Sunday, May 31, 2009

Angry Barry Review


I love it when developers let there imaginations loose. This loony, mature, political satire beat-em-up granted me a very enjoyable Sunday morning.

This is the second community games release from Arrogancy Games and I believe this one is the hotter ticket. The premise is a twisted take on all of the current notable political figures/events and despite the nickname/name changes, I don't think anyone will be confused as to who the characters are supposed to be (unless you live in a van down by the river).

This first element that struck me was the very crisp, cartoony art style. It allows for a good deal of exaggeration and makes for some satisfying over-the-top effects. There is also an opening sequence that I could have sworn was a shot of a female's butt walking, but the pan out revealed it to be our protagonist's (Barry's) rear end. I am not sure what that says about me, or potentially the developer's sick imagination. Moving along...

The reason for the 3 emblem score is that there is a great degree of polish beyond the impressive graphics. Also included are special moves, a variety of attacks/combos, varied enemy AI, several unique bosses, storyboard style interludes, a 'hard' mode - and most notably, the ability to play 2 player co-op (awesome). This is the kind of effort that deserves a round of applause.

Small spoiler here, but I really want to mention it. You can pick up a cow and smash enemies with it. Yep, that's right.

So time to get beefy. There are two related issues I had with Angry Barry. First, the endless droves of enemies can be mind-numbing. Sometimes there are so many packed on the screen that I actually was having trouble finding Barry. It's not unusual to go 5 minutes just fighting the same one or two enemies over and over in repetitive fashion. I believe this could have been balanced better by making each enemy tougher to take down (seems that they all take 1 or 2 hits max, besides bosses). On a related front, this repetition may have been an effort to extend the game time, which is understandable because I was able to play through on normal difficulty in about an hour, without dying.

So this, for me, is another example of quality over quantity. It can still sting when you realize that that you've nearly exhausted the playability in a single sitting, but it was a memorable experience. Angry Barry is appropriately priced at 400MP and the developer does make mention in the game that he struggled with that choice - which is something I actually found refreshingly honest, not arrogant.

Any old sckool beat-em-up fans should definitely have a look for a unique and current take on an old genre. Head over to the Arrogancy Games website, or the Xbox Live Community Games Catalog for more info.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Chalked Review


You ever order a nice big steak, and the waiter comes over with it, and it's sizzling with goodness, and you're drooling - then you take that first big bite and you're met with bland chewiness? That was my Chalked experience. Only instead of was a video game. I wasn't eating the game but...okay you get it I hope.

This game is busting at the seams with style and builds you up with a really cool indie look and feel. The 3D graphics are simple but attractive, with a gray palette that reflects the game's name. The soundtrack is a catchy rhythmic 'a cappella' which was a risky choice but it really gels well with the style. The title screen is pretty slick too and when I jumped in to the game I really thought I had a 'sleeper' in my hands.

Even the concept is strong and could really work with some tweaking and polish. There are tall fellas and short fellas. The tall ones have to bomb the buildings, and the short ones have to stop the tall ones from doing so - you can play on either side. You spawn in to a chalky city and the elaborate game of tag begins.

But somewhere after you take you first couple steps, Chalked goes up in dust. As the bombers, you just have to avoid the short guys and bomb the buildings. But brutal camera controls and awkward movement are mostly frustrating and getting clipped by a short fella with no way to avoid or dodge is just plain annoying. As the 'diffusers' you spend time trying to find the bombers and tagging them, which is an exercise in awkwardly running around after guys who are running in the opposite direction at a very similar speed. That's it.

Because the run speeds are preset and static and all you can really do is run, the intensity and fun level are quickly diminished. No powerups, no speed boosts, no leaping, no attacking, shooting, or dodging. Just running. The short fellas do have the ability to place 'flags' which essentially calls for some help from AI teamates who will patrol that area to stop bombers - but this is a very passive mechanic with a low satisfaction level. I think most players would prefer to be lone hero with more abilities, and baddy-stopping power, rather than calling for aid with the press of a button and watching the basic AI interact.

