Magicmaker – Review

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Platform: PC
Developer: Tasty Stewdios
Genre: Platformer/RPG
Price: TBC
Release Date: 22nd September 2014

In my mind, one of the greatest game modes ever created is Burnout’s Crash. Sending your vehicle careering over a bypass to collide with a juggernaut that jackknifes forming a roadblock which then catches several passing vehicles is the epitome of organised chaos. Whilst we like to feel in control when we game, there is a sense of beauty in watching the unexpected unfold. Taking Peggle as another example, my most memorable shots were never the ones I planned meticulously but the accidental Extreme Slides that ricocheted between orange pegs to erupt into a euphoric Ode to Joy. Tasty Stewdios first game, Magicmaker, spawns similar nostalgic moments with an emphasis on the juxtaposition between order and chaos.

Visually, Magicmaker is a little deceptive. It looks like a felted pop-up book brought to life; all colour, bold shapes and sweetness. It might look like a family-friendly platformer but that would be a great misrepresentation as the core of the game is a rather hardcore stat-heavy RPG. Taking the over-the-top loot generation system popularised by Borderlands and expanding on it to make it a truly customisable experience produces one of the most memorable and unique games I’ve played in this generation.

You are the new security guard at Dörwall Community College, unwittingly chosen by a sort of magical guidance counselor. From there, you’re tasked with all sorts of incredibly dangerous yet allegedly menial tasks that will see you raiding ancient temples and checking spooky cemeteries for mysterious occurrences. Whilst the questing is suitably epic for the genre, it’s all handled with a wicked sense of humour that will have you questioning why you’re helping out the ungrateful patrons. It’s reminiscent of the Fable series, where the NPCs express their feelings in a rather Britishly humourous and frank way, soon growing to appreciate your efforts as the journey expands.

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Whilst it plays largely as a platformer, the combat is more twin-stick shooter with the player using the mouse to aim your spells. It works flawlessly though sometimes the cursor does have a habit of disappearing into the action when the screen fills up, it’s a very small complaint for working in a control scheme that provides 360 degrees of superb accuracy. There’s a low gravity floatiness to the jumping that takes some getting used to but it provides a great means to offer bite-size Castlevania-esque levels. In fact, the bosses also draw a lot of inspiration from the Konami series where each encounter features a lumbering behemoth that fills the screen and requires some strategising and serious concentration. Breaking down an enormous armoured knight piece by piece until he’s left in his boxers ala Ghosts n Goblins is a great experience.

It’s indicative of a great game when it’s easy to write how it would make a quality purchase without mentioning it’s key selling point. The loot system is possibly the most intricate and intriguing I’ve seen in a long time, far outweighing the one used in Borderlands that would be an obvious comparison. Enemies drop alchemical ingredients that can be placed into sockets in one of several inventory items. These components have unique properties that have wildly varying effects, depending on where they are placed and what they are combined with. If you’re the kind of gamer that likes to create spreadsheets for their favourite games, listing the various fusions involved in crafting systems then Magicmaker could keep you entertained for innumerable hours.

The extent to which you can customise every factor of your spells and equipment is almost overwhelming. Those that shy away from micro-managing statistics would be forgiven for finding something that works for them and simply upgrade it slowly but the more intrepid will discover a huge amount to experiment with. Combining a rubber bullet and a fire crystal in your wand grants you a flaming projectile that deflects on impact, seeking additional targets. A ninja’s sword fused with a monocle in an offensive slot produces a short range beam sword that decimates oncoming foes. One simple adjustment gives hugely varied results and a massive amount of time will be spent in the hub world swapping out items to see what happens. It’s very easy to develop a childlike obsession with trying to break the system, making things that shouldn’t work only to be amazed when you create something unimaginable.

The menus can be a little unintuitive but it’s a small price to pay for one of the most ambitious features I’ve seen successfully implemented and whilst the fairytale aesthetic may not appeal to all I’d advise not to judge it as such. Magicmaker is a stunning experience; memorable, challenging, lengthy and creative. If channeling your inner alchemist sounds appealing then Magicmaker is the best decision you could make this year.

