with any game like this, I wonder why they bother.  Even with the admittedly pretty visuals, this is an old school maze game, straight out of the Pac-Man craze of the early 80s.  It needed a story about as much as quail need bulls-eyes on their wings.

Oh, but it does have a storyline.  One that pops up between levels and utterly refuses to shut up.  You’ll get past a difficult stage, all full of enthusiasm for a job well done, anxious to kick the ass of the next stage, and then the story rears its ugly head.  Some tripe about a guy stuck in a CPU.  It’s not intriguing in the slightest, and its presence was about as well received by myself as a bout of standing-quadriplegia that hits the moment you answer the door to Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Seriously, please stop talking. I'm trying to play a game here.

Seriously, please stop talking. I’m trying to play a game here.

After a while, the game does get faster.  You get boosters that allow you to zip around stages and avoid enemies.  And the game throws a few more twists at you, like tailgating enemies, electrified gateways, and more power-ups to fight back.  But, for me at least, it never stopped being boring.  Part of that is due to a moderately large design flaw.  You know how pretty much every maze game ever made does this thing where if you die, you don’t have to start the level over from scratch?  Like in Pac-Man, if you die with only two dots left in the stage, you get to replay the stage, with the board exactly how you left it?  Probably so as to avoid tedium?  Yeah, well escapeVektor doesn’t do that.  Imagine going through a sprawling level, heel-toeing your way through a gauntlet of enemies, only to run out of bombs with five feet to go from the exit and getting caught by a random enemy, or a bullet from a turret.  Guess what?  You get to replay the whole level over again.  I didn’t find Vektor’s breed of gameplay all that exciting to begin with.  In some later levels, turning the game off entirely seemed like a better option towards rehabilitating my dull day.

There probably should be more reasons why I disliked escapeVektor, but I honestly can’t think of anything.  I have to admit, as a critic, it’s kind of tough to say “I didn’t like a game and I’m not totally sure why.”  I mean, I like these type of games.  I liked the art style.  I thought it controlled pretty smoothly.  I guess I should like it.  Everybody else does.  It’s being thrown 8s out of 10s, 9s out of 10s, or 4s out of 5s by pretty much every other rinky dinky critic alive.  I told a friend “I seem to be the only person who doesn’t like it.”  He said “that doesn’t surprise me.”  Typically, when I’m the one voice that says “meh” in a crowd of cheers, I get accused of trolling.  I try to avoid trolling indies.  It’s bad for the soul.  In the case of escapeVektor, I genuinely thought it was boring.  You might.. hell, likely will, disagree with me on that.  But I assure you, my “meh” here is my authentic opinion.  When I troll, I go after the easiest targets, like any self-respecting troll does.  Like ancient Sega properties that actually do suck but their fans don’t realize it.  Speaking of which, NiGHTS was $2.50 on PSN this week.  Yep, that’ll do.  That’s what I love about Sega.  It’s like having the barreled fish hand you the gun.

escapeVektorescapeVektor was developed by Nnooo.  Which is ironic, because that’s the sound I made every time the story crept up again.

$7.99 (normal price $9.99) wants neo-retro developers to seriously ponder whether or not Golden-Age coin-ops would be considered classics if players were interrupted between each stage by unskippable text or cut scenes in the making of this review. 

Life of Pixel

Update: Life of Pixel received a Second Chance with the Chick and is now Chick ApprovedClick here for the updated review

Indie gaming fans keep asking me to look outside of Xbox Live Indie Games for material to do my reviews on.  However, my loyalty remains with XBLIG, so I only hit up other platforms when I’m suffering from complete and total burnout of XBLIG due to the endless mountain of shit that populates the platform.  That’s the only time I look elsewhere.

So um..

Let’s see what’s on PlayStation Mobile this week, shall we?  What have we here?  A Super Meat Boy-esq punisher with the hook being you’re a pixel who journeys through gaming history?  Interesting.  Of course, I’ve already played a game where you journey through game history, and if that one had been any bigger a disaster they would have to scrub the Titanic from history books just to make room for it.  However, as a concept, a stroll through gaming history is not only sound, but enticing.  That’s why I chose to pick up Life of Pixel, even though it’s one of those godforsaken punishers.

Life of Pixel

Looks Atarishi, I guess.

I want to start by saying that artistically, Life of Pixel is mostly a triumph.  The eight worlds presented authentically capture the look of each era they pay tribute to.  I’m guessing at least.  Some of the platforms covered are vintage UK-only PCs such as the Spectrum or the 2X81, along with such American relics as the Commodore 64.  As an American born in 1989, I have never touched those platforms, nor do I plan on it.  But, comparing screenshots to games from those devices, they look spot-on.  However, no effort at all was made for the games to sound like their respective platforms.  There’s a single awful chip-tune that plays no matter which era you’re in, and all stages make the same bleeps and bloops.  Why go so far to look authentic but not sound authentic?  It makes no sense at all.  It would be like having the most accurate-looking Elvis impersonator on the planet performing hip-hop.

