iPhone Gems: Puzzle, Board + Mystery Games
This week’s gaming edition of iPhone Gems looks at seven games that may, on the surface, have little in common. One of them—the first-person shooter Cube—is entirely unlike the others. But the remaining six titles are thought-provoking puzzle, board, card, and mystery games, some highly original, and others not so much.
Our hands-down pick of the week is Touch Physics, followed by Lux Touch and Uno. But there are lots of titles here worth checking out.
One of the very best iPhone games yet released is GalCon, a game where you are given a galactic map and attempt to take over as many planets on the screen as possible. The conceptual basis for GalCon is a board game called Risk, which has been remade by Sillysoft Games into a similarly compelling iPhone title called Lux Touch (Free). You’re given a map of most of the world, which has been divided into country and state-like quadrants that are initially colored either blue, red, green, yellow, or black.
These colors—and numbers on many of the quadrants—represent armies. You control the blue army, and every blue-colored portion of the map is under your control, with the numbers telling you how many army units are located on your territories. If there’s no number on a piece of land, that means the land is ripe for invasion; if the number is low, that means that you can be displaced by attacks from another army with roughly as many or slightly more troops in place and ready to die. The game is turn-based, so each turn is spent with you or the computer’s armies trying to grab as much of the territory as possible; you get more soldiers each turn, with bonuses for capturing entire continents at once.
What makes Lux Touch fun is that the balance of power can change dramatically on given turns—one color may spread itself thin all across a continent, wasting soldiers to conquer a lot of land, while another more concentrated army may build up in one spot, then charge across the land to completely eliminate that competitor on the next turn. Eventually, only two colors will remain, and then, only one—if it’s blue, you win. Achieving this is a matter of moving your armies around effectively on the map, continually taking and holding pieces of land. It’s like playing one of the more challenging maps in GalCon against four other players at once.
Sillysoft promises that Lux Touch will go “DLX” with a future deluxe version for the iPhone and iPod touch; we’re looking forward to seeing it, and hoping that the company gets the price right. In the current form, this is a challenging little game that can keep you occupied for 20-30 minutes, and potentially have you come back a few times for more before you tire of the map, computer AI, and difficulty level. It’s worth checking out, if only as a teaser for the full game that’s yet to come. iLounge Rating: B+.
Our favorite game this week—and one of the very best inexpensive games we’ve seen on the iPhone to date—is Touch Physics ($1) by Games 4 Touch. The idea is very simple, but the brainpower that went into creating this game is anything but: you are given what looks like a crayon drawing on a piece of paper, and use your finger as a crayon to make an on-paper ball roll its way over to an on-paper star, guided by physics. There are 30 levels, varying in difficulty, and in each case you can draw lines, triangles, boxes, and balls to put pressure on your ball to get where it needs to go.
The only word that we can use to describe Touch Physics’ ambience is “charming.” There’s a light guitar song in the background, what look like real swipes of a crayon as you move your finger around, and a physics engine that somehow manages to tie it all together, letting the cartoony ball sway, bounce, and roll its way over to the star. Those familiar with Nintendo’s paradigm-shifting Yoshi’s Island will understand why this look, as compared with the more realistic graphics of a puzzler such as Enigmo, can seem even more inviting and novel to players despite the fact that it requires much less of the iPhone’s horsepower to render.
While there are little things we would like to see in Touch Physics—better font picks, more music, and of course, even more stages—we have to say that this game strikes us as pretty close to perfectly suited to its $1 asking price. It would be hard to count the number of hours we’ve spent playing this over the last week, and yet, we haven’t had a moment of frustration; there’s always a sense that if something goes wrong in trying to solve one of the open-ended puzzles, you can figure out a way around it, either through brute force or more creative thinking. That’s the mark of a great game, and this one is definitely one of the iPhone’s greatest yet. Our only concern is its future pricing; should it change, our unqualified high recommendation will be lowered a bit. As-is, we’d gladly pay for a true sequel. iLounge Rating: A.
While we’d like to be able to say that Trace (Free) by Kevin Calderone is as good as Touch Physics—and they do have a lot in common, conceptually—there’s no doubt which one of these games we’d prefer. In Trace, you have a thick marker to draw with and an eraser to clean up with; the goal is to draw paths to get an on-screen stick figure from point A to point B. The background art is intentionally primitive, as is your drawing; the major challenge is to draw in a way that lets your character walk without interruption to the destination.
What’s impressive about Trace is its raw collection of levels. Even though the backgrounds aren’t super impressive, the developer has come up with grids full of stages to choose from—way more for free than Touch Physics gives you for a dollar. No matter how MS Paint-quality the art may be, the stages have their charms, and some even have moving objects to avoid, in addition to immobile ones. The game doesn’t lack for diversity.
But Trace’s gameplay is sort of forgettable. The drawing feels a bit sloppy, and you may need to correct it with the eraser solely to fix an errant pixel or two because the market you’re given is so chunky, and your stick figure can’t move properly with a pixel or two of impediment. You need to actually move the character using on-screen arrows and a jump button, all of which feel a bit sluggish and oversimplified. It’s hard to feel good about the way your character proceeds through the world, dumbed down, after playing a game with the physics engine of Touch Physics.
