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Red Johnson’s Chronicles Review

Tough puzzles and grinding point-and-click pixel hunts are the main activities in Red Johnson’s Chronicles.

The Good

  • Breezy yet memorable story and characters
  • Loaded with tough puzzles that draw you into the game
  • Striking graphical design and sound.

The Bad

  • Too many annoying pixel hunts in murky scenery
  • Pace is too slow.

How much you enjoy Red Johnson’s Chronicles depends on your tolerance for old-school point-and-click adventures. Developer Lexis Numerique has stuck close to the ancient Sierra/LucasArts formula for this crime saga about a private detective, so much so that the game almost founders on an extreme reliance on pixel hunts and logic puzzles. A great sense of style and a ton of challenging puzzles rescue this mystery from adventure-game hell, although anyone with an objection to the eye strain that comes from combing the scenery for clues should stay away from this PlayStation Network exclusive.

Metropolis is an interesting and extremely detailed city, but it isn't exactly a friendly place when it comes to pixel hunts for clues.

Metropolis is an interesting and extremely detailed city, but it isn’t exactly a friendly place when it comes to pixel hunts for clues.

Story and setup are about as old and cliched as it gets. You step into the gumshoes of Red Johnson, a young ginger-haired private detective in the city of Metropolis (attention, DC Comics lawyers) helping dimwit cops. The setting is strongly influenced by comic books, with lots of bridges in odd spots and towering city skyscrapers dominating the outdoor scenery. While much of the background scenery and the character art could have been yanked out of a mainstream superhero comic, everything is washed over with surreal touches that take the game out of time and space. Russian fonts are used for all of the game’s headline text. Cool, Dave Brubeck-styled jazz underlines everything, even when the visual backdrop is more Blade Runner than film noir. Scenes are loaded with anachronisms. Old desk fans, a filing cabinet loaded with paper files on criminals, a newspaper vending machine from some alternate 1950s, and a snitch out of Starsky and Hutch share space with high-tech computers like an analyzer that helps you slap together clues. Unfortunately, the dialogue is too flat for such striking visuals and sound, especially when Red is called on to interrogate suspects.

Atmosphere in Red Johnson’s Chronicles is more remarkable than its gameplay, which sticks to every adventure-game trope in the book. Most of the scenes here are static shots of locales that have to be searched for clues. While these scenes are attractive and interesting, they’re loaded with lots of murky corners that make it hard to do much exploring without running into “How the hell was I supposed to spot that?” territory. Most of the scenes feature miniscule objects like spent bullet casings and coins that are tough to see without roaming the (admittedly large) cursor over every inch of the screen. Some clue objects are so dark and perfectly blended into the background that they are absolutely impossible to see. The newspaper vending machine in the first screen of the game is tucked away so neatly that you could easily take 20 minutes to find it. You have access to an in-game help system where you can buy clues from a snitch named Saul, but these hints aren’t specific enough to lead you by the nose to a solution. They really come in handy when you can’t find all of the clues needed to leave a screen because Saul will, at least, give you a list of everything that’s out there, if not the exact location of these little goodies.

Of course, there are also many problems to be solved. Every hurdle has three or four steps to it that generally have to be figured out through a combination of close observation and logic puzzles. Most of the puzzles are challenging, but they are also fairly generic. You slide blocks around, work out codes, connect wiring diagrams, and so forth. Still, they are all tough enough to keep you thinking, and there are so many of them that they suck you in far more thoroughly than the pixel hunts or even the weird setting. The Saul help system is of some assistance here, but again, it’s not enough to lead you through a problem from start to finish. Many times, he just tells you what you’ve already sussed out on your own and then abandons you when you get to the point where you’re stuck.

Red Johnson's one concession to modern adventure gaming is a succession of quick-time challenges like black-and-white brawls.

Red Johnson’s one concession to modern adventure gaming is a succession of quick-time challenges like black-and-white brawls.

Just a few concessions have been made to the 21st century. Red often has to closely examine locales with a magnifying class and then make his deductions all on his lonesome. None of this is wildly tough, but it does give you more of a hands-on sense of investigating than you might find in point-and-click adventures. Red also regularly encounters quick-time challenges where you need to react to events onscreen with button taps and stick motions. If you fail one step, you go back to square one; if you succeed, you earn a few bucks that can be used to pay Saul for tips. Some of these sequences are totally unnecessary, like the first encounter with Saul where you go through a hand-slapping, fist-pumping greeting that seems about as authentically “street” as an episode of Good Times. Others lead directly into stylish black-and-white brawls. These events are mildly entertaining, though they are too tacked on to feel like an organic part of a mostly traditional adventure game.

Even with the negatives here, Red Johnson’s Chronicles is a reasonably intriguing take on a traditional point-and-click adventure, mostly because of its sheer style and the huge number of smart logic puzzles. You need a lot of patience for a very dated style of play and need to really appreciate pixel hunts to stick around long enough to find out whodunit. But in the end, the journey will be worth it to adventure-game devotees looking for a fix on the PlayStation 3.

By Brett Todd

Datura Review

Datura is a short, confusing, and unfulfilling adventure.

The Good

  • Some innovative uses of the Move controller.

The Bad

  • Its few puzzles are too easy
  • Story is too incoherent to make any sense
  • Just 90 minutes long
  • Complete lack of explanation leads to a very unsatisfying conclusion.

There’s a fine line between the artistically brilliant and the indecipherable. To walk that line is to risk turning a potentially great piece of work into an object of ridicule. And yet, that’s a risk that developer Plastic has taken with the PlayStation Move-powered first-person adventure Datura. It’s not so much a game as it is an interactive art piece, a psychedelic trip that hints at greatness but ends up trying too hard to be clever for its own good. There’s no coherence to the story and no real challenge to be had, resulting in a short, if technically impressive, adventure that’s more confusing than intriguing.

Sadly, this door doesn't lead to Narnia.

Sadly, this door doesn’t lead to Narnia.

That adventure starts in an ambulance. There’s no explanation as to why you’re there; the sound of the siren and the hypnotic beeps of a heart monitor are your only clues. In front of you floats a disembodied hand that follows the motions of the Move controller with an eerie precision. That hand is your only way of interacting with the world around you. You can rotate it by rotating the controller, or reach out to touch objects by moving closer to the screen. The intuitive system also highlights objects that you can interact with by displaying an icon that lets you know to pull the trigger to grab an object or press triangle to inspect one.

