Pocket Takes Reviews

Pocket Takes: Star Trek Rivals, Hero of Many, and Sherlock Holmes 2

Sperm flocking to an egg.

Hero of Many … Spermatozoa?

In this edition of Pocket Takes, Kelsey and Owen have a look at the decidedly illogical Star Trek Rivals, moody monochromatic adventure Hero of Many, and the latest appearance of everyone’s favorite public domain detective Sherlock Holmes.

These three capsule reviews are after the jump.
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Pocket Takes: Sporos, PokerTower, and Majesty: The Northern Expansion,

A decontructed RTS.

Economics is all about the proper application of incentives.

In this edition of our Pocket Takes capsule reviews, Kelsey grows spores in puzzler Sporos (“the easiest game to learn” he’s ever played), folds a poker hand against an orc in RPG/poker hybrid PokerTower, and builds a fantasy kingdom without breaking a sweat in deconstructed RTS Majesty: The Northern Expansion.

All three reviews await you after the jump.

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Pocket Takes: Stratego, Cook Serve Delicious, Heroes and Castles

Can bones chafe?

Helmets can’t be all that comfortable when you’re a skeleton.

In this edition of Pocket Takes: a new iPad edition of that old copy of Stratego that’s gathering dust in the family room, a “hardcore restaurant sim” that is very hardcore indeed, and a tower defense game that knocks you off your lofty pedestal and encourages you to get your hands dirty for once. All three reviews after the jump.

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Pocket Takes: 21 Days, Governor of Poker 2, and Writer Rumble

21 Days

It's weird that both options are handcuffs.

With 21 Days’ persnickety controls, you should get used to seeing this screen a lot.

iPhone edition, $0.99.

21 Days is a daring game design that I really wanted to like, but its doesn’t quite have the chops to back up its ambition. In 21 Days you’re a bank robber in prison, betrayed by your partner during a heist and desperate for revenge. No sooner have you arrived in prison than you have the good fortune to fall in with some felons plotting to escape – in the titular number of days.

21 Days plays from a top-down perspective, and you draw paths for protagonist Sam Cooper to follow. The name of the game is escape, and that escape entails studying the movement patterns of guards and drawing Sam paths to avoid them. It’s attempting to be Splinter Cell crossed with Flight Control, but it’s never as exciting as that sounds.

Studying the movement of guards and coming up with a plan to evade them is pretty exciting in open 3D areas like the ones in console and PC games like Far Cry 3 and Hitman – in 21 Days it’s just a bit tedious. The environments aren’t particularly interesting and there’s few wrinkles in the base gameplay mechanics, so you ultimately just spend a lot of time waiting and staring at the screen.

Between levels there’s some substantial story exposition, but the writing is clunky at best. The game’s greatest asset is the wonderful art. The character portraits have an elongated quality that makes them look a bit like finger puppets – a clever visual reference for a game played on a touchscreen.

SCORE

2 out of 5

 

Governor of Poker 2

Anybody from Amarillo? I own you.

You can buy hats with your winnings – that’s my blue sombrero there at the top.

iPhone edition, $3.99 – iPad edition, $4.99

Governor of Poker 2 is a curious blend of poker sim and real estate tycoon game that takes place in an alternate history 19th-century Texas where the governor has banned poker. The governor has agreed to lift his restriction, if only someone will prove to him that poker is a game of skill and not chance – that’s where you come in.

As a mustachioed combination of Simón Bolívar and Doyle Brunson, you must travel from town to town throughout Texas, winning poker tournaments and liberating each burg from the poker ban. How is it that these towns are hosting poker tourneys while poker is banned? Who cares. Playing Governor of Poker 2 for the plot is like ordering the fish at a steakhouse. Play Governor of Poker for the poker.

