The use of full motion video in games used to be a kludge; done to inject a semblance of realism into an otherwise unrealistic world. Even with brand name actors they still had the penchant to be campy and overacted, but that ended up being part of their charm. The late 90s to early 2000s saw FMVs fall out of favour, replaced instead with cinematic renderings or in-game cut-scenes. Recently however the FMV has been making something of a comeback with titles like Quantum Break upping the ante when it comes to mixed-media productions. However what I haven’t seen up until now is a movie production that incorporates game elements and that’s where Late Shift, from CtrlMovie, comes in. At its heart Late Shift is very much a film production but it also incorporates the idea of player’s choice, putting you in charge of how the movie plays out.
Late Shift puts you in control of Matt, a young student who’s taken a job as a parking attendant for high end cars. The night begins like any other with Matt taking his place at the front booth and settling down to while away the hours until his shift is over. From here where the story goes is up to you and you’ll be faced with numerous decisions over the course of the film, each of which can have a drastic impact on how the plot plays out. Late Shift features some 180 decision points, 7 different endings, 14 chapters combining into a total of about 4 hours of film. Suffice to say it’s an impressive gambit and one that I didn’t think would grab me as much as it did.
The film made its debut on iOS and in select cinemas last year, only coming to Steam just recently. Reading up on the cinema release shows that they used an audience majority vote to dictate the choices, using the audience’s smart phones to cast the votes. Indeed it seems that CtrlMovie’s whole focus is on developing technology to support more movies like this with Late Shift demonstrating on the bare essentials of what they are currently capable of. In all honesty I’m excited to see where this kind of tech could lead as I’m a big fan of narrative focused games and, whilst I’ve said I like interactive movies before, this is probably the first title to be 100% true to that idea.
Mechanically Late Shift is very simple: at various points throughout the movie’s run time you’ll be presented with a bunch of options. Depending on which one you choose certain things will happen and the course of the story may change. I’d estimate that about half the chapters are “mandatory” in the sense that there’s really no way to escape them but even in them there’s a bunch of decisions that change how that particular chapter plays out. There’s also the option of not making a decision at all (if you allow the timer to play out) but from what I can tell that by default chooses the leftmost option. Once its all said and done you’ll be presented with a screen that shows you how many decisions you made, the number of chapters you saw and the endings that you unlocked. It would’ve been nice to see the global statistics for choices at this point but they weren’t included (and I can partly understand why, they don’t want to spoil the other endings).
I was initially on the fence about whether or not Late Shift would be worth it but after playing it through once myself I was sold on it. My wife also enjoys these kinds of interactive stories (she played Until Dawn no less than 4 times over) so we sat down to play it through again together, this time with her in the driver’s seat. It was interesting to see the choices which, on the surface, would seem to not matter actually influencing some aspects of the story quite heavily. Additionally her ending played out completely differently to mine, showcasing some decision points which, in my play through, meant nothing but for her meant a lot more. Interestingly her play through also highlighted that there is a “path of least resistance” as the game will put up a lot more roadblocks to some decisions than others.
The tech that drives this is relatively simple however there are a few rough edges that could be smoothed out a bit. CtrlMovie boasts “seamless playback” on their website but it’s anything but with decision points, the interface freezing up for a half second or so as it loads the next bit of video. Additionally, and this might have been due to us using Steam in-home streaming for the second playthrough, the click recognition on the decisions can be a little finicky at times. Both of these things aren’t huge distractions from the overall experience though and are things that can be easily fixed with a few minor patches.
Late Shift’s story is a crime thriller and its strength comes from the interactivity. If it was presented just as is I don’t think it’d be anywhere near as engaging as it is otherwise. There are a few weird plot holes that exist due to the interactive nature, mostly things that may/may not have relevance to your particular story thread. I’ll stop short of saying it’s a must see for everyone but if you’re a lover of narrative-first games, walking simulators and the like then Late Shift is definitely up your alley.
Late Shift shows that the ideas of player choice can translate well into the land of cinema. It’s definitely a 1.0 product although that being said the rough edges and handful of choice-driven plot holes are a small price to pay for the overall quality of the end product. I really can’t say much more without diving into spoiler territory but suffice to say Late Shift was an unexpected gem, one I’m sure will get a few more playthroughs in the future.
Late Shift is available on iOS and PC right now for $12.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 2 hours playtime and 40% of the achievements unlocked.
