While playing slogging through the visually nice, but uninspiring “Secret City: London Calling,” I found myself about to be attacked by a decedent of Cerberus when the screen went black. Not the kind of “Thanks for playing the demo” black, or the “Oh guess I need a lit candle” black, just black. I would have been annoyed if it were not for the fact that the blank screen was the most exciting area in the whole game.
When I returned to the game it appeared that I had, indeed, finished the demo.
I’ve mentioned “Orientalism” before when discussing a game, but “Persian Nights: Sands of Wonder” is one of the more blatant examples of using another culture—or the Western fantastical narrative of that culture—as setting for a story. I use the word setting not merely as the physical space where the story plays out, but as a visceral backdrop, a design element that informs the plot and characters of the story. And while in my previous invocation of the term on this site it was merely as accent to an otherwise enjoyable game, “Persian Nights” relies on its exoticism as an excuse to deliver an amateurish hidden object game (HOG) with little to no challenging elements.
Your character is Tara, outlined in the beginning exposition as a local healer trying to discover the source of the blight upon her land. I use local lightly here as she is portrayed as an American-accented white woman, at least in her voice and the few moments where we see her hand. Soon she teams up with the blue-eyed Darius, also trying to keep a magical talisman away from the evil Zaved, a bearded grand vizier to the ailing king. We’ve seen elements of this story before, done better if not done more accurately.
When Jake Gyllenhaal was cast as Dastan in the Prince of Persia film, there was some talk of white-washing, but the full force of that critique would come for later films as we all became a little more aware of the way entertainment continually plays to the lowest common denominator: a white guy. Author John Scalzi once said: “In the role playing game known as The Real World, “Straight White Male” is the lowest difficulty setting there is.” Developers decided that their main demographic was and always would be white men, who either wanted to play a hyper-masculinized version of themselves, or as a female character whose body was up for continual critique. Game creators still make those choices today, sometimes making the default-white-male intentionally as a provocation to what is deemed a loss in status; aloss that largely exists within their own minds.
However, in the widely ignored realm of HOGs, the demographic appears to be the white female. So often these games, particularly on the Big Fish Game platform, have a curious vanilla woman in the protagonist role. Her actions are nearly always reactionary as she stumbles from room to disorganized room to reassemble one puzzle or another to rid the land of evil. “Persian Nights” falls into this category as well, giving Tara no larger roles than nursemaid to Darius and the figurative laundry-picker-upper of a world in disarray. The exoticism of the scenery, the “Other” nature of the villain, even the fantastical creatures, all serve to allow this woman to have some culturally-adjacent adventure and join her male companion in becoming the white savior.
As I have mentioned before, you may argue that I look too deeply into a $7 game few people will hear of, let alone play. Yet, I need to emphasize that it is sometimes the “lowest” forms of a medium, those most accessible to the most people, that require the greatest scrutiny. There are enough people critiquing the world of AAA games—some much better than myself—but on this site, I have to look at these middling games, because what begins as casual soon becomes conventional and even small games should do better.
I don’t know if there is a prequel to “League of Light: The Game,” but there has to be some previous explanation to the pumpkin-headed golem sidekick our investigator carries around. While the impish gourd is quite useful in some areas, its sudden appearance in the carriage/car (inevitable accident in 3…2…1…) left me slightly disconcerted. Granted, I’ve been away from the HOG genre for a time, but to think that we’ve turned our fall harvest into slave-like automatons will give me pause the next time I need to bake a pie.
Ok, I’ve checked. Apparently this is “the latest thrilling adventure in the League of Light series” so I’m guessing Pumpkin Head has a back story. And while I may dive into the series’ catalog to shed some light on its manifestation, I’m not keen to do it now as I’ve just slogged through the demo portion of this current chapter.
I have to give “League of Light” credit where it’s due: the graphics are visually appealing and the motions graphics in the manipulation scenes are better than the norm. Pumpkin Head, for all its creepiness, is especially well acted by the animators, and perhaps its that sense of personality that drives me right into the uncanny valley. So, well done? Yet the game, like most of its cousins, suffers from the same bloated hide and seek gameplay that has, unfortunately, completely redefined the HOG genre. Room by room, area by area, the most challenging puzzles amount to nothing more than those that take the most time, have the most tiles/items to manipulate, have to most tracks to…back track. Only the inclusion of an interactive map actually makes these games playable.
