Keeping an Eye on iOS (w/e Feb 17)

Each week, I’ll endeavour to trawl through a baker’s dozen of  apps from my ever-growing backlog of iOS games that are, or have been, free. I’ll investigate and describe each game, and then decide what to deserves playtime, and what warrants deletion.

Meow Meow Happy Fight

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In short: A nonsensical top down shooter.

This is a silly that doesn’t really offer any excitement. It is just a top down dual stick (or single stick depending on your preference) featuring weird characters and lots of lasers. But these aren’t weird characters like Angry Birds or Om Nom (of Cut the Rope fame) because the game just doesn’t give them any personality. To be honest, it isn’t always obvious where any felines are, despite the game’s name. There also just isn’t any gameplay hook to make this at all interesting. Every level is governed only by a time limit. No lives, no health, no ammunition limits. So nobody dies! They just always respawn. The game also doesn’t appear to have any retina graphics, but to be fair, I guess the neon style does pop nicely.

Verdict: At full price ($2) this is a no-no. But if you like twin stick shooters, give it a look when it is on sale. Otherwise, check out BigPixel’s other iOS games, as they have quite a few better than this one.

I’ll be removing this.

Endless Road

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In short: A modern and attractive take on the traffic dodging racing game.

This is a game that really packs a visual punch. It features a great minimalist style and nice effects; such as the way the road folds upwards from oblivion as you progress, and falls away in chunks behind you. The grey, white, black and red colour scheme reminds me of Mirror’s Edge actually… The game has an isometric viewpoint, but has fully 3D models, so it all looks fluid and crisp. Gameplay-wise, it is largely what you’d expect. There is traffic to dodge; trucks, cars and the like, as well as other hazards. There are slow/fast arrows on the road that act as advertised. There are a few things to spice it up though. There is a subway system that runs under the road, which you can sometimes enter. It is free of hazards, but you will need to make sure you exit it at or before the last exit otherwise you will crash. So its a classic risk/reward element. You also need to keep your speed at 80 (kilometres or miles, I can’t recall, but it doesn’t matter) otherwise you won’t keep up with the pace of the road as it falls away behind you. So avoiding traffic and slowdown arrows becomes vital. The game is endless, but you will pass through different stages of increasing difficulty as you go, and it does get pretty tricky after about 5km or so. The game also has a really great menus, something I will always mention, because I love a good, clear, attractive menu. In terms of content, there are a swathe of Game Centre achievements, leader-boards, and an objective system that rewards you with coinage which can be spent in the game’s shop. A shop filled with new cars, boosts, visual enhancements and so forth.

Verdict: Endless Road is a pretty full package, and certainly a step above the usual endless, time-waster fodder that fills the App Store.

I’ll be keeping this one.

Heist: The Score

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In short: An authentic gangster themed on-rails shooter.

There really aren’t enough tommy-guns on the App Store. Thankfully Heist offers plenty of that. It is a simple game to play, you just need to aim by sliding your finger around, shoot by pressing on the right, and take cover by pressing on the left. Movement may be strictly on rails, but the game’s enemies have a habit of really pinning you down, so you don’t really feel that restricted by the controls as much as you do by your adversaries. You also usually have to choice of a couple of cover spots in one area, so you can dodge grenades or get a better shot by moving around. The game is really fuelled by it’s typical, but nonetheless entertaining story: You two companions argue about what exactly the bank is guarding, the organisation’s hierarchy, and things of that nature. One is the typical violent gangster, while the other is more sophisticated. The banter between the crooks is done with full voice acting, which is great. The game’s tutorial also deserves a shout out: It takes place in a car on the way to the bank and does a wicked job of introducing you to the characters and the controls. For example, your first shot fired is considered as ‘first-job nerves’ by your buddies. The graphics are great overall; the cars outside and the bank’s decor all looks very authentic. Admittedly, the character models are a little on the N64 side of things, with square heads, square hands and when they move occasional clipping occurs. However this is more than made up for by other touches, such as normally static objects like chairs, actually falling over when you shoot them. The only downside here is the lack of content. They are only seven chapters, and they all take place inside the bank, and there are no achievements or objectives to fulfil. But it is a solid game, well worth the asking price of 99 cents.

Verdict: As an overall package, this one is short an sweet. It isn’t an oft-updated keeper like some more casual iOS games, so just download it, enjoy it, and delete it.

I’ll be finishing it, then taking my own above advice.

King of Opera

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In short: A decent, light-hearted, local multiplayer party game. Not something you see everyday on the platform.

