Try It Tuesday: Iron Marines

Even though I’m trying to penny-pinch in anticipation of a vacation next month, I had to loosen my purse strings to buy this game. I’m totally owning that purse strings comment, too. Real men carry around velvet bags of gold doubloons with impunity.

Anyway. This week’s try-it game is Iron Marines, a mobile RTS from the makers of the incredibly awesome Kingdom Rush tower defense trilogy. This studio’s art style and accessible, addictive gameplay made Iron Marines a must-buy sight unseen, and I have no regrets over its purchase.

So instead of being strictly a TD title, Iron Marines is best likened to a slick mobile edition of Starcraft… with a hint of tower defense. It’s basically Terrans vs. Zerg, although obviously named differently. You can pretend it’s Starship Troopers if that helps you get through the day.

You play the part of the human forces landing on a hostile alien world and take part in a campaign to establish a stronghold and yadda yadda yadda. It’s just an excuse to blast bug-things en masse with all of the technology that the human race has to offer.

Even though the Starcraft comparisons are inevitable, it’s not exactly the same game. Everything’s more streamlined, so base-building is merely upgrading your main structure and deciding what defenses to build. You can only have a handful of squads out at a time, too, so no building up an overwhelming force and then getting into fights.

In fact, being outmanned (such as it is) is a big part of the game — the aliens have vastly more numbers on their side, and if you’re not careful you can get overrun quickly. But by being daring and smart, you might be able to push forward, take over their bases, and slowly expand your resource base.

On your side, you have the choice of different types of units, such as squads of snipers or big flamethrower mechs. You also get a tougher hero unit with a pair of useful skills, a mobile tower that can be dropped down for a limited-time assistance every 30 seconds, and whatever defenses you build up around your base. Making the best decisions for the situation is a key part to living or dying.

It’s just a fun game, period. The art is more cheery than Starcraft and keeps the Kingdom Rush-style alive and kicking (I like the little sound clips that the units have, especially the heroes). It’s just enough complexity for a mobile game, with touch-and-drag being a majority of what you end up doing during a game as you maneuver units around the map.

If I had any complaints, one might be that the map is too small and can only be enlarged a little bit — even on a tablet. I wish I could zoom in more to see what’s going on. Also, I’m worried that the 14 missions and 10 spec ops missions might not be that much content overall. I did replay the Kingdom Rush games like crazy, so I’m keeping an eye out for replayability here. Finally, I’m not crazy about the fact that this is a premium-priced game WITH in-app purchases (buffs and additional hero units past the three or four you are allocated).

Anyway, I have a feeling this is going on my regular mobile play rotation and will be there for a while to come. Perfect for vacation travel, even!

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Try-It Tuesday: Galaxy of Pen and Paper

Every so often, I break out of my gaming routine to try something new and different. These turn into my Try-It Tuesday sessions, and they are a mixed bag indeed!

I am a massive fan of the “Pen and Paper” game series that so far has churned out the two Knights games. My frothy excitement overflowed when I saw that there was a sci-fi installment coming, and this past week, Galaxy of Pen and Paper finally arrived. I’ve been getting very little else done since.

If you’re not familiar with these games, the conceit is that you’re controlling a party of real RPG gamers sitting at a table with a GM who leads you through various missions. It’s part meta and part in-universe and extremely jokey all the way through, and I haven’t seen much else like it. The little conversations your guys have as they go on missions and comment on the various ridiculous RPG tropes are awesome, perhaps more so for the ever-so-slightly off English writing (the team is from Brazil, so maybe that explains it?). There are main campaign missions as well as randomly generated ones, and while combat is the meat-and-potatoes, there’s some actual (albeit brief) role-playing involved.

Galaxy of Pen and Paper doesn’t change up the formula so much as expand and improve upon it. It’s obviously sci-fi instead of fantasy themed this time around, which means a lot of Star Trek, Star Wars, Hitchhiker’s Guide, Doctor Who, Akira, and other references peppered throughout. One big change is that combat takes place on a horizontal field this time instead of the top-and-bottom fighting of its predecessors (probably to allow the game to show off your characters more). There is also a space portion with some ship combat, although it’s not quite as engaging.

