Sunday, June 16, 2013

App games: it's time I got a life

I've recently dipped my toe into the vast sea of app games, really to get ideas for my own app game, the first (non-live) version of which should be in my hands in a few days. I downloaded four free games and I thought I'd give a review of them here.

Candy Crush Saga
This game has overtaken Angry Birds as the world's most popular app game. I can see why: it's fast-paced and busy, constantly bombarding the user with animations and sounds. It took me a few minutes to twig what you were supposed to do, probably because I'm a bit thick. The object is to swap adjacent pieces of candy to create lines of three identical candies. The first couple of levels are very easy so that you're hooked in at an early stage, and this game has more hooks than a coat rack. There's a ticking clock in the background (What's this for? Is there a time limit?). It turns out that every half-hour you play, you gain an extra life. You can also buy extra lives or gain them by sharing your score with your Facebook friends, if you have any, and of course many people have hundreds of them. The colour scheme and candy-store theme are quite feminine; attracting that half of the population has played a big part in the game's success I think. As for me, well I completed about ten levels, hardly scratching the surface of the "saga", then promptly uninstalled the game (it's nice that it's so easy to rid yourself of apps if you've had enough of them). I quickly tired of the booming voice telling me something was "sweet!" or "tasty!" every few seconds. All the colours were over the top, and when I saw coloured fish crawling over my screen accompanied by fairground music, I wondered if someone had spiked my tea. And my lack of a Facebook presence renders the game unworkable for me. I won't give it a star rating: Candy Crush is very cleverly designed but it ain't for me.

4 Pics 1 Word
This is a puzzle game, each puzzle consisting of four pictures which combine to give a single word. Beneath the pictures are some letters which you use to form the answer - this can be anywhere from three to eight letters. My cousin and her family have played this a lot; it makes a very good family game. Some of the puzzles could be solved by quite small children and would provide a useful, fun tool for helping kids with spelling and vocabulary, while others would probably need grown-up eyes and brains. Difficulty varies a lot from one puzzle to another but it isn't in any sort of progression: puzzle 173 might be harder than puzzle 456. That's not such a bad thing; it doesn't lock out the younger family members after a certain point by producing a stream of hard-to-get words. And there are a lot of puzzles. I visited my cousin's place last night and there was a real sense of anticipation as we homed in on the 1000th (and supposedly final) puzzle. What would happen after completing the last puzzle? A big fanfare? Something asking you to shell out money for more puzzles? What actually happened was puzzle 1001. Everything is very clean and slick, with just the right amount of sound and animation. Sure, the pop-up ads on the free version get annoying, but I can't blame the designers for wanting to make money. My only criticism would be the choice of letters which you pick from. The unused letters seem to be picked at random from the alphabet; this means the low-frequency letters appear more often than they "should". Sometimes you'll even get a selection containing say three Q's and no U, in which case you can disregard the Q's immediately. That's really just a minor nitpick - I'm happy to give 4 Pics 1 Word 4½ stars.

Quite a simple game which had me hooked from the start.
There's a wheel split into three coloured segments in the centre of the screen; using the touch-screen you rotate the wheel to catch coloured flying balls by matching them with the correctly-coloured segment. As you might imagine, the balls get faster as the game progresses. The more consecutive balls you match correctly, the points value of each subsequent ball increases, and it does so in quite an ingenious way. However if you mismatch a ball, the "energy level" of one of the three sectors reduces, as does the points value when you next catch a ball. When the energy level of any of the sectors reaches zero it's game over. Some of the balls have special powers, for instance one type of ball creates drones (they're all the rage these days) which ward off rogue balls. The worst ball to collect thankfully occurs only rarely: it reverses the rotation of the wheel, leading (for me at least) to certain death. The game has many subtle but rather cool features. The balls leave a trail as they streak across the "sky"; if you mismatch a ball the handset vibrates; as you approach your personal best a circle appears showing whatever username you picked for yourself, closing in on the magic colour wheel until your record is broken. I love the spacey feel of the game, the simple colours and the choice of font. As your high score climbs ever higher, you move up a ranking system. My last attempt, which was a huge improvement over my previous best, only elevated me to the third of 13 possible ranks. I haven't played since, but as each game only lasts a few minutes I may well do so again without feeling especially guilty. All in all Gyro is a suberb game: 5 stars.

As the name suggests, this game takes the form of a 7x7 grid. The object is to rearrange coloured squares around the grid to create lines of four (or more) of the same colour in a row, which then disappears. It starts off nice and easy, but rapidly becomes very difficult. And that, to my mind, is the biggest flaw of 7x7. However, the game is an interesting mix of skill and luck - there's a lot of strategy involved in deciding where to move each square to maximise your chances of still being able to move on future turns. You can see what colours are coming up next, and that makes strategy considerations even more involved. Odds come into play, as do other poker-like concepts such as inside and open-ended straight draws. If you do clever stuff like make two lines in one go, you get extra "lifelines" which are crucial in being able to survive later on, but you can only really collect these lifelines in the earliest levels and I don't like that your survival (or not) of level four is so dependent on what you did in level one. There are other things that could have helped make the game more marketable. It's too static; it needs a few more lights and sounds. Someone wisely pointed out that the "try again" button implies failure, and "play again" would have been better. And perhaps most importantly, the name could be more appropriate. It's true that the game is played on a 7x7 grid, but that's really only incidental. Four is the key number, not seven, so if the name is to contain a number at all it should be four. Still, I can't be too critical. Creating a fully functional phone app isn't easy, and it's kept me occupied for a few hours already. I'll give it 3 stars.

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