This is a dead simple one. There are four (red, green, blue and orange) portly opera singers vying for the spotlight. You and up to three friends (or CPU opponents) need to bump each other off the circular stage and try and avoid the same happening to you, using only one button. The opera singer will rotate on the spot, and walk forward when you press your button. Once you’re in the spotlight, you’ll start boosting your score, and the light will follow you as you attempt to dodge the other singers. As well as this mode, there is ‘Phantom’ mode where the spotlight vanishes once gained, making it more of a capture-the-flag affar rather than king-of-the-hill. There is also a third mode called ‘Fat Lady’, where all four singers compete with a fat lady who is determined to hog the spotlight. The game is very whimsical, and the soaring “la-la-laaaaa”s are constantly punctuated by slapstick sound effects. This could be a great little distraction to play with friends, though it is probably suited to the largers screend of the iPad/Mini. At $2, it might be a little expensive for what it is. But at least it is a universal app.

Verdict: A neat little distraction that offers some muliplayer on a platform starved of it.

I’ll be keeping this.

Majesty

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In short: An isometric kingdom building game in the vein of Age of Empires.

Unlike AoE though, you can’t control your people. You can build plenty of buildings, sure, anything from warrior guilds, to wizard guilds, to marketplaces, to blacksmith shops. But you cannot directly control people. Instead you must lure and entice them by placing monetary bounties on enemies (an ‘attack flag’ for warriors) or by placing a ‘scout flag’ on unexplored locations (for other adventurers). This is a really interesting mechanic that immediately changes this from a “God game” to a more realistic “ruler game”, because you’re powers come up against real-world limits. The game’s intro and ongoing story is pretty whimsical; detailing how the last king went insane due to his love of rats. But once you hit the actual game, its all serious: You’re worrying about what level of castle collects what amount of tax, how many warriors your guild can hold and so forth. It isn’t that confusing, because everything is laid out pretty well, but there is a lot to take in in a short space of time. The aims in each level are fairly basic, like defeat X and reach point X, but I imagine this will become more complex as you progress. On the audiovisual side, things are swell. The music is pretty naff, but passable, and the details on the visual are so crisp that you will quickly forget that you are really just playing on an isometric field. Screen real estate is at a real premium here though. Fonts are small, and everything feels a little hemmed in, so if you were to play this, I’d recommend doing so on an iPad. The game also uses a lot of double-taps to confirm things, which often means that after lining up a proposed building site, you accidentally move it a tad on that second tap. This is a little annoying, so again, I’d recommend an iPad, where there is greater margin for error.

There is a big negative though: Seriously, how shit is the tagline “SEVERAL DOZEN SPELLS”. Wow.

Verdict: Despite initial appearances, this is not a lighthearthed little title. It is in fact, deep and involved. So I wouldn’t recommend it to all, and I would advocate getting it on an iPad if you can. It is universal, so your $2 is probably well spent on any device.

I’ll be keeping this around for a little while.

Storm the Train

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In short: A run-and-gun platformer. On a train.

This is an endless, high-score-chasing, and objective-fulfilling affair. You can move left and right, and also jump, double jump and shoot. But running along and blasting enemies, you will earn currency which can be spent in the (wait for it) in-game store! You will be able to complete objectives, such as reaching a certain distance, or killing a certain boss enemy, and gain more currency to buy more upgrades in the store. These include boosts and power-ups, like flying turrets that will aid you in your spree. It really is the typical iOS gaming circle of life, and like in so many games, it just feels like a revolving process without much soul. At least the visual themes make the game a little interesting: You are usually pitted against skeletons and zombies, but further on, you will be able to leap from the front of the train, onto the back of a new one, such as the ‘future train’, which features robots and other sci-fi enemies. Despite my cynical attitude to the game’s store and such, I have another gripe with the game’s jumping physics: Even in the air, you will keep up with the speeding train. I’ve heard discussion on this in real life, and I can’t remember if this correct real-world physics or not. Maybe it is just that I’ve been playing Donkey Kong Country Returns a lot lately, and there it works a little differently. Another big issue is the lack of retina graphics. The font used by the game is prompts is tiny; bordering on unreadable. I have an 4th generation iPod Touch, and there have been two iPhones and another iTouch model since then that also have retina displays, so it isn’t really acceptable on 2013. But maybe that is a bug at my end, because the screenshots look pretty good. The game does have all the Game Centre fruit, and it is free, so while it isn’t revolutionary, it might be worth a look.

Verdict: It is a decent little romp, but one of many, many romps that can be had on the App Store. Not something to get too excited over.

I’ll be removing this.

Spice Bandits

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In short: A tower defence game that follows the usual conventions of the genre.