I had a hard time getting going at first, since I kept getting dissatisfied with my party and skill choices. Plus, at the start you only get a handful of characters and classes. More classes are unlocked as you play, but it was a little disappointing not to be able to customize the looks of my characters.

Eventually I got into the groove and found that there’s a lot of depth here. Each character can equip four skills total — both active and passive — but can unlock many more. So there’s a lot of choice involved in how you build your party and some obvious synergies between characters.

The pen-and-paper motif and the cheeky humor easily keeps me entertained. It might be fluff, but it’s fluff that elevates these games above the ocean of other RPGs out there. This game, like the others, is ideal for pick-up-and-play quick sessions, although the much more packed screen (forced landscape this time) makes it cramped on an iphone — I ended up playing it on my tablet instead.

Here’s hoping that it remains entertaining, has a good amount of content, and is popular enough to encourage the devs to bring us some updates!

Try-It Tuesday: Love You to Bits

Every so often, I break out of my gaming routine to try something new and different. These turn into my Try-It Tuesday sessions, and they are a mixed bag indeed!

Space Boy meets Robot Girl. Robot Girl is a fugitive, but Space Boy doesn’t care. The two fall in love and go on adventures together. One day, Robot Girl is blown up in a starship explosion. Space Boy becomes determined to find and assemble all of her parts, because love will find a way. It might be a strange, challenging adventure, but Space Boy is going to see it through.

I have nothing but high admiration for Alike Studios and their library so far: Tiny Thief and Love You to Bits. Both games offer much of the same experience, being adventure puzzlers with lots of charm and accessibility.

The simple story that drives Love You to Bits — a boy trying to rescue his “princess” — is downright heartwarming and more complex than at first glance. Love You to Bits is a dialogue-free game, preferring to tell stories through simple speechless cutscenes and environmental details. And boy does it work: This game is an absolute masterpiece in its field and a true joy to play.

Each stage of this game takes place on a different planet as the boy tries to secure another one of Nova’s (that’s the robot girl) parts. There are also optional items to grab that can trigger black and white cutscenes that show some of the couple’s past moments together. In fact, getting to know the bond that connects the two as you play the game adds to the motivation to see them restored in the end.

The planets are a bizarre mix of puzzles and settings, each one vastly different than the last. Some play with time, some with seasons, some with gravity, and so on. You never know what you’re going to get, but the process remains more or less the same: Explore, find interactive items and objects, and experiment with unlocking a path to the robot part. One stage had me finding three little critters playing hide-and-go seek and returning them to their alien mother, while another kept allowing me to rewind time in certain areas to show “before” scenes. There was an alien bar that paid homage to Star Wars, a quantum library that only showed rooms that were directly adjacent to you, a comic book-style dungeon romp, and so on.

The challenge level for these stages seems perfect. It’s never tear-your-hair-out frustrating, but you do have to keep poking around and backtracking to try to uncover secrets and figure out what needs to be used where. The boy’s inventory is usually kept small and light, only filling up with one or two items at any given time. I think I might have had three once. The game’s also like a memory challenge, since you have to keep track of what does what when you first fiddle with them, so that you can come back later when you find certain parts or make changes elsewhere. On average, I would clear a screen every 10-15 minutes, and there are several of them (the devs recently finished the game by releasing the final set of levels and completing the story).

More than the puzzles themselves is the art and animation. Again, without dialogue, Love You to Bits conveys so much in every level. The characters can be laugh-out-loud funny and make themselves understood with simple gestures. The fact that you can’t get stuck or die makes exploring and experimenting a relaxing experience. By the end of each stage, I’m usually a little sorry I have to leave, because the locales are so cute and interesting. But then, I want to see what lies ahead.

Anyway, I’m diligently working to complete this game in my spare time, and thought it deserved a mention in this series. Definitely check it out for a polished, intuitive puzzle experience!

Mobile game recommendation: Dungeon Warfare

It’s been a while since I’ve experienced an iPhone game that got me super-excited, but such a title happened this past week and I wanted to share it: Dungeon Warfare.

