Sawbuck Gamer

The Best Of Sawbuck Gamer: June 2012

The Best Of Sawbuck Gamer: June 2012

Selections from our daily reviews of free and cheap games.

By Anthony John Agnello, Noah Cruickshank, Russ Fischer, Steve Heisler, Tasha Robinson, Derrick Sanskrit, and Ryan Smith • July 3, 2012

Dungeon Village

When you venture out into the world of a role-playing game, odds are you’ll come across a few towns. They’ll sell weapons, or offer beds in which you can recuperate. Sometimes the local citizens will throw parades in your honor. And to the credit of game designers, no two towns are ever the same. Traditions and armor selection vary like snowflakes cast from your wizard’s staff.

Developed by the makers of addictive iPhone simulations like Game Dev Story and Mega Mall Story, Dungeon Village grants you a bigger-picture view of fantasy-game urban development. It casts you as the city planner, not as the adventurers themselves. Like Farmville or Tiny Tower, you build up a town worthy of attracting swashbucklers and wanderers. There are inns and bakeries to build, empty houses to fill with heroes, and monk’s robes to gift said heroes so they stick around. Occasionally, quests will pop up, like clearing out a cave full of monsters, and you sit back and watch as bunnies are slain by your intrepid heroes of choice. And if there’s a parade at the end, it’s only because you threw it.

Dungeon Village feels less thrilling at first, since you’re doing all the work only to watch some hero named John Dungeon can get all the credit. But as the selection of buildings and weapons expands, the game’s SimCity roots begin to show. Before long, you’re sending grunts out on missions while you stay home and watch your town grow around you—which wouldn’t be possible if you were merely the hero of the tale.

Relive Your Life

Matt Ackerman is no Dr. Seuss, but while the couplets in his rhyming narrative may not be the most polished turns of phrase, the developer does at least have a feel for Seuss’ slippery storytelling logic. Relive Your Life is a brief, subtly strange Choose Your Own Adventure. Kicking off with your conception, the game follows you through three or four pivotal choices in your life and concludes most often with the establishment of your adult identity. Mashing a button quickly to decide if you want to be a boy or a girl isn’t the strangest game activity in the world, but it’s pretty damn weird that deciding to skip school on your first day will result in you turning into Doctor Who.

Many of the game’s 29 lives are that surreal. A childhood fight results in your turning into a teenage goth girl. Not an unreasonable scenario. Before you get to make another choice, though, you’re making voodoo dolls to torture unidentified businessmen. Seuss never felt the need to tell you why Sneeches exist, but at least their actions are coherent.

So Life is difficult to predict at first. Whenever it throws a choice at you, it’s unknown if you’ll have to quickly tap a single button, enter a series of key strokes, or make a snap either/or decision. As you play through, though, you become a bit more accustomed to Ackerman’s curveballs. In this way, at least, his game captures something essential about living.

Paladog

“In a distant future, the greed of Humans brought themselves to their ruin by destroying their own land and nature.” In that future, grammar apparently followed mankind into an early grave, judging from the rest of the garbled narration and dialogue in Paladog. But what the game lacks in English-language coherence, it makes up for in cartoony cuteness and polished gameplay. Paladog is largely a castle-vs.-castle game, where players spawn anthropomorphic animal soldiers (mankind’s replacement in the world) to march across the screen and battle the opposing castle, a stronghold of the demons who want to take over the planet.

The game’s primary twist: You play a dog paladin whose powerful personal aura gives nearby followers special powers. Instead of using fire-and-forget tactics, you’ll want Paladog risking his fuzzy skin in the thick of battle, and laying down the smack with a series of wands and rings that grant him special abilities, from group healing to meteor-summoning.

Like so many castle-vs.-castle games, Paladog is repetitive, though it mixes things up with huge bosses, three varieties of mini-game levels, power-ups, upgradeable minions, and a changing roster of challenging baddies. The soldiers and their foes are adorable and creatively designed, and the huge number of levels mean plenty of long-term challenge. The only major annoyance comes in the mini-game levels. Here, you have to fight with randomly dispensed warriors and weapons, which often aren’t adequate to the task; in these levels, luck substitutes for strategy, and the frustration factor is high. Otherwise, Paladog tends to be grindy, but addictive. Especially if you ramp up the drama factor by watching the game’s trailer, which posits Paladog as not merely a minion-spawning contest, but a war of outsized bravery, big personalities, and a dog who will definitely have his day.