This may come as a surprise given my gaming pedigree but I never really got into the old Lucasfilm adventure games. It wasn’t a lack of interest, more that we were a MS-DOS/PC house and my friends who loved those games were all Mac families. So I stuck to my titles and they to theirs and so I was left to discover adventure games much later in life. I tell you this because I feel a lot of what should make Thimbleweed Park good is tied up in the nostalgia associated with those games. Don’t get me wrong, nostalgia is a completely valid thing to base a game on, however for those lacking the requisite history with the product/franchise/developer those same elements can be confusing, kitchsey or downright trite. Such is my experience with Thimbelweed Park, one where I can see a lot of what I know is likely to be a huge draw card for many but simply not for me.
Thimbleweed Park puts you in charge of a whole host of characters, ranging from two detectives who couldn’t be more different, to a young girl with aspirations to become a game developer and even a clown cursed to never be able to remove his makeup. The game starts off with the detectives investigating a murder in this sleepy town of just 81 people. What follows is a deep dive into the town’s history, how it came to be and why everything seems to hinge on a single dilapidated pillow factory on the town’s outskirts.
As the game was developed by the very same people behind all those Lucasfilm Games titles it should come as no surprise that its art direction reflects them to a tee. The art is perhaps a bit more detailed than its predecessors were with things like better shading being quite noticeable on comparison. Thimbleweed Part definitely leans more towards a stylized, cartoony feel rather than a pixel-art imitation of the real world which, again, is reminiscent of its spiritual predecessors. The simplistic graphics do belies a great amount of detail in some areas however, like the bookshelves (which in most adventure games would just be decorative) containing hundreds of titles in them. This is, of course, all part of the game’s core mechanics.
There’s nothing new or inventive about how Thimbleweed Park plays out and that’s very much by design. Long time fans of these specific kinds of games will be instantly familiar with the trademark grab-bag of verbs at the bottom left-hand side of the screen which dictate how you can interact with objects and NPCs. There’s your inventory which will contain a bevy of both useful and useless items, although which is which is an exercise left up to the reader. Every room is filled with details, some of which you’ll need to solve the current issue du-jour and others that will come in handy later. Indeed the structure of Thimbleweed park is done in such a way that there’s no dead-ends and no way for your character to die so you should (hopefully) never get stuck. Combine this with witty quips from all the characters, constant breaking of the fourth wall and not-so-subtle references to the developer’s previous employer and you’ve got a campy but interesting trip down memory lane…I assume.
As the game will tell you (if you listen to the pigeons, that is) Thimbleweed Park is a well designed adventure game in terms of mechanics and puzzle layout. For the first few chapters there’s always something to do and a pretty logical construction to all the puzzles. The inclusion of a to-do list for every character means that you’ll always have at least half a thought towards what you should be doing, even if it’s not immediately obvious. You will however still spend your time doing what you always do in these adventure games: trying a whole bunch of different item combinations and interactions until you finally figure out which one works. Of course once you figure it out it all makes sense, but the journey to that point can be quite frustrating at times.
Thimbleweed Park’s puzzle construction and layout might be both its greatest strength and weakness. Whilst it’s great to have a lot of avenues for progression having them early on can be something of a mixed bag. If you’re like me then you’re quite likely to chase down a bunch of red herrings that aren’t related to your current objective, just because they seem like obvious problems to solve. A good example of this is a puzzle in the diner which I cottoned onto very early on in my play through. Trouble with that was that puzzle didn’t need to be solved until right at the end of the game and so I ended up wondering what the point of it was, thinking I had wasted my time. This is in stark contrast to my general experience with adventure games (both new and old) which gate puzzles like that to keep you on track.
For people who really like to explore through everything though I don’t think this will be much of a problem. The amount of content in Thimbleweed Park is pretty impressive, putting the average completed play through at around 16 hours or so. For people like me though, those without the background in these titles or a deep interest in the story (more on that in a second) it can lend itself to frustration. This is why at around the 4 hour mark or so I gave up any semblance of dignity and headed for the walk through guides with reckless abandon. I do this because otherwise I’d be likely to quit the game in frustration and this way, at least, I can see how the story ends.
The story didn’t do much to grab me, unfortunately. Sure it’s refreshing to see a game not conform to the current norms for adventure games (both new and those in a similar style to this) but after a while some of those aspects start to lose its sheen. Breaking the fourth wall can be funny and thought provoking, but you can only do it so often before it becomes repetitive. The one-liners, repeated jokes and other story mechanics are good in moderation but that’s not something Thimbleweed Park has in large supply. I’m sure all these things that I’m mentioning as negatives are things that long time fans of these types of games say they love, and I’m not trying to take away from that. More I’m trying to show you what it looks like from an outsider coming in and, honestly, it just wasn’t all that and a bag of chips.