Dungeon Warfare is a mash-up of a few types of games. First and foremost, it’s a tower defense game (waves of mobs come that you have to kill before they reach your portal). But there’s a bit of Dungeon Keeper in it (since you’re running your own dungeon) and a much different feel to it. Probably the coolest part is that you can set up traps to ping-pong off each other, mousetrap-style, setting of chains of destructive glory that ripple through the oncoming waves.

Everything about this game is spot-on perfect. The pixel art works great and keeps the gore from being more than abstract, the sound effects (traps and screams) lend weight to the gameplay, and the whole interface is a dream to work with. I love how the game super-slows down when you’re placing a trap — although it doesn’t stop entirely.

There’s a lot of strategy with the different stages, especially since you can’t keep plopping down the same one type of trap, as traps become more and more expensive when you’re overusing a single type. You can even handicap yourself on stages (giving yourself only one life or allowing the mobs to regenerate health) in order to get more XP. The leveling mechanic also works well, allowing you to beef up your traps, dungeon bonuses, and consumables.

I think this was a Steam game first, but it just came out on iOS last week and I’ve been rocking it ever since. It’s brutally fun and could well be my new favorite tower defense game. Wiping out waves of heroes never gets old.

Tales from the Borderlands is officially my favorite Telltale game to date

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Let me tell you, Telltale Games keeps impressing me with each new title that it pumps out. OK, so some aren’t as good as others (Walking Dead Season 2 definitely fell short of the perfection of Season 1), but I have thoroughly enjoyed devouring titles like The Wolf Among Us and the three Walking Dead entries (including 400 days).

What these games lack in actual challenging mechanics (very little puzzle solving, overdependence on quicktime events) are more than made up for with agonizing decisions, great characters, high production values, and storytelling that sucks me in to a degree that I thought only books could do.

So when I say that Tales from the Borderlands is officially my favorite of the Telltale library to date, I want to impress upon you that this is a game that’s gone above and beyond the already high standards that have been set by its predecessors. I promised myself that I would fully complete all five episodes on my phone before talking about it, and now that I have, I’m here to spread the word and make a few more converts.

Seriously. Play this game. You shan’t regret it.

What I like about the Telltale team is a willingness to take unorthodox IPs and whip them into an adventure game series. Wolf Among Us was a surprise in taking us into the comic book universe of the Fables, and now with TFTB, we have an adventure game that’s spawned from a rather madcap scifi shooter series. And the thing is, it may be the best Borderlands product out there.

So what do we have here? Tales from the Borderlands is the story of two characters on the planet Pandora: Rhys, a company man who is trying to jump ahead in the ranks, and Fiona, a con artist who’s attempting to score big. Their paths cross early, thanks to an unfolding plot device of a key that can open up one of the planet’s mythical treasure vaults. Soon, crazy adventures are happening left and right as the two assemble a wide entourage that includes Rhys’ best friend, a child-like robot, a shield-using assassin, gangsters, and more.

As with the other Telltale games (from Walking Dead on), the bulk of the interactive story is selecting action and dialogue choices — on a limited time frame — as they come up, not knowing how these decisions will impact the future of the game. Maybe they will, maybe they won’t, but sometimes the smallest action can have strong ramifications down the road. I thought it was quite brilliant that what you assumed to be a disposable combat robot turned out to be a creature that had feelings — and grudges based on how you treated it in the past.

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Above and beyond the usual Telltale format, Tales from the Borderlands experiments with a few new features (Rhys has a cybernetic eye and Fiona can swipe cash to spend on odds and ends) and crafts a surprisingly deep and involved story that can be, in turns, funny, touching, sad, and action-packed. The opening credits for each episode are little masterpieces of the medium, turning an Indiana Jones-like tale into something larger than life.

This game is weird. Really weird. I didn’t know much about the Borderlands universe, but I certainly learned a lot from this game — and I like it. It’s part Firefly, part western, part Mass Effect, part Dune, part a lot of things and also a bit of its own creation. You almost don’t blink twice after a while at some of the crazy crap that goes down, including finding a guy’s face (!) to use for a con, talking to a holographic entity that has taken up residence in Rhys’ head, or suddenly becoming a death race celebrity.