With the main mechanic being "tag" and "avoid getting tagged" the developers would be wise to add some strategy around that element. Adding an expendable speed boost, some powerups, or a dive animation (or all of the above maybe) would allow for strategic and skilled gameplay. What if the tall guys can dodge, but the short guys can throw chalk spears? What if the camera could be quickly positioned in a top-down view for better scoping of the area? Granted, this is all easier said than done, but a couple months of testing and polishing could do wonders.

With so much going for it in the art and presentation categories, I honestly hope the devs take a crack at going back to the drawing board to add some gameplay features. Lot's of potential here. At 400MP, I'd suggesting having a crack at the demo to see if the gameplay strikes you differently, and making a call from there.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Johhny Crush Review


Pretty cool box art. And you get to fight a penis monster (see screenshot below). I mean did it really need a pink texture?

It's a fearsome phallic foe! A sausagey centipede! A boner battle! Okay I am done. But seriously, come on.

What we have here is a decent attempt to make the first noteworthy FPS available to Community Games. Johnny Crush takes all of your favorite guns used in almost every FPS ever made (assault rifle, shotgun, chaingun, yada yada), and pits you against big insects in a city-like setting. My 'originality' meter is going flaccid (sorry) but I will give a quick high-five for delivering a playable FPS with solid graphics and fun guns. It's also easy to load up and just start splattering insects, with little concern for any sort of story/plot - and sometimes that's just what people are looking for.

Where this game falls short is the actual gameplay. We can certainly forgive Johhy Crush for the lack of AAA-level graphics and polish, and given the context it can certainly hold it's own on delivering fun visuals. But man oh man, be prepared to backpedal. With the drone-like AI that simply spawns and hones in on your location, and the wide open city streets, the ONLY way to play this game seems to be to back-back-back-that-shit-up with guns blazing. If you get your back against the wall, you're in trouble and usually you just try to escape to a new area so you can backpedal some more.

Regardless of the repetitive and somewhat mindless backpedaling extravaganza, it's not like players can't have a good deal of fun. I mean after all, it's an FPS with killer insects. The kicker however is the cost. This game needs to be marketed and delivered as the very-poor-man's Halo and at 800MP, that's just not cheap enough. It's going to be very hard to undercut the AAA titles, XBLA, and the bargain bins, with that ambitious top-level price tag. I hate to say it, but it's going to rub people the wrong way.

I admire the ambition, and believe this would definitely be a better, recommendable experience at 200MP. You'll have to really like FPSs, insects, and/or giant johnsons to shell out the cost of 2-4 smaller fun titles.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Karnn Age


Oh I get it. Karnn Age, like Carnage! Like "Total Carnage!!" from Smash TV! Isn't that snazzy.

Karnn Age is a throw back to the high-intensity top-down shooters of old, and it definitely doesn't fail to deliver on those expectations. There is a nice dose of that here. You control a small shirtless man-beast commando style dude with a crazy gun and you splatter all sorts of weird insect themed enemies in a small square game region. How's that for a one sentence summary? (answer = awesome)

I was kind of hoping to see what my pals overseas at XNPlay had to say about this one first, because I've been riding the fence for days. I've fired Karnn Age up many times now and sometimes I am in the mood for this sort of mindless action and sometimes I feel like I put an old piece of gum in my mouth. Which is gross and should be avoided.

Here's what's good. First of all, the "intro" or attempt at a story is one of the most hilariously ridiculous things I have ever seen. Karnn Age is certainly not a game that takes itself too seriously, which is mirrored by the trailer, and of course the game's title. That's a plus in my book, at least for this type of game - you can get away with that. It's got a nice pick-up-and play control scheme, a solid variety of enemies/bosses, and it's seriously challenging on the higher levels. And last, it has a replay mode if you want to bath in your own glory.