As a Texas hold ‘em sim, it’s solid – if awfully forgiving. I’m a half-way decent poker player at best, and I’ve won most of the tournaments I entered in GoP2. The AI doesn’t seem to be designed to win, as much as it is to lose gracefully. And it does that well – AI players with big stacks of chips will attempt to bully you out of hands, and players that have lost big pots will go on tilt, complete with cartoon steam coming out of their ears.

This is no hardcore simulation, but it’s fun and there’s a meta-layer where you use your winnings to buy up all the property in each town, earning a bit of income from each house. It feels a bit tacked on, but it does give the game a nice sense of progression. Having properties to buy gives you something to do with all that money you’re winning, besides just throwing it back into the middle of the table for the next tournament.

The game suffers from a mild case of PC port-itis as well: the occasional slowdown, the inability to access menus while the dealer animation is playing. There’s also an IAP currency – a bit cheeky for a paid app  – but I ignored it and was no worse for it. Despite the many flaws, I couldn’t help but have fun with the game – it’s greater than the sum of its parts. Plus, I own Amarillo, which I should probably go visit now.

SCORE

4 out of 5

 

Writer Rumble

Nevermore.

The Case of the Missing Fun.

iOS Universal, $0.99

Writer Rumble is so much fun in concept: some of the greatest writers in history are pitted gainst one another in a fighting game. Beneath the hugely charming concept and nicely realized art and characterizations, the game itself is pedestrian and dull.

Your writers fight by spelling words from a grid of random letters – longer words make for bigger attacks. It’s nothing you haven’t seen before in other word games, and Writer Rumble’s implementation is a bit dry. There’s no combos or special tiles, just a handful of special abilities – many of which are so trivial you’ll never be tempted to use. The optimal strategy in both the head-to-head multiplayer and the single-player “survival” mode is to spam as many three-letter words as you can – I can’t imagine that Poe or Austen or would approve.

Despite the wonderfully appealing setup, there’s far better word games on the App Store, both for multiplayer and single-player.  It seems that the lesson here is “don’t judge an app by it’s icon”.

SCORE

2 out of 5

Pocket Takes: Lost Cities, Ninja Dinosaur Showdown, and Oktoberfest Manager

Lost Cities

Lost Cities embraces skeuomorphism but it does so beautifully.

Lost Cities embraces skeuomorphism but it does so beautifully.

iTunes Store, $3.99. iPhone.

Renier Knizia might be board gaming’s most prolific designer – even if you aren’t a board game geek yourself you’ve probably seen the name before. There are dozens of games bearing Knizia’s imprimatur in the App Store produced by scores of different designers – you’re left with the impression that Dr Knizia is a workaholic who’s never met a licensing deal he didn’t like. iOS ports of Knizia games range in quality from the elegantly polished to the downright crude.

Lost Cities falls on the elegant end of that spectrum – in fact, the whole spectrum will need a recalibration. Lost Cities is the finest Knizia game on the App Store and one of the best head-to-head multiplayer games, period. Developers Coding Monkeys set a high bar for themselves with their pitch-perfect rendition of Carcassonne from 2010, and Lost Cities picks up right where it leaves off. The game impresses right from the start with a fully-voiced, dynamic tutorial that reacts to how you play – anyone developing a digital board game should buy Lost Cities if only to experience the tutorial first-hand. It’s the standard against which all future tutorials will be judged. How I would have liked to have had such thoughtful handholding the first time I played Le Havre.

Whether Knizia foresaw it or not, Lost Cities is mechanically ideal for asynchronous multiplayer. There is no datum or stratagem that you need to keep track of mentally – everything is either on the board or in your hand, and if you pick up a game after leaving it idle for a day or two it is trivially easy to reverse-engineer the strategy you might have had in mind before the interval.

Everything about Lost Cities gleams with quality: the graphics, the music, the single-player AIs – I could go on, but I won’t. The one knock on the game is that it’s not a Universal app, but it looks and plays fine at double resolution.

SCORE

5 out of 5

Ninja Dinosaur Showdown?!

