KrissX – Xbox Live Arcade Review

An XboxHornet XBLA review by WDesm

Developed by Blitz Games
Published by Konami
Price 800 MS points

Watch the trailer here.

“The Puzzle Isn’t In Getting To The Answer, It’s Translating It!”

First impressions are a dangerous thing. If one were to look at KrissX for only a second, it would seem juvenile and underwhelming – a cartoonish owl pointing at pre-solved crosswords sounds like a rather shallow game. But a blossoming sense of journalistic integrity washed over me, preventing me from firing off with first impressions, and I kept playing… and playing… and playing… and playing…

For those not in the know, ‘casual’ games like the infamous Peggle, Bejeweled, or Bookworm are veritable goldmines, raking in millions of dollars each year. The origin of the genre was to tap the 98% of the world that isn’t a hardcore gamer, and instead tap into the liquid capital that housewives, teenyboppers, and iPhone-users-at-bus-stops have at their disposal. “Serious” hardcore gamers often mock the genre for being, well, juvenile and underwhelming, but are prey to its dangerously seductive effects like any other. You see, the casual game is designed to be exceedingly simple to grasp…and impossibly addictive to put down. After losing the entire year 2008 to Peggle, I thought I had gotten the casual gaming bug out of my system, but KrissX has proved me wrong.

The game is amazingly simple to grasp. Pre-solved crossword puzzles await you, but the arrangement of letters in the crossword is awry. In as few swaps as possible, and as quickly as possible, your goal is to correct this mistake, earning points and badges (alongside traditional achievements) for doing so competently. Between levels, there are various quirks (rearrange the letters alphabetically as quickly as possible) that shake things up a little, inspiring you to get just a few more points out of each challenge. As you progress through the “story mode” of the game, you unlock challenge modes such as Time Attack, Timeless mode, or Capital Mode, where all words are capitals of various countries (betcha didn’t know the capital of Cyprus off the top of your head!). The extra modes of gameplay are like having a choice of flavour when you buy your cocaine fix: Don’t be surprised if the hours disappear from your free time as you try to collect just one more badge and play just one more new mode.

KrissX is a dangerous addition to the casual gameplay market, and I’m happy to see it on XBLA. Since Peggle became the reigning champion of wasted weekends and zombified housewives, it’s nice to see a qualified challenger rise up to meet it. Don’t brush KrissX off as a game for children – the casual game market might be open to all, but it’ll make you feel right at home.

Game Score 8.5/10

Download a free trial of the game here.

Watch the trailer here.

Along Came a Spider – Xbox Indie Review

An XboxHornet review by WDesm

“Amusing physics platformer. Needs to be experienced!”

Along Came A Spider is a fun little platformer that plays with a few basic principles of physics. As a spider, your goal is to get back to your web by crawling and hopping through the increasingly-complex stages. Additionally, to really “win,” you must also collect the flies scattered throughout the stages, placed in, you guessed, ever increasingly-difficult spots to get to. Overall? The presentation is solid, the gameplay is forgiving and yet enjoyable, and the artistic flair suits the game’s fluid levels to a “T”.

Physics-based games always need to hold themselves to a higher standard, because there is more uncertainty in how the engine responds: the added complexity of responding to player input adds just another thing to go wrong. Along Came A Spider’s application of physics adds an elastic “bounce” to surfaces, but happily, the application is not so extreme that you need to worry about glitching through or past objects because of overcompensated recoil. I don’t want to go into too much specific detail about the gameplay, because I believe that the value of a good physics-based game is that the gameplay emerges as you understand how the materials act. Suffice it to say, the platforming is both simple to enjoy as you get from start to finish in each level, and challenging to perfect as you endeavor to collect the flies with minimal trouble, and I will encourage you to check the demo if you need to be convinced by the game’s mechanics.

The art style is smooth and uncluttered – if you’ve played a highly polished Flash game (or as a full title, a title such as World of Goo), you know what simple vector art and a lot of talent can accomplish, and this game is no exception to that rule.

