Eye on iOS: Volume 8
What do Azriel Odin, Sherlock Holmes, Erica Reed, and the original cast of Stargate SG-1 have in common? Simple: they've all arrived on Apple's iOS platforms. And they're not alone. Our latest round-up of adventures (and almost-adventures sure to be of interest) includes a wide variety of looks and game styles, from 19th century London to future worlds on distant planets; from retro-styled point-and-clickers to slick 3D arcade and action hybrids. So read on for the latest and greatest (or in some cases, not-so-greatest) App Store offerings.
Table of Contents
Page 1: Gemini Rue, Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller - Episode 1: The Hangman
Page 2: Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened
Page 3: The Silent Age
Page 5: Fetch
Page 6: Stargate SG-1: Unleashed
Page 7: Help Volty
Wadjet Eye Games has been gearing up to port its collection of impressive indie titles to iOS for some time now, and it's arguably put its best foot forward by starting with Gemini Rue. Designed by former UCLA Media Arts student Joshua Nuernberger, the game was picked up by Wadjet Eye late in development for voice acting and further refinement, releasing to both commercial and critical success in February 2011. If you missed it originally, our review of the PC original will tell you why this gritty sci-fi thriller deserves to be on your radar even now. As an early '90s retro-styled title, an extra couple years have done nothing to lessen its aesthetic appeal, and a rock-solid conversion makes Gemini Rue a sure thing on the iPad.
The game itself remains unchanged, which is a very good thing. The dark, at times disturbing dual tale of Azriel Odin, a former assassin in search of his missing brother on a drug-plagued planet controlled by the Boryokudan mafia, and Delta-Six, a recently mind-wiped citizen rehabilitation patient at the secretive Center 7, has lost none of its suspenseful emotional drama. The voice acting continues to skillfully bring these characters to life on both iPad and iPhone/iPod touch, while the pixel art graphics look even better on the smaller screen, where the lower resolution isn't forced to stretch nearly as far. The purple-tinged skies over the seedy, rain-drenched city of Pittsburg and the sterile blue walls of the prison-like Center 7 are anything but scenic, but they're artistically compelling in sucking you into these two diverse worlds on an inevitable collision course with each other. Some iPhone users with retina display have complained of slight blurriness, but on iPad and standard iPhones the graphics really pop. It's still decidedly retro, however, which won't be for everyone regardless of its quality.
The touchscreen interface is simple and works quite well. Tap a hotspot and a small action menu pops up, allowing you to look at, use, talk to or kick objects (hey, sometimes brute force is the best solution!), or you can select an inventory item to apply. Hotspots don't particularly stand out, and tapping anywhere else causes the current character to move to that spot, which can be a bit annoying. But tapping and holding the screen will reveal all interactive options currently in view. The camera does scroll both vertically and horizontally at times, so it pays to walk around a bit anyway. Azriel's personal communication device lets you contact his partner Kane for help, make phone calls, and look up key notes that serve as pseudo hints. When that's not enough, you can plug into the city's scattered info database terminals, which lets you drag and drop details (or type if you prefer) from one device into the other's search function. It's a bit too finicky to work as well as it sounds, but it's still a pretty slick idea.
Gemini Rue is a fairly puzzle-lite experience (the game rather self-referentially acknowledges that "logic tests are such a bore"), though there are certainly enough inventory- and environment-based tasks to keep you fully engaged without ever feeling like you're solving puzzles just for puzzles' sake. What some diehard adventure gamers will surely dread more are the gunfights. There are only a handful spread out over the course of the game, but they are still unavoidable. Just like in its PC predecessor, you must duck in and out of cover to fire at exposed enemies (who are naturally doing the same with you), with health bars depleting on both sides when bullets hit their mark. The setup is both simple and elegant. Icons at the bottom of the screen allow you to move into and out of safety, reload, switch targets, and of course shoot. Rather than requiring a steady hand, it's far more a matter of observant timing, particularly in using the "one-shot kill" headshot method, which works much better than trying to win a battle of attrition. An experienced action gamer myself, I had no problem at all, but for those who'd prefer to tone down the challenge, there's an easy difficulty option you can switch to at any time.
For the most part, Gemini Rue is as good a port as you could expect. It's not entirely flawless: using a door doesn't actually cause you to walk through (and there are a lot of doors in this game), a few hotpots are irritatingly small, and you can die even outside of the shootouts. Occasional timed sequences occur that leave you scrambling through trial-end-error to find the correct sequence of preventative actions, and you can expect to replay these several times. The game autosaves and restores if/when you fail, but not always conveniently. I was forced to repeat the same dull elevator-riding sequence AND a gunfight just to be offed a number of times in a "how was I supposed to know THAT?!" life-and-death puzzle solution. The game does let you save manually, however.