The icon flashes as you hover your hand over cables attached to your chest. You grip them, and with a sharp tug on the controller you rip them out, causing you to black out and awaken in a forest. It’s littered with autumnal dead leaves and many strange artefacts and buildings. Most of your time in Datura is spent exploring the forest, where you soak up the atmosphere, and listen to a foreboding orchestral score, all while trying to figure out exactly what it is you’re doing there. You walk around by holding down the Move button and pointing where you want to go, and holding down X lets you spin around on the spot.

A surprisingly well-drawn map from a disembodied hand.

A surprisingly well-drawn map from a disembodied hand.

The forest is filled with various objects for you to interact with. An ancient tree trunk sports a mask that you can rip off, a fountain spouts water from the mouth of a stone fish, and a hazardous-looking wooden shack houses an air rifle and targets for you to shoot. The way you interact with each object varies, but all make great use of the Move’s 1:1 tracking. You might have to turn the controller sideways and turn it to mimic a door handle, or move it up and down to smash objects with a crowbar. There are also white trees scattered throughout the forest that, when felt with your hand, fill in sections of a map on a notepad. Rather than bringing up a map screen to use it, though, holding down square cleverly places the pad in your hand, and you have to physically hold the Move controller out in front of you to read it.

Your interactions with objects form the bulk of your adventure. There are no real puzzles to solve, save for a few where you have to combine objects, and those are not at all taxing. It’s all about the exploration, which would be fine if there were a decent narrative to drive it. Instead, each object you interact with results in a strange flashback to another place, where you might be driving a car, hacking through sheets of ice to save a person trapped underneath, or floating through a tunnel of swirling colours and ambient beats. There’s no coherence to any of these events–it’s all just a bit too out there to make any sense.

There’s so little in the way of explanation that it’s difficult to feel anything but completely confused. A clear attempt has been made to make the narrative open to interpretation, to provoke an emotional response by making you fill in the gaps, but it hasn’t succeeded. There’s nothing meaningful to interpret, just a bunch of random jaunts through someone’s psyche.

Datura is such a boar.

Datura is such a boar.

By the end of the 90-minute adventure you’re left feeling empty, and even a little angry at the whole experience. You crave an actual message, but all you’re left with are many questions and no hope of getting any answers. You could spend hours trying to figure it all out in your head, or write essays on why the whole experience is a metaphor for the downfall of capitalism or an explanation for the meaning of life. But boy would you be wasting your time. Datura is vacuous. There’s simply no point trying to figure it all out. It’s an attempt at an affecting and artistically driven experience that went one step too far over the line into the pretentious.

By Mark Walton

Galaga Legions DX Review

The fast and flashy dual-stick shooting of Galaga Legions DX makes it fun to blast space bugs all over again.

The Good

  • Fun shooting action that rewards skill and efficiency
  • Constantly evolving waves of enemies
  • Attractive visual options that make good use of classic sprites.

The Bad

  • Little sense of danger
  • Poor leaderboard integration.

After putting some invigorating twists on one classic video game series in last year’s superb Pac-Man Championship Edition DX, the Namco Generations team has turned its attention to another Namco franchise. The result is Galaga Legions DX, which uses 2008′s Galaga Legions as a jumping-off point and evolves it into a dual-stick shooter with a constantly ticking clock putting the pressure on. It doesn’t quite reach the same heights as the team’s previous effort, but it’s an engaging entry in the Galaga series that once again makes the age-old pursuit of higher and higher scores tough to resist.

The galaga don’t stand a chance. It’s your friends’ leaderboard scores you need to worry about.

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In Galaga Legions DX, you pilot a starfighter against waves of insectoid enemies called galaga. That’s the extent of this game’s similarities to the 1981 arcade classic. Here, as in the original Galaga Legions, you’re accompanied at all times by two invulnerable satellites that fire each time your ship fires. In Legions, you could position your satellites anywhere on the screen, but here, the action is simpler. The satellites never leave your side, and you direct them with the right stick. You can either have both satellites fire in the same direction or you can set the satellites to mirror each other. You can switch between these two formations at any time. Because incoming waves of galaga frequently alternate between coming from a single direction and from multiple directions, you need to react quickly and reconfigure your satellites on the fly to deal with them efficiently, making this a less tactical but more immediate and frantic game than its predecessor.

Legions DX also ratchets up the tension by taking a cue from the Pac-Man Championship Edition games. Here, every game is broken into five levels, and each level has a set number of waves. Each level also has an imposed time limit, and the challenge lies not so much in surviving each wave but in defeating it quickly to earn as many points as possible before your final seconds tick away. Before each wave begins, blue lines quickly cross the screen, indicating the movement pattern of the incoming enemies, and markers indicate where the galaga will emerge from, giving you an instant to position yourself and your satellites to deal with them. Your goal is to destroy the enemies efficiently, because any allotted time for a level that you have left over when you’ve completed one of the first four levels is added to the amount of time you get to spend on level five, and on level five, all point values are doubled. As a result, every extra second you accrue to extend your time in level five could mean tens of thousands of extra points that send you higher up the leaderboards.

Waves of enemies are typically made up of a large number of small ships and one or two larger ships. Destroying these larger enemies sets off chain reactions that destroy the entire squad, netting you half the points for those foes but eliminating them efficiently. Galaga bombs also frequently appear; destroying these creates an explosion that consumes nearby enemies, and targeting them is often the key to wiping out waves quickly. Initially, the amount of activity onscreen can be bewildering, but as you play, you naturally get better at reacting to the indicators that precede each wave and at quickly eliminating the galaga. Evolving into a more efficient and precise killing machine is rewarding, and it’s tempting to attempt each area repeatedly in an effort to earn a precious few additional seconds to spend in level five and achieve higher and higher scores.

Things get a little crazy at times.

Things get a little crazy at times.

The action keeps you on your toes. Incoming enemies use constantly changing patterns, and waves alternate between those in which enemies swarm around you in such vast numbers that your ship becomes completely surrounded, and those in which galaga bombs make filling the screen with explosions and instantly wiping out all your enemies effortless. One moment, you feel overwhelmed; the next, you feel overwhelmingly powerful. That sense of power is enhanced occasionally when a galaga trap comes along. Destroying these generates a black hole that takes hold of any nearby enemies, who then join you, dramatically increasing your offensive power. These helpers are fragile, and most of them are likely to get wiped out quickly as they come in contact with enemies, but the boost they provide is enjoyable while it lasts.

One thing you won’t frequently feel is threatened. Even when you’re surrounded on all sides by enemies, it’s typically easy to cut a swath through them and emerge from the swarm alive. So while the action is involving, it rarely has the edge-of-your-seat excitement that comes with struggling to survive and escaping death by the skin of your teeth. That’s not to say that you won’t die. False moves can cost you a life; more significantly, they cost you precious time, and when you respawn, the action moves at a slightly slower pace than it did before.

