Review: Mystery Jigsaw

January 7, 2010

AT A GLANCE:
Genre(s): Hidden Object Game/Puzzle/Jigsaw Puzzle/Mystery
Link: Candystand
Difficulty: Medium
Warnings: None
Control Scheme: Mouse
Sherlock Holmes references: Sadly, not nearly enough
THE SET UP:
Paul and Jenny are your average adolescent siblings. One catch, though. The family home is so big that Paul and Jenny’s parents have allowed a number of friends and family to live in the giant manor as well. Such an arrangement would be tricky enough on holidays, I’m sure, but lately someone’s been sneaking around and committing petty thefts and crimes all about the house!
For each case our young heroes are faced with, you’ll help them first solve a jigsaw puzzle (piecing together the scene of the crime, natch), employ your object finding skills to hunt down clues, and then use your keen prowess of observation and deduction to match the clues with the suspects and finger the true criminal.
So on with our deer stalker caps and magnifying glasses, the game is… ahem… afoot!
THE LOWDOWN:
Most Hidden Object Games available are typically downloaded games that you have to shell out some change for. That’s why I always get excited when I see a HOG available for free and, even better, playable in your browser. To be fair, many online distributors such as Big Fish Games, have stripped down demo versions of their games available to play online, but it’s just not the same thing.
And along comes Mystery Jigsaw, a free browser based HOG brought to you by Candystand. And I’ll be honest, I’ve paid money for HOGs of lower quality (granted, not that many, but still). Before now, Mysteriez! set the standard for browser based object finding, and in most categories, Mystery Jigsaw outpaces the old numbers based HOG easily.
The visuals are nice and the story is minimal but acceptable, but what really makes Mystery Jigsaw a joy to play is the pacing and gameplay itself. Mystery Jigsaw is set on a standard rhythm: first you build the scene by completing a jigsaw puzzle. Then you find a modest amount of objects. Finally you pinpoint the crook using descriptions of the suspects and the clues you have found. The fascinating thing at work here is that the formula, though repetitive, does an excellent job of keeping the experience fresh. This is clearly a result of constantly switching up between three totally different styles of gameplay where at least two of them have stood the test of time. People like jigsaw puzzles and they like HOGs and switching back and forth works incredibly well.
The final stage of each case is actually somewhat new, but Candystand has done a good job of coming up with a mechanic that is definitely fun and gives you at least a sense of mystery solving. In a way, these final stages give this an almost Clue type feel, which is far from a bad thing.
Mystery Jigsaw has some issues though. For one, I would love to have seen more scenes (see what I did there?). I like what I see and the settings are very done, but this is definitely an area where more is better. Incidentally, this is one area where the Mysteriez! series has a leg up–Mysteriez! and Mysteriez! 2 each have a tone of settings.
Also, being browser based, you’re working with a small area here. This is, obviously, of particular importance given that you really have to scrutinize every detail in a Hidden Object Game. What makes matters worse is that all too often the items that need finding are of the really small variety that could give your peepers a bit of a strain. A full screen mode would do absolute wonders here.
The final bit of criticism is the hint system or lack thereof. In fact, this might be the biggest fault in the game. There is no hint system in Mystery Jigsaw. That in and of itself isn’t terrible, but instead of having a hint system, the items yet to be found will sparkle periodically as time ticks by. This could lead to situations where the location of an object is revealed before you wanted help finding it.
Flaws aside, though, I have every bit of confidence in saying that this is easily the best browser based Hidden Object Game I’ve played, full stop. Indeed, I could probably dig up a few downloaded HOG’s that could take notes from Mystery Jigsaw.
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Review: Endless Migration