It probably doesn’t help that I didn’t really engage with the story past the first 4 chapters or so. The various character’s story arcs were only loosely coupled together which made their required co-operation to solve puzzles even more confusing. Again this comes back to the no-dead-end policy which, whilst ensuring the player can’t find themselves irrevocably stuck, means that certain things aren’t as tight as they could be. For me this appeared to be the story as the connecting elements just weren’t there to pull the whole thing together. Couple that with the items I mentioned before and the overall story experience just wasn’t up to the level that the hype surrounding this game would have you believe.
Thimbleweed Park is most certainly a game for the fans of the Lucasfilm Games series of years gone past, something which this old writer unfortunately let slide by. Had I not my experience of this game would likely be worlds different; a trip down nostalgia lane rather than a mediocre adventure game. All this being said though there is an inherit quality to the game, one that has obviously been shaped by the decades of experience by those who created it. So whilst it might be making my game of the year list I’m sure it’s going to be a delight to those it was made for: those with an inner child who still hold Lucasfilm Games in high regard.
Thimbleweed Park is available on PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, iOS and Android right now for $19.99. Game was played on the PC with 7 hours of total play time and 55% of the achievements unlocked.
Ah the post christmas drought, where everyone is still reeling from the barrage of AAA titles that were released just in time for the holiday season and nothing else is scheduled to come out for weeks. Often this is the time where I catch up on titles from the previous year that slipped my grasp but this time around I managed to do much of that over the christmas break. So I wandered the Steam Winter sale (something which is incredibly disappointing when half of the titles are already in your library) and came across Hocus, a curious little game whose puzzles take inspiration from the mind bending drawings of M.C. Escher.
The principle of the game is simple, you have a red cube and you need to get it into the little red ditch. Of course it’s not as simple as clicking on it however as the path to get to the goal isn’t as straightforward as it might look. Instead you’ll have to figure out which pieces cross where, how your perspective is being twisted and which parts of the impossible drawing are real. It’s a mind bending exercise in throwing away your preconceived ideas of geometry and figuring out just how all the bits and pieces actually fit together, something that can be a quite complex challenge once you’re in the thick of it.
Whilst Hocus most certainly started out as a mobile game I really have to commend the amount of work the developer put into the steam version of their title. The game has been fully reworked to make use of the PC platform rather than just being a straight port dump like so many others are. This goes hand in hand with the beautiful minimalistic stylings, both in terms of the game itself and the background music. This just seems to be the start for Hocus too as the developer has promised to deliver a level editor in the not too distant future.
In terms of actual game play Hocus is most certainly a satisfying challenge, providing you with numerous puzzles to try your wits against. The difficulty curve isn’t entirely linear though as some puzzles, even though they look complex on first glance, are by far the easiest. Indeed it was the seemingly simple puzzles which presented me with the most grief, probably because they really only had one true solution. Hocus’ puzzle design also fits the mobile platform better than the PC, due to the fact that it starts to feel a bit repetitive after a longer session.
Hocus is a great puzzler, one that benefits greatly from the developer’s commitment to the game and the community that has cropped up around it. The minimalistic stylings are a perfect fit for this kind of game, focusing you directly on the challenge at hand. The puzzles themselves are no trifle either and are sure to provide a challenge for even the most non-linear thinkers among us. If you’re looking for another time killer for your phone or just enjoy a good non-Euclidean styled puzzler then Hocus is definitely a title you should check out.
Hocus is available on iOS and PC right now for $0.99 and $1.99 respectively. Total play time was approximately 1 hour.
Long time readers will know that I’ve long held the belief that OSX and iOS were bound to merge at some point in the future. For me the reasons for thinking this are wide and varied, but it is most easily seen in ever vanishing delineation between the two hardware lines that support them. The iPad Pro was the last volley that iOS launched against its OSX brethren and, for me, was the concrete proof that Apple was looking to merge the two product lines once and for all. Some recent off-hand remarks from CEO Tim Cook convinced many of my line of thinking, enough so that Tim Cook has come out saying that Apple won’t be developing a converged Mac/iPad device.