If you want to pick up some pointers about how to earn higher scores, you can watch replays of the top scorers on the leaderboards. It’s a handy feature, and it reveals the sometimes counterintuitive strategies that you can employ to maximize your scoring potential. For instance, all of the current highest scorers in the Tournament mode stop upon reaching the 10th wave of level five, destroy two enemies for a total of 400,000 points, and then sacrifice their ship and restart the wave, repeating the process until they get down to their last ship. It’s unfortunate that the best strategy isn’t always to simply fight on through as many waves as you can, but at least the game makes it easy for you to learn from other players.

You don't have to play using 30-year-old sprites. But you should.

You don’t have to play using 30-year-old sprites. But you should.

Legions DX gives you six visual styles to choose from before each game. One of these is a bland high-resolution take on the ships and enemies of Galaga. The other five options use the colorful original sprites from games such as Galaga and Galaxian, and the way destroyed enemies disintegrate into pixilated pieces when playing with one of these visually retro options selected makes blasting the creatures to smithereens all the more satisfying. Regardless of which visual option you select, the background is a constantly evolving display of asteroid fields, color-shifting star fields, and other dynamic sights. The result is a game that resembles what a kid in the ’80s might have imagined games in the future would look like.

It doesn’t take long to blast your way through all of Galaga Legions DX’s 10 areas; in that sense, it is a short and easy game. But the real struggle here is for leaderboard domination, which is not so easy. It’s too bad that Legions DX doesn’t do what many other score-focused games these days do and inform you when you near or surpass a friend’s score (or when a friend has overthrown you). That could have fueled the fires of competition and made giving these areas just one more try even tougher to resist. But even without that kind of leaderboard integration, the gameplay is fun to come back to, whether you’re aiming to beat a friend’s high score or to just set a new personal best. Legions DX doesn’t have much in common with its storied arcade forebear, but it’s a worthy bearer of the Galaga title nonetheless.

By Carolyn Petit

Slam Bolt Scrappers Review

A short campaign and the lack of online multiplayer hobble this ambitious puzzle adventure.

The Good

  • Unique combination of Tetris and brawling
  • Fast-paced four-player mode.

The Bad

  • No online multiplayer
  • Short campaign
  • Overly steep learning curve.

Slam Bolt Scrappers is one of those funky games that some creative thinker dreams up but rarely finds the courage or resources to make. What if Tetris had guns and explosions? What if you could clobber other players with flying avatars while sorting blocks? And what if you could pilfer power-ups from airborne ninjas? All of these questions find an answer in this ambitious new game by Fire Hose Games, which emerges as a curious mixture of puzzle, strategy, and brawling that feels at once nostalgically familiar yet like nothing you’ve ever played before. Though it makes a good first impression, Scrappers ultimately falls short of its tremendous potential on account of some conspicuous shortcomings and the absence of an online multiplayer mode.

You’re likely to find the early levels confusing rather than challenging.

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The basic goal of Slam Bolt Scrappers is to destroy your opponent’s tower before he or she destroys your own. This involves using a jetpack-toting avatar to beat up hostile creatures that hover above your grid, collecting the colored blocks that they drop, and then stacking the blocks to form like-colored squares that automatically unleash powerful weaponry or life-saving defenses. For instance, if you make a red square, missiles rain down on your opponent’s towers; if you build an orange square, a massive Ping-Pong paddle knocks back your opponent’s attacks. And because the sizes of the squares you make determine the power of the resulting weapons or defenses, it’s best to concentrate on the colors that provide the best situational advantages. All the while, your opponents are frantically building towers of their own or assaulting you directly in hand-to-hand combat to steal the blocks you’ve collected. Should they succeed, you’re knocked out of combat for a few seconds (which equals an eternity in Slam Bolt Scrappers’ breakneck matches), although you can speed up the process a bit by tapping out a button sequence indicated by an onscreen prompt.

The melee combat itself is one of the weakest features of Slam Bolt Scrappers. Most battles devolve into a disappointing mashfest of heavy and medium punching attacks, thanks to the unresponsive combos. You may find it worthwhile just to block incoming attacks with your invulnerability shield at the expense of free movement and valuable time. That time, in fact, is one reason why engaging your opponent in a brawl usually isn’t worth the effort except when defending yourself. By the time you defeat your adversary and take his or her blocks, it’s quite likely that your own tower has suffered from the strain of being unattended for so long. Instead, it’s best to use your brawling skills against the ninjas that hover around your towers because they drop one of six useful power-ups that could turn the tide in a hectic moment. One, for example, triggers a supernova that obliterates every onscreen baddy and stuns your opponents, while another lets you steal your rival’s largest weapons and claim them as your own.

Boss battles all require the same strategy; the bosses just get bigger.

Boss battles all require the same strategy; the bosses just get bigger.

Most of the levels in Slam Bolt Scrappers follow this pattern, but most levels feature their own quirks, such as platforms that descend into lava when your stack gets too heavy or towers that periodically switch positions onscreen. The only exceptions are the boss levels, which invariably require you to bash in the boss’s defense mechanism so your tower’s missiles can knock it into submission. When combined with the acts of defending against your opponent, battling your enemies, and building your towers (particularly on the more challenging ranks of the game’s four difficulty settings), these little changes turn the already-hectic gameplay into a heart-pounding experience. As a result, it’s best to play the campaign cooperatively with up to three of your friends because the towers go up faster, the addition of more players adds to the game’s excitement, and you have a better chance of beating your previous record time for completing a level.

Needless to say, there’s a lot going on in the campaign alone; so much, in fact, that the game’s psychedelic color palette and wild, cartoonish visuals sometimes leave you hunting for your avatar in the uproar. Even when you do manage to find yourself, the constant beatings you receive from opponents and the creatures above make the act of dropping your blocks in the right places a frustrating combination of luck and skill. The good news is that all of this eventually makes some sort of chaotic sense; the bad news is that the short campaign concludes just as you’ve gotten the hang of it. If you miss some of the unlockable bonus levels scattered throughout the smallish world map, you can finish the campaign in only a few hours even on the harder settings.

Finding your avatar amid all the explosions and enemies occasionally feels like a game of Where's Waldo?

Finding your avatar amid all the explosions and enemies occasionally feels like a game of Where’s Waldo?

