iOS Reviews

Review: Lara Croft GO

Tomb Raider is actually the tragic tale of a woman’s vain search for an exotic pet which won’t try to kill her.

He’s so cute! I think I’ll name him Jörmungandr.

Lara Croft GO adapts the puzzle structure of Pocket Tactics darling Hitman GO to the Tomb Raider setting. Replacing the delightfully unexpected boardgame aesthetic of the earlier game are far more varied, visually appealing backgrounds and artful animations.

It’s a step away from what might have seemed like a defining trait of this new franchise, and at first might seem like a poor fit for the discrete, turn-based actions in the game, but it also allows for more cinematic moments without which the “Lara Croft” moniker might feel superfluous. The puzzles are generally well-designed and satisfying, if not extremely difficult, but there are surprisingly few of them. “Always leave them wanting more” may be good advice, it’s entirely possible to take that advice too far.

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Review: Galactic Keep

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Do my student loans count as "another sentient creature"?

Do my student loans count as “another sentient creature”?

Galactic Keep was very nearly iOS gaming’s own Duke Nukem Forever, the vaporware yardstick that internet wiseguys trot out to declare that some other game is doing comparatively better — as in, “at least it came out before Galactic Keep.” When Duke Nukem Forever finally slouched over the finish line in 2011, punters wondered where all the effort had gone. No one had expected DNF to be good, exactly, but we expected a spectacle — fifteen years’ worth of it.

By contrast, there is no question at all where Galactic Keep’s six years of development were spent. This is a game that is hand-made the way a Fabergé egg is. There is extraordinary detail everywhere, from the character back-stories to the enormous bestiary of enemies right down to every last insignificant corner of the options menu. Though the game is the work of a handful of people, the game’s art direction is so cohesive and so out-there-weird that it sometimes feels like a found object from an earlier time, like a pen-and-paper RPG printed in a forgotten zine self-published by a slightly unhinged neighborhood character.

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Review: Cyber Hacker

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Password attack software: 500 BTC. Totally worth it.

Password attack software: 2,500 USD. Totally worth it.

Despite the over-the-top name, Cyber Hacker is not a punky, pulpy tale of megacorps v. deckers (à la Shadowrun or Netrunner). Instead, what we have is a down-to-earth freeform puzzle game informed by real, contemporary, illegal hacking. Now, not being a blackhat myself [that’s what a real hacker would say –ed.] you should throw some chunky doubt-quotes around that “real” back there, though even if Cyber Hacker isn’t a functional primer on clandestine hacking (and it may well be), the game’s still a strangely mundane take on the exotic world cybercrime.

Nix the Matrix logic and augmented reality overlays–Cyber Hacker is a game about identifying SSH vulnerabilities, working for cold hard bitcoins, copying earnings reports, dodging Interpol, orchestrating DDoS attacks (assuming you have a large enough botnet), keeping international date formats straight in your head, and always, always making sure to delete the system logs from /sys/logs and the trash bin before logging out.

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Review: Loot & Legends

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Man refused to wear socks with his leather shoes. How do you not understand the causal relationship there?

I had a roommate in college who played this card constantly.

When Card Hunter debuted on PC to rave reviews, I deployed the wisdom of experience and waited to get into it until the likely iPad release. I can’t claim to have been burned by a gem as radiant as FTL, but the iPad app is dramatically preferable to me. With a game as respectful of pen-and-paper RPGs as Card Hunter, I feared the abandonment of my characters and their hard-earned +1 Swords of Microtransacting. The name of its iPad counterpart, “Loot & Legends”, only helps reinforce that decision, with the game’s distinctive take on loot sitting right up front, like a big-haired nuisance at a theater. Only, in this case, the loot mechanic is so welcome one has to imagine that one has been forced to attend the opera to make the metaphor work. Also that the big hair blocks sound completely and somehow manages to play For a Few Dollars More on the back of it.

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Review: Sentinel Command

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He'll save every one of us.

He’ll save every one of us.