But I have a meaty favorite known 'as beef.' First, the game region is a rectangle (*fart noise). It's very restrictive and uninteresting. Injury to insult, in this scenario it's unfortunate to discourage players from using the outer boarder of this rectangle - which is what is Karnn Age does by having a crazy-ass sun attack you (a la Super Mario Brothers?) if you step on the sand. It's not a bad/risk reward mechanic but probably not best suited for game that already has you doing 180s in a little box. I need that space just to get some space, man! :) Karnn Age also sort of screams for multiplayer, but that's not a simple request of course.

But like any strong, informative, and helpful review, "ahem," I can highly recommend this to a particular group(s) of gamers. It only takes a glance at the trailer or gameplay videos to know that it's a high-octane shooter. You'll be scrambling away from countless enemies and bullets - it's about survival, killing, and bragging rights. Yes, you like that? Then you like this.

With mid-level graphics and sound I believe this to be attractive at 400MP but mostly for those who got really excited at the very notion of this type of game. It probably would have attracted more of the masses for a quick taste of mayhem at 200MP. Enjoy the splatterfest.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Trino Review


When I sat down to play this one I sort of thought to myself, "Oh man another game with basic geometry as the premise, bleh." Based on the score you can tell that I underestimated how fun triangles can be. All those other shapes can go to hell. Yeah I said it.

But Trino is more than just a shape-based game with an average mechanic. Is has tight intuitive gameplay, slick (but modest) graphics, and most of all, character. That's what made this game stand out for me - it doesn't stop at "create triangles to trap baddies." Trino goes a step further to create a game with a little blobular hero, and the fits together the pieces (SFX, music, animation, AI, effects) to drive a comprehensive theme home. It feels complete, like an equilateral triangle.

Trino is a very peaceful game. That's not to say it can't make you sweat a little, but I really appreciated the calm atmosphere created by 'swimming' around and trapping encroachers. The soothing SFX and music really make this the type of game you can fire up when you just need a break from it all.

The mechanic that the game stands on should be clear by now. You create triangles that when closed off, trap and kill anything inside. It's essentially your weapon. It's a strong mechanic, and certainly one to base a game around, but that's going to be hit or miss for some players. The developers did a good job of realizing that even a cool mechanic like this can get old after 15 min or so, so they smartly added powerups that can alter the amount of triangles you can make and number of sides you can create on screen at one time. This is well balanced with the increasingly bothersome baddies who learn how to hone in on you and destroy your triangles at the axis. Also, the means to advancing levels is pretty innovative, as you're required to powerup the axis of the level then connect them all to "close out" the whole board. Pretty slick and adds some challenge as you navigate around the perimeter.

I don't really have any major criticisms beyond, "what you see is what you get." Even with level shape variance, powerups and soforth, you pretty much do the same thing throughout the game - so you better like the foundation this game is built on. I wouldn't have minded a little narrative describing the setting, but many players would disagree there saying it's mostly ignored anyhow in a game like this.

I do recommend this game for anyhow who read the description and is intrigued. If you're like me and think it's just another gimmicky shape game (at first glance), I'm here to tell you that it delivers beyond that. Enjoy - it's fairly priced at 400 MP.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Halfbrick Echoes Review


I have to be upfront here and tell you all that I did not purchase the full game on this review. So take that for what you will. Halfbrick decided to limit the demo to only one play-through (aka you can't reply the demo levels more than once - eek) so my playtime is quite limited. I honestly don't like this move and find it a bit aggressive. I understand the need to limit the content, but limiting that content to one play-through... stings. I'll be curious if that has a positive or negative effect on sales. They almost got an "ah f*ck it" sale out of me, but I decided to hold strong. I often like to try a demo a couple times before making a decision.

On a positive note, what I did play was quite cool. This is another well-polished release from Halfbrick and while I was not a large "Halfbrick Blastoff" fan, I was in fact the minority there. It's really fantastic to see Halfbrick's devotion to high quality development on the XBCGs and they are doing a good job of developing a noteworthy brand.