Like a lot of iOS games, this has an absurd premise. You are some sort of octopus-looking space pirates, and you really like plundering, especially if it means you find spice. Eventually, you need to come to Earth to get more spice, and that is where the game kicks off. Enthralling, huh? The mecanics are like any other tower defence game: You have a base, usually a ship of some sort, that has landed, and you must defend it from oncoming humans with a variety of turrets. You don’t actually fire the guns; the game is all about the strategy involved in placing the weapons on the map. Placing a gun will const you money, as will upgrading it, but you earn more dosh each time you blast a human. The spaces on the map are indicated by a hexagonal grid (rather than square in some games) that shows up when you decide to build a gun, and you are also told where the humans will enter the map from, so you need to place your defences thoughtfully between the entry point and you base. There is also magic that can be used by you, that acts in addition, and independently of your constructed defences. As you’d expect, there is also a shop where you can buy new guns and magic abilities.
The game is presented very well. Every level has its own theme, wrapped in the same great cartoon style. The menus are also really crisp, and extra kudos go to the game’s tutorial, which is both simple enough to understand and complex enough to be all you need to start the game immediately.

Personally, I have a long standing gripe with any sort of ‘wave’ gameplay. It is just too stop-start for my liking. The tower defence genre is also a bit too passive for my tastes. There’s a lot of setting up, but no involvement in the actual action. In fact, I’m letting the game wage it’s own war while I’m typing this post. Oh, its now over. And I won.

Verdict: The App Store is flooded with tower defence titles, and while it is visually appealing, I don’t see that there is anything new here. The game does nothing to alter my prejudices against TD games either, so I’d recommend it to TD fans only.

I’ll be giving this game a little time, because I feel that it actually pretty good: I just need to overcome my impatience and aversion to the genre.

Pony Trails

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In short: Here’s an accurate description you wouldn’t expect; iOS’ answer to Pokemon Snap.

I expected this game to be a simple, casual affair culminating in the riding of a pony through the woods, thus allowing me to be comedic in my review. But that isn’t what Pony Trails offers. It is actually a surprisingly extensive photography game! Sure, you do ride a pony on a trial through different types of wilderness, but the idea is to stop along the trail, and snap some pictures of wildlife and scenery. These pictures are then scored by the game (as one, two or three star photos) and can then be compared and shared these socially if you wish. There are deer, bears, goats, skunks all lurking in the woodland trail alone. The actually process of taking the photos is surprisingly intricate, since photos are captured automatically, and will only do so when you are very still. So precision movement of the camera-controlling d-pad is needed. Unlike Pokemon Snap, you are a little limited in what you can take a photo of, rather than being free to take your own, potentially hilarious pictures, regardless of how terrible Oak considered them. The games controls, as stated, require preceision and are a little finicky, but overall they are bearable. Pony Trails  also has a shop with different saddles and reigns and other horse gear that offers bonuses: Like a quieter horse, or one that rides better at night (yes, there are day/night versions of each trail). Visually the game is also pretty darn sophisticated. It clocks in at under 90MB, and yet has a fully 3D world. Sadly, this means it didn’t run terribly well on my iTouch4, but it was serviceable.

Verdict: This is not the casual fare I expected. It really isn’t time-waster game, the opposite in fact. Sadly, the combination of required precision and touchy controls means isn’t really a great fit for the platform. It might be better on an iPad, but I think it is just to fiddly for my tastes.

I’ll be deleting this shortly I think, even though it is a real surprise package.

Critter Escape

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In short: A competent line drawing strategy game.

All you need to do in this game, dear player, is guide your ‘critter’ (it looks like a potato with legs) to the exit of each level by drawing a line with your finger. Your critter will then set off. If he gets into trouble though, you can freeze time redraw the line at any time to avoid an enemy or obstacle. Each level has three objectives, and this forms the ubiquitous three-star scoring system. One is for completing the level, another is for collecting a red gem and the last if for being sneaky; remaining undetected by enemies. These can all be achieved in a single playthrough, but the idea is obviously to create some replay value. To my mind, the game moves a little fast when you draw lines, so you have make a conscious effort to move slowly. The detection of you finger is also a little buggy, but thankfully the game does a good job of evening out the kinks in your path. Visually, the game looks alright, though the colour palette is a wee bit bland, and it isn’t super smooth: There is a bot of lag here and there, and instant-restarts are sorely missed. Maybe it just isn’t optimised for my device. The content on offer here is pretty extensive. There must be easily over a hundred levels, and there are a swathe (thirty-six) Game Centre achievements to keep you occupied.

Verdict: It isn’t overly compelling, but it is a solid title nonetheless. Personally, I’m already covered for line drawing games, with titles like Flight Control, Flight Control Rocket, SPYmouse and Time Ducks, which I would recommend above this if it was a one-or-the-other choice.

I’ll be playing a little longer, but probably deleting this.

Infectonator

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In short: A point-and-click of apocalyptic proportions.

