Andy Chalk's picture

Andy Chalk

Freelance game writer, cat owner and Canadian. Drives it like he stole it.

Butterscotch Shenanigans and the Art of Speedcrafting

Apr 14, 2014

Butterscotch Shenanigans first appeared on my radar thanks to Gerblins, a cute little puzzle game that was both simple to play and shot through with personality. I liked it quite a bit, but as fun as it was, it didn't inspire me to think of the Butterscotch boys as a potential force in the field of mobile game development. That didn't happen until the March 2013 release of Towelfight 2: The Monocle of Destiny, a game I literally did not stop playing until May of that year, when Quadropus Rampage turned up and sent me on a quest to destroy Pete, the Mad God of the Sea. I'm still playing that one.

I don't want to say that Sam and Seth Coster are a strange pair, but the games they create do make me wonder what's in the water they drink and where I can get some. And now they're in the midst of an even more unusual project: "Speedcrafting," a sort of weekly game jam in which they give themselves ten hours to develop a small but complete game – a "Butterscotch Mini" – from start to finish.

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"Our current plan for production is eight Minis, one every Monday, though that’s only to give us something to shoot toward should things get difficult. It’s much easier to motivate yourself to do another one if there’s an end in sight," Sam Coster recently explained. "However, they’ve been so useful (and fun to make) that we expect we’ll be doing these until our blood runs cold."

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Warhammer 40,000: Storm of Vengeance Review

Apr 8, 2014

Warhammer 40,000: Storm of Vengeance is something called a "lane strategy game," and yes, that's "lane," not "lame," although truth be told... well, never mind. I don't want to spoil any surprises, and it's not an awful game by any stretch. It's just not very good, as either a strategy game or a Warhammer title.

"Lane strategy games," as far as I can tell, are those in which enemy forces approach one another on a battlefield composed of – you guessed it – lanes, meeting and clashing in a kind of a "Showdown at the O.K. Bowling Alley." Plants vs. Zombies is probably the best-known (and quite possibly the only known) example of the genre, and it's the game that most quickly springs to mind as a comparison. Sadly, that's not because Storm of Vengeance shares that game's wit, artistry or excitement – it doesn't. The resemblance is purely mechanical and, as I soon discovered, somewhat superficial.

Warhammer 40,000: Storm of Vengeance

Rather than an attack-and-defend scenario, in this game the player and the AI-controlled enemy send forces against each other, one side representing the Dark Angel Space Marines and the other the Ork Waaagh!, each occupying opposite ends of a battlefield composed of five lanes. Units are created by collecting and spending resources – Redemption for the Space Marines, Teef for the Orks – and can be immediately sent on their way or stored, in very limited numbers, for later use.

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Escape Goat 2 Review

Mar 28, 2014

Released in late 2011 for the Xbox 360 and then in the summer of 2012 for the PC, Escape Goat was a quirky puzzle-platformer about both a goat imprisoned in a deadly, trapped-filled dungeon for the crime of practicing witchcraft, and an immortal, magical mouse who helps him escape. Quirky, and also very good if you like that sort of thing, although not particularly easy on the eyes: I noted in my review that the retro-style graphics were "adequate for the task but not much else."

Escape Goat 2

Escape Goat 2 is "problem solved," as they say. It's essentially the original Escape Goat all over again, but with more puzzles – more than 100 in total - and a very pleasing visual update. The Goat is back, imprisoned again along with his magic Mouse buddy and a flock of not-terribly-motivated sheep, this time deep within the Stronghold of Toragos. None have ever escaped – but you're the Escape Goat!

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Vertiginous Golf Preview

Mar 20, 2014

"Vertiginous Golf." It doesn't exactly roll of the tongue, does it? Yet it's somehow a perfectly appropriate title for what has to be one of the most unusual mini-golf games to come along in, well, just about ever: A heavily-ornamented steampunk mini-putt that plays out in the sky, high above the thick, black rain clouds that have permanently encased the drab alt-history city below.

How? Through the power of the Vertiginousphere, an alternate-universe technology that has freed mankind from the yoke of gravity – but not without a cost. It's an idea that actually took root more than a decade ago as Vertigolf, a more conventional (although the term hardly seems appropriate) anti-gravity golf game made by coder Paul Barnes and artist Christian Holland.

Vertiginous Golf

"We always loved the original game but felt the graphics at the time didn't do it justice," Barnes said. "So we thought now was a good time to create the spiritual successor, Vertiginous Golf."