What Halfbrick does best, is something they nailed again here with Echos. It has a very simple, very addicting, pretty innovative mechanic. You basically control a character from the a top-down view and race around collecting crystals while avoiding the baddies that spawn. The catch is that the baddies trace the exact path that you just ran to get the crystal, so you have to plan accordingly. Add in a really interesting array of maps, smooth controls, several game-types (including multiplayer), and lots of power-ups, and you get a really addicting face-paced "free roaming Pac Man." (that was off the cuff, sorry)

One thing I like too is that Halfbrick does put some effort in to creating a theme. This time there is a light story about a woman who "falls" in to her Salvador Dali studies, which then sets the foundation for the various map settings. It's not deep or taken too seriously, but it's there and it helps. I'd actually like to see Halfbrick make an effort to go one step further on this front, because the ideas/themes are fun, but they usually leave a robust story and narrative out.

And I give 1 bonus point for letting the player mess around with the credits. :)

If you like fast, addictive, and straightforward gameplay, then I think I can safely recommend this to you at 200 MP. Halfbrick is establishing itself as a reputable developer that knows how to get things right and deliver fun high quality games. I send my plea to let us play your demo more than once!! (had to twist the knife one more time)

Monday, May 11, 2009

Heck of a May

It's been a strong couple weeks of releases for XBCG. Either I am getting good at pre-judging based on box art, or there really is a surge of solid titles to play. Some notable releases:

Even more good news, the developers seem to actually be promomting their games! Hey, good thinking. :) Through my casual exploration, I've come across light promotion and/or development websites for each of these games. Two big steps in the right direction.

Reviews for these are completed aleady or in da works, so stay tuned.

Clover Review


Hear that? That's the sound of fresh air blowing into the Community Games section of your Xbox Live. Take a deep breath of it.

I could write 3 pages about Clover, but at some point my ramblings must become boring, and you should really just go play it for yourself. Now before I over-hype, I will say that this type of game is obviously not for everyone (how many really are?), but it fills an empty niche on the XBCG platform and will be a huge hit in the minds of many.

Clover is self-described as a platforming-puzzler-adventure game. And yes that's about right, but you won't be bopping on the heads of enemies. You will likely be overwhelmed with nostalgia in certain moments - although I am not sure exactly for what (only the town sections of Zelda 2 come immediately to mind for me). The primary mechanics and gameplay involve item collection and puzzle-solving via narrative. You don't carry a weapon, you cannot fight or shoot lasers out of your eyes - you just have an adventure to go on, so hop to it.

There are so many things that Clover does right, that I basically just have to list them, or else proceed with the aforementioned 3 page review. So then: Beautiful watercolor-based graphics, amusing SFX, great story (with a political tie-in should you look for it), fun characters, easy to pick-up gameplay, excellent puzzle/clue design, and a great "mood." For me, my favorite aspect is that I was able to jump in to a totally unique (yet modest) world, become entirely immersed, and achieve a strong sense of reward every time I figured out a solution.

So what then, could I possibly have beef with? Oh don't you worry. ;) I have a small list of gripes that are of course subjective and may not be issues with some. I honestly found the music to be spot-on and very moody initially, but after 15 minutes or so it was actually grating on my brain. It's purely piano, and very repetitive sort of jarring piano without much of a melody. Second, some may find fault in the short length of the game combined with low replayablity - though you should try to be in the "quality-over-quantity" mindset. Last, as is often the case with adventure-puzzlers, you may find yourself doing much mindless backtracking and running around while you try to manage your inventory and solve the puzzles. It comes with the territory I suppose (and the developer did actually build in one 'quick-travel' solution) but I found myself *sighing several times upon realizing I needed to travel ALL the way back across the gameworld to get what I needed.

