Jan 25, 2012

Elder Sign: Omens

I'm going to take a break from the roguelikes to have a look at a board game adaptation, Elder Signs: Omens. Fantasy Flight Games is probably the biggest maker of hobbyist board games going right now, and they're known for lavish productions and expansive worlds alongside often complex systems. They have concentrated on creating immersive, substantial games and have entered into the electronic market. Will they bring that same philosophy of concentrating on games replete with theme and a focus on art to their mobile adaptations? How well will the Fantasy Flight experience translate?

Fantasy Flight are no strangers to the world of H.P. Lovecraft, having produced many board games, card games and assorted other products set in his universe of eldritch horror. Let's just say Cthulhu is a frequent visitor in their properties. Elder Signs: Omens faces the player with a familiar scenario for anyone who has played this sort of game, where some malevolent god must be stopped before the Earth (and possibly the universe) is destroyed. Upon first running the application, you will have to download a huge amount of extra data - I recommend plugging in your device and wandering off. Don't try and download the game right before getting on a plane and expect to be able to play. After that completes, you can start a new game, which begins by selecting a team of four adventurers from the group of sixteen that are available. Players of Fantasy Flight games like Arkham Horror or Elder Signs will recognize the heroes available here. Each of them has different statistics and starting equipment as well as a unique special power. Once you get your team assembled, it's off into the museum to battle for the planet.

The heart of the game is taking on a series of adventures, each of which consists of a set of tasks that must be accomplished to win the adventure. If you win, you get rewards such as items to help with future adventures. You can also earn elder signs, which are how you win the game. Earn 14 elder signs before you suffer 12 doom symbols (or all four of your adventurers die), and we all live to see another game. If you fail an adventure, you suffer the consequences, such as damage to your character, generating doom symbols or monsters showing up to make your life difficult. While on an adventure, you will roll a set of dice and spend matching sybols to finish tasks. After each task (or after failing to finish a task and discarding a die), you re-roll the dice. Items can give you more dice, re-rolls, the ability to transform dice and many other effects. After every four attempts at an adventure, win or lose, the clock hits midnight and the bad guys grow in strength.

At its heart, Elder Signs: Omens is a game of resource management. You want to attempt adventurers where you get solid rewards, but if you spend a bunch of items and fail anyway, it can really set you back. You want to aim right for the edge of your capabilities, but not beyond. It's better to be sure about succeeding than to blow all your stuff in a failed attempt. Certain adventures also up the pressure by giving additional bad effects at midnight. Developing that sense of how difficult adventures are takes some practice, but once you become familiar with it, it becomes possible to win most of the time. I'd probably say that I win three-quarters of my games these days, after getting my feet under me with my first couple games.

The production values are very strong here. The artwork is very well done, is attractive and evocative of the subject. The animations and sound are very professionally done and the level of polish is very high throughout the game. The game teaches you how to play with a series of video tutorials, which are well done but don't really cover the fine points of how to play - you'll need to stumble through some surprises in play to really master the game (such as how locked dice really work). The controls are excellent as well, and overall, the game comes across extremely well. One note is that I only played this on my Xoom so far, since my poor sad Motorola Droid is insufficient to really make a game like this go (I'll be buying the Samsung Note once it becomes available on AT&T). I don't know how well it will play on handsets, but there are separate graphics available for handsets as opposed to tablets, so it should work well.

After probably a dozen or so games, the game play started to feel a little samey. There are only so many adventures you see during the game, and you'll start to recognize them. While selecting which adventure to go on and rolling your dice is fun, the game is not going to be the sort of thing you'll spend hours on at a time. I burned out a bit on it, but after walking away from it for a week, it returned to being quite fun. It is ideal for my bus commute, with one game more or less taking me from door to door. It has more meat than filler games and occupies a middle ground that not enough games in my collection have. It is on the expensive side, though, at $3.99, but you are getting an extremely well-polished product for that price and for me, it's well worth it. I'll give it 4/5, and recommend it for people looking for a game to play to completion in the 20-30 minute range with some complexity, but not for someone looking for an immersive, long-playing experience.

Jan 24, 2012

Neon Zone

I've preached on this before, but it seems that there are far too many puzzle games for Android and that it's an over represented category in the touch screen gaming world. Sure, touch screen devices make for a great puzzle platform, but really... do we need another? Fortunately, in this case the answer is Yes!