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Mines of Mars Review

Mar 19, 2014

Mines of Mars is a genre-bending journey to the Red Planet that starts off like a cross between Minecraft and Metroid, but slowly morphs into something far more intriguing. It could stand a little more polish, but even with the occasional bump in the road, it's the kind of thing I can see myself playing for a long, long time to come.

Mines of Mars describes itself as a "procedural atmospheric mining game" inspired by games like Metroid and Motherload. It actually gives off a rather dark sci-fi adventure vibe at first, as the cinematic opening follows a grizzled miner forced to take work on Mars for reasons unknown. But things take a turn for the lighter following a rough landing on the planet, as he – that is, you – makes contact with the oddball commander of the Mars mining installation and a peppy robot who's eager to please.

Mines of Mars

It's an unexpected and rather sharp turn in direction, although it has very little impact on the gameplay, which very quickly struck me as a sort of 2D Minecraft – although in hindsight a comparison with Rust might be just as apt. You take a portal from the base to the mines below the surface, excavate dirt, minerals and gems, bring them up top, use the resources to craft better equipment and weapons, then head back down to do it all again. 

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Autumn Dynasty Warlords Review

Feb 27, 2014

The sequel to the hit real-time strategy game Autumn Dynasty, Autumn Dynasty Warlords carries some great expectations on its shoulders. And it seems to meet them quite handily at first – but the deeper you dig into it, the more it becomes apparent that this game isn't quite ready for prime-time.

Autumn Dynasty Warlords is set in a fictionalized ancient China, in which you play as one of several regional warlords vying for control of the country. Each has his or her own particular strengths and weaknesses, plus a unique military unit and an officer who can be sent on special military or diplomatic missions. Beginning with a single province, you must build your armies, conquer neutral provinces, engage or defeat your fellow rulers, and ultimately declare yourself Grand Poobah of the Middle Kingdom.

Autumn Dynasty Warlords

Provincial management is very simple, as each province has just one city and their boundaries are preset. You can build various structures and upgrade them through five levels, but each city holds only a small number of buildings – sometimes as few as two or three – so you'll need to be careful about what you build. Military units can only be raised in provinces in which the city has an appropriate training facility, but population growth and tax income are best supported with "civilian" buildings. You'll also want to maintain high levels of order and alertness to keep your kingdom happy and prosperous by keeping a lid on bandits, placing sentries, and if you can afford the space, building constabularies and palaces.

Once created, armies can be moved in whole or in part from province to province and require no special facilities to maintain. You don't need to worry about feeding your people, either; farms encourage growth but your population is quite capable of taking care of itself, leaving you to handle the big decisions. The only resource you'll need to worry about is gold, required in abundant quantities to raise armies and upgrades your cities.

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Tengami Review

Feb 20, 2014

I am excited about Tengami. Not because it's a particularly great game, but because it's a remarkable multimedia experience. At its core, it's a point-and-click adventure set in ancient Japan. But it's the rendering of the game world as a gloriously detailed virtual pop-up book, with scene transitions presented as turning pages that reveal a delicate, brilliantly beautiful two-dimensional realm, which makes it both unique and memorable.

Everything in Tengami is rendered in 2D, even your avatar – a characteristic that becomes evident when he moves and reveals that he has no physical depth. There's no inventory, no attributes or skills, and no equipment or upgrades to make him more powerful; he simply walks and sails from place to place at your direction, and occasionally picks up a single item or interacts with a puzzle. It's a slow-paced journey through changing seasons, designed to give you time to really take in and appreciate the artistry of the environments. The music is every bit as good, and while the sound effects are relatively sparse, the first time I heard a wolf howling in the twilight my skin positively tingled.

The controls are simple and intuitive, requiring only that you double-tap to walk to a spot on the screen and drag left or right to turn a page or pull a tab. Hotspots and area exits are well-marked, so there's never any question of where you need to go or what you can interact with.

There are sometimes questions about what exactly you need to do, however. Tengami has relatively few puzzle areas, but when you encounter one it gives no indication of how to proceed. Midway through the game I spent a considerable amount of time struggling with a group of bells on a pagoda, only to discover that I was stuck because I hadn't gone to another area first and collected a particular item. The puzzle itself was actually quite simple, but it was a frustrating moment because I had no idea why I was unable to make progress. (In fact, it was only with the aid of another reviewer that I figured out where I'd gone wrong.)

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Coldfire Keep Review

Feb 20, 2014

The town of Newsettle needs your help! There's evil around every corner (careful not to step in any) and it's up to you and your stalwart band of newbie adventurers to delve into the depths of Coldfire Keep, uncover the source of the trouble, and put an end to it once and for all!