Box Life

Are you sick of all the long tutorials that hold your hand through convoluted controls and the latticework of objectives found in most modern games? Do you pine for the days of classic adventures that just dropped you in an environment and expected you to figure out the rest? Are you searching for a tight, enclosed space to free you from the wide-open vistas of open-world game design? Do you enjoy the sight of multi-colored polyhedrons? Assuming that you answered “yes” to all, kind sir and/or madam, perhaps I can interest you in the claustrophobic exploration of Box Life.

This game has no relation to the charming Nintendo DS puzzler by the same name. Box Life is a first-person adventure in the vein of Portal or Gravity Bone. Story is nonexistent, with terse text prompts only appearing when the player collects a new power-up. A “Metroidvania” with little more than one room, the player must explore to collect skills and use those skills in order to collect the colorful polyhedrons and escape.

The whole appeal of the Box Life experience is that rush the player gets from figuring things out on her own, along with the increasing sense of empowerment. There’s also a rather nice Easter egg for players who find more than half of the six “secrets” hidden around the room. This post-game secret hunt is well-worth a second or third playthrough, especially as “escape” will only take about five minutes once you know your way around.

Hug Marine

You’ve trained long and hard for this, cadet. You finally got your first solo mission, exploring the dark caverns of alien planets in search of… whatever it is our thoroughly futuristic Space Marine Corps searches for. Deep in the caves, this is the moment OH SWEET MARZIPAN, WHAT IN THE NAME OF BABY SPACE DEITY IS THAT?! It’s some sort of hideous extraterrestrial lifeform—all right, cadet, don’t panic. Get in close; you know what to do. Oh yeah, that’s a good hug. Nice and cozy.

Hug Marine is a pretty straightforward retro run-and-jump platformer. The hook is that each level ends with a different alien beast in the Giger/Lovecraft mold, and the player, rather than slaying these monstrosities, hugs them. It isn’t really clear what happens after the hug, but it seems as though you then move on to another alien cavern to hunt down and embrace another creature. There are no goals beyond “don’t fall in acid and die” and “don’t fall on spikes and die,” so it seems as though the Marine’s entire mission is to hunt down and hug these aliens.

In that regard, Hug Marine is a refreshing change of pace. Outside of A Boy And His Blob, there isn’t very much active hugging in video games. In the deluge of annual games about marines shooting aliens in their reptilian heads and kneecaps, it’s nice to embrace the unknown in a more literal sense. Hug Marine feels like the sort of game PETA might make if they decided to target Ridley Scott, which would, frankly, benefit everyone.

Recursion

Recursion requires patience, but that’s not to say it isn’t an immediate delight. From the start, everything feels right in The Village Blacksmith’s little platformer: Your little marooned spaceman moves quickly through the single-screen puzzle courses, with jumps that feel tight but not too quick, to the easy sounds of light trance jams.

The name of the game is important, though. These levels are just one screen, and the goal of each is to guide your spaceman to the flagpole. But moving across the edge of the screen takes you right back to the other side—jump in a pit, and you fall right out of the sky. The first few levels feel like just a hop and skip over to the flagpole. Soon, however, the spaceman encounters cunning arrangements of spikes, zombies, nasty bees, and crumbling floors, forcing you to strategize.

Getting through the levels requires a healthy balance of problem-solving and smooth movement, and the levels are varied enough to keep things interesting. Come Level 16, you can literally break a level, trapping yourself so you can’t proceed—break too many of the bricks above you, and you can’t climb out—forcing you to restart a level from scratch. Slow and steady gets the spaceman home, though, and that’s not a bad thing.

Life In The West

Any grandma will tell you that Twitter is worthless. “Who cares about what I ate for lunch?” they might say, before telling you how many of her other grandkids called her to wish her a happy Mother’s Day. True, Twitter is well established as a stream-of-consciousness medium, but comedians, critics, and relative unknowns have also tamed it to create a forum for genuine, meaningful expression. And then there’s Kanye West, who takes the phrase “stream of consciousness” very seriously.

The famed hip-hop artist tweets nonsensical things at unpredictable intervals. Something like, “I just zoned on how ill it is to really fall in love… Pimpin’ is whatev … Love is that shit!” might come shortly after a tweet about a Persian rug, or how he hates striped scarves.

Life In The West captures some of the essence of what it must be like to be Kanye West. The game isn’t very complicated: You begin with an empty Twitter feed, and you accrue “Kanye Points” by gaining new followers, or by tweeting when “Inspiration!” strikes. When that happens, a mock-up of an iPhone pops onto the screen, and no matter what you type, one of Kanye West’s actual tweets shows up. Soon you’re just mashing the keyboard (you get a bonus for speed), and then frantically clicking on people to follow before Inspiration! strikes again.

