Apple Arcade Roulette #4

By Michael Coffer 28 Nov 2019 2

Dear Reader, I confess sometimes I begin to lose heart in the face of Apple Arcade’s full catalogue. Increasingly it reminds me of Netflix: a few high-profile standouts with many safer, color-by-numbers entries to fill out the rest. By and large, the best games are the most heavily featured, but there are still hidden gems, too. Hidden duds, too, but this write-up is precisely to spare you the hazards of blind tries.

A plus in the service’s column remains its ability to surprise and defy expectations, for good or ill. Read below for the gory details.

Rosie’s Reality (Puzzle) (1-Star)

This game really grinds my gears. Just like last time with the card battler, a genre near and dear has betrayed my optimism and come up incredibly short. A puzzle game this time around, my genre bias makes me a bit more picky, but this game even outside of the specialist standards is a weaker entry. Let’s start with the upsides: minimal narration is just twee enough to encourage relaxation and playfulness; character design and animation are just as perfect; the music and SFX are excellent. Incredibly cohesive and accessible, but the core gameplay wants to mix action/real-time elements into what is at heart a spatial & pathing puzzle.

Each level, Rosie needs to traverse a path by following blocks and avoiding adversaries and obstacles. The levels themselves are quite reliable, neither too vexing nor lenient, but they are all timed. Rather than incentivizing economical solutions, you get up to three stars based on the speed a level is cleared. The cardinal sin is how puzzles can be solved by simply clicking quickly, since blocks can be deleted and relocated halfway through a path. The building materials aren’t exhaustible, in other words. The mixture of time-based and classic puzzle solving diminishes both halves of the game. It’s easy and pleasant but fell flat almost right out of the gate.

Pilgrims (Adventure) (4-Stars)

Amanita games feel like elaborate storybooks brought to life. Painterly details, an emphatic musical score, character sounds full of onomatopoeia and colorful mutterings. They structured it as an adventure with a card-based inventory, too, which is a little on-trend but still tastefully done. Every item and interaction in the game begins and ends with playing a card, thereby summoning the depicted item and triggering some interaction. It is reminiscent of a classic point-and-click style adventure but has been deliberately miniaturised.

This only intensifies the cute factor. Some story obstacles are overcome with Occam’s Razor, others are devilishly convoluted. Generally speaking, though, any puzzles can be teased out with logic and experimentation. This is a relatively bite-sized forgiving game that can be completed in one long sitting and is worth it for the atmosphere and Eastern European style humor.

The Bradwell Conspiracy (Narrative/Puzzle) (5-Stars)

Now this is a great puzzle game. You wake up and try to escape a museum devoted in part to the Bradwells a family of renown for their pioneering achievements. Not to spoil things any further, but this one is eerie and personal, even as it makes rhetorical gestures towards larger themes about freedom, intellectual curiosity and technological solutionism. It is quite simply a very good game where the narrative and puzzle design march in perfect synchronisation towards a well-defined ending.

It is a tad short and the controls are a tad wonky, but these are minor complaints to lay at the feet of a quality release. As a side-note, there are quite a few games like this one on Apple Arcade, and what they generally have in common is that they’ve been in development a good while and have released on multiple platforms (several consoles, but exclusively only Apple Arcade for mobile).

Yaga (RPG) (3-Stars)

An action-rpg in which so many characters have been cursed to speak exclusively in rhyme. Named for Baba Yaga, the mysterious and menacing crone of Slavic folklore, the game begins in tale by cribbing liberally from Dornröschen (Sleeping Beauty). A petty and corrupt king is promised mystical vengeance by a lady, and he does everything in its power to thwart the curse. You’re just a poor one-armed blacksmith running quests to try to improve your fortune.

Apparently you have the world’s most rotten luck, and in the course of these quests will grow stronger and luckier and win the favor of the king and Baba Yaga alike. It’s got crafting, characters and progression. Really nice balancing and customisation options. The visuals are a little rough around the edges, but the voice acting is richly theatrical. Decent but missable. Points for novel, rarely utilized mythology.

The Enchanted World (Puzzle) (4-Stars)

This is definitely a sleeper hit for puzzle fans. The whole natural world is magically active and resonant, so when corruption strikes and throws the environment off-balance, a young woman sets out to make things right. It’s about moving tiles, guys, but very prettily. The pleasing and bucolic setting might lull you into a false sense of security, though, for this game after just a little while gets just challenging enough to stay compelling. Its levels are short and punchy but also refreshing and inventive, with new mechanics being skillfully introduced early on.

From a pure puzzling perspective, I’d rate it even more highly than the Go series (Hitman, Lara Croft, Deus Ex). It’s about comparable in length, in terms of playtime if not raw content. The mechanic interactions are quite diverse and thoughtful, and while the core challenge is always straightforward (‘make a path’) it is constantly re-interpreted and thus always interesting. Accessible and high-quality, the best of both worlds.

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All in all, this batch was better than I was expecting. The way things currently stand, it seems like Apple Arcade is lousy with medium-weight puzzle- and narrative- heavy games, each with plenty of visual polish but somewhat well-worn gameplay grooves. Still there are some really slick and innovative entries, even outside of the big players. Even the average stuff is closer to a formulaic summer blockbuster, to put it in filmic terms, than an actual dud.

Because of the nature of the games and the service’s billing structure, Apple Arcade paradoxically rewards the periodic check-in and binge. The roulette-style approach is really nice; it removes the anxiety of selecting the ‘best’ and lets players trust their own judgement. The spirit of the age is full of expert recommendations and daedal algorithms, but I can tell you, one player to another, the arcade also rewards this roulette, of letting your attention wander and merely playing whatever, whenever.

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