The zombie apocalypse that is. It is your job to unleash your very own zombie virus across the globe, from Australia to Austria, China to Chile. In World Domination mode domination mode, that is how it goes down: You select a region, then by city, you gorge on the humans. The game’s mechanics are dead simple, to the point of boring if I’m honest. You just tap a spot, and watch the zombies go. It takes some strategy, and you need to infect a set number of humans before your zombies rot, but generally it isn’t too hard, especially when you employ the various power-ups that run along the base of the screen. Said power-ups can be bought in the game’s store, where you can spend coins (dropped by dead humans) on viral upgrades, boosts, and you can also raise the stats (like the lifespan, and speed) of your zombies. The game also features an Endless Mode, which just feeds you wave of ever-increasing humans to infect, and lets you stock up in the shop between waves. The game certainly deserves some props for its art. It features a pixellated retro look, that extends beyond the in=game sprites, to the menus, and to news-report-style statistics at the end of each level. The game also has eleven Game Centre achievements and also leader-boards, if you’re keen on earning bragging rights. Apparently this has only recently gone free-to-play, so there are ads, and this has annoyed some players who paid previously, judging by iTunes reviews.

Verdict: A well made, but ultimately repetitive zombie romp. At the (non-existent) asking price though, it is worth looking into.

I’ll be removing this shortly I think.

Extinction 3D

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In short: More zombies! This time though, it is a 3D, top down, action affair.

Extinction offers and old-school GTA (pre III) experience, in a zombie infested environment. Visually, everything is three-dimensional, and the game takes place in 2019, but the actual gameplay is pretty rooted in the past. You just walk and shoot the undead, or drive and crush the undead. You also need to navigate the city with the GPS system, and locate survivors and transport them to the safe zone (a helicopter). Each game is endless, but you are scored on how many zombies you kill, and how many survivors you rescue. Getting a good score might unlock a better weapon for the next time you play. The game is riddled with inconsistencies: When driving, you will splatter a zombie even at snail’s pace, you can knock over trees but not lampposts, and you can idle happily in fire without dying.the game also has a terrible time deciding where to direct your gunshots when you on foot. Your little character jitters and jumps, and usually fires in the opposite direction to where he is facing. I guess fear does that to you. Or bugs. One of the two. Overall, the game feels like it lacks polish. The menus are blood stained and feature “hardcore” guitar riffs, which can’t help but give off a slightly ‘try-hard’ vibe. Not to mention the iTunes image gallery that features the tagline; “drive anything, kill everything.”

Verdict: A top down action game that leaves a lot to be desired. Like the zombies it wants you to hunt, Extinction lacks soul.

I’ll be deleting this promptly.

Ninja in a Barrel

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In short: A 2D grid based puzzle game.

This is a fairly straightforward game to explain. You just simply swipe in one of four directions to roll the barrel to its goal(s). The goal is usually some sort of mushroom-looking enemy that you need to bump into. This will trigger the ninja to pop out of the barrels and slice the enemy to bits. Sometimes, there environmental hazards and other objects, like boxes which need to be slid from place to place in order to get to a certain spot. The aim it to finish each level in the least amount of moves, and you will be scored accordingly; between one and three stars. It actually requires a bit of thought to reach the goal in some levels, and fans of this sort of low-risk, inoffensive puzzle gameplay will have fun. That said, everything here has been done before, so it bring much anything much to the genre. The visuals are fairly decent, and the graphics will alter in different themed levels, such as the winter season pictured. The game is totally free, and as a result, there are some advertisements. But the payoff is pretty big: For your $0 you do get almost one hundred levels, so if you like the look of this, don’t hesitate.

Verdict: I’m not a huge fan of these sorts of games, so I’d pass. But for those who dig it, it is pretty generous.

I’ll be deleting this.

Captain Nova

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In short: A short, slow retro platformer.

Captain Nova is a fairly standard experience. The idea is to navigate a series of levels and do three things: Avoid or stomp enemies, collect bolts, and at the end of each level, collect a piece of spacecraft to fix your crashed rocket. The enemies are all pretty much variants of what you see above, and the colours of the sky and the ground are constant. So it is then, pretty dull. The captain himself has a jump that is on par with Mario platformers, but his movement is pretty darn slow, so the game become a pretty monotonous affair. It is made all the more monotonous by the single chiptune that plays over and over again. I gather the game mush be pretty short, as there is no level select screen and no option to continue. Nor is there anything else on offer in the menu: The main menu simply has a ‘play’ button, and the pause menu offers only on/off controls for sound and music. I reached level seven before I ran out of lives, and to be honest, I won’t be going back.

All that said though, the game is a dollar, and it is a two-man project, so I won’t knock the developers for making this, as it plays fine, even if it isn’t overly exciting. Though there does seem to be one bug: The captain always starts levels jumping automatically, and I had to press the jump button to regain control of the jumps. Maybe he’s just super keen to fix his ship…

Verdict: An average little platformer. Take it or leave it.

I’ll be removing this.
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Until next time!

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