Header

Monthly Archives: February 2011

Bejeweled Blitz | Review

Originally written for www.7outof10.co.uk

So, Bejwelled Blitz. There is a reasonable chance that you, like me, are already sighing deeply and wondering just what was left unsaid in the Bejeweled universe. What further gems are there left to match-three with? What can they possibly do to move on a genre that they but have become a byword for?

Anyone who has ever held a gamepad or handled a mouse before should know what to expect. Faced with a screen of coloured gems, your only reason for existing becomes one of linking three or more in a straight line, causing them to explode in shower of sparkly particle and points. It is a simple formula, but one to their credit that Bejeweled and Pop Cap have successfully riffed off of for many a year.

To give them their dues, however, Blitz does offer something different to the standard Bejweled fare. If standard Bejeweled is considered a marathon, Blitz is the sprint, offering the player 60 seconds to wrack up as high a tally as possible. There’s no deliberation here, just instinct, and what results is a particularly frantic affair as your eyes strain to see the combos lurking in a screen full of gems.

Sometimes that minute flies by and you’re left sitting there stunned, wondering just where the time went, whereas others will be met with chain after chain exploding away and sending your point counter spinning faster than you can comprehend. As with most games of its ilk, it’s as much to do with the luck of the board as it is with swift reactions and an eye for a chain.

To complement the “classic” mode, Blitz also comes armed with Twist, where instead of swapping neighbouring gems you rotate blocks of four.

Having come off the back of a mini-Hexic binge, this twist – in every sense of the word – saw Bejeweled penetrate my cynical outer layer and made me soften towards the series. The simple addition of being able to build combos by shifting vast sections of the board took the concept from one which I thought was as based on chance as anything else, and elevated it into one requiring foresight and planning.

But that’s all you get for the package: two different variations on the same game and neither lasting longer than the length of time it takes my missus to boil me an egg. The speed and desperation are a refreshing shift for a genre that is generally considered slow and ponderous, but as a full retail product it feels as though it misses the presence of the more traditional modes.

I may like an egg with soldiers every now and again, but I also enjoy a good slow baked casserole.

7 /10

Stacking | Review

Originally written for www.7outof10.co.uk

Stacking is special; born from a time of uncertainty.

When the future of rock RTS Brutal Legend was unclear, rather than letting the situation consume them, Double Fine rolled up its sleeves and got creative. Taking a short break from their metal homage, the studio divided into teams and set about prototyping smaller concepts. From which sprung last year’s Costume Quest, a game which pretended to be about children trick-or-treating although really it was an RPG.

For an equally uncovential followup, Double Fine turned to the world of Russian stacking dolls. On one level allowing them a gloriously unique visual style, and, on a more practical approach, streamlining an age old formula.

However, for those living within the Stacking world, such niceties pass them by. It is a return to the Victorian era, where child labour is rife, an evil industrialist Baron rules the land, and the smaller you are the tougher you have it. And smallest of all is Charlie Blackmore. Charlie’s family, after falling into debt with The Baron, are taken to work like slaves within his industrial empire with little chance of escape. Being of plucky persuasion, Charlie refuses to stand for this injustice and sets off to free his family and put an end to The Baron’s nefarious deeds once and for all.

The pint sized lad can’t go it alone, though. The land is filled with dozens of dolls, each of varying size and ability, and by the wonders of the Russian doll world he can hop into and seize control of others. Tiny Charlie could jump first into a small boy, with the mischievous ability to play tag; before possessing a medium sized woman, with the power to seduce others; and then finally taking control of a large, pompous conductor whose head blows like a steam train when angry.

One of the joys of Stacking is wandering about the place and finding the unique talents of those around you. Some may seem to have little purpose other than to amuse – I am still yet to figure out if breakdancing has any place in Victorian society – but the variety on display not only shows the care lavished upon it but also cunningly plays into the puzzles that block Charlie’s path. Be it winding the train station’s clock, breaking an ambassador out of the slammer, or spoiling a Lady’s caviar, there are many obstructions between him and his family.

Each can be completed in multiple ways, too. Take the need to shut down a cruise ship’s Egyptian exhibition, for example. So far I have figured out that by using a certain character I can fake the mummy’s disappearance by painting it the same pattern as the curtain behind it, or alternatively find enough dolls that I might stack myself inside the sarcophagus and simply walk it out of the exhibition hall. But that’s only half of it. Quite how a bouncer capable of picking up smaller dolls and a Sphinx made of cheese tie into the other solutions I don’t quite know. Those are challenges for later; I just need to find the right connection.