Best Games You’ve Never Played – Part One: iOS RPGs

With hundreds of games launching a week on Apple’s iDevices, it would be impossible to catch every stray crumb of delicious gaming that falls from the Appstore’s maw. As such, I wanted to present a few choice picks from each console but the list soon grew out of hand. So, aware of the rather large task I’ve just awarded myself, I’ve broken down each platform’s picks into genre top lists to give me more freedom to elaborate on my decisions and a much more generous number of games to choose from. I’ll begin with possibly my favourite genre, the RPG, since the iOS scene has been let down recently by a large quantity of free-to-play cookie cutter disappointments.

It’s a difficult genre to classify, with “RPG features” being one of the most popular taglines to slap on a new release to garner interest. Because of this, there will most likely be some disagreement about whether all the mentioned games fit into the category or are worthy of acclaim – this is absolutely fine and I encourage anyone to post their suggestions or comments, it’ll be great to hear some other views on the topic. Without further ado then and in no particular order, 10 RPGs that were criminally under-appreciated.

Continue reading Best Games You’ve Never Played – Part One: iOS RPGs

Probability 0 – Review

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Platform: PC
Developer: Droqen
Genre: Platformer/Roguelike
Price: £4.99
Release Date: 12th June 2014 (Steam)

When you’ve played over 4000 different games in your lifetime, finding something that leaves a lasting imprint on is a rare outcome. Of the recent years, I’d count Hoplite and Super House of the Dead Ninja firmly among those standout titles. SHotDN is possibly the fastest paced game I’ve ever experienced, controlling a whirling dervish spinning violently through a procedurally generated tower. Hoplite’s slow-paced strategy exemplifies a strict rule set condensed to perfection, punishing a single step out of line. The games have almost nothing in common, so surely combining the two would have no chance of a successful offspring.

Maybe, then, it’s appropriate that you could also be left with Probability 0.

Everything in P0 is broken down to core basics. The visuals are painted from a palette consisting almost entirely of black, a somber chiptune plays quietly in the background interspersed with a crunching midi thunder roll. Your aim is equally blunt; descend into the depths using all the limited means presented to you. 

For the most part, you’re forced to utilise guerrilla tactics; your melee attack’s range is woefully inadequate and throwing stars in such short supply that every encounter is a life or death situation. Avoidance is by no means simple either, with balls of spiky death awaiting missteps and only a certain distance you can fall before suffering major damage. Risk versus reward is a major factor in every action, as such devising your movements is a luxury that has its cost; with the screen on a constant rise, panicking can override all well made plans. Even the hardiest gamer will throw caution to the wind at times and attempt a rapid descent that ends terribly.

Should you manage to defeat the prerequisite number of foes, a task that starts off as just manageable before quickly growing out of hand, you’ll max your experience. Much like Hoplite’s temples, leveling lets you pick from a set selection of temporary perks that prove invaluable for beating your previous best. They may appear basic initially, with simple choices like horizontal shuriken throwing and increased melee strength but in further stages the ability to punch through solid walls or negate fall damage are integral to highscore runs.

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Probability 0 is an incredibly tough game, something it likes to remind you of via background messages relaying your slim chances of surviving. Ingeniously, these gloomy phrases represent your health bar; always fluctuating, you’ll never have an exact idea of how much punishment you can still take. The tension is overwhelming at times and a real cool mind is necessary to master the depths, something that won’t be done even with hours of gameplay under your belt. Fortunately, there’s a wealth of game modes included, most noteworthy being Karma mode that uses points earned during normal gameplay as currency to purchase perks at the beginning of the game.

It’s a unique experience with a huge draw to have just one more dive. Whilst it’s easy to place the influences, there’s absolutely nothing like it and the dark, brooding cavern reveals itself to be a very tempting place to spend your hours.