As a final word, and without giving away too much, players will experience a rather unique ending and one that I did not expect to find. In my mind, it creates the urge for a sequel so we'll see what the developer (Binary Tweed) says about that. I definitely recommend this game to just about anyone, unless you have an aversion to puzzle-adventure-platformers (I like to mix the order up - keeps things fresh) At 400 MP it's not so much a value pick as it is an indulgence. It's like that small tub of Ben and Jerry's you keep in the freezer.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Orbyx Review


"ORBYX!" (in a robot voice). That's what you hear when you launch this new pachinko-style game on XBCG. I guess the idea here is that we're blowing up orbs with bouncing flaming cannonballs - sounds good to me.

Some of you might be familiar with this type of gameplay because this pachinko mechanic has become quite popular recently. You essentially aim your shots at at the board, trying to blast specific orbs away, and build up mega scores and combos with all of the ricochets. It's quite addicitive, I must admit. It's as if every shot has a dose of strategy paired with the rush of a gamble. It's easy to play and enjoy a couple rounds, or a couple of hours of rounds. It's sort of like getting to play Plinko over and over and much as you want. (no cash prize though, booooo) Oh and that's a Price is Right reference.

Orbyx adapts this simple mechanic well, and you're going to enjoy a crisp game with solid production value. There's plenty of levels/boards to play, and it's very easy to learn the basics. You can preview your shot in order to get a feel for the first couple bounces that will occur - which is pretty key when you get down to your last couple shots.

For me personally, the randomness of the third/fourth/fifth unpredictable bounce lends itself to a bit too much luck. After you plan your initial shot, there's quite a bit of sitting and watching your ball (sorry, I mean flaming cannonball) take it's course. Sometimes you catch a break and start landing unforeseen combos, sometimes you get screwed and the balls just bounces once/twice and then manages to hit nothing else. Not that 'chance' is a bad element in a game, but there's quite a bit here.

Orbyx adds a wealth of frills that add to the experience. There is an element of 'magic spells' that you can unleash if you collect the 5 letters to spell m-a-g-i-c. There's zoom-in and slow-mo action as you come close to beating a level, and there is a great array of SFX that really add to the fun addicitive nature of bouncing around the boards. All-the-while, the graphics and backgrounds are rich, colorful, and deep.

In that same vein however, you might find that the mixmash of prominent themes sort of clash a bit. From the opening, which sounds robotic, to the techno breakbeats, concept of flaming cannonballs (medieval?) and then elven princesses, magic spells, and fantasy style music tracks....I was a bit lost. In someways it does keep things interesting and adds variety, but I would have personally preferred if the developer picked one and really drove it home. With the four female fantasy characters and magic themes, I think that would have worked just fine to carry that through. Maybe even go one step further down the RPG/fantasy road and add a leveling/experience system and maybe a shop to buy powerups and items from, etc. There's room for innovation. (granted you might only attract a certain audience that way)

So Orbyx is a fresh take on a popular style of game and it's great to have this option on XBCG, especially at this level of polish. A 400 MP, I believe it's fairly priced considering it could keep you going for 30+ hours of gameplay. So it really just comes down to whether or not you like the basic game mechanic of pachinko. If you do, you should snatch this up faster than you can say "Elven robot techno cannonballs." ;)

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Hieronymus Bash Review


When I play a game like this, it really makes me appreciate the XBCG community and what it's bringing to the table. This is clearly a project that was a labor of love for the developers, and something tells me they had a ton of fun and laughs creating it.

If you think the name is a little 'out there' wait until you see the title screen. I have to point it out because I was laughing for a good minute trying to figure out what I was looking at. Two ears with a switchblade coming out of it? A little creature climbing a ladder in to a woman's butt? Priceless.

So once you jump in, you'll find it's a nice pick-up-and-play design. It's dodgeball platformer style, with a strong (funny) thematic twist. You pick devils and angels to play with (either team or free-for-all) and the balls are actually human souls!! That may sound horrific but it's actually very light-hearted. You jump and float around (A button), pick up balls and throw them at your opponents (both using Right Trigger). You can also use a well timed push of the Right Trigger to cancel out an incoming hit (catch). The simple play also allows for dedicated players to master the dodgeball trade.