That statement probably shouldn’t come as much of surprise given that Cook called the Surface Book “deluded” just under a week ago. Whilst I can understand that it’s every CEO’s right to have a dig at the competition the commentary from Cook does seem a little naive in this regard. The Surface has shown that there’s a market for a tablet-first laptop hybrid and there’s every reason to expect a laptop first tablet hybrid will meet similar success. Indeed the initial reactions to the Surface Book are overwhelmingly positive so Cook might want to reconsider the rhetoric he’s using on this, especially if they ever start eyeing off creating a competing device like they did with the iPad Pro.
The response about non-convergence though is an interesting one. Indeed, as Windows 8 showed, spanning a platform between all types of devices can lead to a whole raft of compromises that leaves nobody happy. However Microsoft has shown that it can be done right with Windows 10 and the Surface Book is their chief demonstrator of how a converged system can work. By distancing himself from the idea that the platforms will never meet in the middle, apart from the handful of integration services that work across both platforms, Cook limits the potential synergy that can be gained from such integration.
At the same time I get the feeling that the response might have be born out of the concern he stirred up with his previous comment about not needing a PC any more. He later clarified that as not needing a PC that’s not a Mac since they are apparently not Personal Computers. For fans of the Mac platform this felt like a clear signal that Apple feels PCs are an also ran, something that they keep going in order to endear brand loyalty more than anything else. When you look at the size of the entire Mac business compared to the rest of Apple it certainly looks that way with it making less than 10% of the company’s earnings. For those who use OSX as their platform for creation the consternation about it going away is a real concern.
As you can probably tell I don’t entirely believe Tim Cook’s comments on this matter. Whilst no company would want to take an axe to a solid revenue stream like the Mac platform the constant blurring of the lines between the OSX and iOS based product lines makes the future for them seem inevitable. It might not come as a big bang with the two wed in an unholy codebase marriage but over time I feel the lines between what differentiates either product line will be so blurred as to be meaningless. Indeed if the success of Microsoft’s Surface line is anything to go by Apple may have their hand forced in this regard, something that few would have ever expected to see happen to a market leader like Apple.
Time waster style games were once the bastion of Flash games hosted on sites like Newgrounds. Since the introduction of smartphones they’ve slowly transitioned themselves away from the web and instead found a comfortable home on everyone’s mobile device. Thus it seems kind of odd these days to play a time waster style game on the PC as they’re no longer the platform of choice for this genre. Still when deciding on whether or not I should get Hook on my mobile or my PC I opted for the latter, if only because I rarely find time to play games on my mobile these days. Interestingly though Hook seems simple enough that it can service both platforms without needing to make any concessions with either.
Hook has a very simple premise: you have to pull all the wires back without any of them colliding with each other. You do this by pushing a trigger that initiates the pulling and, if you done everything in the correct order, it’ll slide all the way back. Other than that there’s not a whole lot more to speak of and the base game comes with a grand total of 50 levels to make your way through. If you’re a power gamer this won’t take you much longer than an hour to accomplish although I’m sure if you got this on the mobile you could stretch out that play time over the course of weeks if you were so inclined.
Hook, like many other minimalistic puzzlers, has a very clean and simple aesthetic. I’m sure part of this was an artistic choice but later on it becomes obvious that the lack of distinction between visual elements is actually a key element of the game play. The background music is similarly simplistic, swelling and fading as you solve puzzles or make a mistake that triggers the level to refresh again. I’m sure some would like the option to change the colour palette but in all honesty I don’t think I’d bother.
As I described before the mechanics of Hook are pretty simple, pull all the wires back without any of them colliding with each other. The puzzles start out pretty simple, literally just clicking any of the buttons in any order will solve them, but after that new mechanics start getting dropped in every 10 puzzles or so to spice things up a bit. Most of these additional mechanics come in the form of ways to block off paths however there’s also a few that break the line, forcing you to retrace the paths again. It would be easy enough to brute force the puzzles however if you make one mistake (or 3 in the later ones) the puzzle refreshes, forcing you to restart from the beginning.
There’s a pretty simple algorithm you can use to beat every one of the puzzles contained within this game although executing it may be a little easier said than done. What you first need to do is find the line that can be moved first, usually one without anything blocking it. Then you need to block off all other paths so that only it gets moved. Then from there it’s simply an iterative process to eliminate the rest of them. Using this process I was easily able to breeze through all 50 puzzles in just over an hour, something that many other reviewers have been able to do. This is probably one of those games that could benefit immensely from a level editor and Steam Workshop integration as I’m sure the community would be able to come up with infinite puzzles that would be orders of magnitude more difficult than the default set.