If you've already played the game, you can revisit it with the director's commentary turned on, but if that doesn't interest you (the same feature is offered in the PC version), there's nothing new here to add value to the original release. If you haven't yet experienced this moody sci-fi adventure, however, (or have recently been mind-wiped yourself), you're in for a portable treat. Available as a universal app for iPhone and iPad (no demo for either version, unfortunately), Gemini Rue instantly recalls the classic adventures of yesteryear like Blade Runner and Beneath a Steel Sky, and the smaller screen is ideally suited to its deliberately retro aesthetic. I won't say you'll rue the day if you pass it by a second time, but you'll certainly be kicking yourself.
Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller - Episode 1: The Hangman
Phoenix Online Studios wasted no time in porting its first commercial adventure to iOS. Mere months after Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller debuted on PC and Mac, already Episode 1: The Hangman is available on the App Store, exclusively for iPad. For the most part, the mobile version looks, sounds, and plays the same as the original, though not without some troublesome first impressions, as my game got off to a very rocky start.
Upon first launching the game, the opening cinematic froze just seconds after it began and didn't unstick until the game proper took over. Not having a clue what I'd missed, I restarted the game and watched it without a hitch. Whew. Moments later, with FBI agent Erica Reed readying her weapon outside a cemetery crime scene, all I saw was a close-up solid blue block suspending a disembodied gun in mid-air. Reload game again, and get the same result. Whoops. Meanwhile, the audio backdrop of a tense but repetitive musical refrain was literally washed out by a steady downpour that sounded more like perpetual static. The audio settings are all individually maxed out by default, so after a little tinkering I found a better balance, though the result still sounded like a cacophony of distorted, conflicting sounds. Then, just moments later, a vital hotspot wouldn't let me interact with it until I left the current screen and then returned. Argh!
Fortunately, after coming in out of the rain, the game settled down beautifully and put all those early issues behind it, behaving much more like the PC version we originally reviewed. The attractive graphic novel-style visuals have been reproduced nicely, the hand-painted backgrounds looking crisp and colourful, the cel-shaded characters a little shadow-heavy but nicely designed. The original release was prone to occasional graphic clipping, animation stutters and longer-than-desired pauses after interactions, and these have carried over to the port as well, but there's nothing so severe that it will interrupt your enjoyment for long. Once the music is allowed to come to the fore alone, it's easy to appreciate the Aggie Award-winning soundtrack by Austin Haynes, and the voice acting is clear and convincing.
As you'd hope from a good conversion, there's very little to distinguish the iOS interface from the original, other than the obvious lack of ever-present mouse cursor. You'll either have to guess at items that may be hotspots (inadvertently moving Erica if you guess wrong), or hold your finger down on the touch screen to reveal all hotspots onscreen. Everything else has been carried over intact, from the extrasensory "cognition" icon to the inventory sidebar (complete with user-friendly look, use, and combine highlights) to the mobile phone that lets you text Erica's dad for sometimes-useful-sometimes-not tips.
One notable omission is any kind of story recap option. That wasn't present in the original version either, but as iOS offerings are often played in shorter sessions, often on the go, this would have been a welcome addition to the portable version, particularly as The Hangman is fairly lengthy for an episodic game. Then again, once you get into the mystery of the serial killing hangman and the troubled FBI agent out to avenge her brother's murder, you'll probably want to keep playing anyway to find out where this dark and sometimes disturbing tale is going. If you've played the PC or Mac versions already, there's nothing new here to make you want to purchase it again. But if you're new to the series, the $3.99 price tag is excellent value for a compelling series debut with a very solid port. If you're still not convinced, there's a free lite version to sample, though since it starts you off at the beginning of the game, you won't be seeing and hearing the game at its best.
Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened
When Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created Sherlock Holmes back in 1887, he surely never could have conceived that one day we'd be controlling his great detective on portable gaming tablets. In fact, even as recently as 2007, when Frogwares first developed Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened, they likely couldn't have predicted it would happen just six years later. Yet here we are in 2013, and Holmes and his trusty sidekick Dr. Watson have now emerged on iPad, along with a dangerous Lovecraft-inspired cult intent on raising the hibernating giant cosmic entity named Cthulhu by kidnapping people for use in dark religious rituals. It's an odd mishmash of themes, and our review of the PC original was equally mixed, but much has changed between then and now.
Although more or less a straight port, the iOS version of The Awakened is based on the "Remastered Edition" re-release from 2008. The most prominent feature of that update was the addition of a third-person view to the default first-person perspective. It was a welcome move that balanced the more modern free-roaming controls with the classic point-and-click method, even allowing a switch between the two on the fly. This conversion offers both options as well, though neither is without its problems. Of the two, the third-person method probably works best, as you simply tap where you want Sherlock (or Watson during his playable segments) to go, double-tapping to run. But since the game wasn't originally designed to accommodate these controls, the camera frequently switches to new angles in disorienting ways. Alternately, it will pan along with your movement in open spaces, but there's so little room to click ahead of the protagonist in the direction he's moving, it's a clickfest just to get anywhere.
