March 21, 2012

Humble Bundle Phones It In Again

Hello again my bundle loving friends. The mighty Humble Inc has once again looked down onto the lands and declared that there shall be a bundle, and it shall be available for Windows, Mac, Linux and Android. If you remember my post on the first Humble Bundle for Android, I expressed some moderate distaste for my current cellular implement and regretfully could only review the PC versions. Thankfully, that spiteful phone has finally been recycled into bits, and I have a shiny new Samsung Galaxy S II. Humble's not catching me off guard again, no sir.

Of course, seeing as I run a PC focused blog, the majority of the reviews will be based on the PC version. But still, it's nice to try these games on a smaller screen using only my big dumb fingers.

Enough chit chat. How about those games?

Developed by Semi Secret Software

While there may have been a few casual auto runners before Canabalt, and there sure have been a lot that followed, it remains to this day one of the bigger indie success stories. It's a game that somehow manages to be so deep and so shallow at the same time. Who is your mysterious avatar in a suit? What disaster is he running from? What alien force is invading the city? Why can we never escape the dystopian future our suit wearing man strives to break free of at the cost of his own life, only to break down his heroic yet vain actions into a series of ultimately meaningless and unfulfilled high scores? What does it all mean?

Let's be honest, the gameplay is pretty easy to grasp literally the second you pick up the game. Jump between buildings, jump over obstacles, jump into the wall just above a window and then swear loudly that you missed your high score by mere feet. Other auto runners have improved the formula and gameplay immensely, but they're still referred to as Canabalt clones, and not the other way around. I'm inclined to attribute this to the excellent pixel art, unique setting, distinct palette and extremely awesome soundtrack by Danny Baranowsky, winner of Backlog Journey's prestigious "I'd buy a soundtrack from that guy" award.

"Wait just a second," you might be thinking. "Canabalt is free! I can play it right now in my browser! Stupid money grubbing charity, charging me for free things!" You're right, Canabalt is free for any savvy consumers with internet access. However, the Humble Bundle release includes the two player version previously only found on the fantastic indie arcade machine, the Winnitron 1000. The Android version is similarly new and exclusive to the Humble Bundle, boasting reworked high definition graphics. The new 2.5D graphics look absolutely amazing; while I'm always a pixel art fan, these new graphics pop in a way that the original never did.

Android or PC? The Android exclusive HD version looks way superior. 2 player is fun but ultimately less interesting than a lone game. Android is the clear platform of choice here.

Developed by Secret Exit

Zen Bound 2 is a puzzler with a unique hook that doesn't quite manage to be as interesting as you'd expect. The game revolves, quite literally, around a small wooden or stone figure that you must wrap a paint soaked rope around to cover the majority of the surface area in some alternate colour. There are additional elements to throw into the mix, such as small paintballs built into your rope to explode or paint topped nail landmines that activate when your rope gets into contact. It doesn't get too much more complicated than that, at least for the first thirty levels I tried. The complexity comes from increasingly complex figure to coat, necessitating careful planning to avoid cutting off a tricky nook with your rope.

It's not all that hard to win, though. I had no issues with any of the levels I went through, never once getting less than the medium goal and often achieving 100% success. Maybe it comes from my lifetime of fiddling with loose objects and string, but a lot of the puzzles are fairly easy to win at right away. The challenge doesn't come so much from puzzling out the best route, but manipulating the camera and rotation to support your decision.

It's not a bad game at all. The presentation is excellent, the music is very well suited and the game is packed with puzzles. However, it's probably the best example of a problem quite a few people have with the bundle. The games included in this edition, Avadon excepted, are generally more casual or phone oriented. In the previous bundle the opposite was true. The games in that pack were hardcore games that were designed for PC and phones equally. This pack is generally phone games that happen to also work on PC, but cater more towards the larger phone toting market.

Zen Bound 2 is a perfect game to waste time while on the go, but doesn't really sustain itself for longer sessions typical for PC users. Many great puzzles fall on that perfect line between brain teasers and time wasters, and Zen Bound 2 trends towards the latter. Fun for a few minutes, but it was ultimately unable to sustain my interest.

Android or PC? You'll want the Android version if you have a choice. Multitouch works way better for the game than clicking and dragging the screen around. Both versions also look functionally identical. However, the Android version was pretty hard on my particular phone's battery life.

Developed by Lazy 8 Studios

Cogs is another puzzle game, but this one revolving around those infuriating sliding puzzles. However, Cogs plays far more fair with these kind of sliding games, and thus managed to win me over. In order to solve the puzzle, you must move around various bits of machinery attached to square tiles to facilitate some kind of goal. This can be fairly simple, a line of gears from one engine to another for example, or more complex, like a choir of bells that must ding simultaneously.

The game, despite not supporting widescreen resolutions, does look really good. The puzzles are each fairly unique looking and offer a wide variety of designs. The steampunk aesthetic compliments the main hook of the game very well, making each puzzle an interesting invention to fix, rather then just a puzzle to be solved for the sake of solving things. Cogs also sports a really great learning curve, slowly working in more complex elements to keep the game interesting over long term sessions and also to keep players engaged with new styles of puzzles.

Seeing as they're both in this pack, it seems apt to compare Zen Bound 2 to Cogs. Both games rely on solving puzzles with a central mechanic, and both offer multiple methods of reaching the finite solution. Both have a really good presentation and lots of levels. I just think Cogs wins out in the end due to a wider variety and because it is genuinely more puzzling. Zen Bound puzzles can largely be solved by common sense and random twisting, but Cogs definitely requires you to think about what you're doing.

Android or PC? I'm going to go with PC on this one. While the game is very well suited to quick sessions on the go, the two fingered swipe to rotate your board is glitchy and the tiles are just a bit too small for my big dumb fingers. Would likely play best on a tablet, but sadly I have no tablet to sample it with.