January 6, 2010

At A Glance:
Genre: Mouse Avoider/Arcade/Action
Link: Kongregate
Difficulty: Variable
Warnings: Some cartoon blood. Can be traumatic if you were on that one plane flight brought down by geese. Or if you’re Fabio.
Control Scheme: Mouse
Number of Geese harmed for this production: Zero (thanks largely to special effects)
The Set Up:
Chances are, you don’t think much about geese. They are, for the most part, large ducks that hang around the water during Spring time, and then they are gone. But, oh, there’s so much more to it than that. Geese are big, and they are mean. They poop all over the place and if you get near them, they go straight for your fingers.
But, um, that’s not what developer Hot Air Raccoon was going for, so, scratch that. With Endless Migration, the whole point is to see what life is like from behind the beak so to speak. In fact, it might seem that geese have a reason to be vicious little buggers, given that every migratory season they have to deal with passenger jets, fighter planes, and UFOs (what? you think rednecks living out in Podunk, Nowhere are the only ones that got to worry about aliens?). And through it all, you’re supposed to grow and protect your flock. Good luck with that.
The Low Down:
I love game design competitions. Compos seem to do such a lovely job of focusing the creative juices of developers and surprisingly wonderful games almost always seem to result. The competition in this instance was the Long Lasting contest over at Kongregate and was sponsored by Stride chewing gum. The point behind this competition was to create a game that tested the player’s endurance by creating an experience that continued on in perpetuity. After a considerable number of entries, Endless Migration emerged the victor and for good reason.
Mouse avoiders are among the oldest, simplest, and frankly uninspired genres in the world of alternative gaming, but from this humble frame was born a game that is quietly beautiful while at the same time offering a level of depth not common in games of its type.
Visually, Endless Migration does what it has to. Elementary graphics would not do for such a game as the effect would collapse with the relatively simple gameplay, and overly complex aesthetics could either bog the game down or wind up coming off gaudy. Instead, Raccoon threads a needle, coming up with a visual style that is simple, but consistent and elegant, relying on classical lines to give the game the visual grace it needs.
As for gameplay, enough adjustments, concessions, and additions are made to give this game an added level of dimension that you don’t see in your common mouse avoider game. On the other hand, the core principles remain simple and therefore engaging and accessible. The flock gathering and protecting mechanic is one of the keys at work here because at once it makes the game more challenging as the larger the flock, the harder it is to protect. Yet at the same time, it also makes the game easier, since each goose in your flock acts essentially as an extra life.
The contour of gameplay is further shaped by a series of upgrades and achievements. Upgrades usually make the game easier, and subtly change the dynamics, though it should be said that some of the upgrades will actually make a few of the achievements a little trickier to get. The achievements, meanwhile, give you goals to work with beyond merely seeing how far you can go.
In the end, I find games like this incredibly fascinating. That is to say, I am usually intrigued when I see stale old formulas being resurrected with a breath of new life. Is Endless Migration one for the ages? Hardly, but it does a fine job of injecting a little vitality into a tired genre and providing a pleasant surprise in one of those places one would be least likely to look.

Review: Merry Gear Solid 2

January 6, 2010

Where is that voice COMING FROM?!

At a Glance:
Genre(s): Stealth/Action
Link: Announcement here. Download here.
Difficulty: Medium
Warnings: None really, unless you still believe in Santa in which case… oh damn!
Control scheme: [arrow] Keys to move, [shift], [ctrl], [z], and [c] for everything else.
Gifts that turn out to be a pair of socks: More than you’ll ever know
The Set Up:
Christmas has come and gone, and if you’re the type to celebrate such things, you’re probably glad it’s done and over with. No more shopping and dealing with holiday traffic. No more Christmas songs played on permanent loop everywhere you go. And egg nog. Yes, egg nog is nice right until you get to the point where just the thought of it makes your stomach juices curdle.
Still, I submit that if you haven’t experienced Christmas as a highly advanced paramilitary operative with a specialty in stealth tactics, you have yet to experience Christmas at all. In Mr. Podunkian’s (AKA Arthur Lee) nod to the famed Metal Gear Solid franchise, you reprise the role of Solid Snake (now “Cold Snake”) as you descend upon a mall with your trusty partner, Otacon, a simple radio call away. You’re mission? In the finest tradition of Metal Gear games through the ages, that can be a little complicated but we know for sure that it involves the “Ghosts of Christmas Past” and something called “Merry Gear.” Just don’t, uh, you know, quote us on that…
The Low Down:
Lee’s stealth title is one of those rare jewels that succeeds equally well as a form of heavy parody, heartfelt nostalgia, and as its own game, in a way proving the strength of the MGS series as well as giving a generous nod to Podunkian’s own talent.
As a parody/homage, few fans of the Metal Gear Solid series will walk away from Merry Gear Solid 2 unsatisfied. So much of what made the source franchise great is packed in this download with SNES style visuals. You have the well executed stealth gameplay that rests at the game’s core, along with the radar perched in the corner, and the rapid fire in game selection menus that exude that trademark MGS ergonomic sparkle. Of course, the technical is only where the similarities between games begins.
Like virtually every Metal Gear ever made, Merry Gear Solid 2 boasts an exhaustive and overtly complex plot. This is exacerbated by the fact that Podunkian sometimes injects into the Merry Gear story aspects from Metal Gear, sometimes to a dizzying effect. Further, the cast of characters on display sport Metal Gear’s classic level of complexity mixed with melodramatic flare. While most of the enemies you see on screen exhibit Storm Trooper levels of individuality (and intelligence), the bosses and main characters rightly are buoyed by eccentricities and seemingly novels worth of back story.
Oh, and the voice of Snake. WELL DONE! You would seriously think that David Hayter leant his voice to this effort.
All of this would make for an entertaining but hardly impressionable experience, a comical stroll through Metal Gear Solid memory lane. That there is actually a respectable game underlying all of the homage and parody at work here means that this is a game you can really curl up with and get into. The stealth system at work here is brilliantly done, and remains faithful (to a degree) to the Metal Gear formula. Indeed, had there been a Metal Gear made for the Super Nintendo, this would be it.
The basic system comes together with smooth graphics and even smoother overall execution to create gameplay that is silky with few hiccups. Further, there are plenty of mechanisms throughout the game that gently steer you to your final goal, from the growing inventory list to Otacons regular hints and directions. Sure, this creates a rather linear experience, but not so much that you really stop to care.
The control scheme can be a little awkward at first. [Shift], and [ctrl] are you primary keys with [z] and [c] coming in third and fourth respectively, meaning that you’re playing with your pinky tucked in a bit and if you lift your hand for any reason, it’s a crapshoot whether you find the right keys without looking again or not. Unfortunately, as of the time of this writing, you can’t change the controls to suit your needs which should be a standard feature for most action type games these days. But to my delight, I found that you do eventually grow accustomed to the controls and as time goes on they get in less of the way.
My only other complaint here is that sometimes the game can wade out a little too deep, going a tad overboard with what one presumes is sarcastic convolution.
But don’t let minor flaws deter you. Merry Gear Solid 2 is very well polished and exceptionally well delivered. From aesthetics to gameplay, this one is a winner all around, and would be quite at home among the Metal Gear series that served as its inspiration.