Life In The West does not attempt to make much sense of the method behind West’s madness. It merely tries to replicate it, leaving a lot of @kanyewest’s mystery for future Twitter anthropologists to debate.

Reprisal

Domestication of the natural world is an overlooked aspect of empire-building. In order to make conquered land “habitable,” settlers must radically change the terrain and ecology, introducing new vegetation, livestock, and farming practices. Reprisal lets the player modify the landscape at will, turning years of manual labor into an easy act of god. Either way, the outcome is the same: the expansion of your domain.

Since terraforming is the major tactical tool in Reprisal—a game of world domination—you must decide at every level how to reconstruct the world to your advantage. Winning usually requires sending out hundreds of minions to create new settlements or take over those of competing factions. Your minions react to certain commands, but your ability to create a comprehensive battle strategy with them is negligible. Instead, you have to rely on literally moving the earth to make sure your lackeys head in a particular direction. If there’s a large enemy outpost close by, the best bet is to create water channels or high mountains to prevent the minions from wandering over and dying.

Landscaping is not the only power to be gained in Reprisal, but the others are all devoted to destroying enemy strongholds: you can light them on fire, shoot lightning at them, etc. Since you are limited to building up land or destroying structures, the game ends up feeling a bit like herding cattle. But, played in short bursts, Reprisal hits a sweet spot, letting the player use the entire world as an earthy canvas.

Pocket Planes

The shrinky-dink airline tycoon game Pocket Planes puts players in control of a nascent air travel company. But it’s really a spreadsheet game that sports cute 8-bit-style varnish. Through inventory screens, a map, plane data readouts and even shots of planes in transit, it offers a pretty dense airline simulation. (Dense for a cell phone game, at least.) Players buy, upgrade, and even scrap planes; open and develop airports in new cities across the globe; and manage itineraries for thousands of little digital travelers.

There’s a minor learning curve, as the game gives few hints about how best to manage layovers and route through multiple cities for maximum profit. Pocket Planes presents a lot of data, which leads to the desire for more. Why isn’t there a better visualization of what plane upgrades are best to buy, or what passenger management pattern will earn the most money?

The number-crunching is slow at first, as the game’s dual currencies—gold and “bux”—are initially in short supply. Thanks to the “freemium” model that developer NimbleBit employed in its previous success story, Tiny Tower, you can purchase bux with real-world cash. There’s no real need to pay, although the trade-off for free play is time. You want planes to traverse the globe? Gotta put in the hours, captain.

After a few hours, Pocket Planes feels like the fever dream of an unsophisticated capitalist. Resisting the urge to increase your gold and bux stashes proves difficult. Doing so means answering an insistent call to expand, expand, EXPAND! There’s an inexorable march of profit, with no end in sight, and “more” is the only thing to be “won.” The game doesn’t factor in competition, so the world is just waiting to be mapped out by the one and only airline that has the perseverance to keep planes in the air day after day after day…

The Suspense II

The time-traveling puzzle game The Suspense II raises a lot of questions. Why is this workaday businessman being hanged in a rural village? The guy looks like he ought to be fixing copiers—not facing the mob justice of disgruntled herdsmen. Why is a farming village equipped with whirring buzzsaws in the middle of the road, in both the pleasant past and the stormy present day? I get that Business McGee can travel through two time periods with a flick of the “S” key, but that doesn’t quite explain the death traps on Main Street.

The laws of The Suspense II’s unhappy little world don’t make much objective sense, but its internal game logic works quite nicely: Change the past to escape death in the present. There are 10 obstacle courses to work through, each one marked by a distinct puzzle. In one, you have to bring a man a shovel so you can get to a key in the underground; in the next, you’re flipping switches in the past so Death itself can walk past some of those saws.

Suspense avoids overseriousness with ridiculous images of cruel fate. Throwing up an Alexander Pope quote—“The good man prolongs his life; to be able to enjoy one’s past is to live twice”—could get heavy if it weren’t counterpointed by the absurdity of a pudgy cartoon guy crucified in his button-down. The game is a little unsatisfying, though. The final level is called “You Can’t Escape Death,” and you can’t. It’s a frustrating trick but a tantalizing one that makes the “To be continued…” at the close quite tempting. Just because death’s inevitable doesn’t mean it’s not fun to try and outrun it.

