Appvent Calendar Games: Thoughts (Part 1)

If you have an iPhone (or iPod Touch) and haven’t heard of the “Appvent Calendar,” go check it out. Blacksmith Games has organized an advent calendar where an iPhone game is given away for free each day in December leading up to Christmas. These are games which are not normally free, and are only free for the one day they represent on the “appvent calendar.” I’ve been picking up each of them so far, except I unfortunately missed yesterday’s (it was over 10mb and I forgot when I was in range of wi-fi), but I thought I’d post some thoughts on each of them.

These posts may be in batches or may be more regular after this first one, but this will focus on the first nine games I’ve gotten through the appvent calendar. So far none of these have been games I would’ve come across otherwise, and since they won’t be free for long, it seemed like it might be useful for others to read something about them before buying. So without further ado…

33rd Division
Craneballs Studios – $0.99, free version available

In this game, the player draws lines in order to direct soldiers to sneak past enemy scouts and reach specific target locations. There are three different types of soldiers to direct, power-ups to pick up along the way, and tapping on a soldier will make him lay prone so he’s not visible but also can’t move. The production values are good and the game seems well-made, but the levels feel way too long. I think in each level you just keep playing and playing until you lose? And at some score threshold the next level is unlocked? But it gets monotonous after a while guiding the same guys past the same patrol over and over and over again (you have to guide quite a lot of guys past the enemies to get to the next level). It seems like it would be more fun if you only had to get 10 guys or so past enemy lines to get to the next level, and playing until you drop was made into an alternate game mode. The game uses OpenFeint for leaderboards/high scores if that interests you, and overall it seems pretty well-made.

Kalio Ltda. – $2.99, free version available

This tower defense game’s gimmicks are that you are protecting a single building which can be attacked from multiple directions on land, air, or sea, and that the player can modify the terrain by turning land tiles into sea tiles. This is another game that seems fairly well-made, with nice-looking graphics, but sometimes the framerate can be a slight problem (I played on an iPhone 3G). There are three basic types of towers to build, but each has two upgrade paths that slightly changes how they work. In the last level I played a new, very specific-purpose tower was introduced, so perhaps there are more available later. It would be nice if the player could change water tiles back into land tiles without building towers on top of them. This one uses OpenFeint also.

Alfonso Bozzelli – $0.99

This seems to be a very extremely simple game where you guide a swimming bear-thing around to catch “good fish” while avoiding “bad fish” and picking up bubbles for oxygen. There isn’t much to it, and since touching one “bad fish” ends the game I didn’t play it for very long. It keeps your high scores but doesn’t have any leaderboard type functionality.

Totemo – $0.99

This one I have been coming back to. It is a puzzle game where you match up a certain number of “spirits” to make them disappear (“cross over”), starting with matching up two, then three, and finally four. Any of them can match with any others but must form a line vertically or horizontally, and the goal is to clear all of them from each level. The art is decent, and the overall aesthetic is quite pleasant and feels very polished. The puzzles seem somewhat uneven in difficulty; I will blow through four or five of them before hitting one that takes me a while to complete, then blow through another few on the first try. And I get the sense that the solutions are not unique, and with later ones the arrangement of the board is complex enough that I wouldn’t be able to plan out how to eliminate all the pieces, so it sometimes feels like just trial and error. It is enjoyable enough, though, that I still go back to play it, and it has plenty of puzzles (so far I’ve completed 49 in story mode). It seems to have an online high scores system (for survival mode, I assume), but it keeps crashing when I try to access it.

Samurai: Way of the Warrior
Mad Finger Games – $1.99, free version available

This is a 3D, top-down action game where the player controls a samurai fighting through hordes of other, evil samurai. The graphical style and music are nice and remind me of Okami, but with blood (people get decapitated and sliced in half at regular intervals). The controls are somewhat confusing to me; swipe a finger to swing the sword, but I haven’t really figured out if you always swipe the same way or if the direction you have to swipe is based on the direction the character is facing. The game is also very linear; there is a set path you have to take and you can’t really stray from it. Where it tries to give multiple paths to take it is just frustrating, because it forces you to go back and kill every enemy in the area before you can progress. The story is presented in comic book fashion and doesn’t seem to take itself too seriously. It’s an interesting little action game that looks pretty and can be fun if you figure out the controls. The game was built with Unity, if that is important to you.

LeftRight Studios – currently still free

Rock’em Sock’em Robots: The Video Game. Has some upgrade and customization options, and multiplayer, I think, but this one didn’t hold my interest at all.

Binary Hammer – $0.99, free version available

This is another game I’ve been coming back to. The aesthetics are nice, and the game design is good. The player must hold a finger on the screen to create shapes which will grow until the finger is released, while avoiding the small “enemy” shapes which bounce around and will destroy the ones the player is trying to create. Tilting the iPhone changes the direction of gravity, and can be used so that the shapes the player has created trap the “enemies,” allowing more freedom to create shapes. The goal for each level is to fill 66% or more of the screen with as few shapes as possible, as fast as possible. If the player uses up the available number of shapes without filling at least 66% of the screen, the game is over. This game reminds me of JezzBall, an old game (which might have been based on something else) I played on Windows 3.1 when I was younger, but I think this game is better, as it can teach about physics and geometry. I have a decent number of nitpicks with it, though.

First, it uses “AGON Online” for its high scores and leaderboards, a system I hadn’t seen before. I don’t like it at all. Rather than keeping your high scores automatically, you have to actively “submit” them, even if you don’t care about leaderboards and only want local scores. The “Submit High Score” option takes you out of the game (still within the same app) so you have to go back through menus to play again. That’s the biggest frustration, but there are a few others: the game seems to have trouble with the phone sitting on a flat surface… it always seems to choose an orientation I don’t want. The default orientation should be that of a normal app, bottom of the screen towards the home button. Also, it would be nice if setting it level would be sort of zero-gravity while playing the game, rather than it seemingly choosing an arbitrary direction. The menus in the game are somewhat annoying to navigate because you have to swipe the screen to move to the next menu item, but you can’t swipe on the menu items or it will select one. And when you want to choose a menu item it is often difficult to get it to recognize the choice. Occasionally the game also has trouble detecting touches and releases during play as well, though I think most of the times it fails to detect a release are because my finger went off the edge of the screen. It would be nice if it would consider it a release when a finger does that, though. It’s also often difficult to see around my finger to tell how close the enemies are to the shape I’m making, but I’m not sure how to resolve that one.

Anyway, despite all that, the game is very fun and well-made.

Ickle Count
Tootle – $0.99

This is a very simple game; tap as many divers in numbered order as you can before time runs out. Each one adds a miniscule amount of time to the clock. The graphics are stylized and well-done and the game is very minimalistic–not even one menu or option–but it does keep your high score. I think this is an interesting design choice and when viewed in the context of a mobile phone game, especially one that can really be played by anyone, I think it has its place.

Wheeler’s Treasure: Tasty Voodoo Entrée
Two Lives Left – $1.99

As I mentioned earlier, I missed this one. The screenshots look pretty.

Blimp – The Flying Adventures
Craneballs Studios – $0.99

In this game, you control a blimp in 2D levels with airborne obstacles, picking up and dropping off passengers, as well as bombing things on the ground. The visuals are nice and the game seems well-made. I have only played the first level, and my only nitpick is that the physics for the blimp are not really blimp physics; they’re more what I would expect for a jetpack. Anyway, if you’re reading this today (and you have an iPhone or iPod Touch) there’s no reason not to pick it up, since it’s free for today only.

Part 2 can be found here.

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