Yet, Slam Bolt Scrappers provides plenty of opportunities for replay through its multiplayer Battle mode. Here, you can play in teams or singly against up to three other players at once based on parameters set before the match. These are largely based on maps, as well as avatar and weapon options you unlock by completing levels in the campaign. The team option is particularly welcome because your towers rise much more quickly with the help of a seasoned partner. Although playing against one or even two other players feels much like the campaign mode, tossing in the fourth player suddenly turns the map into a relentless spectacle of flying missiles, careening drill bits, and unexpected explosions that makes it easy to lose track of what’s going on. The free-for-all Mardis Gras spectacle is fun to watch, but playing at this level requires an intimate understanding of the game’s mechanics that casual visitors simply won’t have. This wouldn’t be a bad thing if the multiplayer mode weren’t limited to local play. Given a decent online multiplayer mode, Slam Bolt Scrappers could have provided many hours of nonstop multiplayer entertainment. As it stands, however, playing “with a large group of people who are yelling at each other and the TV” (as one of the loading screens suggests) isn’t much fun unless all four of you have conquered the game’s steep learning curve.

Slam Bolt Scrappers can entertain in spite of its flaws, but the absence of online multiplayer means that its replayability depends on having a few enthusiastic friends and controllers on hand to make the most of its cooperative and versus options. If you’re willing to overlook this fundamental weakness (and some curiously long loading times), it’s hard not to admire Slam Bolt Scrappers for its skillful handling of scraps from multiple popular genres.

By Leif Johnson

Gatling Gears Review

Gatling Gears is a fun shooter that reminds you how much of a blast destruction can be.

The Good

  • Easy-to-learn controls
  • Satisfying destruction
  • Cleverly designed boss encounters.

The Bad

  • Too much happening onscreen sometimes leads to cheap hits
  • Stages lack variety.

First released as an Xbox Live Arcade game earlier this year, Gatling Gears is a charming twin-stick, top-down shooter. The game stars Max Brawley, an ace pilot who deserts a corrupt, war-hungry Empire with his high-powered battle mech in tow. Max can’t hide out in peace forever, though, because eventually the Empire comes storming back in to ravage his peaceful hamlet, forcing him back into the cockpit to take down the Imperials once and for all. Players familiar with the developer’s previous game, Greed Corp, will find many references to that game in both the story and the industrial-revolution-inspired world design of Gatling Gears. Unlike the turn-based warfare of Greed Corp., however, Gatling Gears is all action, all the time.

The power-ups are a satisfying boon--it's impossible not to feel awesome mowing down foes to the sounds of slot machine clangs.

The power-ups are a satisfying boon–it’s impossible not to feel awesome mowing down foes to the sounds of slot machine clangs.

Gatling Gears starts you off with a very brief tutorial to get you accustomed to the controls. The left stick moves Max’s mech, while the right stick aims the direction of the machine’s auto-firing Gatling gun. The left and right shoulder buttons are used to launch the more powerful (but restricted-usage) grenades and rockets, while the triangle button detonates a single-use-per-stage smart bomb that destroys everything onscreen. The controls and the use of the weaponry at your disposal are very easy to grasp, and you’ll be happily blasting buildings, stomping soldiers, and pumping opposing machinery full of bullets in no time.

Although you rely on your standard-issue Gatling gun most of the time, it quickly becomes apparent that mastery of the other weapons is also important; the tougher tanks and robust sub-bosses require rockets to put a real dent in their armor, and the big blast radius of grenades can easily take out an army of irritating foot soldiers. You also get weapon upgrades in two different forms: limited-time power-ups and purchasable upgrades. The power-ups are found by defeating certain enemies, and they temporarily grant either superstrong attacks to a specific weapon or complete damage invulnerability. Upgrades have no such time restrictions and can be purchased at the beginning of each area in exchange for gold ingots found scattered throughout the stages. These upgrades come in multiple strength levels for each weapon and can also be traded back for gold to buy other upgrades if, for example, you’re in an area where you would prefer to have upgraded grenades rather than an upgraded Gatling gun.

The smooth controls and fun weaponry would be wasted if the stages themselves weren’t enjoyable. Fortunately, Gatling Gears features great, action-driven stages and enemy pattern designs that keep you on your toes. A few areas, particularly toward the beginning of the game, have a tendency to drag, but by the later levels, Gatling Gears constantly launches challenging design curveballs at you. The levels look nice, too; you might associate military and mechanical themes with varying shades of brown and gray, but Gatling Gears frequently offers up colorful, nicely rendered environments that add welcome variety. The enemy swarms and routes through each area are carefully structured so that you have time to get used to new enemies and gameplay elements before encountering areas with large enemy waves. They also offer ample bonuses afterward so you can get your bearings before the next challenge gets thrown your way. You’ll be thankful for this deliberate pacing when you reach the big boss enemies. Gatling Gears’ bosses work beautifully, challenging you to use your weapons and pattern-recognition skills to take down mad machines with crazy, changing gimmicks.

Gatling Gears also deserves commendation for its implementation of co-op play. With such intuitive controls and fun stages, it’s easy to grab a buddy either locally or via PSN and have a grand old time blowing things to bits. Network play is smooth and easy to jump into; it allows you to take all your weapon upgrades with you so if you have a less-skilled online buddy stuck earlier in the game, you can hop in with your superpowered mech and help him out. You still need to be careful, however: If one player goes out of commission, it’s game over for the both of you. The two-player game is considerably easier (though still very hectic), particularly in the extra Survival mode levels, which turn the gameplay into an interesting twist on the tower-defense formula. It’s not nearly as difficult to protect your buildings from enemy forces when you have double the firepower.

Two high-powered, robot-crushing rocket launchers are always better than one.

Two high-powered, robot-crushing rocket launchers are always better than one.

Gatling Gears isn’t without a few dents in its shell, however. The length of some levels can start to grate at times, and the number of things happening onscreen can be very distracting, particularly when there are all manner of attacks and explosions flying about. It’s easy to lose track of where things are, which can lead to taking damage you might have avoided otherwise. Some of the effects–such as the screen-filling explosion caused by the grenade power-ups–can blind you to the enemy projectiles coming at you. Gatling Gears is a great experience. Well-designed stages, fun gameplay mechanics, and frantic co-op play combine to make a game that stands well above many of its peers in the genre. Your $9.99 will be well spent playing with these Gears.

By Heidi Kemps

Scene It? Movie Night Review

Scene It? Movie Night provides fun multiplayer movie trivia and has an appealing price, but it’s not as exciting if you’ve Scene It? all before.

The Good

  • Great in a group setting
  • Several hours worth of trivia in a budget package.

The Bad

  • No different game modes or online play
  • Bare-bones presentation.