The first-person scheme tries to simulate the PC's two-handed mouse-keyboard combination. On the left side of the screen, swiping and holding in the desired direction will cause your character to move that way, while doing the same thing on the right side of the screen controls the camera. This pretty much forces you to play with two hands at all times, as you'll constantly be adjusting both as you move around. It works, but it's not particularly intuitive, and it's easy to get disoriented in tight spots or when attempting to maneuver around obstacles. It's much better suited to wide open spaces, of which there are plenty throughout the game, though the interactive quick travel map eliminates the need for traversing many of them once you've discovered key new locations. Fortunately, you can still switch between the two methods any time, so I tended to fall into the first-person outdoor, third-person indoor routine, and choice is always a good thing.
In either view, hotspots are very few and far between. In third-person, you can slide your finger around the screen until large interactive icons pop up, while in first-person you simply need to navigate yourself close enough for the same icons to appear. There is a hotspot highlighter option for the former, but strangely it's an all-or-nothing option. You're either stuck seeing all hotpots glaringly identified before you even start looking, or you risk missing a single detail over a wide area that could result in frustration and plenty of backtracking. (You can switch the highlight feature on and off as well, but this is more a nuisance than ideal solution.) In the interests of time, I generally chose to keep it on, as the challenge here really isn't (or shouldn't be) finding items to use, but figuring out what to do once you have them.
This being a Sherlock Holmes game, there are several investigative sequences mixed in. There are close-up views that you must scour with the built-in magnifying glass or measuring tape, a lab table at 221b Baker Street to examine clues under a microscope or run through chemistry apparatus, and even quizzes to answer as Watson – naturally, Holmes knows the answers, but he wants to know if you've been paying attention. Thankfully, it's more of an open book test, as The Awakened keeps extensive notes with key documents and reports, and complete dialogue transcriptions of each encounter. If quizzes still aren't your thing, however, you can opt to skip them if you wish. Elsewhere you'll engage in a variety of different puzzle types, many of them involving inventory combination and application, though some are purely logic- and number-based. If you're having trouble, there's an unnecessarily prominent icon in the bottom center of the screen that offers a comprehensive step-based hint system, but you may not need it because at least some of the original puzzles have been streamlined or removed altogether, possibly due to the physics engine involved in the original version.
Your investigation bookends in various locations throughout dreary old London, but you'll make extensive visits to an even drearier insane asylum in Switzerland and a refreshingly cheery (if deceptively more dangerous) New Orleans, whose clear blue skies and riverboat backdrop are a welcome change from the oppressive all-grey weather closer to home. The slightly angular 3D graphics are beginning to show their age but still look sharp, and although the outdoor areas feel noticeably sparse, there's plenty of background visual detail to admire.
Or be repulsed by, as the case may sometimes be, as The Awakened isn't shy about depicting gruesome scenes like snakes slithering out of a tortured carcass. It doesn't revel in such gore, mind you, and what's shown lends the game a very necessary sense of the macabre. The voice acting continues to excel (a couple secondary characters excluded), highlighted by Watson's earnest enthusiasm (and bewilderment) and Sherlock's prim, proper, but slightly haughty persona. Speaking of Watson, he isn't nearly as "creepy" here as he was in the game's initial release (a now cult-favourite feature that Frogwares will be exploiting in their next adventure). He does still stand a little too close for comfort at times (personal space, man!), but here you can see him dutifully jogging to your position whenever you turn around.
With its somewhat finicky controls and paring down of certain puzzles, this iOS port is not the ideal version of The Awakened, but in all other senses it's a successful conversion. It looks and sounds as good as ever, and while neither control choice is entirely comfortable, the ability to switch between them adds up more or less to a successful whole. Available exclusively for iPad (with a free demo version to sample), it's still a somewhat uneven experience overall, but if you're looking to dive into a substantial Sherlock Holmes adventure with a dash of Cthulhu mythos mixed in, don't sleep on this one any longer.
The Silent Age
There are all kinds of "free" adventures available on the App Store. Some are merely first-taste samplers that ask for in-game payments to see the rest of the game; some are simple room-escape puzzlers that are quickly and easily completed; and of course there are numerous "lite" games, which is just iOS-speak for "demos". The Silent Age, by indie Danish developer House on Fire, is none of those. True, what's been released so far is just "Episode One" of a planned two- or three-part series, but the debut installment is a compelling and surprisingly lengthy (clocking in at roughly 90 minutes) adventure in its own right, with an optional donation request to see more down the road.