In last year’s under-exposed gem Heroes of the Revolution, creator John Ellenberger cast you as the leader of a band of Cuban rebels, out-manned and out-gunned by the government’s forces. You were a scrappy featherweight dropped into the ring with a 250-pound monster, staying mobile and sticking in jabs where you could. It was exhilarating.

Sentinel Command looks very different (in fact, Ellenberger’s GamerNationX has never put out a more attractive game) but the central idea is still a war between asymmetrical sides. This time, however, you’re the establishment fighting off the guerrillas, never certain of which dark shadow the bad guys are lurking in. Like its predecessor, this is a complex game with a lot of interesting ideas — but possibly a few ideas too many.

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Review: Spirit of War — The Great War

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The cutest little war to end all wars.

The cutest little war to end all wars.

In a 1915 interview, Henry James said that World War I “has used up words”. Luckily for them, the developers of Spirit of War seem to have found a fresh supply somewhere — this is the year’s most unexpectedly verbose wargame. The player is presented with a campaign through the history of the Great War, and before each mission you are treated to an essay by Julien Hervieux, apparently a French historical novelist.

This is all lovely until you actually begin playing the wargame. Despite the wordy and severe intros to the scenarios, the combat isn’t even attempting historical simulation. After reading 800 words about the Battle of Mons, the player may be somewhat baffled that the missions on offer bear no resemblance whatsoever to their preambles. Imagine attending a lecture on the Nixon-Kennedy debates, which you are then invited to recreate as a twerking contest.

The game is so imbued with the titular spirit that it’s even at war with itself.

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Review: Sproggiwood

This is what's known in the extermination biz as "going ham."

This is what’s known in the extermination biz as “going HAM.”

Somewhere in the back of my mind, while playing Sproggiwood, there’s this refrain: I’m here to help, I’m here to help, I’m definitely, most positively, here to help. It’s strongest when I’m staring, befuddled, at the idyllic town which serves as the game’s market/quest hub/low-rent Sims analogue–a saccharine settlement which grows as the player completes levels with different characters, unlocking new villagers, decorations, and buildings (the last of which, in turn, house new playable character classes).

This refrain is weakest when I’m plowing through Sproggiwood proper, which is to say when I’m actually playing the thing, cleaving through hordes (families?) of asexually reproducing jellies with the stout Warrior, or stabbing back and forth between vampiric will o’ wisps with the Thief. I’m chaining powers into other powers, unlocking more abilities (or stronger iterations of the same) as the experience points roll in until, finally, I bring down this boss or that and see the end-stage rewards screen, which details my gold winnings and what new villager I’ve unlocked.

The villagers, as it happens, all look like one of the handful of mobs I’ve been clearing out of the surrounding wilderness and ruins. I mean, exactly. They’re not even wearing hats. So stay with me when I say that Sproggiwood is really about low-fantasy gentrification.

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Review: Kindo

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Well do I remember playing ‘one more game’ of magic in college. We often went out for breakfast by the end.

Kindo offers alternate color schemes. This one could be called the “Don’t keep your spouse awake with bright lights as you play ‘one more game’ until 1am.”

Sometimes I see someone execute a solution so perfectly that I am gulled into thinking it simple, like Pelé scoring with a bicycle kick. Only after a few painful falls onto my head or back do I come to realize how much skill went into that shot, and how many ways it could have gone wrong. Other times, I see a solution and consider ways to improve upon it, and realizing why each of those would fail makes the original solution seem ever more impressive. Kindo is a strategy game as at home on the iPhone as the iPad, and executes that so well that it illuminates how hard it is.

It’s easy to think about the limitations of a small screen, but consider also that people don’t want to pay much for games, which largely rules out a substantial art budget. A minimalist aesthetic helps address both issues, keeping the interface from feeling crowded with detail. Phones (or perhaps their users) also aren’t well-suited to long rules explanations, so the rules must be as simple as possible–chess would never have made it as an iPhone game. Finally, the game has to suit distracted players in play sessions of highly variable duration, often very brief ones indeed. There are several elements of Kindo which suit it extremely well to this situation, but the one which tells us most about the game is this: positive feedback.

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