Scene It? Movie Night is a bit like a rare straight-to-DVD sequel that doesn’t have as many bells and whistles as its predecessors yet still manages to deliver on the things that fans liked the first time around. It strictly follows the formula of the series and doesn’t take any risks, but the movie trivia game is still fun, especially when friends and family are involved.

That's Ben Stiller! Did I win?

That’s Ben Stiller! Did I win?

This Scene It? is decidedly smaller in scope than its retail brethren, but that’s not entirely a bad thing. There is only one mode, which is more or less the same whether you play it alone or with up to three other players. In each game, you are given a series of questions spread out across seven “puzzles” or question types. Your goal is to answer each question as quickly as you can because your possible score per question will be counting down with every passing moment. Playing by yourself is merely a quest for a high score, where you see the possible answers to each question from the beginning and are only out to prove to yourself how much movie trivia you know.

The game is much more fun with other players. You can play it exactly the same way, with the only difference being the sense of competition, or you can turn on buzzers. With the buzzers on, the answer choices in each question are hidden until a player presses the buzzer. When one does, players have four seconds to lock in their answers and hopefully get an edge on their competition. The catch is that if a player buzzes in and gets the question wrong, he or she loses points instead of gaining them. It’s enough of a risk-versus-reward system to add excitement and a little tension to multiplayer matches.

'Look closer' and you might get the answer to this one.

‘Look closer’ and you might get the answer to this one.

Both the first and penultimate rounds of questions are always “Movie Clips,” where a film clip is played and you have to answer questions about what you just saw. Sometimes the questions are more about the film in general (or a specific facet of it, such as its director), but sometimes, they test how closely you were watching by asking, “How many times did the characters say ‘friends’?” or “What color vest was Marty wearing?” These are the most traditional of Scene It? questions, and they feature a good mix of classic films like Back to the Future with some newer hits like The Social Network. You also see a lot of Tom Hanks, but maybe that speaks more to the fact that he is such a prolific actor. There are a limited number of these clips available in the game (enough for roughly 10 games before you see repeated clips), but there are a few different sets of questions for each, extending their value.

Other puzzles have their own hooks, which makes them more interesting than a simple question-and-answer quiz. If you’ve played previous Scene It? games, they’ll likely be familiar. Invisibles removes a character from a still image and makes you guess the actor or movie shown in the image. Credit Roll forces you to deduce a film’s title based on its credits (particularly the lesser-known roles). Child’s Play shows a childish drawing of a film scene and makes you guess the title, while a similar puzzle, Pixel Flix, has you looking at a movie scene remade with old-school-style game graphics. Some other puzzles have you matching films with actors or related items or ordering films and their events chronologically. The final round is always Quick Pitch, which is a series of rapid-fire clues that you have to match to their appropriate answer. The variety of question types helps keep the game fresh in the handful of hours before you start seeing questions repeated. Groups of questions are randomized rather than individual questions; this allows for questions in a category to follow each other logically, which is nice.

Don't let the bland scenery distract you from Bonnie Hunt's voice-acting credit.

Don’t let the bland scenery distract you from Bonnie Hunt’s voice-acting credit.

The presentation is bare bones from top to bottom, featuring only simple backgrounds and sound effects as you play. Players don’t get any personality features, such as avatar support for the Xbox 360 version or even usernames. Everybody is simply listed as Player 1, Player 2, and so on, and they all have the same icon. The game’s announcer is usually OK, but he has so few phrases that you may grow tired of him quickly and want to punch him the 15th time he mentions that a certain song “was huge before you were born.” There is also no online play. Granted, this is a game that is absolutely more fun when your competition is sharing your couch, but it’s a shame the option isn’t there for people who can’t get a local group together. If you have the buzzer controllers from old Xbox 360 version of Scene It? you can use them here, but there’s nothing wrong with using standard controllers.

As is probably obvious, Scene It? Movie Night is for groups of people that have a love for movies and trivia. You don’t have to be a film student or hardcore movie buff, but you do need at least a basic knowledge of movie history, including tidbits about actors, directors, and even a few screenwriters. If you don’t know that the time-turner is from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (or at least that it’s not from Spider-Man, Star Trek II or The Terminator), then you might be in trouble. Scene It? Movie Night doesn’t do anything new or exciting, but if you get the right group together, it can be just as fun as a night at the movies.

By Britton Peele

The Walking Dead: Episode 2 – Starved for Help Review

Starved for Help is a disgusting and disturbing look at the realities of life after the zombie apocalypse in the world of The Walking Dead.

The Good

  • Fantastic script, with first-rate dialogue and characterizations
  • More tough choices with dialogue and action
  • Some really disturbing sequences that delve into the fragile nature of the post-apocalyptic society.

The Bad

  • Somewhat predictable plot.

Gross-outs combine with a number of disturbing moral choices to create one unsettling game in The Walking Dead: Episode 2: Starved for Help. Telltale Games builds on the intensity of the first episode in this ongoing series, throwing around buckets of blood and adding in some disquieting glimpses of life after the zombie apocalypse. Although fans of Robert Kirkman’s comics might recognize plot points lifted directly from the black-and-white series, this is still a gut shot of an adventure sure to keep you creeped out for the three or four hours that it lasts.

Deciding what to do with crackers and cheese can be surprisingly difficult.

Deciding what to do with crackers and cheese can be surprisingly difficult.

Three months have passed since the ragtag group of survivors who came together in Episode 1 first set up shop in a barricaded motel courtyard. Protagonist Lee Everett, a convicted killer freed by a walker on the interstate in the opening moments of the first episode, is in something of an uneasy truce with other members of the gang. Everyone is on edge now, the result of nearly running out of food and having to deal with the argumentative Larry and his headstrong daughter Lily, who has taken it upon herself to lead the group. The story now branches farther away from the comics, taking on more of a life of its own, with nothing like the somewhat cheesy appearance of comics fave Glenn as one of the main characters in the first episode.

Most of the tale focuses on the moral decisions that need to be made due to the harsh realities of life in a world where dead people want to nosh on your brains. The game kicks off with Lee being faced with trying to save a man from a bear trap by hacking off his leg with an axe, and continues through wrenching choices about which members of your party to feed when the rations dwindle to almost nothing and whether or not to kill a bad guy even with a child watching.

Kenny isn't about to let a little zombie apocalypse interfere with his strict mustache maintenance regimen.

Kenny isn’t about to let a little zombie apocalypse interfere with his strict mustache maintenance regimen.