As hinted at, the graphics and theme are strong (while a bit odd/random). There's a nice variety of levels to play and they are well-designed for fast paced action. The controls are tight and responsive. And the SFX/music follows through well on the quirky theme. We're not at the high end of what we've seen graphically on XBCG, but it's a very nice 2D presentation.

So as you can tell, I feel this game has much going for it. There's really only one design decision that brings it down for me, but it's sort of a big deal, and I am sure it was something the developers thought about. It's heavily aimed at multiplayer. In fact, the game originally 'shipped' with only a multiplayer aspect, but the devs smartly re-released with a 'bot' element allowing for single player dodgeball action. While bot play helps, the game still really requires that you have a good group of gamer friends to play with in order to get full enjoyment out of it. It's a shame too, because the mechanics are tight enough where I could envision a full single player campaign using all of the same set pieces.

I did convince my wife to sit down and play with me (second time this year maybe?) and it confirmed that this game is really easy to pick up, much more fun when playing with friends, and that my wife is in fact always going to be terrible at video games. Ahhh well.

The bottom line is, grab this game sooner rather than later if you have a group of friends to play it with. It's a good deal at 200 MP, and if you're a family of gamers this would also be a solid battle game (in the spirit of Mario Brothers battle mode) for the family. If you're more of a solo gamer and/or are looking for a strong single player aspect, it's probably a pass. My hat is off to the devs though, nice presentation and delivery - and bonus points for following through on a great wacky theme.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Find Teddy! Review


Move along hardcore gamers, nothing to see here. Wait wait wait come back!! If you've been gaming for awhile, you may very well have some kiddies at home squirming around on the carpet and tugging on your headset. And if you're anything like me, you fully plan on teaching your offspring the ways of gaming. (start 'em young right?)

Well, welcome aboard kiddos, Find Teddy is here. This game targets younger children, and you'll probably need to help them get started. If you can be a little less selfish with the controller, you should consider handing it over to the little nuggets for a turn with this one. See the end of this review for helpful arguments on why this makes a TON of sense.

The gameplay in Find Teddy is appropriately simple and has a learning quality to it. For some of you, this may even be a bit reminiscent of the games you used to find in magazines and books when you were a child. (Highlights 4 life, yo) You are given some visual clues and a grid full of colorful Teddies. The clues help you narrow in the correct Teddy according to their outfits, and then it's as simple as making your guess. (see screenshot) As you/your child get better at this, you can move up in difficulty levels and further hone your detective skills.

I really like the presentation here in Find Teddy. It's big, colorful, simple, fun and uses the lovable, gender-friendly, classic teddy bear - all good design decisions. There's even a feature similar to build-a-bear where you can use the outfit items to customize your own bear, which is a great touch. The controls are usually on screen so that children always have a reference.

On my wish list I would put 'effects.' Kids are in sensory overload these days with the new breed of TV shows and to keep pace, I believe this game could have benefited with some attention to graphical effects and maybe some higher-end animation. Maybe some flashy fireworks when the right Teddy is chosen, or they do a funny dance to a hip-hop beat, etc. Maybe wrong choices pop the balloons that are on screen - you see where I am going. There are some basic animations along these lines, but my humble opinion is that more is almost always better when trying to maintain a child's short attention span. More visual reward/penalty cues to make the little ones giggle. :)

I'd also say this game could benefit from a 200 MP price point, as it currently sits at 400 MP which unfortunately isn't competitive (right now) for a game of this nature. With a simple premise/mechanic at the heart of this one, it might gain more traction at the lower price point.

Find Teddy, accomplishes what it sets out to do, and does it well - which gets big points in my book. As promised, here's some other arguments you may want to employ if you are facing a certain resistance to gaming in your household:

1. Find Teddy is educational. It's also a video game. Win/win.
2. It's a bonding experience with your mini-you and quality family time.
3. It's budget friendly and cheaper than another Pixar DVD.
4. "You take the garbage out, I am busy educating our child."

Don't use the last one.