What “League of Light” does okay visually, it makes up for in horribly dull voice acting. My character — I chose the female voice — is so completely uninterested in her investigation, in the happenings around her, of the strange vegetable companion she travels with, I found myself rooting for her complete demise. Thankfully, the demo ends with a cliffhanger after you’ve been poisoned, but I’ll stake a slice of pumpkin pie on it that you don’t actually die. You’ll want to, but you won’t.
The story in “League of Light” is hardly worth mentioning, but I will, since I’ve already started the paragraph. A masked man has captured the world’s best…thingies? thieves? investigators? red-heads? I’m not sure, but they’re pitted against each other in the most dangerous dullest game. You will eventually team up with buxom red-head named Fox — because of course she’s named Fox — as you battle against the evil…Mads. I can’t…anymore…wait! You get to collect owls. Owls are nice.
If you want me to respect your story line over multiple issues/books/movies/games, then put a number in your title. Make it plain to me that I’ve missed something important by jumping ahead to number seven and damn me if I decide to proceed forward without that backstory. Yet, it is still your responsibility to make number seven just as compelling and playable as number one, otherwise, why would I bother? “League of Light” is pretty middle league as far as HOGs go and pretty light on enjoy-ability. I wish there was more for me to critique, but there’s just not a lot of “there” there.
I walked away from doing reviews because, after a while, I felt as if I was just picking on the Big Fish Games catalog, primarily, and not actually getting to play and review some really interesting games.
Yet, today I realized that this is how mediocre productions flood an industry and lower not only the expectations of consumers and the bar for creators. When a distributor with a large enough consumer based continues to release unimaginative and problematic games, it does so successfully because no one pays attention.
So I’ll pay attention. Perhaps we can share some thoughts on casual gaming, how developers and distributers should do better, and sharpen the tools that allow us to examine all types of media we consume.
Hold your crowbars high and let’s play some boring-ass HOGs!
While I’m waiting for larger (and possibly duller) games to download, I headed over to Kongregate to pick a five-minute game to pass the time. Thankfully I found “It’s just TIC TAC TOE” whose label appears to reveal the actual contents of the game. It does. It is just TIC TAC TOE, with a bit of something else. That something else I’ll leave for you to discover, but give yourself a few minutes to enjoy this new take on a classic game…with the sound on, if you can.
There are seven of these games. Vacation Adventures: Park Ranger 7, I’m assuming, picks up where the sixth iteration of the series leaves off. I think. I have no idea. This is my first time playing this game and while a person with a tiny bit more gumption might go back and research the rest of the titles, I’m of the opinion that I will find much more of the same. That doesn’t mean Vacation Adventures: Park Ranger 7 is derivative, but since this will be a short review, I will proceed with the assumption that the gameplay and objectives are consistent throughout the series. Also, I don’t care.
Vacation Adventures: Park Ranger 7 lacks pizzazz and visual depth, but the game never pretends to be something more than a casual distraction. Produced by Casual Arts (it’s in the name), VA:PR7 (as it’s known in the industry) consists of typical hidden-object games interspersed with a variety of other puzzles. There appears to be a story about a campground, or a national park. I didn’t pay attention. What did draw my attentions were to two aspects of the overall game itself.
First, it feels slow. Not slow in progression or in story line, but slow to play. One of the non-HOG games was a typical memory card-flip game (that, for some reason I had to play twice, with the exact same placements). The action of flipping cards and then waiting for them to reset to flip two more cards was tedious. I’m not sure how your mind works, but in any memory game, speed is the key for me. If you give me one or two seconds to wait to flip some more cards, I’m going to lose interest and possibly forget one of the card placements. It’s not that my attention span is that short, it’s that your typical memory game is nothing more than pattern recognition and the faster I can create the pattern (in my head) the better. The slowness didn’t only mire this puzzle, but the overall game, with strange pauses after finishing a level before giving me the screen to continue. For a second or two I found myself wondering if I really had found all the items and then, slowly, the result square appears. Even in a relatively pedestrian game like VA:PR7, pacing can make or break a player’s enjoyment.