Hook is a great little puzzler with an unique mechanic. The puzzles, whilst not especially challenging, are rewarding enough that I felt compelled to blast through them all in one sitting. It’s shortness is something of a detraction, especially considering that the addition of a level editor and a way to share user created levels would ensure a near endless supply of content. Still for the asking price I don’t think anyone will really mind the lack of content as $1 for 1 hour of entertainment is pretty good by anyone’s standards.
Hook is available on iOS, Android, Windows Phone and PC right now for $0.99 on all platforms. Game was played on the PC with a total of 1 hour playtime.
PC ports of mobile games have mostly been of low quality. Whilst many of the games make use of a base engine that’s portable between platforms often those who are doing the porting are the ones who developed the original game and the paradigms they learnt developing for a mobile platform don’t translate across. There are exceptions to this, of course, however it’s been the main reason why I’ve steered clear of many ported titles. The Silent Age however has received wide and varied praise, even after it recently made the transition to the PC and so my interest was piqued. Whilst the game might not be winning any awards in the graphics or game play department it did manage to provide one of the better story experiences I’ve had with games of this nature.
You’re Joe, the lowly janitor of the giant research and development corporation Archon. For the most part your life is pretty mundane except for the wild and wonderful things that your partner in crime, fellow janitor Frank, tells you about. One day however you’re called up to management and, lucky for you, it’s good news! You’re getting promoted, taking over all of Frank’s responsibilities because you’ve shown such dedication to your job (with no pay increase, of course, you understand). When you go down to inspect the place where you’ll be doing your new duties however you notice something strange, a trail of blood leading into one of the restricted areas. Following that trail starts you on a long journey that will eventually end with you saving the world.
The Silent Age comes to us care of the Unity platform however you’d be forgiven for thinking that it was an old school flash game that had been revamped for the mobile and PC platforms. It shares a similar aesthetic to many of the games from the era when Flash reigned supreme with simple colours, soft gradients and very simple animations. On a mobile screen I’m sure it looks plenty good although on my 24″ monitors the simple style does lose a little bit of its lustre. Still it’s not a bad looking game by any stretch of the imagination but you can tell which platform it was designed for primarily.
Mechanically The Silent Age plays just like any other indie adventure game with your usual cavalcade of puzzles that consist of wildly clicking on everything and trying every item in your inventory to see if something works. The puzzles are really just short breaks between the longer dialogue sections which, interestingly enough, are all fully voiced. There’s a small extra dimension added by the time travel device, allowing you to travel to the past or future at will, but it’s nothing like the mind bending time manipulation made famous by some other indie titles. Other than that there’s really not much more to The Silent Age something which I ended up appreciating as it meant there wasn’t a bunch of other mechanics thrown in needlessly. It’s pretty much the most basic form of an adventure game I’ve played in a while and that simplicity was incredibly refreshing.
The puzzles are pretty logical with all of them having pretty obvious solutions. There’s no real difficulty curve to speak of as pretty much all of them felt about on par with each other, although there were a few puzzles that managed to stump me completely. Usually this was a result of me missing something or not recognizing a particular visual clue (a good example being the pile of wood in the tunnel under the hospital, it just looked like background to me) so that’s not something I’d fault the developer for. Some of the puzzles were a little ludicrous, requiring a little knowledge about how some things could potentially interact, but at least most of them wouldn’t take more than ten minutes or so of blind clicking to get past. Overall it wasn’t exactly a challenging experience which I felt was by design.
The PC port was a smooth one as pretty much everything in the game worked as expected. The 2D nature helps a lot in this regard as there’s a pretty good translation between tapping on the screen and using a mouse cursor but I’ve seen lesser developers even manage to ruin that. There was one particular problem which caught me out several times however which was that my mouse, if it strayed outside the bounds of the main window, would not be captured. So every so often I’d end up clicking on my web browser or whatever else I had open on my second monitor at the time, closing the game down. A minor complaint, to be sure, but one that’s easily fixed.
The story of The Silent Age is one of the better examples I’ve come across recently, especially for a mobile title. Whilst it’s not exactly the most gripping or emotionally charged story I’ve played of late it does a good job of setting everything up and staying true to itself internally. Of course whenever you introduce time travel into a story things start to get a little weird depending on what model of causality and paradox resolution you ascribe to and The Silent Age is no exception to this. However they manage to stay true to the rules they set up which is more than most high budget films are capable of. Overall I’d say it was satisfying even if it wasn’t the most engaging story.