Neon Zone won't wow you with graphics. Just looking at a screen shot will probably make you pass up this game, but once you see that this game is a mental powerhouse versus being a visual treat then you just might stand a chance at solving all of its mind bending puzzles.

qrcodeThe game concept is very simple. You drop a block by tapping your finger on the screen and have to manipulate the block so that it touches all of the dots. After the block has been dropped you can do two things: 1) you can tap the screen to jump from level to level or 2) you can rotate your phone to change gravity. Each level then adds a time to beat along with a number or jumps and rotates that you must not exceed if you want to three star the level. Neon Zone comes with a nice intro pack of levels to get you started and to teach you the game and the first few levels are simple although three starring them all is not. But within a couple of minutes you'll be facing some interesting challenges in Neon Zone's world.

Neon Zone is not a complicated game and to some degree I'm now waiting for someone to rip it off and release Angry Dots with enhanced graphics and cute little block characters that seek revenge. But don't let the blah graphics fool you. This is a great game idea that is just missing some charm from its execution. Also note that there is a trial version available in the Android Market, too, for those that don't want to jump in the deep end with a $1 purchase. 4/5 stars.

Jan 21, 2012

Whale Trail

Take a look at this music video:

If, after watching, you're thinking "Wow, I wish I could ride an electric scooter through the sky just like he does." then Whale Trail is probably the game for you. That's really the first thing that hit me with this game... it's the first Android game I've loaded that has started with its own intro song that included lyrics. And the song isn't bad. In fact it's kind of catchy despite being a little (okay, a lot) juvenile. If juvenile was the target audience then bullseye. As for the game...

Whale Trail puts you in the role of Willow the Whale. Baron von Barry, an evil octopus (I think), is after you so you flee to the sky, but in order to survive the not so friendly skies you need to gobble up the bubbles and keep your health meter from becoming empty. Ultimately the game is very much like an SFCave clone as you touch the screen to rise and release to fall and if you want straight then you have to learn morse code (for those that don't get that then I'll translate... you have to tap and release very quickly). Additions made to SFCave would be the loop to loop and it's a very tight loop you're able to do which I say because at first I envisioned that I might be able to go backwards and catch the bubbles that I missed... nope! Furthermore there are mean clouds that will drain your energy unless you go Pac Man on them which is achieved by collecting a set of power pills starbursts. Finally, it's got a nice little graphic effect that as you rise in the sky you can see more of the level (i.e. it zooms out) plus the song interrupts with an "I can see my house from here!" lyrical quote despite no houses actually being part of the game.

qrcodeWhale Trail's graphics are certainly cute and the music certainly enhances that cuteness and it controls well. It also works just fine on both my tablet and phone although the music was a bit choppy on my single core phone and it crashed such that I had to pull the battery during my first play, but I didn't experience further problems after that. The game is also pretty challenging... moreso than I would have expected. Ultimately, however, I find the game dull and repetitive which means I have little desire to play it more. One reason I got the game is that I'm certain my kids will like it, but they're 5 and 2. How about you? If you're over 8 then I just don't see this being a big hit in your home. All in all I'll give it a 3/5 because I just don't think it's anything special although you can dance to it.


Jan 13, 2012

Grand Theft Auto III: 10 Year Anniversary Edition

I still remember the day quite vividly. I was working at Radiant Systems and a group of us headed to the mall for lunch. Given that many of us were into video games we'd also always stop at the EBGames in the mall and look around. That was the day they had Grand Theft Auto III up and running on a PS2 and it was AMAZING. And the reason it was amazing is that it was among the first games to immerse me in a living world where I didn't have to follow the plot and could do what I wanted. Now, I'm a bit of a prude so I really don't like all of the hooker stuff and such in my games, but even I could appreciate the game on its technical merit.

So here we are roughly a decade later and Grand Theft Auto III has made the jump to Android... a platform that I can hold in my hand and take with me wherever I go. And the jump is solid. If you don't know what Grand Theft Auto III is I'll do a quick summary. You play the role of a petty criminal and the story line takes you through various missions... drive here, go beat this guy up, go there, be an escort service, ... etc. And on your way it's stunning to see the world alive with people going here and there, traffic that obeys traffic signals, and even trains going by. In 2012 it's not quite as amazing given that developer RockStar games has steadily improved upon the genre on the console/PC front, but to see it on my tablet compared to the other table games I'm used to seeing is still actually quite impressive. I don't know why when I compare the specs on my tablet to ten year old hardware, but it is.

