Welcome to the latest edition of iOS Gems! This week, we’re looking at a mix of games and kids’ apps, including both sequels to big-named titles we’ve previously covered, and some brand new releases.
Our top picks in the bunch are Kotomon, Luxor Evolved HD, and Trucks HD, but all of the titles in this Gems roundup are good enough to consider purchasing if the descriptions appeal to you. Read on for all the details.
Peapod Labs’ ABC series remains one of our favorites for teaching the alphabet and vocabulary words to kids, so we were once again enthusiastic to see what the company would do with its latest release, ABC House ($3). Universal with iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch support, ABC House assembles a collection of photographs, videos, and lightly interactive activities to introduce young children to letters and words, this time focusing on objects that are found in homes. The framework tying these activities together is the same as what we’ve seen in prior releases, and has been polished so much at this point that there’s little more to say about it: only the “swipe to reveal” activities, which now have dotted lines to suggest where kids should swipe to change one picture to something else, seem modestly different from what’s come before. And Peapod Labs has reduced the impact of what was formerly a seriously annoying repeated “sign up for an account” prompt during app loading; now it appears only once and can be made to go away.
Despite the interface improvements, ABC House has a different issue this time: the pictures and videos aren’t as fantastic this time out. Some of the pictures are, as in earlier titles, gorgeously realized representations of the objects the app is teaching, while too many others are filled with pictures of children interacting with the objects; some videos plucked from YouTube similarly may be “about” the object, but too lightly focus on them. Other images, such as “grill,” may vary from a satay grill that looks decidedly unlike something you’d see at a house to an image of a child grilling food without adult supervision—a fearful thought for some but not all parents. And unlike earlier ABC applications, which rapidly proved popular with our kids, the images here didn’t seem to appeal to them much. From where we stand, it’s obvious that Peapod Labs is trying to make nice improvements to its franchise, but a little more care needs to be taken in assembling each new release’s images and themes. As polished as the interface now is, if the imagery, videos, and activities aren’t up to snuff, kids won’t love the apps. This one is on the fine edge. iLounge Rating: B.
As we’ve reviewed many MumboJumbo Luxor titles in the past, there’s no need for us to deeply revisit the gameplay details in Luxor Evolved HD (Full) ($3). This is the latest in the company’s series of colored ball-matching puzzle games, and effectively the same “move left and right, firing shots into a snaking line of balls, matching three or more” game with a new skin, apart from some bonus levels that feel more like Centipede and other classic shooters, heavier on the blasting than on color-matching.
But the new skin is so noteworthy that we’d suggest that fans of the genre—and fans of vector-themed retro games—jump on the release right away. Inspired by Geometry Wars, MumboJumbo has electrified what was starting to become a somewhat stale collection of Egyptian-themed ball-matching action puzzles, replacing the rolling balls and sandy backdrops with pulses of glowing energy, vector explosions, and starfields. Techno music, accompanied by light EQ-style visualizers, helps to keep the intensity level high, a massive contrast with the epic but slow tracks found in earlier Luxor titles; boss encounters, unlockable weapons, and over 60 stages provide a lot of depth, too. From a technical standpoint, prior Luxor titles required a lot more hand-drawn or rendered artwork, but Luxor Evolved HD makes more with less. Thanks to the vector art and electronica, it’s one of the best games in its genre, for sure, even if the underlying concept is exceptionally similar to what’s come before. iLounge Rating: A-.
Though it hasn’t made much of a splash in the App Store—we’re still trying to forget Lumines – Touch Fusion—game developer Q Entertainment has created such awesome console and handheld titles that we’d love to see it release more iPod, iPhone, and iPad games. Out of nowhere, a group of former developers from Q have come together as Monstars Inc. to release Kotomon ($4), a brand new title that initially appears to have little in common with Q’s back catalog of rhythm and shooting games, but winds up integrating both elements into a title that’s as unique and entertaining as the other inspirations it draws from.
Heavily Japanese in design and appeal, Kotomon’s concept is to combine concepts from Namco’s Katamari Damacy, Sega and Q’s Rez, and Nintendo’s Pikmin into an atypically cute third-person shooter. Set to catchy but minimalist music that depends somewhat on your tapping for extra beats, Kotomon places you in control of a red bean-shaped alien who walks around expansive playfields, grabbing monster-like followers to toss at malicious alien targets, completing each of 24 levels by eliminating the targets and corralling all of his followers at an end-of-stage campfire. You hatch each follower by rolling around a Katamari-like egg found scattered throughout the levels; the followers remain on your team between stages until you’ve amassed an army of assistants to grab, point in the direction of targets, tap to fire, and then recapture for your next shot. The more followers you hatch—and the closer they are to you when you need them—the more shots you can fire at a time. It’s a seriously smart play mechanic, aided by the developers’ use of hill and valley terrain that hides new eggs in places you mightn’t see without a little exploration. You die instantly if you get shot or touched by an evil alien, restarting the level at the beginning.