The Silent Age is a succinct story told through the medium of video games, one that manages to avoid many of the pitfalls that have befallen its fellow mobile to PC port brethren. The art style is simple and clean, reminiscent of Flash games of ages gone by. The puzzle mechanics are straightforward, ensuring that no one will be stuck for hours trying every single item in their inventory to progress to the next level. The story, whilst above average for its peers, lacks a few key elements that would elevate it to a gripping, must-play tale. Overall The Silent Age was a solid experience, even if it wasn’t ground breaking.
The Silent Age is available on PC, Android and iOS right now for $9.99, $6.50 and $6.50 respectively. Game was played on the PC with approximately 2 hours of total play time and 71% of the achievements unlocked.
When you think of Apple what kind of company do you think they are? Many will answer that they’re a technology company, some a computing company, but there are precious few who recognise them as a hardware company. Whilst they may run large non-hardware enterprises like the App Store and iTunes these all began their lives as loss-leaders for their respective hardware platforms (the iPhone and the iPod). OSX didn’t start out its life in that way, indeed it was long seen as the only competitor to Windows with any significant market share, however it has been fast approaching the same status as its iCompanions for some time now and the recently announced El Capitan version solidifies its future.
I haven’t covered an OSX version in any detail since I mentioned OSX Lion in passing some 4 years ago now and for good reason: there’s simply nothing to write about. The Wikipedia entry on OSX versions sum up the differences in just a few lines and for the most part the improvements with each version come down to new iOS apps being ported and the vague “under-the-hood” improvements that come with every version. The rhetoric from Apple surrounding the El Capitan release even speaks to this lack of major changes directly, stating things like “Refinements to the Mac Experience” and “Improvements to System Performance” as their key focus. Whilst those kinds of improvements are welcome in any OS release the fact that the last 6 years haven’t seen much in the way of innovation in the OSX product line is telling of where it’s heading.
The Mountain Lion release of OSX was the first indication that OSX was likely heading towards an iLine style of product with many iOS features making their way into the operating system. Mavericks continued this with the addition of another 2 previously iOS exclusives and Yosemite bringing Handoff to bridge between other iOS devices. El Capitan doesn’t make any specific moves forward in this regard however it is telling that Apple’s latest flagship compute product, the revamped and razor thin Macbook, is much more comparable to an upscale tablet than it is to an actual laptop. In true Apple fashion it doesn’t really compare with either, attempting to define a new market segment in which they can be the dominant player.
If it wasn’t obvious what I’m getting at here is that OSX is fast approaching two things: becoming another product in the iOS line and, in terms of being a desktop OS, irrelevance. Apple has done well with their converged ecosystem, achieving a level of unification that every other ecosystem envies, however that strategy is most certainly focused on the iOS line above all else. This is most easily seen in the fact that the innovation happens on iOS and then ported back to OSX. This is not something that I feel Apple would want to continue doing long into the future. Thus it would seem inevitable that OSX would eventually pass the torch to iOS running on a laptop form factor, it’s just a matter of when.
This is not to say it would be a bad thing for the platform, far from it. In terms of general OS level tasks OSX performs more than adequately and has done so for the better part of a decade. What it does mean however is that the core adherents which powered Apple’s return from the doldrums all those years ago are becoming a smaller part of Apple’s overall strategy and will thus recieve much less love in the future. For Apple this isn’t much of a concern, the margins on PCs (even their premium models), have always been slim when compared to their consumer tech line. However for those who have a love for all things OSX they might want to start looking at making the transition if an iOS based future isn’t right for them.
I used to be spoken for when it came to short time waster puzzlers as none to could topple the venerable 2048. You see it’s not so much that the game itself is that challenging or intriguing (although I will admit it too me far too long to get my first 2048 block) more that I had seen others get really high numbers and I wanted to do that to. So, whenever I found myself with 5 minutes to burn there I’d be, combining blocks together, trying to get my score higher. Since changing phones however I’ve lost my score and this has opened up the opportunity for another contender to take its place. Unium, with it’s deceptively simple concept, is one I’ve lost a decent amount of time to over the past couple weeks and could very well be a contender for my time waster of choice.
The objective is simple: you have to fill in all the black blocks on the screen and can only do so by drawing a line. If the line crosses itself it’ll turn black and you can only cross another line perpendicularly, meaning any corner square is essentially fixed as you left it. There are well over a hundred different grids for you to try your hand at with a limitless supply of new puzzles now being delivered through the Steam Workshop, created via the in game editor. As a concept it’s very easy to grasp however the puzzles, even when they look simple, are anything but requiring either a lot of trial and error or a laterally thinking mind to complete.