Cavern Kings – Preview

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It says a lot for Vine’s partially Kickstarter-funded latest project that I actually believed it was a new Vlambeer production for a while. Cavern Kings cites the aforementioned developer’s Super Crate Box as a major influence and it really shows. If you take a single screen out of context, you’d be hard pushed to convince anyone that it wasn’t a sequel; I mean this with the utmost respect of course – Vlambeer are renowned for fidelity in controls, concepts squeezed down to core perfection and highly polished indie visuals. It’s no surprise that many developers want to emulate their style, succeeding at that is something I’ve only seen Vine pull off.

Taking the arena-based, pixel perfect action of SCB and combining the wanton destruction and over the top aesthetic of Nuclear Throne, Cavern Kings manages to feel unique despite obvious parallels. You move from screen to screen populated by fantastical minions armed with two randomised weapons that change between sessions, one melee and the other a more traditional firearm. Traditional really needs to be taken with a pinch of salt; one visit saw me armed with a pneumatic drill and a harpoon gun that’s inertia upon firing would propel me across the screen. A second attempt provided me with an extending boxing glove reminiscent of Tom & Jerry cartoons and a sawblade-launcher. Every life feels unique with procedurally generated layouts and enemy encounters, so that even familiar weapon combinations don’t leave you feeling over-confident.

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The environment is almost entirely destructible, fluidity being a major factor of gameplay. Linger too long in one arena and the omnipresent ceiling will begin it’s crushing descent, preventing you from grinding through the easier encounters to power level. While breaking through screen boundaries is a necessary maneuver to survive, the fragility of order is a major double-edged sword. A stray shot can create a shortcut for advancing hordes or send treasure out of reach, but it can also create trenches for defence and pitfalls for your foes. At least, that is, until the bosses find you. Reminiscent of Castlevania’s screen estate devouring elites, they’ll force you to adapt to new tactics with their sheer appearance. Being a game epitomising the joy of discovery though, some things are best left to first-hand experience.

Cavern Kings is penciled in to release in December 2014 but the Beta demo is available here to whet your appetite:

vine.itch.io/cavernkings

Deep Loot – Review

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Platform: iOS

Developer: Monster and Monster
Genre: Strategy/Casual
Price: Free
Release Date: 31st July 2014

Monster and Monster’s previous releases have mostly involved calm seasonal walks, so a sudden shift towards turn-based roguelike treasure hunting was a surprise departure. Besides the trademark colourful pixel visuals, the main clue that the two-man team are behind this is the wonderfully British sense of humour. You just have to let the credits roll to realise that.

The cutesy visuals disguise a traditional dungeon crawler in the vein of Sword of Fargoal and Cardinal Quest. Each movement consumes a turn in which enemies act in concert; attacking, fleeing, collecting and advancing. Roguelikes tend to be the territory of the RPG-diehard, an impenetrable bastion of permadeath, walls of stats and endless re-rolling of dice to get the perfect hero. Monster and Monster have seemlessly woven a hardcore genre with that of the endless runner, possibly the most casual of experiences and made something as intricate as you wish it to be.

Being an amalgamation of several distinct genres, it’s hard to summarise the gameplay. From tense yet slow-paced back and forths between your diver and the denizens of the deep to frantic tapping to catch fallen bounties, Deep Loot feels nothing if not unique. Digging through the blocky terrain may make Minecraft comparisons an easy choice but there’s no crafting or persistance in the world you inhabit; the next dive session replaces the layout with a literally endless procedurally generated labyrinth. The RPG features are hard to deny but you won’t be finding a new weapon on your travels, that’s left up to the funds earned from recovering treasures that are added to your museum.

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With game sessions lasting roughly two minutes, it’s perfect for the snatched spare moments yet you can easily sink a few hours into completing a relic set. They’ve perfectly encapsulated the “need, want” addiction of sticker albums where the next full page could be just one dive away.  Much like Animal Crossing’s collection donating, it’s incredibly satisfying to find the last piece and have a complete dinosaur skeleton taking pride of place for all to see.

Deep Loot is an entirely free experience, but unlike most freemium casual games, you won’t feel the not-so-subtle tugging on your wallet to give you an edge on the competition. In-App Purchases are tucked away into a tab you’ll rarely see and social media features are never pushed to the forefront. Whilst you could very easily unlock everything the game has to see without spending a penny, there is a reasonably priced coin doubler that goes a long way to reducing the minimal grind or could be viewed as a premium unlock to thank the developers for their hard work.