There’s no multiplayer component to this game, so you’ll have to fly solo when you experience this light but solid platformer, but that doesn’t shake my impression of the game: As far as XBLIG platformers go, we can do a lot worse than exceedingly polished games such as this. Check it out!

Game Score 9/10

Download a free trial of the game here.

Mind’s Eye of Jupiter – Xbox Indie Review

An XboxHornet review by WDesm

“Puzzle-solving, old school Myst style”

From the humble beginnings of Zork, into the visual world of Myst, puzzling interactive fiction has evolved and evolved. With the introduction of Mind’s Eye of Jupiter, the evolution takes a jump to XBLIG. Mind’s Eye of Jupiter is a first-person adventure / puzzle solver taking place in an ancient Roman ruin. Your goal is to search for the Mind’s Eye of Jupiter, a hidden portal to another time.

The gameplay involves you moving around in first person mode for clues and interactive objects. While the world is relatively sparse with detail, there is the extremely appreciated feature of a warning “Artifact Nearby” if you are near an interactive object (ie: a key, etc) that might escape your attention. Other details, such as the doors and locks, require a more manual observation, but that is to be expected in this genre.

In an adventure game, the storyline is the reason to play – while an inner goal to solve problems and puzzles will keep you glued to the game, there needs to be an initial “hook” to draw you in. Unfortunately, Mind’s Eye of Jupiter doesn’t really have a background story to go with, and while there obviously is a small bit of history to the character, the world, and the game, the player isn’t introduced to it in a way that welcomes you to experience. Ultimately, if you’re playing this game, it’s to solve puzzles, not necessarily because the story drew you in.

Mind’s Eye of Jupiter is not especially deep, large, or long, but I can only imagine that based off the name, we can expect a hopefully-large series from this initial offering. There’s no multiplayer offered, and with a finite amount of options, there seems to be little replayability available. Overall, the puzzle genre is a rather love-or-hate-it genre, as you need to want to explore, assess, analyze, and sleuth out an explanation, but if you’re willing to give it a shot, and patience is your virtue of choice, then you might have a match….at least until you start looking for Episode 2.

Game Score 7/10

Download a free demo of the game here.

Cavemen vs Aliens – Xbox Indie Review

An XboxHornet review by WDesm

“A fantastically straight forward RTS-lite”

Cavemen Vs Aliens is a simple take on the RTS genre: You have a finite amount of resources (Cavemen), as does the enemy (Aliens). Using four different pterodactyls (or spaceships), you move your resources to islands, securing them while raiding or defending from the enemy. The art is goofy, attractive; the sound effects are professional; and the gameplay is refreshingly solid and quick-paced.

Like all good strategy games, the gameplay is easy to grasp, and hard to master. Each button on the 360 controller is linked to a pterodactyl of the same colour. The Blue one acts as a dropship for your cavemen, the Yellow one acts as an ammo drop, the Green as a healer, and the Red as an escape shuttle. You cannot directly control the cavemen under your control (they will automatically attack enemies or capture islands), and so these four coloured pterodactyls are your only interaction with your troops. Large scale awareness is important, because ammo drops, reinforcements, or extra health will protect your finite and non-respawning cavemen alive through to the end. Between skirmishes, you are rewarded with “Gold” for your victory, which can be used to buy powerups for your army (such as increased health, faster island capping, etc). The strength of your army is very important, as later stages open up multiple simultaneous skirmishes. While you only play through one skirmish at a time, you must pre-allocate a limited amount of cavemen between multiple stages, demanding an even larger-scale assessment of tactics.

Most console RTSes are single player with limited or non-existent multiplayer, and I’m sad to note that Cavemen Vs Aliens doesn’t shake things up very far: A 1-on-1 local competition mode exists, but I can’t help but wish for more. I am aware of the limitations on XBLIG, and that some features could only exist in an XBLA or even disc title, but wouldn’t it be fantastic to take an obviously well-thought-out game and have some form of global competition? Tom Clancy’s Endwar, Chromehounds, and other games have shown that individual stats can play into a global result – why can’t Cavemen Vs Aliens have online play, with a global scorecard kept on the leaderboard (ie: Cavemen win 65% of the time, so the scoreboard has a primitive theme to it)? ….Too much, I know, but I can dream.