The game is set in 1972 – or at least, part of it is. Thick 'burns and bushy 'staches are in, gaudy orange wallpaper is all the rage, and polyester bell-bottomed pants are still "groovy". Enter an average (and appropriately named) Joe, a jumpsuit-wearing custodian of a hi-tech research company – "hi-tech" in an era consisting of giant black-and-white super-computer monitors and wall-sized mainframes that would have made Gene Roddenberry proud. Joe's life – and the fate of the entire world – takes a turn for the surreal when a trail of blood at work leads to a dying elderly man claiming to have traveled back in time to prevent a cataclysmic-level event from occurring. Handing over a portable time travel device, the man expends his final breath exhorting Joe to travel 40 years ahead to warn the man's future (past?) self of his own impending death. By doing so, he can avoid the unanticipated tragedy and carry out his mission as planned.
Oddly, the future suggests human existence is destined to end that very same day in 1972. Partially-decayed corpses are (were) the same people Joe encountered in the past (present). Plant life continues to grow, as the police station is now overrun by a giant tree in its midst, and a poison ivy vine snakes up the side of the nearby hotel. But everyone is dead, including one poor soul dangling from the end of a rope. Like Joe, you'll be wondering what on earth went wrong, but there are no easy answers forthcoming just yet. Instead, Joe must alternate back and forth between his time and the future in order to overcome the variety of environmental obstacles that confront him.
A third-person adventure that makes good use of both vertical and horizontal spaces (in both timelines), The Silent Age has a bit of Another World aesthetic vibe. There are no action sequences, and the artwork is more detailed than Eric Chahi's 1991 classic, but the backgrounds are kept simple and clean, with just a touch of animation like falling rain and flickering neon lights as you make your way to the local hospital. Call it stylishly functional, with enough detail to bring these two worlds to life (such as "life" is in the future) but never so much that it clutters the screens. That makes it a perfect fit for iOS platforms. I only played it on the iPad, but there's no reason why the game would look or perform any worse on a smaller screen. Control is a simple one-touch system: if it's a hotspot, Joe will interact with it if he can; if not, he'll walk to where you've pointed (or run with a double-tap).
Puzzles are strictly inventory-based and generally intuitive: You'll need keys for locks, oil for rusty objects, and a lighter to spark a fire, among other useful items. That makes the game sound easy, but it's the strategic use of time-shifting that gives The Silent Age a welcome layer of complexity. Actions in the past usually have an effect on the future, and by the end you'll be switching back and forth virtually room-by-room. There are no real head-scratchers, but there's just enough challenge to continually motivate further exploration, which is the game's real reward. These are dual worlds you'll want to inspect fully in order to piece together their bizarrely-linked apocalyptic mystery.
But you won't. At least, not yet. And whether you ever will may depend on whether you're willing to pay for the privilege. Like with this debut installment, House on Fire's intention is to offer the next episode free as well, but they're seeking public financial assistance to make that happen. Taking a more informal approach than Kickstarter, the developers are accepting donations in order to continue the series. There's no obligation required, but whether you play the iPhone / iPod touch or iPad version, don't be surprised if you find yourself coughing up a few dollars in support. Although its protagonist is perhaps a little too glib for the extraordinary circumstances he finds himself in, and it's a little too true to its name (with no voice acting, and only sparse atmospheric music and effects), The Silent Age is nice to look at, easy to control, reasonably lengthy and fun to play. What more can you ask, except for more of the same? And if that's what you want, the future is in your hands.
Age of Enigma: The Curse of the Sixth Ghost
If you're under the impression that all casual games are alike, think again. Much like its name, Age of Enigma: The Secret of the Sixth Ghost is one of the few games that seeks to truly forge its own identity in the casual realm, borrowing from but never blatantly copying the standard formulas of its contemporaries. Perhaps most closely comparable to Big Fish's Drawn series and originally reviewed on PC, this supernatural adventure from Casual Box Entertainment features plenty of exploration through a remarkably diverse set of environments, but it's far more linear than most full-fledged adventures. It often requires collecting sets of items in order to proceed, but never sifting through junkpiles for random lists of hidden objects. And it's chock full of puzzles of all different types, many of which are sufficiently different from those you've encountered a zillion times before.
The star of Age of Enigma – at least metaphysically – is Ashley Reeves, a young woman having recurring dreams of a house burning down. When an anonymous benefactor sends her the key to the very same house, Ashley sets out with her faithful dog Isaac to find it. There she encounters a mysterious man who reveals the true nature of her calling: she's a spirit medium charged with freeing six tortured souls still trapped in the house. To do so, she must project herself into their souls to re-live their fateful circumstances, only this time correcting the wrongs that still shackle them to this existence. These ghosts are as different as their settings: a medieval monk's intolerance is responsible for his abbot's death, a feudal Japanese noblewoman failed to meet her groom-to-be in a serene Zen garden, and an ancient Egyptian Pharaoh must discover who assassinated him and denied him a proper embalming. One ghost will literally take you to hell and back.