A brief history lesson before we get going: The "dungeon crawler" is a type of first-person RPG, solo or party-based, with a focus on exploration, puzzle solving, collecting loot, and copious amounts of combat with a host of inhuman ne'er-do-wells. They were particularly popular in the 80s and early 90s, but by the mid-90s the genre had fallen out of mainstream gamer consciousness. In recent years, however, it's enjoyed something of a resurgence, driven largely by the 2012 indie hit Legend of Grimrock. (I delivered the same sermon in the lead-in to that review too, by the way. I like to keep readers informed.)

Now along comes Coldfire Keep, and if you've ever wished that you could go digitally spelunking on your bus ride to work, I have good news: There are some rough edges, but in most of the ways that matter, this is a game that gets it right.

Coldfire Keep follows four inexperienced adventurers as they investigate strange happenings in the ancient castle that lies just outside of town. In fine dungeon crawler fashion, that's the extent of the setup: Some monsters busted up the place and you're going to look into it because nobody else will. The tale gets a little deeper as you progress through the catacombs but it's perfunctory stuff, and the truth is that, much like climbing a mountain, you're diving deeper into the dungeon for no better reason than because it's there.

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Aerena: Clash of Champions Preview

Jan 23, 2014

On another planet Earth that’s very different from ours, human history has taken a dark turn. The discovery of Aether early in the 20th Century granted mankind almost limitless power – and sparked a war for control of that power unlike any ever seen. Great Aether-powered flying machines plied the skies, raining devastation down upon the cities below until there was virtually nothing left. From the ashes of civilization, a desperate humanity founded the United Nations, which took control of the few remaining Aether extractors and replaced war with The Games – battles between champions for control of the Aether.

That's the story behind Aerena: Clash of Champions, the new online battle arena game from Cliffhanger Productions, and it's a pretty good one. "We're proud of the original story behind Aerena (actually we got carried away and wrote MUCH more than necessary), and this will increasingly show in the upcoming versions," Creative Director Jan Wagner told me. "I think the care and love for the universe we created helps set us apart from the more utilitarian approach of many other games."

Aerena: Clash of Champions

Aerena is different from other entries in the MOBA genre in other ways, too. Wagner acknowledged that comparisons are inevitable, but said that Cliffhanger's game has little in common with other battle arenas at the gameplay level. "We really wanted to create something that combined the tactical depth of a game like chess with the sort of personalized play style you see in a collectible card game. So, each champion has set strengths and limitations, and building your team is one layer of personalization, but then you refine that even further by stacking your deck, so to speak, with abilities from ships and Aether shells," he explained.

"Aerena is turn-based, but the time limit per turn also adds a speed-chess element to the gameplay. It encourages players to really dig into their teams' potential combinations and develop strategies," he continued. "On the flipside of that, getting hit actually gives an Aether boost, so matches stay competitive until the end. After all, we want people to win through skill, not because they happened to land the first blow."

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X-Men: Battle of the Atom Review

Jan 21, 2014

X-Men: Battle of the Atom is a new free-to-play card battle game that lets you face off against the forces of evil at the head of a famous band of mutant superheroes including Scotius Summerisle, Stepford Cuckoos, the Glob, Cipher, and Cypher. Wait, who?

If you're a casual X-Men fan – you enjoyed the movies, maybe read a few trade paperbacks – then the first thing to know about Battle of the Atom is that it's probably not the X-Men you X-pect. As a tie-in with the "Battle of the Atom" comic crossover that began in the fall of 2013, the mobile game features "hundreds of characters spanning 50 years of X-Men history," according to the App Store description. To fill a roster that broad, Aeria Mobile brought in just about everyone who ever appeared in a mutant comic book, from past, present, future, and even alternate worlds.

X-Men: Battle of the Atom

The net result is a menagerie that might be familiar to die-hard fans of the franchise but is largely baffling for anyone who thinks of Thunderbird or Northstar as "exotic" X-Men. This would be fine if it was actually a good CCG, but that's the real problem with Battle of the Atom: It isn't. It is, in a word, boring, and while that may be at least in part due to the cookie-cutter nature of the CCG genre, there's simply nothing about this one that makes it stand out from the crowd.

All the usual CCG elements are here: Battle enemies by tapping the screen, collect points to recruit new cards, enhance and evolve cards to make them stronger, build a powerful deck, square off against your fellow players and, when your stamina runs out (which will happen relatively quickly at higher levels), stop playing until it recharges or fork over some money to make it happen immediately. But it's unengaging and flat, and comes off feeling like a minimal-effort tie-in mandated by the marketing department and farmed out to the lowest bidder.

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