I wonder if there's a Ninja Anti-Defamation League somewhere.

I wonder if there’s a Ninja Anti-Defamation League somewhere.

iTunes Store, $2.99. iPhone.

Ninja Dinosaur Showdown?! (I’m only doing that interrobang once) is probably the best Plants vs Zombies clone I’ve seen yet, but it’s not quite up to PopCap’s level of polish. PvZ is a defense game (the bête noire of Pocket Tactics) but it’s one of the top 25 all-time apps for two good reasons: it’s undeniably charming and it keeps the player busy.

Charm is something Showdown has in buckets. The array of imaginative enemies and ninjas (the “towers” of this game) are automatically entered into a humorous bestiary that is a kick to browse through – clearly the devs made a catalogue of reasons that PvZ works and hewed closely to it with their own design. This is no bad thing.

Showdown is also careful to keep you occupied – again, like PvZ. Defense games fall apart when they leave the player with nothing to do (cfFieldrunners 2), and Showdown corrects a bit too far into other direction, getting quite frantic at times, but it feels strategic enough. Your ninjas can be moved from row to row as required, giving the gameplay a tactical flexibility that PvZ lacks.

Taken as a whole, Showdown isn’t a bad way to burn a coffee break, but it doesn’t quite rise above the limitations of its genre and doesn’t ever match the level of craftsmanship of the game it emulates. The units that unlock periodically aren’t enough to keep the gameplay from growing stale, and game’s menus can befuddle. Still – it’s a capable enough successor to Plants vs Zombies that is brimming with content – fans of the genre should give it a go.

SCORE

3 out of 5

Oktoberfest Manager

Oktoberfest Manager just a little sexist.

Oktoberfest Manager has an old-fashioned sexism about it that is a bit distasteful.

iTunes Store, $4.99. iPad.

You might recall that I got my hopes up after seeing the trailer for Oktoberfest Manager – I thought perhaps we had a mobile successor to Theme Park. No genre has fallen as far down the freemium rabbit hole as the tycoon game has – it’s in desperate need of a redeemer. Oktoberfest Manager is not it.

The game models a Bavarian beer garden in fairly primitive 3D – it’s not exactly Infinity Blade but it does the job. The player has to turn a profit running an Oktoberfest beer hall – renting a tent, hiring barmaids, and so forth. The game offers a linear progression from the cheapest option in a category to the most expensive – there’s no variation to the decision tree and you’re given little to do after you’ve set everything up. For all that I’ve criticized Kairosoft games for being overly-simplistic, Oktoberfest Manager is even more so.

The banjo music is nice, though.

SCORE

2 out of 5

Pocket Takes: Airline Tycoon Deluxe, Campaign The Game, and Genesia

Our three Pocket Takes capsule reviews today cover Airline Tycoon Deluxe, ad agency sim Campaign, and the board game-style 4X Genesia.

Airline Tycoon Deluxe

iTunes Store, $6.99. Universal.

Airline Tycoon is such a hasty PC port that the tutorial tips still mention keyboard shortcuts.

Airline Tycoon is such a hasty PC port that the tutorial tips still mention keyboard shortcuts.

Airline Tycoon Deluxe is a PC airline business sim that’s been ported to iOS, but it’s an awfully rough port. The controls were obviously designed with mouse-overs and right-clicking in mind, meaning that you’ll buy things without meaning to or get lost in a sargasso of nested menus. There’s some menus in the game I still don’t know how to exit – when I get to them, I just shake my iPad around wildly and touch the screen at random. Eventually, Airline Tycoon is appeased by my offering of dignity and deigns to exit the menu. I can’t imagine what nightmare it is to play on the iPhone.

Even if it was a seamless iOS port, Airline Tycoon has some basic conceptual problems. The game takes place in a airport terminal where your tycoon works. If you want to hire a new pilot, you have to leave your office and walk down the hall to your personnel office, chat to your HR manager, and select a pilot after looking through a stack of CVs. If you want to open a new route, you have to pick up the phone to do it.