Before I get into the details of the port, let me say that this game serves as a great demo of Android Market fragmentation. I got this game, but I can't play it on my Epic 4G. It's not 'certified' for that device and I gather it's only available for a handful of devices that have the specs to be able to run the game at a good clip. Now the devs are fair in that they list all supported devices in the Market, but it is getting frustrating buying a game on one device and thinking I'll have it for my other device only to see that it's not there. I don't blame the devs for this... especially given all of the idiots that give a one star review if something doesn't work for them which in turn leads to devs threatening users not to leave one star reviews (I've seen two say "no support if you leave a one start review!") and ultimately means you can't trust app ratings in the Android Market. I'll also note that the iOS platform, in this case, isn't much different as the reason this game is fragmented has more to do with the capabilities of various devices and my Epic 4G probably doesn't have the muscle to run this game. I just like talking about fragmentation.

Back to GTA III. First, the game's controls, while not as good as having a game controller, work quite well. Generally the game doesn't require fast action reflexes to get around, and they did the nice moving DPad for controlling your character that I've mentioned in another review. In GTA you just touch and slide to move your character and you don't have to worry about slipping off of the on screen controller. Unfortunately that only applies to running/walking around and doesn't apply to driving a car (?). The graphics while minutely pixilated are countered with all that is going on and the audio is all there. Because this game is a sandbox game it can be fun just to run around and do stuff, but the reality is that the meat of the game is in the story. It's also fun on a juvenile level to see the stuff that doesn't make sense in the game such as running a red light in front of a police officer (no he doesn't hunt you down, but instead passively ignores you) or running over a few people (nobody cares?). However, the game does keep the 'real' feeling going despite these shortcomings. I can't tell you how frustrated I was to get a new car, get it repainted, and get in an accident pulling my car out of the garage. That's why I don't like buying new cars in real life.

qrcodeFor those that want to know more, the game starts off with a sequence in which a bank robbery occurs and during transport of some prisoners a bomb is set off on a bridge to break them free. You and paired with a guy that loses his hands in the explosion making you the driver to get to your HQ. From there you're told that you can go far if you can follow orders and your first job is to go pick up Misty. One of the many neat things to demo the detail of the game is that Misty hops in your car on the passenger side. I then decided to get out of my car. Misty dumbly follows me. Apparently walking her home is an option. But when I hop back in the car she get in on the rear drivers side versus having to enter through the same door. Then it's drive her back and so forth...

As you complete missions the game guides you with a nice map, but as you play the game you'll start to learn the city just like you would had you moved there. And I can't see anything that's missing from the original all the way down to the novelty of having a selection of radio stations in the cars. And fun? Yes, GTA is a lot of fun if you don't mind the theme. I'd much prefer to play the role of the police, but that's the prude in me talking again. As I see it this has to be one of the best games available on Android right now... uhm... on select Android devices. And for $5? I paid $50 when I first saw it.  5/5 stars.


P.S. So now I'm checking out the review score on the Android Market... 3.6. Just 3.6?? Reading deeper it's the usual "doesn't work for me" stuff and not too much targeting of the game... and occasional crash issues which I have not experienced on my Transformer tablet.

Jan 10, 2012

Spy Mouse

Spy Mouse is Australian developer Firemint's most recent game being released shortly after their sell out to industry giant Electronic Arts. If Firemint sounds familiar then you're right as Flight Control was their baby and it really took them places. And from the looks of things Spy Mouse tries to capitalize on their expertise in the line drawing genre of games.

In Spy Mouse you play the role of Agent Squeak. Agent Squeak is a mouse, but I have to admit I don't see much in the way of him being a spy. Simply put you are trying to grab the cheese and sneak by the kitties. The first level is easy. In fact, I don't think there's a way to fail as there are no cats to catch you. You just drag through the cheese, out the door, and you move on to the next level. As the game progresses new elements are introduced such as mouse traps that need disarming and mouse holes to hide in. But each level comes down to drawing a line that your mouse follows to pick up cheese and get out of the house.

qrcodeThe key element of the game is the cat as cats are the only things that seem to get in ones way. The cats follow a little predefined pattern of movement and apparently don't have very keen senses as you can pretty much follow right behind them and so long as they are looking the other way then you'll be safe. The thing this game reminds me the most of is Metal Gear Solid on the Playstation with its 2D overview and the need to sneak past the guards. It should also be noted that the cats may also have a little snooze built into their movement patterns and alert you before they pounce making things even easier.