Along the way you'll need to solve a wide variety of puzzles. Some are standard inventory obstacles, and several are cleverly integrated into the story, like an Incan idol whose various configurations impact the natural elements around you. Many are presented as standalone challenges, however, not unlike the Professor Layton series, which the developers cite as an influence. There are a few old standbys like tile jigsaws, pipes, and Mastermind, but many others, while not entirely original, are at least less common and dressed up in creative new ways. You'll compare a real room layout with an overhead view, construct multi-sided blocks with the correct symbols in place, and contrast rock formations with shadows. A simple find-the-difference task becomes a matter of trimming a cherry blossom bonsai tree into its proper shape. Even a Simon mimicry sequence feels relevant here, as you follow in the footsteps of a 17th century pirate in search of his treasure.
There are over 30 standalone puzzles and minigames to complete overall, any of which can be replayed from the main menu, though very few are worth revisiting after you've solved them the first time. Some you'll have to solve more than once anyway, as the game begins to rely too much on repetition towards the end, forcing you to repeatedly study grid designs, match fresco fragments, and complete patterns. Some puzzles can be quite challenging, especially on the harder of two difficulty settings. Most puzzles offer a skip button, however, and even a pair of "jokers" that can simplify the puzzle without bypassing it altogether. The easier setting provides hints for the current objective, while the harder setting allows for free exploration (not that you'll ever have too far to wander in any given past life) and eliminate sparkles for active hotspots. Unfortunately, even the latter doesn't help with the occasional pixel hunting required.
The concealment of interactive items isn't due to any failings in the graphics department, as Age of Enigma is a crisp hand-drawn adventure with a colourful cartoon style. From the Caribbean blues of a deserted island to the red-hot rivers of Hades, each locale is so different that it feels like you're exploring seven mini-worlds in one (including the mansion, where you'll need to solve various tasks between ghostly endeavours). The music is just as culturally diverse, jumping from haunting piano notes to guitars and flutes to distinctly Asian strings. In between are both environmental and supernatural effects, from wind and waterfalls to ghostly whispers and tortured moans. These come through the iPad speakers quite clearly and effectively, as does the voice acting that punctuates key moments, though the remaining conversations and protagonist comments are text-only.
The interface is as simple as can be, though not without some frustrations. You can slide your finger across the touchscreen to find hotspots, and a single-tap interacts, but dragging items from the inventory and dropping them into the environment can feel imprecise, and it's hard to know if you're doing the wrong thing or simply missing your intended target. Combining inventory items is even more cumbersome when you have to scroll to your second desired object, often resulting in de-selecting the first unintentionally. A few of the puzzles suffer from a lack of precision as well, including a pick-up-sticks variant that didn't always register the stick I wanted, causing an instant fail. For the most part, however, the game controls just fine, offering an optional tutorial at the beginning to get you started.
Like most casual games, Age of Enigma: The Secret of the Sixth Ghost isn't particularly long, but it's an enjoyable few hours for the most part. Available as a free demo with in-app purchase option, exclusively for iPad, it's a nice mix of lite adventure, scavenger hunting, and pure puzzling, and its segmented structure makes it fairly mobile-friendly. Some pixel hunting and late puzzle repetition do mar the gameplay at times, but the widely different environments to explore and overall puzzle variety combine to keep much of the experience fresh. It looks good, sounds great, and doesn't feel like every other game out there. So why aren't more people playing it? It's an enigma.
The word “fetch” may bring to mind sunny days in backyards with happy dogs and their owners playing together, but the creators of the Drawn series at Big Fish Studios have taken the simple, homespun concept of a boy and his dog and dropped it into a futuristic world filled with canine-napping robots, evil corporate masterminds, and lots and lots of arcade games. As you'd expect from these developers, Fetch provides a wildly imaginative world to explore in this charming story, but unlike their previous offerings, this time you’ll also be left panting from some madly infuriating arcade minigames that can be more annoying than a bad case of fleas.
In a city with obvious dystopian overtones, cranes and diggers work to move large piles of junk around against the blinking neon signs of the ubiquitous Embark Corporation. The company’s evilness isn’t too subtle, with a motto like “One World – Our World,” and its advertisements litter the landscape with promises of better products, like the Ball, version 3.0, “Now 30% more round.” Tapping around the environment will animate advertisements, newspapers that say “alert” when you touch a story, and missing dog posters that bark at you.
It isn't long before you encounter your first arcade game. It turns out that in addition to making canine products and marketing itself as man’s new best friend, Embark is also conducting a weeklong celebration of video games, giving away prizes when you play an arcade game and win. The first one, "Alien Shooter," is pretty simple. You’re equipped with a laser and must tap the screen to shoot aliens and meteors, trying to survive five waves of play. It’s easy, and you’re rewarded with a squirt gun that doesn’t actually have any use beyond providing an excuse to open up its box and virtually pop bubble wrap.
Your early idle wanderings come to an abrupt end when you happen upon a fire hydrant with glowing green eyes that opens up and swallows first your dog, and then you. And so begins your trip down the rabbit hole, or rather sewer pipe, as you start your search through a brilliantly whimsical world for your missing pup named Bear.