Graphically Unium is very simple with the colour palette limited to just the gradient between black and white. For games like this simplicity in the presentation is something I’ve come to appreciate as it means that details aren’t lost in seas of colour or other visually confusing elements. Apart from that there’s really not a lot to say about it how it looks as once you’ve seen the first puzzle you’ve seen all the game has to give you visually. The minimal soundtrack in the background is a nice touch however, even if the menu sounds seem like they were sampled at bitrate far below what they should have been.
The puzzles start off pretty simple, showing you the basics of how to fill in all the blocks and throwing you a few curve balls every now and then to get you thinking differently. Once you’re past the initial set of easy puzzles however things start to get really interesting as you’ll often not be able to just figure it out as you go along. Indeed it’s past that point when Unium starts to show its chops as a real puzzler as the puzzles no longer accommodate a range of solutions, instead only allowing a few ways for the puzzle to be solved. I have to admit that there were a few puzzles that stopped me dead cold for quite a while although now I figure I’ve cracked the secret for puzzles like this (for the most part).
The two most important aspects I found for solving any of the harder puzzles was the start and end of the line and the direction in which you were solving the puzzle (which could be roughly described as clockwise or anticlockwise). There are some puzzles that, unless you pick the right start and finish positions, are simply unsolvable as those two blocks have unique properties that the rest of them don’t. The direction has less of an impact as any puzzle should be solvable in forward or reverse, however I often found that if I was tackling a problem in one direction switching it to the other side would usually trigger an insight into how the puzzle was meant to be solved. That might just be how my brain works however but it’s definitely something I’d recommend trying if you’re struggling.
Unium is a great little puzzler, presenting an extremely simple concept that’s easy to grasp yet incredibly challenging to master. It might not be the most visually interesting game around however it’s minimal aesthetic means you’ll be keenly focused on the problem at hand rather than ogling all the pretty colours. The now limitless stream of puzzles is sure to give Unium staying power far beyond its original station and I’m sure there are going to be some incredibly frustrating puzzles coming out of the community. If, like me, you were looking for a replacement time waster then you won’t be disappointed with Unium.
Unium is available on PC, iOS and Android right now for $1.99, $2.49 and $2.49 receptively. Game was played on the PC with a total of 2.4 hours total playtime.
Microsoft has been pursuing its unified platform strategy for some time now with admittedly mixed results. The infrastructure to build that kind of unified experience is there, and indeed Microsoft applications have demonstrated that it can be taken advantage of, but it really hasn’t spread to third party developers and integrators like they intended it to. A big part of this was the fact that their mobile offering, Windows Phone, is a very minor player that has been largely ignored by the developer community. Whilst its enterprise integration can’t be beaten the consumer experience, which is key to driving further adoption of the platform, has been severely lacking. Today Microsoft has announced a radical new approach to improving this by allowing iOS and Android apps to run as Universal Applications on the Windows platform.
The approach is slightly different between platforms however the final outcome is the same: applications written for the two current kings of the smartphone world can run as a universal application on supported Windows platforms. Android applications can be submitted in their native APK form and will then run in a para-virtualized environment (includes aspects of both emulation as well as direct subsystem integration). iOS applications on the other hand can, as of today, be compiled directly from Objective-C into Universal Applications that can be run on Windows Phones. Of course there will likely still be some effort required to get the UX inline but not having to maintain different core codebases will mean that the barriers to developing a cross platform app that includes Windows Phone will essentially drop to nothing.
Of course whether or not this will translate into more people jumping onto the Windows Phone ecosystem isn’t something I can readily predict. Windows Phone has been languishing in the single digit market share ever since its inception and all the changes that Microsoft has made to get that number up haven’t made a meaningful impact on it. Having a better app ecosystem will be a drawcard to those who like Microsoft but haven’t wanted to make the transition but this all relies on developers taking the time to release their applications on the Windows Phone platform. Making the dev experience easier is the first step to this but then it’s a chicken and egg problem of not having enough market share to make it attractive for both ends of the spectrum.
Alongside this Microsoft also announced the ability for web pages to use features of the Windows Phone platform, enabling them to become hosted web pages with enhanced functionality. It’s an interesting approach for enabling a richer web experience however it feels like something that should probably be a generalized standard rather than a proprietary tech that only works for one platform. Microsoft has shown that they’re willing to open up products like this now, something they never did in the past, so potentially this could just be the beachhead to see whether or not there’s any interest before they start pushing it to a wider audience.