The joy of an airline sim is to pore over maps and move little model planes around, not pretending you’re a bureaucrat. Airline Tycoon hides the maps and the planes behind the drudgery of actually being in an office. It’s as if someone made Battlefield 3 into a boot-polishing simulator. I spend all day in offices with weirdos I don’t actually like – that’s not what I want to do when I get home.

There are some in-game items that will let you jump from one location to another (thank heavens they aren’t IAPs) but even with these equipped it’s a pain to get anything done. If you can play through the arduous presentation it seems like there’s a lot of depth to Airline Tycoon’s economic model, but it’s a frustrating experience at best.

SCORE

2 out of 5

 

Campaign The Game

iTunes Store, $1.99. iPhone.

I don't get it either.

I don’t get it either.

Campaign is a game that I desperately wanted to be good. The concept is a rarely-explored theme — and one that seems ripe for a game adaptation, at that.

Campaign is an advertising agency sim that shamelessly apes Kairosoft’s Game Dev Story. Visually it’s almost a reskin of GDS, and the gameplay hits all of the same notes. For every ad campaign you devise, you are offered a choice of different themes and media to combine (ex. a dynamic comedy campaign on TV) with the goal of making a campaign that reaches your client’s intended audience. After your campaign launches, you get evaluated on how well it did and how creative it was.

It should be pretty damn fun, but Campaign is so stingy about feedback that you’re never quite sure what’s going on. Why is this guy I hired better or worse than the one already on the team? Why does this campaign get a good creativity rating and that one doesn’t?

It’s also far shallower than Game Dev Story was. GDS wasn’t exactly a deep sim, but you could micromanage the attributes of your games to emphasize sound or graphic design and train up your staff in certain skills. There’s none of that in Campaign. It’s so marginally interactive that after a while you feel as though you’ve been sitting in front of a PowerPoint presentation for a while. Though I suppose in that sense, Campaign does a perfect job of making you feel like you’re really in an ad agency.

SCORE

1 out of 5

 

Genesia

iTunes Store, $6.99. iPad-only. Lite version available.

Genesia is eccentric, but fun.

Genesia is eccentric, but fun.

Genesia is a 4X game that feels likes it’s a board game conversion. You are the leader of a group of colonists competing to settle an uninhabited island. Besides the colonizing business, there’s also a plotline involving some lost mystic macguffins, but the meat of the game is a bit like a city-builder. Plop down your meeples on a tree and they’ll cut it down, giving you wood resources to spend. Set them on a farm and you’ll get food. You can draft your citizens to take over the colony next door by force of arms, but the opportunity cost is that they won’t bring home any resources that turn. The interface to navigate all of these activities feels a little over-engineered for what it needs to do, but once you learn you way around its not bad.

Genesia is a collection of fairly simple game mechanics that you’ve seen before, but they gel into a pleasing whole for the most part. The scope of the game is massive; once you’ve started to build up your settlement, a huge array of different units and buildings opens up, though the game’s interface is much better suited to building things than it is to warfighting. There’s enough random events and AI caginess that the long process of taking over the island keeps from getting stale. The end result is something like Axis & Allies: a game that might lack depth but certainly not breadth.

SCORE

3 out of 5

Pocket Takes: Hero Mages, Ravenmark, and Time of Heroes

Three very different turn-based tactical games in Pocket Takes this time, all Universal apps for iOS and two with the word “Hero” in their titles. I’d personally like to see some more villain-centric games, but maybe those don’t sell. Where’s that market research?

  Hero Mages

iTunes Store – $2.99, Universal

Mom, you're embarrassing me.

Mom, you’re embarrassing me.