Where the game falls apart completely is level design.  There is cheap design, and then there is Life of Pixel.  Every bad possible design choice is given center-stage here.  Leap of faith platforming, blind jumps, no checkpoints in slow-paced large levels, erratic enemy movement, and an overall sense that the game really wants you to not have a good time playing it.  It ultimately comes across like a poor Super Meat Boy clone.  The main character even looks like Super Meat Boy.  But this is yet another case of a developer not grasping why that game was so popular.  Nothing in Super Meat Boy was unfair.  It required little to no guess-work from the player.  And dying wasn’t so bad because levels were fast paced and respawning was quick.  Plus, death was sort of rewarded by the fact that you got to see a replay of all your failures play out simultaneously at the end of each stage.  The only reward in Life of Pixel is seeing a new graphics style when you open a new world.  A novelty that wears off on average in about 11.3 seconds each time you get a new world.

Actually, this looks slightly different from the Spectrum ports I've seen on XBLIG, so I'm not sure how close this is to the real thing.

Actually, this looks slightly different from the Spectrum ports I’ve seen on XBLIG, so I’m not sure how close this is to the real thing.

I can’t even complain about the controls really.  They’re mostly accurate, and offer non-slippery controls and decent jumping physics.  100% of Life of Pixel’s problems are level-design related.  The game is cheaper than a dime store whore and seems to revel in that fact.  There are one or two other design flaws.  Early stages are single-screen affairs, and during these the game is quite fun.  But once you get to the Spectrum era, the game does that thing where you have to walk to the edge of the screen to scroll the level over, and it scrolls a full screen at a time.  The game doesn’t pause while it does that scroll thing, and so if you have to jump to a platform, it’s a forced blind jump that often will result in your death.  It’s something that is horrible and cheap for the sake of being horrible and cheap.  Later stages avoid the “scroll a full screen at a time” design in favor of smoother scrolling, but the level design never strays away from “be as cheap as possible.”

There’s also spikes that retract into the walls only to pop out again.  These are weird because you can walk over them as long as they are like 75% buried in the ground.  It makes getting the timing down of when you can make a run for it nearly impossible.  I’m not sure why they didn’t just have the spikes retract and pop up faster than they did, except again, because it’s aggravation just for the sake of being aggravating.  Finally, sometimes dying is a slow process.  In the best punishers, death and respawning happen quickly.  Here, if you land in water (or quicksand), you slowly sink down and have to wait for your character to reach the bottom, linger for a bit, and then blink out of existence.  It’s absolutely amazing that a game that so clearly wants to be Super Meat Boy could end up getting wrong every single thing that made Super Meat Boy the beloved cult hit that it is.  Bad level design, lack of rewarding gameplay, blind jumps, slow deaths, and boring, sprawling levels.

Don't worry. Nothing about Life of Pixel gets me wet.

Don’t worry. Nothing about Life of Pixel gets me wet.

Yea, maybe trial-and-error platforming was a big deal thirty years ago, but we’re in 2013 now.  100% authenticity was obviously not a priority for Life of Pixel, as evidenced by the half-assed sound, so why make the game so cheaply frustrating?  I’m so pissed off because these guys obviously had talent.  There’s no way they could make a game that looks this good and controls this acceptably just by sheer fucking luck.  So what happened guys?  Why did you choose to make your game so unfair and unlikable that it’s almost certain to never catch on by word of mouth?  The amount of potential squandered here makes me want to cry.  And by the way, my friends are disappointed that there’s no Life of Pi reference here, but I disagree, because this game proves there is no God.

logoLife of Pixel was developed by Super Icon Ltd

$1.99 searched for a Life of Pixel trailer on YouTube and instead found a video series about a little girl named Pixel in the making of this review.  Who the hell would name their daughter Pixel?  I look forward to meeting her siblings, Polygon and Bit-Mapping. 

In all seriousness, I couldn’t find any gameplay footage of this on YouTube.  If someone finds some, give me a heads up.

Frobisher Says!

Yeesh.  You pick on one free-yet-crappy PlayStation Vita game and suddenly people talk to you like you like you just put a seal puppy inside a microwave.  I kind of see their point.  I’ve always vehemently disagreed with the assertion that games should get a break because they only cost $1.  Frobisher Says! is free, so for the first time ever, I have to admit that I really shouldn’t be able to complain too much about it.  But this review isn’t really about the value of a game.  It’s more like a “I called WarioWare the best game ever and now I have to explain why WarioWare-like games suck” type of deal.  Probably not exciting for the rest of you.