Second, and this is a little nitpicky, most of the characters are computer generated, yet in many of the HOG scenes there are cut-outs of real photographs of people vacationing. I’m curious if these are vacation photos of the development team or image gleaned from the internet. If the latter, I hope the team obtained rights for those images, because it would be weird to find a picture from my kayaking vacation in the middle of a casual game being retailed for $6.99. Just putting that out there so we all thing about fair use moving forward.
Overall VA:PR7 is an inoffensive, but slow HOG/jigsaw/memory/etc. game. The focus on spotting wildlife and picking up garbage that can be recycled is a nice feature of the HOG games and certainly made me concentrate on those two objectives before the run-of-the-mill items. There is some potential here with a little tweaking on the pace of play, perhaps VA:PR8 will take up the challenge.
With fifty stages, Colorzzle, the debut game from Darong Studio on Kongregate, is a completely satisfying puzzler. Moving blocks of color together in order to grow a variety of flora, Colorzzle is one of those calm puzzle games that slowly increase the level of difficulty without forcing the player into a wall of frustration. With a lovely soundtrack (that I still have playing in another tab as I write this review) playing Colorzzle soothed my soul on a wintry morning.
The levels progress smoothly and the introduction of new mechanics feels natural, with a level or two to get used to the new item and then a gentle incline for the more challenging areas. Colorzzle’s sound, design, and gameplay all fit together for a relaxing experience that at times, especially in the later levels, will surprise you with its challenge. The game is available for iOS, Android, and Steam, and you can try the first fifty levels at Kongregate right now. Beautiful.
Here’s the thing, gang…I came to flower in the 1980s, pre-Internet. That doesn’t make me better, just older. And since I didn’t spend my summers in front of a computer (well, 1984 I spent in front of my TV programming BASIC on a ZX81) my friends and I had different ways of entertaining ourselves. One way was cards and the card game we played most was “Spit.” This is kind of a reverse Tri-Peaks (Golf) card game and the most important factor in the game was speed. Speed and stamina.
So when I approach a golf-card game like “Solitaire Legends of the Pirates 2,” I sort of expect I’ll be able to utilize my speedy Spit skills and skid through those early levels for a nice mid-morning distraction. I enjoy solitaire (and card games in general) and I enjoy pirates (the entertaining, cosplay pirates) and when 8Floor Games puts those two things together (in a sequel, no less) is makes for a combination of mud and meh.
Mud because, in full screen and windowed mode, the mouse movement felt sluggish as if somehow slowed down which is in direct contrast to my style of play. I’m used to racking up a combo lightning quick and when it feels like my cursor is dragging a truck tire as I play, I’m bound to get annoyed. Meh because there are unnecessary “+$499” updates as you make combos, most frequently in the middle of making the combo. There is no reason the entire screen needs to be halted with this information. These are not real dollars. There are no real consequences. Put the bonus numbers in the top corner where I can ignore them like a person.
“Solitaire Legends of the Pirates 2” is a substandard game in an underwhelming genre, one that has a few shining stars and not much else. These kinds of games are usually relegated to casino-style game sites and the casual phone app, but there’s no reason to add this title to you list of either.
The most frustrating thing about Blue Tea Games/Eipix new release at Big Fish Games, “Dark Parables: Return of the Salt Princess,” is that the game itself is absolutely beautiful. The scenes are stunningly detailed and rendered with a mystic atmosphere. The items are baroque in their design and feel like true relics of a long past, rich kingdom. The jewels sparkle, the metals gleam, and each sprite seems lovingly crafted to be a stand-alone image. What makes this frustrating is that the game, itself, is terribly dull.