Once out of the bowels of the city you'll travel over brilliant blue oceans filled with pirate ships and submarines, to tropical islands brimming with a riot of colorful parrots and odd, yellow coconut-eating birds, and to industrial towns filled with scaffolding, gears, and strobe lights. With the iPad’s retina display, shining moonlight from a radiant orb pops off the screen against a velvet indigo night sky filled with sparkles. The cartoony style depicts a grim vision of the future, but in a fairly innocuous way that’s almost a bit subversive. Despite the evil corporation lurking in the background, you’ll be surrounded by bright colors and childlike images like three blind mice scampering with black sunglasses, tapping their tiny canes, juxtaposed against sewers dripping in green ooze and filled with grinning and chattering skulls.
Much of the music that fills this world is ambient/electronic in nature. It’s more of a soothing background accompaniment than anything. Most objects you interact with provide a variety of effects like plinks, zaps, dings, crashes, barks, yips, and more. The protagonist sounds like a very darling little boy, but he speaks very little, mostly calling out for Bear. There are robotic voices warning you away from off-limits areas, and as you wander in the belly of the Embark Corporation, you’ll hear a disembodied, soothing female voice praising workers for days without accidents.
The somewhat slow-witted robotic workers do what they can to keep you away from the company’s main complex. To outwit them, you must overcome the odd inventory or logic obstacle. Anytime you pick up an object like a saw or a key, you’ll immediately use it – you won’t have to carry items around and figure out when and where to use them. The few logic puzzles are extremely easy as well. Need to play an organ? Just follow the lighted clues – no musicality or even memory required. Have to figure out a passcode? The image for the code is right in front of you.
While the puzzles are definitely not the focus of Fetch, exploring will provide a variety of opportunities to obtain achievements, which for me upped the replay value of the game (I will get all of those dog tags some day, dag nab it!). Said tags belong to other dogs that have also been stolen. The dog tags aren’t always in easy-to-spot places, of course. You’ll have to interact with the world around you, search high and low, tapping here, there and everywhere. You’ll also earn achievements for discovering secret places and for reaching certain accomplishments within the minigames you encounter.
You’ll have plenty of occasion to do the latter, as you must win money from a variety of arcade games to purchase items from vending machines or pay off rogue robots. Fetch is billed as an adventure/arcade game, and though the introduction of arcade elements is slow at first, as you move forward you’ll need to play more and more to make any progress. In fact, the two final acts are essentially a pair of extended arcade games. The first one requires a bit of puzzling as well, as you’ll use a laser to not only fight aliens but also to turn on computers and assemble robots as you travel through a history and imagination museum.
Upon completing this, you’ll encounter what is essentially one long platforming exercise, where you’ll tap to gain elevation and swipe to speed your spaceship up. There's a life bar that reduces every time you run into an obstacle, a robot, bombs, falling crates, and all manner of other nasty obstructions. I found the controls to be a bit hairy; often, with what I thought was a light tap, my ship would go rocketing up right into a spinning saw or not move down or out of the way in time. In fact, it was so frustrating that I nearly gave up, even though I knew I was near the end of the journey. Given that it took me 30 minutes to complete it out of 2½ hours of total play, this sequence was enough to nearly wipe out my enjoyment of the game.
In between a walk in the park and hair-pulling frustration, the variety of minigames will have you swiping cannons from side to side to shoot pirates and collect hearts (if you’re ancient like me, it's very reminiscent of the Atari 2600 game Kaboom!) or swiping tasty fish into a rainbow snake’s mouth while also tapping bombs and undesirable food out of the way. The majority of minigames hit the right level of difficulty to keep me entertained and challenged throughout.
Aside from the endgame headache, Fetch is a pleasant journey through a crazy sci-fi world where a little boy battles his way through obstacles for love of a dog. You’ll learn that that fierce loyalty between animal and owner is enough to propel folks through all kinds of crazy scenarios, moving them to concoct bizarre schemes and to overcome amazing hurdles. Available exclusively for iPad, its heart-warming story filled with highly polished graphics and funny interactivity was enough to keep this adventure/arcade mutt in my good graces and charm me into playing it again.
Stargate SG-1: Unleashed - Episode One
If you've managed to blast your way through Gemini Rue's gunfights and two-handedly navigate the streets of 19th century London in The Awakened, then you might just be ready for Stargate SG-1: Unleashed. Maybe. Billed as an "interactive episodic sci-fi adventure game", the first episode of this planned three-part series is essentially a third-person action game with a few minor adventure game trappings. There's exploring to do on an alien world, interactive dialogues that may (but don't seem to) impact the outcome, and a few pattern-based puzzles to solve along the way, but the vast majority of this roughly three-hour game is spent fending off waves of enemies in cover fire shootouts, stealthily sneaking past guards, escaping danger through Quick Time Events, and engaging in the odd context-based rhythm minigame.