Deep Loot can be purchased exclusively for iOS from here:
https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/deep-loot/id563264994?mt=8

Spooklands – Review

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Platform: iOS, Android
Developer: Luderia
Genre: Arena Shooter
Price: 69p/99c
Release Date: 21st Aug 2014

It goes without saying that Spooklands is a game that aims to impress. You only have to look at the screenshots to appreciate the wildly colourful visuals. In motion, things only look better. The creature design meshes cute with vicious in a fantastic juxtaposition; managing the nigh impossible task of making a heaving mass of eyes and limbs look sweet.

The high class production values certainly don’t end there though. Taking the wonderfully intuitive control scheme seen in Toast Time, Luderia have combined it with frantic arena-based combat. I have to admit that twin-stick arena shooters are starting to repeat on me; having been perfected by games like Minigore and Geometry Wars many years ago, it’s very rare for one outside of Radiangames’ production to impress me at all. Whilst it’s not the most accurate genre placement for Spooklands, it certainly stands out from the majority of games in competition with it.

It all comes down to the simplicity of movement and mechanics. You tap, you shoot. You shoot, you move. That’s mostly it beyond a hold to release a charge attack. Whilst it sounds dangerously close to being a little too basic, combining your means of attacking with your only hope to avoid damage makes for chaos. Beautiful, elegant and heart-pounding mayhem.

Words are terribly inefficient for describing the adrenaline-fueled tapping panic you’ll find yourself in as the difficulty increases steadily. Early lulls had me disappointed at the ease of success but you’ll soon learn to value those calm moments. When Hell breaks lose you’re forced to weigh up whether your shots will put you at more risk than they resolve. Whether you have the time to charge a large axe to clear a line of foes or strumming loose a flurry of smaller shots.

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To me, Spooklands is to the one-touch control method that Tilt to Live is to tilt controls. Every attack will hit its target with pinpoint accuracy and every death is your own failing. You will die a lot, your shots wavering as new and incredibly large creatures are introduced but you’ll also progress between each match. Again, much like Tilt to Live, reaching highscores unlocks new and more impressive power-ups to be collected during gameplay. Just like the shooting inertia, trying to collect them can kill you as often as they help but it exemplifies the risk/reward nature of the game.

To top it all off, there’s not a single glimpse of an IAP, not even an optional one. Social networking features are tucked away in a side-tab without ever being mentioned. No ads pop up to test your patience. Game Centre is well integrated with both leaderboards for each arena and achievements for those that way inclined. All of this is wrapped in a 99 cents price tag which seems so unusual these days for a truly premium experience.

Spooklands can be purchased for iOS here:
https://itunes.apple.com/gb/app/id900650495?mt=8
and Android here:
https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.playluderia.spooklands

Stunt Gal – Review

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Platform: iOS
Developer: Kempt
Genre: Platformer
Price: 69p/99c
Release Date: 14th August 2014

You could very easily write a succinct review for this game. It would be a disservice to do so but for those that like to skip to the rating at the bottom of reviews it wouldn’t be unreasonable to simply ask if you enjoyed the Rayman series of runners. If that elicits a response anywhere in the spectrum of positivity over a “not really” then I’d say this game needs a spot on your iDevice.

Whilst I use the Rayman comparison as a lazy simile, it’s slightly misleading. The main meat of gameplay certainly involves a heavy dose of auto-runner platforming with an emphasis on repeating levels to perfect the collectible gathering, the handling feels remarkably different. Whilst I’d never say it to her face, the titular Stunt Gal is a lot heavier than Rayman. There’s a weight to the running and leaping that’s surprisingly satisfying; especially once you encounter some of the physics of the levels. Wooden planks will tip as you cross them and crates stacked in your path can cost you valuable seconds if you mistime a jump. It seems a small detail but it’s one that makes it feel refreshing.