Though it won’t be confused with a modern console game in either beauty or scope, Kotomon contains many impressive little touches that work extremely well on iOS devices: your virtual D-pad appears like a cosmic circle of light on the screen, characters have bright or dark cel-shaded bodies that look akin to Nintendo’s Pikmin filtered through a Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker lens, and trails of starlight and nuggets keep the stages from ever looking plain, despite repeating textures and some deliberately black enemies. Early stages seem almost too simple, but quickly ratchet up in intensity to the point where strategizing attacks from safe distances becomes a necessity. If there are any issues with Kotomon, they’re largely traceable to the iOS platform and pricing: by shooter standards, you have relatively little actual control over targeting—you point in a general direction, release a projectile, and hope that it will take out a “combo” of enemies—and the number of levels could stand to be increased, as well. But for the $4 asking price, and given the quality of what’s here, these are minor issues; Kotomon is charming, better than the sum of its parts, and definitely worth checking out if you’re a fan of Q’s past titles. iLounge Rating: A-.
Some of Gameloft’s titles have been jaw-droppers in both graphics and gameplay, so dramatically moving the iOS platform forward that we’ve been completely thrilled from end to end—the original N.O.V.A. was one of them. Obviously taken part and parcel from Microsoft’s Halo series, it was nonetheless a breakthrough in the App Store, demonstrating that the iPod and iPhone could more than compete with handheld consoles, even when forced to use virtual on-screen controls instead of physical joypads and buttons. The just-released N.O.V.A. 3 ($7) isn’t as much of a breakthrough, particularly in the gameplay department, but it’s definitely impressive nonetheless: as the first N.O.V.A. title with universal support for iPads, iPhones, and iPod touches, it has a new and improved graphics engine that’s clearly been optimized for iPads, running a little sluggishly on smaller devices. This version sports an edgier graphic style that looks to have been inspired by the Crysis and Modern Combat series, each of which is at least little more polished than this title.
It’s clear that Gameloft is investing serious energy in making the N.O.V.A. franchise compelling, even if it continues to borrow liberally from other franchises: this time, the game opens with spoken dialogue and camera work that seem to be straight out of the Battlestar Galactica TV series, complete with respectable voice acting, sound effects, and music. The gameplay remains very similar to the earlier N.O.V.A. games, complete with a virtual D-pad for movement, swipe-based head-turning, and button-based shooting, reloading, and special powers—time-slowing, repulsor-like force pushes, and freezing among them—plus occasional vehicle riding segments, improved from the ones in N.O.V.A. 2. Single-player and online multiplayer modes are also offered, the latter with up to twelve players on six maps and six modes, the former across 10 stages that are open-looking but with linear structures.
And the backgrounds have received significant graphical updates: stages now have Modern Combat 3-like levels of polygon and texture detail, best shown off in early urban environments. So too do the characters, including your teammates and more consistently humanoid enemies alike, although their robotic body armor is more impressively segmented, lit, and textured than sculpted to look like faces. Apart from non-trivial frame rate and loading performance issues, which are light on the latest iPad compared with the iPhone 4S—hopefully but not certainly to be fixed in a post-release update—as well as some bugs that can make progressing through levels a little challenging, there’s a lot for shooter fans to enjoy in N.O.V.A. 3. If you’ve been following the series, or just want to see the current state of first-person sci-fi shooters on iOS devices, it’s worth checking out. iLounge Rating: B+.
Duck Duck Moose has released many edutainment titles for Apple’s devices, but Trucks HD ($2) feels like its greatest departure yet from its prior apps—in several ways. The art’s just as cartoony as before, and there’s still happy music in the background, but this time, the company’s trademark happy people and animals take a backseat to vehicles. After a parade of lightly animated vehicles appears on the title screen, tappable with noises, a “choose a scene” menu lets kids play five different activities, each themed around a different car or truck concept.
One lets you dirty and clean cars in a car wash. Another lets you puncture a car’s tire and then repair it at an auto shop. The next teaches trash, compost, and recycling sorting with trucks. Still another shows stop and go signals with interactive vehicles. The last shows dump and bulldozer trucks dumping and moving dirt. Kids generally just touch objects to make them move around, play noises, and in the case of trucks, perform tasks; there’s little more to do than tap, which helps the activities remain accessible for younger children. Most of the scenes involve more than one screen full of artwork, scrolling automatically when you tap a car or truck; hidden animals can be tapped upon to add a little random fun to the scenes, as well. Fans of past Duck Duck Moose titles will enjoy the shark that shows up playing guitar in the car wash and later driving a truck, the monkey that empties recycling cans, and the classic pigeon in one background, just waiting to be tapped.
Production values remain high here, as well. Duck Duck Moose now impressively includes lightly funky, instrumental renditions of quite a few songs, such as When the Saints Go Marching In, If You’re Happy And You Know It, Ten Little Indians, Jingle Bells, I’ve Been Working On The Railroad, Yankee Doodle, and Wheels on the Bus, a great value for the price. This offsets the fact that some of the activities, including tire-fixing, aren’t entirely intuitive and could benefit from extra illumination, and the company’s continued insistence on separating the iPad and iPhone/iPod apps into two purchases without good reason. Those little issues aside, Trucks HD is a fun and charmingly developed app for kids; it’s very worthy of the asking price. iLounge Rating: A-.