Character conflicts are carried over from the first episode, and glimpses of personality traits and potential sore points are brought forward. So it’s not a big surprise that Lee runs into big trouble with Larry, or that Kenny remains a coward when called upon to help out a buddy in dire need. The script is excellent. It moves the plot along quickly while also lingering long enough in spots to bring out personalities, such as a telling moment where Kenny assumes that Lee, a black man, would know how to pick a lock because he’s “urban.” With that said, the main plot leaves a little to be desired. The big secret about sinister dairy farmers holed up behind an electric fence is telegraphed from the moment that Lee and crew set foot on their property, yet the game chugs along as if the source of the family’s food supply is an unfathomable mystery. Anyone who has read the Kirkman comics will also recognize elements of this tale from the early issues of the series.

Though the plot is predictable, it is told very well with a supreme ick factor that will leave you shocked and nauseous. The tough choices that you’re faced with through action and conversation, along with regular bouts of scrambly quick-time arcade sequences of the same sort as those featured in the first game, thicken an atmosphere of apprehension. There is more depth here than in Episode 1. You take an active role in more situations now and have to think when conversing with characters or committing yourself to courses of action. Where in the last chapter Lee was something of a lone wolf keeping himself apart from his companions due to worries about his criminal past being revealed, here he is a member of a group dealing with stresses like the daily threat from walkers and the ever-present risk of starvation. The sense of a broken moral order hangs over everything and forces you to make choices between actions that can be justified for survival and actions that cross the line into barbarity.

Moments of intensity are rare, and all the more effective because of it.

Moments of intensity are rare, and all the more effective because of it.

Performance issues that were something of an annoyance on the Xbox 360 version of the game have been cleaned up on PC and PS3. Where the 360 game was rather murky and afflicted by frame-rate hitches just about every time that the scene switched to a new character or new camera angle, neither the PC nor the PS3 editions exhibit these issues. The graphic-novel visuals look fantastic on these platforms and there are no problems with stuttering. Sound syncing errors with the 360 have also been cleared up on the PC and PS3, so lip syncing and atmospheric audio effects are now in time with on-screen animations.

Starved for Help is a great second episode in Telltale’s Walking Dead franchise. The story borrows much from the graphic novels and is predictable even if you haven’t read them, and the performance issues cause some grief, but this is an excellent adventure that needs to be played by every horror fan. It grosses you out at the same time that it makes you think about the fragile nature of society–and what would happen if everything suddenly broke down and left us scrounging to keep our stomachs full.

By Brett Todd

Counter-Strike: Global Offensive Review

Counter-Strike: Global Offensive is a solid update to a classic shooter.

The Good

  • The intense, skill-based combat of Counter-Strike is as enthralling as ever
  • Low price
  • New modes put a clever spin on classic Counter-Strike.

More update than honest-to-goodness sequel, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive maintains much of what made the original Counter-Strike (and Counter-Strike: Source) so fantastic, while adding a couple of new game modes, both of which were based on user-made mods to the original game. In this update, Counter-Strike continues to enjoy the enthralling gameplay and near-perfect balancing that took it from a cult hit in college dorm rooms to one of the seminal games in the multiplayer first-person shooter genre.

Cutting the red wire is a lot trickier when your other choices are crimson and maroon.

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In case you’re unfamiliar, Counter-Strike is an entirely multiplayer experience. You can play offline against AI bots, but these are still merely simulating what it’s like to play online, rather than really giving you a single-player game. The good news is that this is as good as online team-based shooters get. In the traditional game mode, there are two types of matches and two tiers of play. Casual level is for newer players and removes aspects like friendly fire and the need to purchase armor and ancillary items each round (more on that in a second). Ranked level is the original style of CS, with all the “realism” settings enabled, but it also features a comprehensive skill-based ranking system to try to balance teams and place good players with other good players.

Both of these tiers feature several maps–original CS maps like de_dust are reproduced here and still going strong, mixed in with entirely new maps–and each map is tied to one of two game types. In Defusal, one team (the Terrorists) must plant a bomb at a critical site and defend it until it explodes, while the other team (the Counter-Terrorists) must try to either prevent them from planting it or defuse it before it goes off. The other game type, Hostage Rescue, turns the tables. Here, the Terrorists have taken a group of AI hostages that they must protect until time runs out, while the CTs must assault their location and free the hostages.

You have to hand it to terrorists, at least they ensure their hostages are wearing matching outfits.

You have to hand it to terrorists, at least they ensure their hostages are wearing matching outfits.

One important facet to both of these game modes is that there are multiple short rounds in a match, and after each round you must purchase weapons, armor, grenades, and other equipment using money you earn for killing enemies, winning the round, or doing other important tasks. Thus, as games go on, winning teams tend to have better equipment, while losing teams tend to be worse off. The disadvantage is never insurmountable, but it does give teams an incentive to work, well, as a team. In serious matches, communication and planning are key, because players who die cannot respawn until after a round is over and cannot communicate with living team members.

The traditional CS modes are excellently balanced. Games are fast-paced without being unmanageable, skill is rewarded in both the planning and outfitting stages as well as in battle, and good teamwork typically beats individual skills. Pacing is fantastic, too, because you will generally die at least a few times, giving you time to observe other players’ work, review your own mistakes, and plan for the next round during the downtime. Heck, even watching other players go at it can be entertaining in and of itself, as you shout at them to do this or not do that, knowing full well they can’t hear you.

Counter-Strike: Global Offensive is a solid update to a classic shooter.

The Good

  • The intense, skill-based combat of Counter-Strike is as enthralling as ever
  • Low price
  • New modes put a clever spin on classic Counter-Strike.

If you prefer no downtime, however, the two new game modes that have been added this time around should suit your fancy. Called Arms Race and Demolition, they both remove the classic purchasing mechanic and instead award you with a new weapon, instantaneously, when you make a kill. Depending on server settings, weapon awards generally go up in deadliness from an initial lousy weapon, reach an acme, and then begin to go down in usefulness, usually forcing you at last to use nothing but your knife.

Despite what the name would have you believe, Arms Race is about murdering people, not outrunning them.

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Arms Race also removes the downtime of waiting after you die, and plays a lot more like a traditional deathmatch game, with much less in the way of teamwork since each individual is out to finish his slew of weapons as quickly as possible and get the win. Demolition changes this structure, instead challenging you to continue playing a more traditional CS-style game, but with your weapons getting worse and worse with each kill. Both of the new modes are tremendous fun.

No matter which modes you choose to play CS:GO in, however, you’d better be playing with a keyboard and mouse. On the PlayStation 3, playing with a controller is very difficult because CS:GO lacks the hand-holding auto-aim that console FPS players are generally used to, and because many PS3 players will likely be playing with a USB keyboard and mouse, which are both supported by CS:GO. 360 players aren’t so lucky, unfortunately, as they’re relegated to a controller.