I dig the premise, as I have said before, fairy tales are kind of my thing, so while some story paths are well worn, “Return of the Salt Princess,” is a nice change. After a relatively impressive opening sequence (at least for this genre) our first interaction with another character unfortunately reveals the corrosive underbelly of this magical world. The voice acting…is horrible. See the image below and picture the dialog depicted as being delivered in the same deadpan drone that your average convenience store cashier uses you to offer you a bag for your late night Certs and Funyuns 1:
Honestly, if the game would have allowed it, I would have left her there forever. The bland icing on the bland cake is that in the following scene after I have gone to the trouble to rescue her, she uses her “fire power” to blow up the rest of the rubble. The game anticipates an attentive player’s reaction of “why the f*** didn’t you just do that, then?” with a throw-away line of dialog to understand why the f*** she didn’t.
Some of the puzzles, as well, were more complicated than necessary. I’m all for leaving most of the instructions out of unusual puzzles, giving the player a chance to poke around and see what happens (“Madame Fate” is full of those), but when the puzzle, while beautiful, is so clouded in mystery that after five minutes of clicking the player gives up, more testing is needed. I’m not looking for simple game play, but I am looking for just enough feedback in a complicated puzzle (especially if it is the first in the game) to not flail around like some madman wearing magic bracelets.
There was also a strange shifting of game continuity, with a cut scene happening far too early for it to be narratively dramatic. The scene, featuring ole’ Shaggy up there, happens as he attempts to abscond with the Salt Princess herself. You have to shoot him with an arrow (“ranged” weapon the text prompts) and that was fine, but all I had was the arrow; no bow. The scene appears to have been set up to check for the arrow, but not the crossbow. As the cut scene happens, I didn’t have the cross bow because I missed the cuckoo figurine in the one statue base. Yet when I took that to unlock the bookcase in the alley, I only received the rabbit amulet and a goblet. Upon returning to the main square, I used the rabbit amulet on the wolf statue (since wolves love rabbits) and found the crossbow hidden within. Look at those sentences I just wrote. Look at them. All of that fetching happened while the thrilling music was playing and Shaggy, ever courteous, just stood by the precipice while I went through several steps to come kill him.
The map system is for visual purposes only (at least in the demo) no teleporting, so you rack up those steps on your imaginary Fit Bit. As I’ve already mentioned the terrible voice acting, take note that you will have to talk to some of these characters to move the game along and one miss click or two can send you into a repetitious drab dialog hole. These are not only critiques of this game, but problems across the genre and its a genre (as far as I know) that has fewer and fewer developers churning out new titles. Until there is desire (or money to be found) to shake up this style, we’re probably in for more of the same. The same game play, the same worn-out tropes, the same unnecessary back and forth collection to make up for the lack of story. Like I said in the beginning, this game is beautiful and shiny, though that only reflects its flaws much more clearly.
With all the Steams and Switches in the world, it’s sometimes hard to remember excellent game areas such as Kongregate. Last night, desperate to shake the unyielding crawl of Fetch Games, I stumbled into their puzzle section and found “Cube Escape: The Cave,” which is the ninth installment of the Rusty Lake series. I now find myself having to go back and play the other eight. The detail of the games atmosphere and puzzles left me bewildered and disturbed, a phantom shadow here, an unfortunate recipe there, and all the while I was wondering how could these puzzles be so challenging without being annoying. There is more than narrative magic in “Cube Escape: The Cave”: there is developer magic as well.
The escape-room genre, recently and not necessarily to its benefit, seen a bump in interest due to the prevalence of IRL escape room games; either permanent locations or pop-up events have become common in the city-scape. Yet, the idea of heading into a room with a group of people (known and unknown) to find the clues and perform the tasks needed to escape seems completely antithetical to the genre. You are alone, in a room, and there are a series of puzzles you must solve to escape and that solitude is what makes solving the puzzles so essential, and urgent. The idea of solving a complicated puzzle with a bunch of buzzed bros from the Bowery feels so much like torture, more akin to the Saw franchise, than a successor to “The Crimson Room.”