Ultimately Spy Mouse falls into the puzzle game category where you are timing when to make your move in order to slip by the cats to get the cheese. One thing I use to judge these games is how well the game builds in difficulty and that's one area where Spy Mouse does not do so well. It wasn't until level 12 that I felt any degree of challenge and even then there was little resistance. It might be a good game for kids, but with so many other great games available this one just falls short and doesn't offer much that would compel me to come back to it. 3/5 stars for a game that's not horrible, certainly not great, and fits in nicely with 'mediocre'.


Jan 3, 2012


Grabatron is by the same folks that brought us the Hungry Shark series which I have really enjoyed. Hungry Shark put you in the fins of a rather hungry shark swimming back and forth and devouring whatever you could. Grabatron moves you from water to sky and puts you in control of a UFO with a claw arm that can grab and pick stuff off of the earth and either toss it to its demise or 'consume' it. There's a lot of similarity to these games despite the thematic difference.

Once you load Grabatron and get started the game provides you with helpful instruction screens. Control of your ship is done by tilting your Android device. When you're ready to drop your claw just touch the screen and if you've got something in its grip you can swipe to swing your claw and toss the object in hand back to the ground. As you play the game provides 'missions' in the form of 'abduct 10 cows' or something similar. The game controls very well and the graphics are quite sharp and are accompanied by a nice 'outer space UFO' audio theme. The game is also a lot of fun as I think most of us are intrigued with the possibility of life in outer space and here you get to play the role of such life in a hostile manner sucking up those poor, almost defenseless humans.

I say almost defenseless because yes, the military does enter the picture and shoot at you, but your craft is little match for these humans if you fly smart. One nice touch, though, is if you fly high up into the atmosphere the skies are teaming with jet fighters that will shoot you down in no time, but that's accompanied by a rather ominous warning to keep you within the boundaries of this sandbox style game. You will also encounter enemies such as helicopters closer to earth and have to drop a large object such as a boulder or car from above in order to take those out. And, once again, the graphics are beautiful although that does come at a price. The game did show a tiny bit of lag at time on my Epic 4G with it's single core CPU, but I had no problems on my dual core Tegra tablet.

Now on to the complaints department:

First, the game has a screen where you can buy extras such as the 'insane difficulty level' or '10 nukes'. Ok, so now we're going to cross the paid app concept with the freemium concept and charge me both upfront for part of the game and later for more? As you know I'm not a fan of such and I know we're talking about a game that cost a buck and add-ons that cost a buck. I also know the industry, to my dislike, is moving that way with consoles going heavy with the paid add-on content despite forking over $60 for a base game. Perhaps the movie industry can adopt this tactic and show you half of a movie and if you're still interested then you can pay more to see the other half?? I just don't see a pretty world where the goal is to make me an addict to something and then as soon as I'm hooked then to charge me more much like a pusher of drugs.

qrcodeSecond, when I played Hungry Shark I said the game had a therapeutic element. It felt good to play despite the fact that getting a high score wasn't really my objective. Because Grabatron is such a similar experience it got old a little soon. I can still see pulling it out for a game here and there, but there's not a lot of depth here. There's not much thrill beyond that first play in first abducting sheep and then abducting farmers. They both squeal in their own way. Sure, the background may change, but the theme which is a core part of this game stays the same.

All in all I like Grabatron a lot just like I liked Hungry Shark. And I love the theme. At the same time I really resent the attempt to sell me a difficulty level after purchasing the game. It's also a tough call to recommend as if you enjoy Hungry Shark you'll probably like this in the same way, but also already own that game. And if Hungry Shark did nothing for you then this probably won't either. Fortunately, there is a good demo version of the game in the Android Market called Grabatron Country which is basically the first level of the full game and that may be enough of the game for many players. 4/5 stars.

Jan 1, 2012

Tiki Kart 3D

Tiki Kart 3D is another freebie available in the Android Market this is pretty slick. Based on its name you can probably guess that it's a clone of the insanely popular Mario Kart series. Given that it's free I'm not going to try and do a full review as I don't have to sell you on it, but I did want to give the game some attention. The game also plays smoothly, doesn't appear to be packed with ads, and hasn't been hitting me up for any cash upon loading it (I've run a few races and have really enjoyed it, but can't say that it doesn't go freemium later on... just that they're not too stingy with the free part of things up front).

qrcodeThe game is controlled via tilt controls and it works well on my tablet. As with many of these games, you can collect power-ups (via collecting pineapples in this case) to assist with hindering the competition or giving yourself that extra boost. The game plays smoothly and controls well and has many options. I could go on and on, but it's New Years day and I've got places to be. All I'll say is that if you like the Mario Kart series or lighter race games then this need to be on your download list.