This isn’t really a disadvantage, of course, as everyone else on Xbox LIVE is playing with one, too, but you definitely won’t be getting the ultimate CS:GO experience playing with thumbsticks and shoulder buttons. Regardless of your OS, you’ll appreciate some of the bells and whistles it has appropriated from other Valve games, especially Team Fortress 2. Like in that game, you now have “nemesis” players who can dominate you by killing you consecutively, and you can take screenshots of the moment of your death, should you like to memorialize that kind of stuff.

The blood from a counter-terrorist fertilizes the ground with delicious nutrients.

The blood from a counter-terrorist fertilizes the ground with delicious nutrients.

When using a keyboard and mouse, you’ll notice the controls are sharp and easily customizable. Unlike the guns in, say, Battlefield, most of CS:GO’s guns do not have an aim-down-the-sight feature. There are no vehicles, special weapons, or power-ups, either. You get your gear, learn the maps, and rely on your skills to take you to the finish line. Graphics, while improved from the Source engine, are nothing fancy, and neither is sound–although veteran players will be gratified to hear that many of their favorite guns’ sounds are retained from earlier versions (especially the thunderous AWP). CS:GO adds a lot of new guns, too, of various types, and even a new grenade, the incendiary grenade, which can light a small area on fire for a short time, preventing players from passing through without taking damage.

Bottom line, CS:GO adds plenty, tweaks a little, and keeps the best parts of the classic multiplayer FPS. If you’re into shooters, team-based gameplay, or just classic games that are updated well, you won’t do better at the moment than CS:GO.

By Eric Neigher on August 31, 2012 6:26PM PDT Counter-Strike: Global Offensive is a solid update to a classic shooter. The Good The intense, skill-based combat of Counter-Strike is as enthralling as ever Low price New modes put a clever spin on classic Counter-Strike. More update than honest-to-goodness sequel, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive maintains much of what made the original Counter-Strike (and Counter-Strike: Source) so fantastic, while adding a couple of new game modes, both of which were based on user-made mods to the original game. In this update, Counter-Strike continues to enjoy the enthralling gameplay and near-perfect balancing that took it from a cult hit in college dorm rooms to one of the seminal games in the multiplayer first-person shooter genre. Cutting the red wire is a lot trickier when your other choices are crimson and maroon. Comment on this video

Dungeon Hunter: Alliance Review

Dungeon Hunter: Alliance is a good way to get together with friends and take down fantasy monsters.

The Good

  • Solid, enjoyable hack-and-slash action
  • Levels and loot both come at an excellent pace
  • Four-player online co-op is good fun.

The Bad

  • Collision detection quirks hinder melee combat
  • Server browser prone to technical hitches
  • Formulaic.

Solid, derivative, simple fun–that’s the Dungeon Hunter: Alliance experience. It’s the kind of fun you’ve had in other, better games, but this hack-and-slash role-playing game gets most of the basics right, sending you through a pleasant fantasy world where you slice up gargoyles and werewolves from an isometric perspective. Like a hunter’s bow, character development is as flexible as it needs to be, and loot is as plentiful as rats in an innkeeper’s basement. These aspects fuel your adventure, giving you ample reason to light up forests and castles with your spells as you take down a menagerie of typical RPG monsters. Dungeon Hunter doesn’t have much in the way of wit or personality, and some mechanical issues crop up here and there. But whether you enjoy chopping up the shambling undead on your own or with friends, this downloadable PlayStation Network game is a cost-effective way ($12.99) to scratch the itch for a solid dungeon crawl.

Looks like things are about to get rocky.

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If you’ve heard the title “Dungeon Hunter” before, it’s for good reason: This is an adaptation of an iPhone game that was released in 2009. The basics are unchanged, including the generic story. You’re dead royalty, revived by a fairy that needs your help ridding your once-vital kingdom of the new queen’s tyranny–and freeing the fairy’s sisters from their crystalline prisons. This is high fantasy at its most predictable, and there is no voice acting to help bring any of these characters to life. Nevertheless, the writing’s conversational style is appealing and admirably avoids genre cliches in a game otherwise devoted to them. But like many similar games, the plot is an excuse to lead you through city streets and elemental towers, hoarding loot and obliterating the skeletons and slimes that block your path. You do this either as a hardy warrior, a squishy spellcasting mage, or an agile rogue while mashing the attack button and throwing in various special moves that you earn as you level up.

It’s a timeworn recipe, but it works well here; this is due in part to the constant supply of loot and coins heaped upon you. You collect a good number of items you can’t use or don’t want, but enough useful stuff comes your way so that you never feel mired in the game’s naturally repetitive combat. You gain levels quickly, and doing so means spending points in core attributes (strength and vitality, for example) and purchasing new skills or improving those you have. The skill trees aren’t complicated, but they offer plenty of enjoyable freedom to develop your adventurer as you see fit–and if you don’t like the direction you’ve taken, you can redistribute your points for a modest amount of gold. The great pace of the leveling and looting is the source of Dungeon Hunter’s addictive nature, and it’s fun to watch your prince rise from weakly zero to mighty hero. You might even be tempted to return once finished, if only to try out the fine weapons and armor you earn upon defeating the final boss or, perhaps, to check out the functional if unremarkable PlayStation Move support.

Infected corpses are a major health hazard in the land of Gothica.

Infected corpses are a major health hazard in the land of Gothica.

Regardless of your class and weapons of choice, combat is in the Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance/Champions of Norrath vein: You mash-mash-mash your way to victory, occasionally throwing in additional attacks and spells, as well as constantly quaffing potions to keep yourself in good health. If you choose the warrior or rogue class, you don’t live a spell-free existence, however: Your fairy friend and her four sisters can give you a hand in battle. You equip a fairy as you would a weapon and unleash its magic in battle, bathing the immediate area in fire or summoning a tornado to wreak havoc. Nonetheless, the combat can get tiresome as you move down the various corridors, especially when a side quest might send you through areas you’ve previously visited, where enemies you have already vanquished have respawned. Luckily, there is a fine array of enemies and environments, so no sequence overstays its welcome. The occasional collision issues that crop up are more problematic, particularly when using melee weapons. You might watch your axe clip through enemies and gold-bearing boxes several times in a row before you land a hit, which can make certain challenging encounters all the more frustrating.