My first experience of Stargate dates back to watching grizzled Air Force Special Ops Captain Kurt Russell dragging chicken-clucking Egyptologist James Spader through an intergalactic portal to help free a race of enslaved people on a planet ruled by Ra in the original 1994 movie. I've also stumbled upon a few random Stargate Atlantis episodes in recent years and been bewildered about who was who and what was what. The only thing I recognized was the stargate. But apparently somewhere in the middle was an extraordinarily successful ten-year television run of Stargate SG-1. Pulled from the air in 2007, the iOS adventure reunites the main cast of the show, including Richard Dean Anderson as Jack O’Neill, Amanda Tapping as astrophysicist Samantha Carter, Michael Shanks as archeologist and linguist Daniel Jackson, and Christopher Judge as the rebellious former alien slave Teal’c. The likenesses are acceptable and the voice performances credible, so there's not much more you could ask in terms of fan service.
Fortunately, if you're not up to speed on the Stargate universe, the stylish opening menu offers a handy recap of key players and events to fill you in. The game itself begins with a pair of Russian scientists inadvertently releasing the Egyptian "god" Sekhmet (not a spoiler: really a parasitic alien), and instantly regretting it in a very visceral way. Once you take control back at the Stargate Command Center, you're on your own for a baptism by fire. Or should I say, firestorm. With just a few brief pop-up messages for tutorial, you're thrust immediately into a timed escape sequence with multiple gunfights. This isn't a learning curve, it's a learning WALL. The cover mechanics are actually pretty easy. Like Gemini Rue, there are icons to stand (you have to hold it, though the game says to tap), shoot, and switch guns, then let your finger-pointing do the rest as enemies pop out of cover. Their weapons need to power up, so there's plenty of chance to get some shots in first, though if you're facing multiple opponents at once (and you almost always will be), you'll need to beware energy blasts from multiple targets. Getting hit is a virtual certainty, but the extremely forgiving damage system lets you simply duck back down until you've fully recovered, your foes patiently biding their time until you do. There's no health meter, but your character will physically react to injury, and the screen will start to redden when the situation is dire.
Simply moving around proves a whole lot harder, at least in the early going, which doesn't bode well when you have a time counter ticking down (grrr). Stargate uses the same system as Sherlock Holmes – left-side swipes to move, right-side swipes to rotate view – but the latter is overly sensitive. And as a third-person game, the default camera periodically changes perspectives on its own, which means you can be struggling to face the proper direction one moment, only to find yourself moving the completely opposite way the next. That's fun. Did I mention the timer? This opening sequence introduces the first rhythm exercise, as you must tap at the precise time to help your character maintain balance. It's pretty simple, and you can rapid-tap an icon if you do make a mistake. None of these tasks are particularly hard in their own right, but each will take some getting used to as they're thrown at you in rapid succession. I died the first time by letting the timer run out, but since I was stuck facing the entire scenario over from the beginning, I was all over it the second time through.
The premise revolves around Sekhmet's discovery of a time travel device, but this first episode includes only the Stargate team's search for information on an alien planet. It's a world that closely resembles ancient Egypt – or more accurately, Egypt as it would be today if it had never overthrown its ruling oppressors and been allowed to evolve technologically. You'll briefly explore a temple and then a widespread excavation as metal-masked guards monitor their malnourished, ill-treated human slaves. You'll spend a fair chunk of time sneaking around here as Jackson. Like the rest of the game, the stealth scenes aren't particularly difficult, but they are unforgiving, as you're sent back to the nearest checkpoint if spotted by a guard's seemingly hyper-sensitive peripheral vision. Getting back out is a bit more tense, resulting in a fast-paced chase punctuated by swipes and frantic screen tapping on cue.
These limited action sequences are really all there is to Stargate SG-1, as each is repeated multiple times (the gunfights by far being the most numerous). It's not that they aren't fun at all, just very repetitive after the first couple times. The "adventure" elements are largely wasted, with a couple fetch tasks and Jackson's specialist abilities restricted to: see hieroglyphic code in plain sight, enter symbols accordingly. A bit more variety would have gone a long way to making the game feel like a more complete experience. The crisp 3D graphics certainly look nice, but the lack of environmental diversity doesn't really do them justice. There's a lot of dirt and rock and sand and sun, and not a whole lot else. The secondary character models look nice as well, with convincingly menacing alien warriors and a one-armed slave prophet inciting the masses in camp. Music is largely unobtrusive, but it was certainly nice to hear the main Stargate theme play occasionally.
Available as a univeral app for iPad and iPhone (but NOT iPods), this game will appeal mainly to fans of the franchise eager for an interactive mission with the original cast. It's a shame, though, that so little has been done with the concept so far. With its repetitive, action-oriented gameplay, it may turn off those who enjoy Stargate's more cerebral elements, along with any number of diehard adventure gamers. However, with another two installments still to come, there's plenty of room for improvement and expansion in terms of story, locations, and gameplay variety. This episode teases of bigger (if not better) things to come, but for now it still feels very much like Stargate SG-1: Leashed, which hasn't been let out to truly stretch its legs.