“Cube Escape: The Cave” gives me the same urgency and desperate need for immersion as “Crimson Room” and “Submachine.” I need to solve each riddle and I need to move on, either escaping completely or on to the next adventure. That there are eight other iterations of “Cube Escape” leaves me anxious for a long stretch of time where I can work my way through its labyrinthine story and solve all the puzzles (with the help from a hint or two, not gonna lie). And while playing at Kongregate allows me to save my place, I would have gladly started all over. I highly recommend giving this chapter a try (as it’s the only one I’ve played so far) and let me know if you have a favorite chapter in the series.
Time management games aren’t usually my thing, though there have been a few here and there that I’ve purchased. When I grabbed the demo for “Incredible Dracula IV: Games of Gods” I’ll admit, I did it for Dracula. The Count falls into my area of academic study and I’ve always been curious how he’s portrayed in a number of medium. When I discovered that the games centers around a particularly bored Loki, I was even more intrigued. Now, here is where a normal person would reference the Marvel Universe and Tom Hiddleston. Since the last Marvel movie I saw was Iron Man 2, I am not a normal person. So feel free to “tsk” me from the sidelines as I deny that obvious segue.
What I found was a charming and sometimes hysterical take on the time management genre. Bored to mischief, Loki tricks Dracula and his zombie butler, Rufus, onto a magical game board of delightful design. The paper/origami styling of the graphics particularly impressed me as a clever take on the board game theme. The characters have more personality than most casual games and the music, while not amazing, was not distracting or repetitive. This is a compliment.
I moved from Try to Buy with “Incredible Dracula IV: Games of Gods” after I heard the short responses to the various Rufus’ as they go about their tasks. “Ok Lord”, “Whatever” all performed in that deep, lazy drawl that instantly reminded me of Neil from The Young Ones (“Hello, Rick”). There is just enough variation that it never gets annoying (granted I haven’t spent ten hours playing the game) and the interjections when Dracula, himself, finally gets off his immortal ass and takes care of a task are equally funny. This may seem like a minor aspect to pick out and praise, but so many casual games underestimate the benefits of, not only good voice acting, but these little touches that go a long way to add personality to the game.
I’m not gonna lie. “My Pretty Kitty,” a new match-3 game by Intersol released at Big Fish Games, is cute. It’s almost insistent in its cuteness. If I had to revert to saying it’s kawaii I would not only lose my sense of integrity, but would have to forfeit all the time I spent studying Japanese, for no one should use another’s language in such a remarkably silly way. Yet, “My Pretty Kitty” demands that you call it kawaii at least once, even if it’s just inside your precious pink mind. I won’t do it. I refuse. It’s cute. That is all.
The developers market the game as “a unique combination of tamagochi and match-3” and I would say that is completely accurate. For myself, the same instinct that made me hammer my Tamagochi to death in the 90s 1 was a little more amenable to that part of the game play. However, the strange pricing of some actions and materials made me wonder why they even needed that part at all. $20 for milk? Not yet, Pretty Kitty. Not yet. The other unfortunate element of this tamagochi-style play is that “Kitty” – you are not allowed to rename your Pretty Kitty – is presented as gendered-female, or at least presented in a feminine aesthetic. Pairing that with the constant need to purchase new clothing, play with expensive toys, and coerce to sleep with money reinforces the “high-maintenance” female trope. The most unfortunate part of this decision is that the majority of players (most likely on Facebook where this game is available) will be female and therefore the trope may slowly edify already biased notions of how women react to and use money. Perhaps that’s putting too much burden on “My Pretty Kitty,” but hey…kawaii.
The match-3 element of the game is what you’d expect, with similar bonuses and power-ups that pervade the genre. Granted, there’s something weird about essentially exploding groups of jellied cat heads and I found myself wondering if we’d crossed from cute into cruel. The little mews as you match pink and purple puss-pusses and then the crash of the explosion when you clear parts of the board made me question why I kept matching and exploding, matching and exploding. I had to have a long talk with myself afterward to make sure I was okay. I am okay.
Without the tamagochi game play, “My Pretty Kitty” would have been a purr-fectly 2 good match-3 game and probably one that I wouldn’t have reviewed as there is nothing too grand nor too unsettling for me to call attention to. Yet the monetary element of the game – and yet I know, this is common, especially among mobile games – felt like a strange add-on and one that has far more connotations than I believe the developers realized. I will suggest that, perhaps, through some sort of expression of the subconscious, the kitties of “My Pretty Kitty” know they are merely paw-ns 3.