Developed by Spiderweb Software

Spiderweb Software was indie way before it was cool. Having worked on a wide variety of CRPGs since 1994, Jeff Vogel and his merry band have kept the retro RPG starved market fairly satisfied with several cult indie RPGs. Spiderweb has always emphasized in depth storytelling, advanced world building and complex gameplay over petty things like graphics. Each game mostly looks like it was released in 1994, but games like Avernum and Geneforge still manage to be on par with many old school big budget CRPGs. Needless to say, it's a niche audience.

Avadon is their first title aimed at a wider audience by making the game more accessible. This doesn't mean they've lost touch with the hardcore RPG genre, but simply that they designed Avadon to be a bit more modern. Gone is the forced 4:3 resolution and other such artifacts, and even though it still looks like an older 1998 game, a fair amount of effort was put into the artwork this time, compared to their usual releases. The gameplay is a bit simpler too, limiting players to four distinct classes each restricted to their own sets of skills. The classes are each fairly typical variations on standard RPG classes, but interestingly each also include several similar skills to make your character fairly self sustained. Each class has a self heal ability, for example, and an ability to resist damage. While it does remove some of the more unconventional classes of titles like Geneforge, it does make the character building fairly unbreakable.

One place Spiderweb always succeeds at is creating interesting worlds. Geneforge, to this day, is one of the most unique worlds I've ever seen in a video game, and Avadon certainly keeps up the tradition. While the world is mostly typical medieval fantasy based, it presents a land held together by a universal agreement called the Pact. Each country, despite absolutely hating each other, has agreed to a Pact of non aggression. Your role as a soldier of Avadon is to uphold the Pact, and serve each country equally. However, many nobles and schemers abuse the Pact to serve their own ends, making your job tricky to execute. Even worse, some of the methods used to keep the peace by Avadon are fairly morally questionable, and the enigmatic leader is a controversial and suspicious figure. It's very much a shades of grey RPG without quite descending into dark fantasy.

The combat, like all Spiderweb games, is turn based and on a grid, beginning whenever you are noticed by an enemy. As a huge fan of tactical turn based strategy, I'm a big fan of this system and experimenting with the best combination of abilities. The dialogue is all very well written, with the exception of your own responses. Unlike Bioware and other large RPG companies, Spiderweb does not particularly excel at making your choices seem to matter. Most conversations revolve around picking every option until you get a quest, with some offering a choice that seems to affect nothing beyond the next dialogue screen. While Bioware might only be giving their players the illusion of choice, they still do a good job of holding up that illusion. Spiderweb might offer a choice to how you finish a quest, but it only impacts your reward and little else beyond But Thou Must. There are multiple endings, of course, but it remains to be seen just how well they are handled.

Still, Bioware's off helping Commander Shepard to save the galaxy, and Spiderweb never left us old school RPG fans in the lurch. If you're a big fan of retro CRPGs like I am, Avadon is like a much needed oasis of fresh adventures. It's about as good as a retro RPG gets, which is pretty impressive for a game released in 2011.

Android or PC? Alas, this is only available on tablets and not phones. Having dabbled with it on my friend's iPad, I'd say the game works surprisingly well on a tablet. But you'll be perfectly fine playing it on either or.

Developed by Ronimo Games

Sorry to any cheap bundle fans out there, but this title is going to set you back a little more as we've come to Humble's beat the average bonus. Swords and Soldiers is a 2D RTS, which is a genre that could certainly use more love than it gets. Essentially you are tasked with gathering gold and building soldiers, who run across the screen to disrupt your enemy from doing the same. It's a pretty light hearted affair, with nice graphics and deep enough gameplay for what should be a fairly simple game.

You play as one of three caricatures of early civilizations, Vikings, Aztecs, or ancient Chinese. Each civ has their own set of units and upgrades to build, which you unlock by saving gold and working your way through the tech tree. Each upgrade you unlock expands your toolbox and allows you to bring in more units and spells during the fight. The one issue I had is that you can't give any sort of tactical commands to your units. In most other 2D RTS games, you can at minimum stop your units from running ahead so they assault the enemy in a group. Not so here. Your soldiers will just stampede to their deaths without any regard for safety in numbers. It can be pretty frustrating to not have any sort of control over your dumb soldiers, but fortunately the game makes up for this shortfall with the magic system.

Unlike most other casual strategy games where magic is intended as something to hoard for emergencies, the magic system in Swords and Soldiers is essentially the main gameplay hook. Your soldiers are completely evenly matched, but by following them into battle and using up mana, you can keep your small band steamrollering towards the enemy castle. While the thrust of the strategy comes from deciding which units to research and build, the main action comes from making quick decisions in regards to spells and countering enemies.

I'm not trying to oversell the strategic depth here. At its core, the game is still a simple 2D strategy with some nice visuals and amusing character designs, plus a lot of content to work through. I particularly loved the Batman-esque loading screens between missions. I do think it's very well designed for a casual strategy title, and thus is probably worth a look if you were planning to donate a little extra to Humble in the first place.

Android or PC? PC for sure. They're functionally identical across platforms, but the Android version suffers from a case of tiny buttons vs my giant Truckasaurus hands, so inputting my profile name was a nightmare. Plus, the PC version includes some extra multiplayer modes.

And that's it! Like I mentioned in my Zen Bound 2 digression, this bundle is far more focused on phone games rather than games that work well on both platforms. But Avadon alone is enough to sell me on a solid donation. Plus, there is the tantalizing possibility of bonus games, so we'll have to see if this bundle is ultimately a success or a misfire.

You can get your own bundle at, and be sure to give me a follow on Twitter or any of the other pages linked on my sidebar.

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