Bugs may be creepy in real life, but they've proven to be surprisingly endearing adventure game protagonists (Bad Mojo, Insecticide, anyone?) A bug is the titular star of Tvndra's arcade puzzler Help Volty as well, though if you're at all concerned about bulging compound eyes and six hairy arms, rest assured that Volty is not the least bit repulsive. He's a beetle-like mechanical critter who has unfortunately found himself caught in a mysterious merchant's game box, and in order to free him, you must guide Volty though twelve danger-filled puzzles and minigames.
That's really all the story there is. There's no explanation for who the merchant is or why he's trapped poor Volty, or even why you really care to help him escape. As a premise, it's just a bare-bones starting point for the dozen puzzling scenarios the game has to offer. And even that much has to be discovered through trial-and-error. The hunchbacked, hooded merchant says nothing, but clicking his puzzle box launches a close-up view. Insert a coin into a gaping slot, a dial spins, and suddenly you'll see little Volty creeping out of a hole into a steampunk-ish puzzle arena to face his first challenge.
The first assignment serves as a basic introduction. Simply tap and hold the screen in the direction you want to want Volty to move. Lift your finger and he'll stop, so expect to leave plenty of smudge marks as you continually guide him through his trials. As his name implies, Volty is able to generate an electrical charge by pressing the button on his back, which you'll need in order to power up critical devices along the way. It all sounds harmless, and at first it is, though not for long. Soon you'll encounter enemies that have but one purpose running counter to yours: stop Volty. Unfortunately, they're all electrocution-proof, so you can't defeat them, only avoid them while trying to accomplish your current task. That's easier said than done, as one touch and you're dead, and Volty is a plodding little fellow. Why couldn't this game be "Help Jiminy Cricket"?
The objectives vary quite at bit as you go along. All while dodging enemies, you'll need to release other bugs from their traps, nudge component parts into place (as a beetle, you can't pick up and carry items), race (as well as you can) to escape deadly grids, aim and shoot cannons, traverse an intermittently-lighted maze, orchestrate a musical pattern, and even climb aboard a model train. Many obstacles require experimentation just to figure out the goal and learn what the new components do. In one scene, for example, you must "collect" floating balls of energy to power up a switch, but in another, similar blobs attach themselves to you and weigh you down, making enemy evasion nearly impossible. Oh, and those two gadgets on either side of a single screen prompt a Volty-frying laser when passed. Who knew?
With no instructions of any kind and danger always lurking close at hand, progress in Help Volty is often a matter of learning through failure. That's not my favoured approach at the best of times, but it's made worse here by limited tries. Upon successfully completing each new level, you'll earn three coins to access the next. At a cost of one coin per death, it's easy to run out on the tougher, later levels, sending you back to the previous stage to get more. The game throws you a bone by introducing a spare coin somewhere during your third and final attempt at a given level, but even reaching that in time isn't always a gimme.
Granted, with only twelve challenges to overcome, this would be an extremely short game if not for the added risks, but padding play time with forced restarts is hardly a worthy alternative. I'd have liked to see at least the option to remove the coin limitation, but there will surely be many puzzle-lovers who would rather dispense with the opponents altogether. Their presence raises the tension along with the stakes, but it's debatable how much benefit this adds to most of the levels, particularly since Volty is totally defenseless and controlling him can feel like an exercise in moving in sludge. And when Volty is joined by other electrical friends, several times you need to touch all of them at the same time – in one scene there are as many as FIVE at once (with a timer ticking down, no less).
Other than the opening moody market scene, the entire game takes place inside the game box. While never differing too radically, each round has its own combination of grainy, knotted wooden panels, torn stickers, peeling paint, metal engravings, rusted equipment, and hi-tech devices. It's hardly a scenic environment, but the graphics are nicely detailed and polished. The ambient music changes with each level, and while you won't be tapping your beetle tarsi to their beats, they provide a pleasant enough backdrop for the action. Some seem a little more cheerful than the circumstances would dictate, but anything more sombre would be too dreary in this game.
Created by three indie Dutch developers and released exclusively for iPad (along with a free introductory version), Help Volty is a reasonably entertaining diversion between more substantial offerings. With no story, lots of failure, and a healthy dose of tension, it's perhaps best played in small doses, but that makes it suitable to a mobile platform. And for all its somewhat unnecessary frustration at times, there's also something mildly addictive about its super-streamlined approach and simplistic mechanics. A hard-won victory towards the end of the game might elicit a "thank goodness THAT's over", but it will immediately be followed by a "let's just take a quick peek at the next one." There's nothing so difficult that a little patience and perseverance can't resolve, so if you're feeling a little antsy for your next puzzle fix, you might just want to tune your antennae to this little bugger.