The thing I love most about Hero Mages is the way that it gleefully breaks the fourth wall. A board game converted to an iOS game is already an abstraction of an abstraction – you can go the immersive, atmospheric route as Elder Sign: Omens does, or you can be Hero Mages, where the units look up at the player expectantly when it’s their turn to move and address you directly during the tutorial. It’s very charming.

Hero Mages is designed (like Words with Friends or Hero Academy) to be played head-to-head online. There’s a campaign of sorts – but it’s just an extended tutorial. The real meat of the game is the multiplayer. It’s a pity, then, that Hero Mages doesn’t integrate with Game Center or OpenFeint or one of the larger matchmaking services – you have to sign up for developer D20’s own. This isn’t that much of a hassle in itself, but then you’ve got to faff around with getting your friends to do the same.

The art and music in Hero Mages are nothing extraordinary but the get the job done – and you’ll forget whatever you think about the art when you get into the battles, which combine card- and board-game mechanics into a pleasingly deep but easy-to-wrangle tactical system. With a more fleshed out single-player campaign or a less frictional matchmaking system, Hero Mages would be a top-notch game.

SCORE

3 out of 5

 

  Ravenmark: Scourge of Estellion

iTunes Store – $4.99, Universal

Rave review.

Rave review.

Ravenmark is a game that I’m coming to quite late (it was released back in November) and I regret that because it is excellent. Ravenmark’s production values are top-notch and the gameplay is as deep as any casual wargame available on mobile devices. Its only rival is Battle Academy.

Ravenmark is set in a medieval fantasy realm that takes a lot of cultural cues from ancient Rome. There’s a story that’s told through Advance Wars-style talking head cutscenes – it’s not exactly Kurosawa but the game’s universe is detailed and richly realized. Ravenmark leans on tired fantasy tropes as little as possible and creates its own landscape, an admirable accomplishment. The music and the art are outstanding.

At the heart of Ravenmark’s 2D tactical gameplay is an emphasis on formations: similar units can be locked together into columns which are more fiddly to maneuver and vulnerable at their flanks, but multiply the strength of the units that compose them. Flanking and unit facings matter, and there’s a clearly defined paper-rock-scissors balance to the combat. It’s an innovative system that has been thoughtfully implemented. The interface has a nasty habit of getting in your way and obscuring your view of the units when they’ve bunched together, but aside from that the game controls beautifully.

Between the fact that you can’t choose your own units and the highly scripted battle sequences, Ravenmark sometimes feels like a tactical puzzle to be solved, rather than a proper wargame. This also isn’t a game to be picked up casually – the cutscenes are long and the battles will take 20 to 30 minutes to complete, but it’s an exciting 30 minutes. Ravenmark might not be a great subway commute game but it’s perfect for sitting on the couch with a glass of wine.

SCORE

5 out of 5

 

  Time of Heroes

iTunes Store – $2.99, Universal

And a bit later, Time of Tea.

And a bit later, Time of Tea.

You can’t deny how much work went into Time of Heroes. It’s a top-down tactical game on a square grid – it’s easy to imagine Time of Heroes in a simple two-dimensional engine, but Smuttlewerk Interactive chose to bring the game to life in 3D. There’s quite a lot of unit variety, and the maps in general are full of little visual details.

The titular Heroes are special units who give the regular units that make up the majority of your forces a passive buff just from being around. Your heroes tend to be your most capable combat units as well, which sets up a little risk/reward dilemma: send your hero charging into the fray and risk losing the benefits of his presence, or leave him to hang back in safety, where his powerful attack will have to idle? The different units also perform better in different terrain types and against different types of enemies, though that information is buried in a menu away from the game screen.

So there’s a certain amount of tactical depth in Time of Heroes, but I’m left wishing for a few more interesting decisions. Unit facings are irrelevant and the AI is quite keen on frontal assault – there’s also a massive number of individual units in each battle, and the game’s pacing is quite staid. Most battles devolve into a big rugby scrum in the middle of the map with units taking turns bashing at one another.