Fortunately, these intermittent oddities don’t greatly hinder the enjoyment, especially if you join up to three others for some cooperative chaos. This is where Dungeon Hunter: Alliance shines, especially against the bigger bosses. A couple of players may engage the main target while others take down the lesser meanies that complicate the fight. Lightning and fire fill the screen when players call forth their fairies’ spells, which gives the game some visual panache that it otherwise lacks. You can team up with others both online and off, though the online server browser makes it difficult to find an appropriate game. You can limit your game search based on player level and progress, and you can see what country the host lives in, which is nice. But the browser has a tendency to freeze for many seconds, leaving you to wonder if the game has crashed or if it’s just thinking really hard. You might try to join a game, only to fail enter its lobby for no known reason, and even try to host a game, only to be kicked from your own game due to a server error.

Where there are priests, there are candles.

Where there are priests, there are candles.

However, these intermittent hang-ups are worth enduring for the joy of beating up on bandits with a few of your friends. It’s too bad that the energetic online play doesn’t translate to an equally lively presentation. Dungeon Hunter: Alliance looks and sounds nice enough, but it doesn’t have the charms of downloadable RPGs like DeathSpank or Torchlight. While the game lacks its own identity, it showers you in loot and levels, utilizing genre conventions to good effect and giving you lots of ways to mold a character suited to your play style. This adventure is a good length (eight hours or so) at a good price, and co-op play and the class flexibility are appealing enough to make these dungeons worth crawling.

By Kevin VanOrd

Puddle Review

There’s a lot to love about Puddle, but its better qualities are often drowned in a sea of frustrations.

The Good

  • Beautiful and varied visuals
  • A diverse assortment of environments, liquids, and challenges.

The Bad

  • Unrelentingly high difficulty gets tiresome
  • Too much reliance on trial and error.

Any puddle of liquid is nothing but a multitude of drops, and in the new downloadable game Puddle, the significance of each individual, precious drop is brought home. Here, you must guide substances of all kinds through a diverse assortment of treacherous environments, and if you let one too many drops fall victim to the dangers that surround them, you’re sent back to the start of the grueling obstacle course you’re navigating. It’s a tense and delicate process, requiring a great deal of focus and offering a rewarding sense of accomplishment. But despite an impressive amount of variety in its visuals and in the challenges that it presents you with, Puddle sustains the same high-tension note too consistently and for too long, and the result is a game that too often shatters its own mesmerizing spell with frustrations.

Depending on the liquid you're guiding at the moment, cold can be a friend or a foe.

Depending on the liquid you’re guiding at the moment, cold can be a friend or a foe.

Puddle is controlled using only the left and right triggers. These cause the entire environment to tilt in one direction or the other, which typically makes the liquid whose journey you’re supervising at that moment slide downhill, or gain (or lose) momentum. There is also the option to control the game with a Move controller, twisting the controller from side to side to tilt the environment. But this option doesn’t allow for the responsiveness and precision Puddle often requires.

Comparisons to the WiiWare game Fluidity are unavoidable, but there are a number of differences between that game and Puddle. Whereas Fluidity gave you the ability to make your water leap, transform into blocks of ice, and so on, Puddle never introduces such abilities. Instead, its variety comes from the fact that you frequently move from one type of liquid and one type of environment to the next.

You start by guiding the contents of a cup of coffee into a drain, which is easy enough. But soon, you’re moving a chemical solution through a lush forest, trying to avoid absorbent plants and speed past the snapping jaws of Venus flytraps. You must also escort some nitroglycerin through a busy laboratory, careful all the while not to handle it too roughly and trigger an explosion. A later scenario has you helping a liquid pass through parts of a man’s body; at one point during this section, you must race to stay ahead of a destructive ball of acid, and a bit later, you must rapidly tap the left and right triggers to generate the blood pressure necessary to propel the liquid through veins at just the right speed. Puddle never wants for variety; you guide some ink to the proper place on a designer’s technical diagram, move propellant through the fiery innards of a rocket, and aid numerous other puddles on their journeys.

DID YOU KNOW?: After water goes down the drain in your sink, it goes on a fun but dangerous journey.

DID YOU KNOW?: After water goes down the drain in your sink, it goes on a fun but dangerous journey.

Most scenarios present their own distinct challenges–helping orange goo drift through the zero-gravity interior of a spaceship is altogether different from hurrying molten metal through a foundry, moving quickly from flame to flame to ensure the metal doesn’t cool and harden. The frequently shifting properties of the liquid you’re controlling, and the differing dangers you face in each new environment, keep Puddle fresh across its eight chapters of six levels each. And while the game, to its credit, doesn’t explicitly impose any meaning on its events, it’s easy to find a subtle statement about the relationships between nature and industry, between creativity and science in Puddle’s winding path through so many different scenarios.

No matter the liquid you’re manipulating and the dangers you’re navigating, there’s a hypnotic beauty to Puddle. The liquid moves at a fraction of the speed it would in real life, letting you appreciate the captivating ways in which droplets realistically gather, spread, flow, and skitter across surfaces. And while your attention is always focused on the liquid and its movement, the striking environments don’t go unnoticed. The X-ray vision of the human body sequence creates a convincing sense that you’re observing events taking place inside a person, and a sense of serenity sets in as you watch the orange globule drift in zero gravity while the planet Earth can be blurrily discerned through a window in the background.

But this sense of serenity is too often broken. Puddle is difficult and it demands focus; the slightest error–moving just a bit too slow or a bit too fast–can result in failure. There’s value in this kind of grueling challenge. When you successfully guide your liquid to the exit, you may breathe a sigh of relief, like a scientist who has just completed a dangerous experiment in which the slightest mishandling of volatile chemicals might have resulted in catastrophe. But Puddle offers no relief. The completion of one nerve-racking stage means the beginning of the next. No one level takes more than a few minutes, start to finish, but some will likely take you dozens of tries, and eventually, being kicked back to a level’s loading screen for the umpteenth time as you prepare to give that level yet another go can be infuriating.

Droplets like to split up, but it's in your best interests to keep them together.

Droplets like to split up, but it’s in your best interests to keep them together.

It’s especially irritating when your failures can be attributed to a lack of awareness about the dangers ahead, because Puddle doesn’t give you a good way to prepare for them. The camera always observes the current position of your liquid, which is problematic because you often don’t know if speed or caution is called for on the stretch immediately ahead. You often fail as the result of an obstacle you didn’t know was there until an instant before you spilled right into it. Of course, you then know to watch out for it the next time, but there may be plenty more like it between you and the level’s exit.

The frequent frustrations of Puddle mean that only the most patient of players will have what it takes to reach the end. That’s a shame, because it presents a fascinating journey through forests and foundries, into outer space and inner space. But each time you find yourself getting fully absorbed in this game’s demanding and delicate action, the unbalanced and frequently unfair level of difficulty ripples the surface and snaps you out of the moment.

By Carolyn Petit