This is definitely a great step in the right direction for Microsoft as anything they can do to reduce the barrier to supporting their ecosystem will go a long way to attracting more developers to their ecosystem. There’s still a ways to go to making their mobile platform a serious contender with the current big two but should this app portability program pay dividends then there’s real potential for them to start clawing back some of the market share they once had. It’s likely going to be some time before we know if this gamble will pay off for Microsoft but I think everyone can agree that they’re at least thinking along the right lines.
Games aspire to be many things but rarely do they aspire to emulate another medium, especially a physical one. The burgeoning genre of cinematic style games and walking simulators have their visions set towards emulating the medium of film but past that the examples are few and far between. You can then imagine my intrigue when I first saw Tengami, a game that seeks to emulate a pop-up book, lavishly styled to look like it was set within feudal Japan. It’s an ambitious idea, one that could easily go south if implemented incorrectly, but I’m happy to report that the whole experience is quite exceptional especially when it comes to the sound design and music.
Tengami is probably the first game in a long time where I can’t sum up the opening plot in a single paragraph as whilst there’s some skerricks of story hidden within the short poems between scenes there’s really not a lot in them. As far as I can tell you’re searching for the blossoms to restore your cherry tree back to life although what your motivation for doing so isn’t exactly clear. Still the environments provide enough atmosphere and presence to give you a kind of motivation to move forward, if only to see more of the paper-laden world you’ve found yourself in.
The art style of Tengami really is its standout feature, done in pop-up book style using real paper textures that the devs scanned in. Initially it had a bit of a LittleBigPlanet feel to it, with the real world textures and 2D movement in a 3D world thing going, however it quickly moves away from that and firmly establishes its unique feel. All of the environments look and feel like they’re straight out of a pop up book, complete with the stretching and crumpling noises when you move various elements around. Tengami is simply a joy to look at and fiddle with, evoking that same sort of feeling you got when playing around with one as a kid.
Coming in at a very close second is the original soundtrack done for Tengami by David Wise. The music seems to swell and abate at just the right times and the score is just incredible. I’m more than willing to admit that my love of the soundtrack might stem from my interest in all things Japanese but looking around at other reviews shows that I’m not the only one who thoroughly enjoyed it. I’m not sure if he was in charge of the foley as well since the soothing sounds of waterfalls, the ocean or just the breeze on quieter sections was just beautiful. If you’re playing Tengami on a mobile device I would wholeheartedly recommend you do so with a pair of headphones as otherwise you’d really be missing out.
With all that focus on the art and sound it would be somewhat forgivable if Tengami was a little light on in the mechanics department but thanks to its unique pop-up book style it’s actually quite an innovative little title. As you make your way through the world you’ll encounter parts which can be folded in and out of existence, between two planes or between different states. It’s like a pop-up book that’s able to exist in a higher dimension, able to shift elements in and out as it pleases. It’s quite intuitive and for the most part you’ll be able to quickly figure out what you need to do or, at least, stumble your way through by trying every option.
The puzzles are pretty straightforward, often only a couple slides or folds away from being completed. The challenge ramps up gradually as you progress through every scene and towards the end they actually start to become quite challenging. However the one fault here is that new mechanics aren’t introduced in a logical fashion and, if you’re like me and know a little Japanese, you can find yourself trying to solve a puzzle in completely the wrong way. The hint system (and the full official walkthrough) are enough to make sure that you won’t be stuck at these for too long but it’s still a mistake that a lot of these minimalist type games make.
The only drawback to Tengami’s incredible design and polish seems to be its length as the game is incredibly short, clocking in at just over an hour and a half for my playthrough. This is not to say that I would’ve preferred for them to cut corners on other things in order to extend the play time, far from it, more that the focus is on quality rather than quantity. For some this can be a turn off, especially when you consider the current asking price, but for me the price admission was well worth the short time I got to spend with it.
Tengami is a beautifully crafted experience, recreating that tactile feel of a pop-up book in a new medium and elevating it with impressive visuals and an incredible soundscape. It’s a short and succinct experience, choosing to not overstay its welcome in favour of providing a far more highly polished experience. As a game it’s quite simple, and suffers a little due to its minimalist practices, but overall it’s a great experience one I’m sure multitudes of players will enjoy.
Tengami is available on PC, iOS and WiiU right now for $9.99, $6.49 and $9.99 respectively. Game was played on the PC with 1.5 hours of total playtime and 100% of the achievements unlocked.