While it’s possible that “Enchanted Kingdom: Fog of Rivershire” received its name from some Fantasy Title Generator, the title is quite accurate in describing the premise to the new Domini Games offer at Big Fish Games. Yes, the kingdom is enchanted and you, as a master healer must do something to save those afflicted with the “Fog”, but like it’s name, “Enchanted Kingdom: Fog of Rivershire” falls into some of the same worn out tropes of the genre, even while it stretches out with bits of interesting game play.
It is the Healer game mechanic that I appreciated the most. Given to you early on, you must find an assortment of ingredients to draft a potion to heal the afflicted person’s particular set of ailments. After the collection, you must discern how each ingredient is used in your Healer box and, while it’s not the most challenging puzzle I’ve come across, it is of a variety that I don’t see often enough.
At the beginning of the game, when you meet Xander, Warrior of the Tar Empire, and he drops a ton of exposition on you, you may think that “Enchanted Kingdom: Fog of Rivershire” is not your usual adventure HOG, but after diagnosing and curing his sudden “spikiness,” you’ll find yourself falling back into familiar territory of hunt and place, find and collect. The most infuriating moment for me during the demo, is when Xander, grateful for being cured, hands you a daggar to help you along your journey. Guess what you will use once and leave behind?
The visual styling of “Enchanted Kingdom: Fog of Rivershire” is lovely, with over-saturation of greens and violets that emphasize the enchanted-ness of the game. The voice acting, as well, is above par, though the lip syncing, as with many in the genre, can bit a bit disconcerting. Unfortunately, and I’ll lean heavily that it is my own immersion in the genre at this point that informs this, most of the game contains elements that are pretty played out at this point and outside of some interesting characters and a few puzzle mechanics, “Enchanted Kingdom: Fog of Rivershire,” is merely a good example in an ever increasingly mediocre genre. I’m still searching for the game that will breath new life into the adventure HOG, but lately I’m more likely to have spikes growing from my head.
The Egyptian theme of “Demon Hunter 4: Riddles of Light” should have warned me that I was going to have some issues with this game. Too often these games rely on tired tropes of the exotic “Orient” as a stand-in for narrative and game play. Yet, I am ever on the lookout for a game studio to actually try to make this adventure HOG genre into something new but Brave Giant Studio is not quite up to the task.
The voice acting was particularly dull, with the player-character enunciating her excitement or horror with less enthusiasm than a midnight-shift clerk at the Circle K. Aunt Dawn was voiced by an actor who sounds eerily similar to the late, great Carrie Fisher, but the similarity ends there. Even the accents of the two “Egyptian” characters (as far into the demo as I was willing to play) seemed to be variations on Oded Fehr as Ardeth in 1999’s The Mummy, which, I suppose they could have done worse. I’m not asking for Oscar-worthy performances in a low-level casual game, but I am asking to care enough to keep on playing (let alone, buying).
The game play in “Demon Hunter 4: Riddles of Light” suffers from the same convolution-as-complexity as others in the genre. For example: while I have a Sharp Khopesh in my inventory, a lovely weapon, it’s apparent use is for some pruning and disassembly, as such –
Sharp Khopesh -> cuts branch -> cuts strap on goggles -> find pebbles -> create slingshot -> use slingshot on lamp of fire -> fallen lamp scares scorprion.
A better way: Sharp Khopesh -> bisected scorpion.
If your game story, or characters, or setting, or premise isn’t enough to keep my attention, this kind of over-the-top game play will not make up for it. Also, in the one area of the game that could be considered “action,” the double targeting system made the each encounter annoying rather than exciting. The one highlight of “Demon Hunter 4: Riddles of Light” is the visual design of their expositional HOG in the early part of the game, playing on a constellation theme and using ancient Egyptian imagery in a compelling way.
I would give this game a pass and not even bother downloading the demo. The genre is filled with less mediocre games than “Demon Hunter 4: Riddle of Light” and studded with a few gems that are more worthy of your time.