Like some of the other games we’ve tested on the iPhone, Trace has a feeling of being just a little bit shy of fully baked, with the right general elements in place to succeed as even a paid game with more refinement. Right now, we consider it worthy of only our limited recommendation, but as a way to burn some time, you may find it more compelling as a free download than we did. iLounge Rating: B-.
Our final game this week is Gameloft’s card game Uno ($8), which is fully reviewed here. We’ve previously looked at and loved Uno on Click Wheel iPods, where it sold for $5; this version makes a series of changes that vary from small to large, with mixed results.
Uno is a very straightforward card game: between two and four players are dealt hands of cards, which vary in colors and numbers. A card at the center of the table needs to be matched either in color or number by the player, or else another card needs to be drawn from the deck until a match is possible. Additional cards, forcing opponents to take two or more cards, or match a new color instead of the last color, can also be played; the game ends when a player is left with one card, calling “Uno,” and then matches that card to empty his or her hand.
New to the iPhone version are two multi-device multiplayer modes, augmenting the “pass the iPod around” mode found in the Click Wheel version by letting Wi-Fi and online modes work with additional participants. It’s these features—we think—that made Gameloft try to charge a $3 premium over the right-priced iPod version, which sold for the same cost as a typical deck of Uno cards. Unfortunately, we found the iPhone’s controls to be a little less straightforward than the Click Wheel version’s, and at the new price, there’s little reason to prefer this version over its predecessor unless you really want to play with iPhone- or iPod touch-using friends. So long as they’re willing to shell out the price themselves for their own copies to link up with you, you’ll enjoy the experience of playing this fun game, but if you have an earlier iPod, save a few bucks and get the prior version. iLounge Rating: B+.
We love iPhone puzzle games, but we don’t see the supposedly saliva-inducing appeal of The IconFactory’s Frenzic ($5), a very simple title that places you in control of six circles that can each be filled with six pie-shaped colored pieces. A seventh circle in the center of the screen is filled every second or two with a single slice of pie in a specific orientation; you then tap on any other circle to move it there. Your goal is to match six pieces of the same color within a single circle, a challenge because the central circle’s pieces don’t necessarily appear in the orientation or color you need, and there’s no way to change those characteristics—you have to work with what you have.
Frenzic isn’t a bad game. But by the standards that have been set for $5 games on the iPod and iPhone, it’s not worth nearly this much, either—nor is it worthy of the boast that it “makes Tetris and Bejeweled look like child’s play.” The action is intermittently broken up by icons that can remove everything currently on the board, up your points, or change the pace of gameplay. Frankly, Frenzic needs more than these to make itself seem better than free Flash-based games we’ve seen on the web; for the price, we’d pass. iLounge Rating: C.
Fully reviewed here, Gameloft’s CSI: Miami ($8) is an iPhone re-release of its earlier Click Wheel iPod game of the same name. Based on the TV show starring David Caruso, CSI: Miami places you in the middle of a murder investigation that expands beyond its initial contours, forcing you to visit a number of different suspects at varied locations around the city. You then use forensic tools and techniques to sift through evidence on a fairly linear path through the investigation.
While CSI: Miami’s graphics have received a modest upgrade for the iPhone and iPod touch, the gameplay has generally fallen short, with a combination of bugs and poor controls that create problems for what was otherwise an uninspired but straightforward mystery game. Ultimately, the game doesn’t feel as if it was tested properly before release, and players may well find themselves stuck due to the failure of a triggering event to take place. This isn’t what we’d expect for a $3 premium over the iPod version. iLounge Rating: D+.
If there was ever a game that blatantly demonstrated just how much the iPhone and iPod touch need an external controller, it’s Cube (Free) by Fernlightning, the only non-puzzle game in today’s batch. Highly similar to Quake and other iD Software first-person shooters in terms of style and execution—we thought we recognized a multiplayer map from Quake 3 as one of the stages here—Cube places you in control of a gun-armed guy running through mazes that vary radically in elevation and texturing. You move through the mazes hunting for enemies to shoot and items to keep you both shooting and protected from enemy shots.
Other than the absence of audio, and the frame rate, which is highly unstable—the game hits under 20fps in limited situations on an iPhone 3G, falling to 3fps or so when multiple enemies are on screen—Cube demonstrates that the iPhone and iPod touch have the potential to deliver first-person shooters as compelling as ones on two- or three-generation-old PCs. Given what pocket gaming devices have and haven’t accomplished over the last few years, this is actually pretty impressive; it’s obvious, however, that this and other developers have a ways to go in optimizing 3-D shooting games for smooth playback on this platform.
Controls are a bigger issue: here, Cube is a complete mess. The device’s accelerometer is used for head tilting, and a “move” button—the bottom right of the iPhone’s screen—propels you forward, while another corner lets you shoot, another lets you jump, and another calls up a menu with tiny text that you need to use to load levels and pick modes. While we can’t blame the developer for coming up with a scheme like this, actually playing Cube resembles a finger-sized game of Twister as you try to figure out how to move, shoot, and jump at the same time; most players just won’t bother.
Though it’s a completely free download and the maps here are interesting, Cube is yet another demo-quality release that leaves you with little more than the knowledge that the iPhone one day will have some really cool 3-D games to play. More than most titles, however, it shows just how much of a gap there is between what developers can currently accomplish with the hardware, and the hardware they’ll need to bridge the last mile-sized gap with gamers’ expectations. iLounge Rating: D.
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