Time of Heroes isn’t exactly dynamic, but it’s competent, and things start to pick up when the loot drop and level up mechanics kicks in, giving you a chance to customize your heroes. I just wish that getting there wasn’t such a slog.

SCORE

3 out of 5

Pocket Takes: Landrule, Revival 2, and Epic Astro Story

Our capsule reviews are here to give you a steer if you’re looking for a strategy game to take you into the weekend. This week, two Android strategy games and Kairosoft’s latest for iOS – for which reviews are almost certainly redundant.

Landrule

Android Market – Free, with some maps as IAP

 

Let us march against Philip.. next turn

I’ve had Risk-likes on my mind quite a lot recently, so Landrule arrived at an opportune moment. In gameplay, Landrule is a bog-standard Risk interpretation, but a very well-executed one with a good touch interface that’s tablet-friendly. The graphics are simple but crisp and attractive. Landrule’s AI puts up a good fight but the real attraction here is the multiplayer. Asynchronous turn-based games are perfect for multiplayer and Landrule’s model includes a host-configurable “shotclock” that places a limit on how long players can take to submit their turns. Like everything else in Landrule, it’s simple but elegant.

Landrule comes with a variety of maps – ancient history buffs will appreciate that the Rome and Greece map regions are labeled with names from antiquity. The game is is free to download and includes five maps, with a sixth map in-app purchase available for around 50 cents. The knock on the game is that Risk games without any interesting wrinkles might be in danger of wearing out their welcome. But for the price, Landrule is superb value.

SCORE

4 out of 5

 

 

Revival 2

Android Market – $0.99

 

Build an empire to stand the test of patience.

Revival 2 looks a heck of a lot like Civilization II and it’s official title on the Google Play Store is Revival 2 (Civilization). The app description promises “a huge scale strategy game that is on a par with its PC ancestors”. We get the picture.

Being a clone of Civilization is far from a crime, especially on Android which is currently devoid of Sid Meier’s series – not even the pared down Civilization Revolution which was produced for iOS. But I’m sorry to report that Revival 2 is a completely inscrutable mess. The control scheme is handset-throwingly frustrating on a phone and unresponsive on a tablet. The game itself bears the afore-mentioned superficial resemblance to Civ II but differs from it in ways that aren’t explained well, and fighting through the interface is such a chore that it becomes difficult to see the value in figuring it out. Those with a dollar burning a hole in their change purses and a fetish for masochistic UX design might pick it up but anyone else would be better served bashing their heads against the free Lite version.

SCORE

1 out of 5

 

 

Epic Astro Story

iTunes store – $3.99 for iPhone

 

Reviewing Kairosoft games is a bit like William F. Buckley’s summation of conservatism: while you can stand athwart the App Store yelling “Stop!”, the legions of fans of the cult Japanese dev house are unlikely to be dissuaded.

Make it so-so.

Even if Epic Astro Story isn’t the equal of Kairosoft’s earlier titles like Game Dev Story and Grand Prix Story (and it isn’t), it still bubbles over with Kairosoft’s charm. The cute pixel art, the punning and referential character names, and the thrill of unlocking gameplay macguffins are all still there. Epic Astro Story even breaks from the familiar Kairosoft formula a bit. Here you are in charge of building a space colony and recruiting astronauts to man it (and to create and sell nicknacks for alien tourists to buy), but you also must send your people out on dangerous expeditions to recover resources and clear land for colonization. It’s fun, but the mix of adventure and selling space souvenirs is a bit of a jumble. Earlier Kairosoft titles had a clarity of purpose that Epic Astro Story lacks – much of the game feels like complication for complication’s sake.

That said, it’s still a Kairosoft game, with all of the compulsive playability that that implies. If you’re new to Kairosoft titles you should start with the simpler delights of Game Dev Story, but if you need a fresh fix then you won’t really go wrong with this new offering.

SCORE

3 out of 5