Some are straight forward and chatting to dolls should reveal the answer quickly enough, but not belying their roots, the solutions are mostly comic affairs. Have you ever eaten soup a pigeon has nested in? No, I don’t recommend it either.

Many can be solved easy enough just by being aware of the talents around you, but the multiple solutions serve more than just a bullet point for replay value. From person experience, I find there’s nothing more annoying than a game you were enjoying comes to a sudden halt because your brain is not wired in the same way as the designers. The choice should give most players the ability to battle right through to the end without reaching for an FAQ or smashing their pad in frustration.

And frustration is something that should never enter your mind whilst lost in Stacking as it is just so beautiful. Every doll looks expertly hand painted and glossy, the settings trimmed with matchboxes and cotton reels to suit the scale of the inhabitants, and the range of emotion that can be squeezed from characters that have no right to be so expressive. Even the story has that Pixar-esque quality of overcoming adversity and proving the world that even though you might be small you too can stand tall. Or something.

Throughout there are so many lovely touches that serve nothing other than to make the most of this glorious world. There are hijinks to partake in on each level, little hidden challenges that exploit unique situations and the quest to collect all unique dolls.

And I can’t go without saying, on a truly nerdy level, the way they trick us into using an inventory system without even realising it, i.e. stacking a series of dolls with powers and then jumping them around the level and unstacking when we want to use an ability, is absolute genius. This is the modern day point-and-click, and Double Fine I salute you for almost slipping it by me.

8 /10

Windows Phone 7 | Round-up #3

Parachute Panic

One way to get your game noticed is by applying a fresh or innovative aesthetic; take Limbo, Killer 7 or Jet Set Radio as proof that style can be as much a talking point as the play itself. And whilst Parachute Panic might not push the boundaries of graphical innovation, it opts for the quirky approach.

Appearing as though drawn on a lined notebook, small stickmen hurl themselves from their planes, hoping to land safely on the passing boats below. Quite why these doodled people think this is a sensible pastime you never get chance to ask as you’ll be otherwise engaged with guiding them down safely past storm clouds, aliens and the whirly blades of helicopters.

It’s one of “those” games, where the pacing and simplicity win out over any description that could ever be written. It’s a moreish concoction that will see you tapping Replay each time you meet the singing shark that greats each untimely demise.

8/10

iBlast Moki

Half Angry Birds, half Lemmings, half World of Goo.

The Moki are loose and are looking for help. They want to go home but a need a little assistance in doing so. On hand are a combination of bombs, ropes, balloons and physics. It hardly sounds like the toolbox of someone trying to help but the round tinkers need exploding, shunting, prodding, floating and coercing across dozens of levels.

Early stages feel like Angry Birds. With bombs your only tool, their detonations send the Moki flying through the air as though catapulted, and the game takes on the air of explosive billiards. As levels advance, further items are added until basic machines can be built to carry the lost ones in style to their destination.

The ease of early challenges belies those which will greet players further on. There are some truly fiendish setups towards the latter stages but as you generally have to build your own solution to each of them, the sense of accomplishment is one of “I made that”.

8/10

Hexic Rush

At the launch of the Xbox 360, Hexic used to be my “phone” game. By that I mean the one I’d put on whilst chatting away to friends and family; not too complex to drag my mind away from the conversation at hand, and something to entertain my easily fidgeting mind.

How funny that once again it becomes my phone game, this time, however, in the actual sense of the phrase.
Even though it has shrunk, the fundamentals remain the same. Faced with a multi-coloured, hexagonal based board, trios of hexes require rotating so that clumps of similarly coloured stones can come together before disappearing in a shower of points.

Before you instantly turn away in despair at the thought of another match-three release, there is something about Hexic that really connects with the strategist in me. The road to a decent score comes in the form of rings of colours, and the clusters of special gems that appear after forming said rings. So rather than simply racking up points for the mere hell of it, it’s easy to find yourself engrossed in “walking” stones across the board, or plotting just how you’ll get that elusive Black Pearl super combo.

This new hand-held iteration of the series does include a new Rush mode, for those who aren’t inclined to take their time with puzzlers. A thoughtful inclusion to cater for both ends of the spectrum.