Inferno+

It’s difficult to resist the urge to jam a quarter into your iPhone when playing Inferno+. That’s because this addictive shooter plays like a hidden relic from the glory days of the arcade of the early ’80s, if it were created by a contemporary artist with a devotion to the laser-noir aesthetic of the Tron movies.

The game’s influences range from the minimalist black backdrop of old-school zap-’ems like Asteroids to the corridor-crawling gameplay of Gauntlet. To top it off, the bright yellow spherical object you control resembles a robotic version of Pac-Man. The game’s almost religious devotion to sparseness extends beyond its looks—it’s missing any sort of story or gameplay hints, and unlocking the brutal “New Game+” mode is the only reward for conquering all 40 levels. The only concession Inferno+ makes to modern gaming is the existence of a light “class” system—you have four different ships to choose from—and a shop filled with upgrades.

Retro shooters aren’t uncommon on iOS, but what separates Inferno+ from the pack is its deliberate pace. Instead of having to continuously dodge enemy fire in a cavernous open space, the maze-like layout of the levels allows you to use duck-and-dodge guerrilla tactics when facing off against the game’s garishly colored enemies. Other combatants lie just beyond force-field barriers unlocked by keys found strewn about each level. Never mind the Inferno in the name. The game offers a chilly, distant world—albeit one likely to warm the hearts of crusty arcade lovers.

Psychout

Game-sharing sites like Newgrounds and Kongregate have a template for browser-based platformers: slick sprite animation, a modicum of morbidity, and one or two unusual mechanics that an entire game can be based around—if only for 10 minutes, before the game acknowledges its own limitations and ends abruptly. Psychout follows this formula to the letter. As a mental ward inmate, the player cavorts around elaborate single-screen death traps disguised as padded cells. It all looks very simple, but that’s only because the way the inmate sees the world is very different from the way the world really is.

The rules of physics are altered from room to room. Sometimes you can walk up walls. Sometimes you can flip gravity. Sometimes there are invisible platforms. Sometimes the padding moves around and transforms into a life-sized game of Pong. The player enters a room, takes stock of the surroundings, and goes about a reality-defying escape. The 30 rooms of this M.C. Escher madhouse seek to confuse, amuse, and entertain, perhaps even in that order.

Some players might be left wondering whether the inmate really can walk on walls, defy physics in any of the other ways demonstrated here, or if these rooms really are flat terrain and the inmate merely perceives the complications and threats. Those players are almost certainly thinking too much for a browser game that can be completed in the time it takes to watch an episode of My Little Pony. It’s also just about as much fun, depending on how much you enjoy simple platforming puzzles and/or pony-based humor.

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  • Effigy_Power

    Seems more like a “Pretty much all of” rather than “Best off”…
    Maybe limiting it to three or so would make the group more exclusive?

    • themanwecalldave

      Needs grades

      • Limeade Youth

        For those of us with the need to grade, may I suggest First Person Tutor, a grammer correcting game?

        http://jayisgames.com/archives/2012/06/first_person_tutor.php 

        Edit: For all you know, I *meant* to make that error!

      • HobbesMkii

        I’ll save Teti some time by copy/pasting this direct from the FAQ:

        Can you explain your review system?

        Our system is that we don’t have a system. Gameological
        doesn’t assign scores, or bar charts, or color-coded ratings. The
        closest thing we have to a review system is a philosophy: Our goal is to
        write reviews that spark a lively conversation, that entertain, and
        that illuminate a point of view that perhaps readers hadn’t thought
        about before. That’s what we feel good criticism does, and it’s hard
        enough to pull that off without worrying about scores.

        We also don’t make buying recommendations. Here’s our perspective on
        the whole purchase-advice thing: We’ll tell you what we think of a game,
        with honesty, insight, and hopefully wit. And you spend your
        hard-earned cash however you please. It’s your money after all. We
        wouldn’t presume to spend it.

        • Captain_Internet

          If it helps, I bought Inferno+ based on the glowing non-recommendation above, and it turned out to be dreadful. Lord knows what would happen if they started adding scores to things.

        • http://gameological.com/author/johnteti/ John Teti

          @Captain_Internet:disqus I’ll tell you what would happen: People would bitch about the scores.

        • Jason Eddy

           I was in the “let’s narrow it down to the top 3 or 5 or whatever” camp too, but after a month of thinking about it, I’ve reconsidered. I like revisiting this many games at the end of the month, because it’s easy to miss some good ones and super fun to make fun of the “so bad its good” sort of games one last time. So, onward and upward I say.