The levels have a more freeform feel than Rayman’s, the ideal path is not always so obvious so perfecting a level takes multiple attempts. It’s not at all frustrating but the difficulty is definitely something that makes it stand out from the crowded genre. Each level has multiple tasks, ranging from a simple completion to achieving the fastest time with all collectibles. Even the first level feels much tougher than any of Jungle Run’s first dozen. If you’re a completionist then the sheer value for money you’ll get from this is very impressive.

As with all Kempt’s games, the visuals are a great, crisp cartoon-style with fluid animation while the music rocks, literally, with thrashing guitar riffs thoughout. The encompassing theme of ’70s US cop shows bonds all the games together nicely but this is a massive departure for them and one that I’m very glad to see – it’s a much more substantial experience than we’ve had from them.

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It’s also good to see new features added as you progress, utilising tilt in a non-obtrusive manner. Once you string together a combo of jumps, bounces, slides and attacks it starts to feel like you’re playing Shadow Blade, another “King” of the genre. In fact, it slots in nicely between those two very respectfully, once you unlock the attack ability in the second world it really comes into its own.

My only real complaint being that it’s all over earlier than I would have liked. Thankfully, there are already slots for two more worlds to be added and the aforementioned replay value adds greatly. There’s also something to be said about a game leaving you wanting more rather than outstaying its welcome; I’d never turn down more content but it speaks volumes about the quality of the game.

Stunt Gal can be purchased exclusively for iOS here:
https://itunes.apple.com/nz/app/stunt-gal/id720086754?mt=8

Wave Wave – Review

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Platform: iOS, Android
Developer: Thomas Janson
Genre: Twitch
Price: £1.99/$2.99 on iOS. £1.09/$1.99 on Android
Release Date: 3rd May 2014

2014 is the year brutal difficulty levels hit mainstream entertainment. Sure we had Super Hexagon, Demon Souls and I Wanna Be The Guy but they were largely one-offs and niche titles, using their difficulty as a means to differentiate themselves. Now, thanks largely to the meteoric surge in popularity of Flappy Bird, being punished with end game screens mere seconds in has become a common sight. Whether it’s down to the masochistic streak in us all being teased out or the adrenaline burst of beating your highscore hooking us like junkies, the ultra-hard twitch genre is here to stay.

Wave Wave shares a lot with Flappy Bird. It’s an unavoidable statement. Even though the beta-testing had begun long before Dong Nguyen’s hapless avian first careened into a Mario Bros-esque pipe, it will forever be compared to it. It might sound like a dark cloud hanging over Wave Wave but, if anything, it’s been a massive boon; introducing a huge audience to a game they wouldn’t look twice at. A game that would have lived on only in the halls of YouTube, fodder for Let’s Play recorders to bemuse their viewers.

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Another undeniable detail of Wave Wave is the sheer artistic beauty of the visuals. Much like Monument Valley, you could screen-capture any single moment and have a background for you computer with no effort. Crisp and bold jagged edges erupt like vicious mountains into a surreal geometric landscape, coloured in by a madman with a Crayola collection. In motion, it’s almost to the point of being distracting. Distorting flares ripple across the screen whilst it spins fast enough to make Terry Cavanagh dizzy. It’s not for those prone to motion sickness but it’s impossible to be unimpressed.

As with Super Hexagon, the soundtrack goes a long way to making the game an audiovisual delight. Grinding chiptunes merge dubstep with metal and everything in between while a soothing feminine AI will all-too-happily announce your failure. Every. Time.

The sheer amount of content included by Thomas Janson does a great job of elevating it above its ephemeral competition. Sure you can infuriate yourself with the standard mode (available in six difficulties, no less) or you can try the two variations, the Galaxy mode that introduces a whole new way to play or take on the scripted levels, which are by no means easier.

Wave Wave stands out as easily the greatest Twitch game on any platform and arguably one of the greatest mobile games of all time for me.

Wave Wave can be purchased for iOS from here:
https://itunes.apple.com/gb/app/wave-wave/id717990207?mt=8
and for Android here:
https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.noodlecake.wavewave