It’s also one of the most hilarious things I’ve ever encountered. I really didn’t want the game to end because I was often laughing way too hard at all of the quips and funny little moments. There are great running gags (Rhys’ horrible tie and everyone’s reaction to it is one) and snarky asides that make you feel like you’re watching a well-crafted movie. Being able to direct what some of the characters say helps you delude yourself that you’re just as funny as the game’s writers.

Funny and weird, weird and funny. You fire off a pistol in an office-slash-corporate museum to hit the flank of a giant unicorn statue… and it bleeds. And your character is really taken aback at the fact that this is a bleeding statue and wondering why it’s a bleeding statue and it’s funnier the more nobody answers the question of WHY IT IS A BLEEDING STATUE. It’s just part and parcel of the greatness of this game.

I also want to give props to the title’s best action sequence (spoiler here but I can’t help but comment on it) — a huge Matrix-like shootout… in which all of the participants use imaginary finger guns. You just won’t see this in any other game, ever.

Finally, for all of its weird humor, TFTB left me feeling deeply affectionate for its cast of characters. Unlike Wolf Among Us or Walking Dead, this isn’t a dour game where everyone ends up dying (although there are a few unscheduled demises). It’s an upbeat adventure starring a crazy bunch of lovable misfits who might have just found their best friends — and that includes the love between two robots.

If you’ve played it, you know how awesome this game is. And if you haven’t, I just hope that I’ve convinced you to give it a try. Trust me — you need the laughs.

Fallout Shelter just turned into a kind of awesome game

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Recently I reinstalled Fallout Shelter onto my phone and I discovered something surprising: It had actually turned into a real game.

I mean, it was always an above-par base builder with a little more interactivity than your standard time-gated builders, but the decision to take some of the action outside of the shelter and into the wasteland was a terrific move. Sometimes you just want to leave home so you don’t feel so claustrophobic, you know?

The new quests and exploration events aren’t super-involved, but they are a lot better than I would have thought. Parties can now explore various structures, fighting, looting, and questing their way through them. There are even storylines to follow, and I am getting a kick out of seeing my party banter as they shoot up packs of ghouls and radroaches. Plus, the art has that retro-futuristic Fallout feel, so even the environments are fun to discover.

This one change has really made Fallout Shelter far more compelling than it used to be (and again, it wasn’t a bad game to start with). The other night one of my explorers found a cabin where a girl greeted us and warned us that her ma and pa were biters. Sure enough, in the basement were two feral ghouls looking for a meal, which felt like a classic little Fallout tale.

I kind of want more. I kind of want to see a full Fallout game done with this 2-D art. But for now I’ll just take pleasure in seeing what else is out there in the wasteland to discover.

Tiny Tower, five years later

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Last week, Nimblebit announced that it was giving its old classic Tiny Tower a major update for its fifth anniversary. This was personally fortuitous, as I had just returned to Tiny Tower to start anew. Having a beefy update with lots of quality-of-life features is extremely welcome.

Ever since Tiny Tower released five years ago, I have been playing one of Nimblebit’s pixelart games in some form. First it was Tiny Tower, then Pocket Planes, then Nimble Quest, then Pocket Trains, then Tiny Death Star, and most recently, Tiny Tower Vegas. And while each of those games has its charms, there’s something about the original Tiny Tower that makes it my favorite of the bunch.

It just hits the spot as a mobile game. It fits the vertical phone format well, has a metric ton of personality, can be played for mere minutes at a time if need be, and has a satisfying economic loop. I love looking at all of the details worked into each floor, even if they all are just set dressing.

I easily recall playing Tiny Tower in that first year late at night on mission trip or on a plane while going to visit my in-laws. The addition of costumes and missions have helped somewhat since then, and I think my wife probably got even more into the game than I ever have (hey, she maxed out her tower, a feat I have ever yet to accomplish).

Sure, I have a few suggestions that I wish would happen. The game needs more than three music tracks, for starters, and it would be great if the Bitbook posts would flash across the tower screen instead of making you go through the menu system to read what the bitzens are saying. But for the most part, it’s a terrific game and it looks like there are a lot of new floors and ways to customize a tower to come.

Can’t wait for the update to come out — and I really hope that Nimblebit has another game in that universe cooking.