Review: Back to the Cubeture (1)

January 4, 2010
A rootin' tootin'... whatever
At a Glance:
Genre(s): Point and Click/Item-Based/Adventure
Difficulty: Low
Warnings: Off-color humor, adult themes, small Hitler reference
Control scheme: Mouse with [space] bar for certain interactions
Piano-man Songs: 2 (If you’re willing to brave a searing desert for the second)
The Set Up:
Criminal kitty arch-villain Esquire Padrino is at it again! With his Time-Warper, the feline felon could upset everything which is why you, the angularly gifted Cuboy, must set out to stop him. Only you are too late as your furry nemesis slips into the time machine (which curiously looks like a cardboard box with “Time Warper” written on it inexpertly with a marker or large crayon of some sort), traveling back into the past and inadvertently taking you along with.
As play commences, you find yourself stuck in a rustic town of the Old West, complete with one cell Sherriff office and Saloon equipped with batwing doors. You’ll have to talk to the locals and solve puzzles if you want to find and stop Padrino, and (far more important) escape this hell-hole of a place that these barbarians seem to call “home.”
The Low Down:
There are many places where Back to the Cubeture is an unmitigated success, nay, a triumph, and there are aspects of the game that are something of a let down. The most obvious thing that strikes you about Back to the Cubeture as the title and main character might suggest, is the cubecentric visuals laid out in an isometric fashion.
In the past, I have been firmly opposed to the usage of isometric layouts. In over twenty years of gaming, I simply haven’t seen more than a handful of decent games done in isometrics, while the vast majority tend to be confusing failures. On paper isometric might look fine, but time and again putting theory into practice results in catastrophic effects. But here in Back to the Cubeture, the isometric foundation supports the cubic presentation which gives the game much of its personality. The graphics may look simple, but watching them in action is a treat, and the way they are used, sometimes subtly, sometimes not, for sight gags and visual cues is highly effective. Further, the designers here had enough sense to keep things small enough to be encompassed by an isometric field of play, but also kept things uncluttered enough so that everything doesn’t get in the way of everything else. In short, if this is what isometric perspective can offer in a game, I thoroughly approve.
If the brilliantly executed visuals give Back to the Cubeture a large portion of its personality, it’s the comedic dialog that provides the rest. At once Cuboy’s adventure is self-effacing and self-aggrandizing, switching wonderfully back and forth between expertly deadpan to whimsical. There seems to be a joke lurking behind every corner, and most of them are well played. Be warned, though, while there are no naughty words (that I’ve found anyway), there are some naughty subjects. Far from the most offensive game out there, there will still be those with tender sensibilities that may object to some of the subject matter. Also, I don’t suggest playing this one with the kiddies unless you want to explain what “Ladies of the Night” are, with all the lovely fun questions that go along with that.
Where Back to the Cubeture falls way short, though, is in gameplay. The adventure elements are rudimentary to the near extreme with puzzles that really aren’t puzzles at all. Granted, sometimes it’s nice to play an adventure game that doesn’t put the thumbscrews to the gray matter, but this one doesn’t even offer the equivalent of a serious glare. Meanwhile the “action” sequences are one-button games of the worst sort; quick draw and tap the [space] bar as fast as you can until a, b, or c happens. We’ve played one-button games that boast surprising amounts of depth and require various levels of skill. None of the offerings found in Back to the Cubeture qualify. And, to make matters worse, Cuboy plods… slowly. This is not typically a problem until you get to the desert portion of the game and you find yourself getting up to make a sandwich as you wait for Cuboy to plod his way from one screen to the next.
In summation, it’s clear that the game in Back to the Cubeture is not the end, but instead the means to an end. It is what you are required to do as the team behind the title show off their visuals and wit. Happily, the visuals and wit go an awful long way to make this an enjoyable if short experience.

8-bit theater

August 28, 2008

Get into it now before the journey ends.

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