Practically, Hexic ticks all the boxes. It’s addictive, rewarding and well presented, but the scale to which it has shrunk is its downfall. The tiles are a fraction too small, meaning selecting any trio of gems isn’t as straightforward as it could be, and in the Rush mode you can pay dearly for it.

7/10

Zombies!!!

Some out there will already know of Zombies!!! For those of you who don’t, please pay heed to the multiple exclamation marks. They’re serious; there are a hell of a lot of zombies!!! contained within.

Pulled straight from the successful boardgame of the same name, Zombies!!! has you competing against other townsfolk to be the first to either fell 25 of the undead or escape to a waiting helicopter. In your way is a randomly constructed town, unfolding turn by turn, and the ever growing threat mentioned in the title.

Killing the shuffling corpses is just a matter of rolling high enough on the die but each player has event cards that can scupper others as much as it can aid them. Expect skateboarding, shotgun toting rivals to throw you into the dark or send a horde against you as you race for the chopper.

As a faithful recreation, Zombies!!! cannot be knocked as all elements of the table-top version are present. Even the sight of tiny figures, stuck to bases, hopping their way round town really gets across the feel that this is a boardgame realised in a new medium. In this new medium, however, it lacks pacing and solo play feels hollow.

Either pass the phone around with this one or stick with original.

6/10

Swarm | First Impressions

Originally written for www.7outof10.co.uk

Imagine, if you will, that Shigeru Miyamoto was not a child that wandered round his garden with wide-eyed wonder at what lurked in amongst the grass, but instead was a youth that took a magnifying glass to ants and relished the destruction of their tiny world. Swarm is the Pikmin that could have been; if he had an evil twin brother.

The similarities begin and end with your ability to control a horde of tiny creatures. Though rather than tarry through gardens strewn with batteries, hockey pucks and other makeshift spaceship parts, our horde of beings scuttle through a sinister world where flame pits, explosive barrels and spinning blades are commonplace. And rather than succumb to an extra-terrestrial slave driver, their only goal here is to get to the end of this hellish obstacle course alive.

You begin with fifty dim-witted Swarmites, with the ability to steer them away from danger and control how they flock. Tugs on either trigger cause them to bunch up or spread out as required, whilst tapping A can call them to jump or form a tottering column of living chaos. Each skill is called upon in turn as they seek to collect the valuable DNA that lies scattered across each level, be it through stacking everyone atop each other to reach otherwise unreachable goodies, or bunching up as they lurch through a mine field. Levels are a mix between precision navigation, bursts of speed, hazard avoidance, and general destruction, so each aspect of Swarm control will be tested.

No matter your wrangling skills, casualties are to be expected. Living in such a dangerous world, the blue creatures realise their life is short but as long as a single one reaches the various respawn points that are dotted throughout then their death is not in vain. Numbers are important, however, as certain nuggets or paths will remain only accessible either by weight activated switches or high ledges that only the tallest of stacked Swarmites can reach. At times the humorous demise of those under control needs to be put aside in a bid to eke out each level’s secrets.

In fact, Swarm embraces death like no other game. Despite the aim being to keep your swarm alive and garner a massive score through DNA collection, brutal acts of Swarmicide will be rewarded with medals. Toast, slice, behead or electrocute enough of the blighters and up will pop bonuses and acknowledgements informing you that you are in fact a terrible Swarmite parent.

The immediate impression is that humour is the driving factor within this XBLA and PSN release, from the wittering, cartoon, gormless monsters to the vast numbers of ways they can meet their maker. Be it leaving blue splat markers behind, or having half a Swarmite attempt to re-join its brethren before collapsing in a heap, they definitely are amusing and one hopes that as the levels progress the variety in the brutality changes as much as the art styles promise on the level select screen.

With access to the first few levels, the replay value is hard to judge. The main indicator of success comes from high scores, earned by collecting masses of DNA in quick succession, and so Leaderboard rivalry should keep friends unleashing their tiny minions on well-trod levels in a bid to extract every possible point.

The promised inclusion of boss fights should also give a focus to what is currently an incredibly interesting and morish concept that could easily be pigeon-holed as a cross between Trials HD and Miyamoto’s garden based classic. I say “easily”, but it might find that it’s sits proudly and uniquely alone with that tag.