Frobisher Says! is a free PSN title for Vita that plays like that platform’s version of WarioWare: Touched!  Remember how that one made use exclusively of the touch screen and microphone for its games?  Yea, well Frobisher Says is mostly about showing off the random bells and whistles of the Vita.  Sure, unlike Touched! it uses the face and shoulder buttons as well, but it can’t shake the feeling of being a glorified tech-demo.  Those have a place in gaming, but the Vita already has a pretty decent one (Little Deviants, which has experienced multiple price-drops since it launched).  So while my description of it as “putridly awful” wasn’t fully accurate, its not very good.  Or good at all.

I do admire the artwork, which reminded me of Sesame Street. But the gameplay is devoid of sunny days.

One of the biggest reasons for that is the game is driven by scoring, yet it seems to be based too much on luck.  In one stage, you’re a dude who has to swim to an island with a beach, using the triggers.  Sounds like a perfectly acceptable minigame, and it would be if it wasn’t just totally random.  But sometimes the island will be right by the starting position, and sometimes it will be somewhere off-screen.  Maybe up, maybe down.  You score based on how fast you complete a game, yet you have 15 seconds to finish the game whether the island is right next to you or whether it’s on the other side of the world.  It’s totally up to the whims of fate whether or not you can get a high score, and that’s the one thing a game based on high scores should never do.

Or how about games that use the camera?  There’s a few, and they range from harmless to horrid.  The best one is a game where you have to follow a bird around your room with the camera, like a dumbed-down version of UFO on Tape for iPhone.  At least that one works.  Not so workable is one that asks you to find an object of a specific color.  “Find something green!”  Oh well that’s easy, my table-cloth is green.  I said my table-cloth is green.  HELLO FUCKING CAMERA!!  IS THIS NOT GREEN?  Fine.  I have an empty lime-flavored energy drink bottle that is bright green.  Here you go.  Yo!  Vita camera?  You awake?  I know you’re a cheap piece of shit and it’s shocking Sony would have included something so outdated in their new technology-pushing handheld, but you should be able to tell this is green!  You can’t?  Seriously?  Fine.  Here’s an Xbox 360 case.  Oh, that got it, huh?  But time is up and I score no points.  Why you prick.

Come to think of it, it’s actually kind of funny that a game like this, designed to showcase the bells and whistles of the Vita. actually proves that’s its kind of a piece of shit in many ways.  Back down, Sony fanboys.  I still love my Vita, but that doesn’t mean I give it a treat when it pisses on the carpet.  I do what a loving owner does and rub its nose in it.  The rear-touch panel seemed like a good idea, but I’ve been cross with it since it ruined Touch My Katamari on launch day and we haven’t been on speaking terms since.  I’m actually curious who at Sony thought this would work.  When I play a handheld (especially a bulky one with a ginormous screen like the Vita), I rest my fingers on the back of the unit.  I honestly don’t know who wouldn’t, except maybe people missing the top knuckles on their fingers, the poor bastards.  It’s caused me annoyance in a few games, and I don’t seem to have the dexterity to use it properly when a game wants me to do something on both the front and rear touch panels.  In Frobisher Says! it wants you to squash people wearing hats by pinching them on the Vita.  I had trouble lining them up right.  But that one might just be on me, so instead I’ll complain about how the back scratching minigame felt really fickle and unresponsive.

This game uses the rear-touch panel for no reason, and the whole “sneak stealthily past the alligator-man bit” didn’t work all that well because it seemed to look back at you in random intervals.

Again, I kind of feel like the school bully, picking on the cross-eyed freckled kid with the coke-bottle glasses and the bad lisp here.  Frobisher Says! is free, and according to most gamers, that entitles it to a free pass.  Never mind that they actually do try to sell you on an expansion pack for the game.  It’s art and it’s free, so it should be given a break.  No.  If someone knocks on my door and offers me a free cup of malaria-laced cola, I’m not going to drink it.  Frobisher Says! is a bad game.  Yea, it’s quirky and has a neat graphics style, but that’s not what made WarioWare work.  The games were playable and logical.  The stuff in Frobisher either suffer from handling problems, mechanic problems, or just aren’t any fun.  There’s not one piece of this game that is worth playing.  It’s free for a reason: because it sucks and they knew it.  There could have been a good game in here if some of the games were fair, but even if you get past all the technical issues, the scoring style and randomness kill it dead.  Cathy Says: this game is junk.

Frobisher Says was developed by Honeyslug

No Money was spent in the making of this review.  This is why I don’t play too many free games.  Because otherwise I would be able to use this line to talk about the minigame that required you to say the character’s name, only it doesn’t matter if you actually say its name or not.  Any words or noise will do.  That why I called Frobisher “Ace Yumberfuck.”  When it asked me to say his name in Spanish, it was “El-Ace Yumberfuck.”  Classy!

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