        • HobbesMkii

           @JohnTeti:disqus As the months have gone by, I have developed a mental image of you as Jason Robards’ jaded Washington Post editor character from All the President’s Men.

        • Cornell_University

          my mental image is J. Jonah Jameson.  please no one disrupt it.

      • LoadRanPimp420

        demanding grades is basically admitting you don’t want to read the review. “summarize your thoughts on the game with one word, TWO TOPS, please”

    • JudgeReinhold

      I liked Teti’s explanation last month, which is that this is Gameological’s monthly feature that pulls in the most eyeballs from AV Club. So it makes sense that they do far more than 3 games. 

      That Kanye game is pretty much shit, though. I’d wondered about a week ago how they were going to do a best-of this month when it didn’t seem like there were enough decent games to make a list. I guess you can still cull a list of the best even from a subpar field, which was the case this month. 

      • Persia

        I’m glad they mentioned the Kanye game because its existence just makes my day a little brighter. Even if it does suck.

      • jellybeanpill

        The old Sawbuck Gamer had a decent amount of terrible games as well, along with plenty that I just wasn’t interested in.

    • Effigy_Power

       Jeez, didn’t think this would spark a discussion like that. Just thought the list was long for a best-of. I certainly wasn’t judging the selection method. And no, I wouldn’t go with a rating either. I don’t know why people can’t decide if they like something by a full description instead of needing to adjust their opinion based on a score out of 10.
      Too lazy to read, I’d figure.

      • Limeade Youth

        In a world where game intros can take half an hour, how can an article be too long to read? smh

        • Effigy_Power

           I’ve heard people say that headlines should be less than 5 words, that twitter posts are too long… The shortest article will find someone with the abominable “tl;dr” attitude.

  • robthom

    Bittorent.

    /Endthread

    • Fyodor Douchetoevsky

      Ugh, you are just the worst. 

      • Effigy_Power

        …kind of person.

        PS: Also, only uncool people call it Bittorrent. It’s just torrent now… with a lower case t, foo!

    • Destroy Him My Robots

      Torrent’s been consolized casual shit ever since they added UPnP and BitThief is imba as fuck.

      Wow. Even when it’s sarcasm, typing this kind of stuff is revolting. How do people do that and actually mean it?

      • Effigy_Power

         I take a certain smug sense of pride in the fact that I don’t know what “imba” means.

        • Destroy Him My Robots

          I’d value any sense of pride higher than knowledge of Internet gaming slang, so I’ll try to keep my mouth shut.

  • caspiancomic

    So I visited the original article for Relive Your Life (Egoraptor, why aren’t you making episode 4 of Sequelitis arathagtaarrl) and now I am positively addicted to Alter Ego.

  • Raging Bear

    The good news about Pocket Planes: “ragingbearlines” just fits as a flight crew name. The bad news: flight crews don’t do a damned thing.

    • Autoinducer

      “Rank will update shortly.”  Maybe by “shortly” they mean, “sometime next month?”

    • Fyodor Douchetoevsky

      I would exclusively use any airline with that name. Also, I REALLY HATE when game that are about customizing stuff have really small character limits. I tried out the Sim City games on DS, and nothing could be more than six characters. What the fuck is even the point. I was actually really mad about it. 

      • Raging Bear

        Come fly the raging skies.

  • DogSwallow

    Idea… it definitely seems like an undertaking… but how about putting these into a database, where if I click on “Free” I get all the “Free” games that have been recommended/reviewed over the time this has been a Gameological/AVClub feature.  Then you could look at “ALL Browser Free” or “All Android 99 cents and under”. 

    Just a thought.

  • http://profiles.google.com/jaedahler Jae Dahler

    Reprisal looks a lot like Populous.

    • bunnyvision

      Very first sentence of their webpage, “based on Bullfrog’s classic Populous”

      I really liked it after giving it a chance and turning off the uggo filter. I still haven’t finished the last level tho, which is a total beast.

  • http://twitter.com/kdoherty86 Kyle Doherty

    Dungeon Village, along with other KairoSoft games like Game Dev Story, is also available on Android.

    • doyourealize

      For $4.99, though, instead of the $4 it says up top.

  • doyourealize

    Missed out on Box Life the first time around. Good fun for a little bit, which is what Sawbuck Gamer should be about. Only found 1 of 6 secrets, though.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jzwart Jeffrey Abel Zwart

    Dungeon Village is well worth the money.  I just got to the “end” and am considering playing through again, which is pretty rare for me.