Back to reality, or in this case, a prehistoric reality, we’re left with a functionally one-player but exceedingly-polished and well-designed RTS. Your mental muscles will thank you for saving our ancient ancestors from the alien menace.

Game Score 9/10

Download a free trial of the game here.

Power Volley – Xbox Indie Review

An XboxHornet review by WDesm

“An enjoyable-if-simplistic take on ‘Souped-Up’ VolleyBall”

“Extreme-i-fied” Sports Games are nothing new. Probably the most iconic entry in the genre is the old Super Dodgeball game, where a seemingly-regular game of Dodgeball is kicked up a few notches by the inclusion of super power-ups. Powa Volley aims for that same amped-up sports adventure, and does a pretty decent job at it.

The gameplay is supercharged with the inclusion of eight unique monsters, each with an individualized play style and each with a super power (the playstyles can range from a “cannon” that fires volleys at the volleyball rather than jump to a ball of glue that can stick to walls, and the superpowers are even more esoteric). Instead of a serve button or control over your character’s upper half, all characters simply “hit” the ball with themselves. I suppose it’s not too troublesome of a design, but it is annoying to hit a ball somewhat off-kilter, only to find that your character has headbutted the ball dead into the net.

The game includes a variety of gameplay modes, including singles, doubles (with local support for either co-op or competitive misadventures), and even online play….although the both times I checked for online games, I was unable to find any games at all. Perhaps if enough people are aware of the game’s entertainment potential for a couch crew of up to 4, we might actually see some online games appear.

If you’re not up to a goofy game of superpowered monsters, there is a variety of ‘training’ and endurance modes included in the game, which I really appreciate, as it offers those that enjoy the game a large amount of replayability. While not all styles of gameplay need a “hook” to encourage replayability, it is always a pleasure to find some that hit the mark.

Overall, Powa Valley is rather average. It’s not fantastic, and low populations is a nail in any multiplayer coffin, but if you have a few friends over, and want to try some goofy take on volleyball, well, at the very least, try the demo.

Game Score 6.5/10

Download a free trial of the game here.

Soul – Xbox Indie Review

An XboxHornet review by WDesm

“A solid entry that epitomizes the “Games As Art” philosophy”

If you’ve played Braid, then you’ve encountered the “Games As Art” philosophy in full swing – the idea that instead of being an entertainment medium, a video game can also tell a story that evokes strong emotion at the same time. Of course, all good games can have an inspirational or epic moment or two, but an “art” game should be a compelling journey throughout. Soul tries to hit that niche genre, and, I daresay, actually does a pretty decent job. By a more traditional definition of genre, I suppose Soul would be called a ‘horror’ game, though there isn’t much that’s actually scary about it (ok, there’s the odd cheap scare hidden away). Rather, the game aims for a foreboding sense of fear, in the very grim and dreary scenery, to the nightmarish monsters you face, and in the flickering illumination that (poorly) outlines your treacherous path.

Humourously enough, Soul’s gameplay elements are reminiscent of N+; at its core, the gameplay is an unforgiving platformer requiring mastery of the controls and the game’s timing. While not as fast-paced as N+ is, there is absolutely no room for error, and you can be expected to lose many times throughout the game until you learn the correct sequence for each screen. The gameplay is most definitely a distant second to the game’s style, however, and I’m not sure that there is much replayability in the game, unless you wanted to challenge how quickly you could move through the game. However, given its cost, I’m more than confident you will get your money’s worth tenfold over by enjoying the game for what it is: a story.

The point of the game is to get you, a recently deceased, or more aptly, your soul, all the way to Heaven. For whatever reason, the path has become clogged with nightmarish creatures, and you are forced to travel, unarmed and unarmoured, through the stages until you escape to freedom. This is definitely the sort of game played best late at night, with the blinds drawn, and in one sitting (which works out nicely, I suppose, seeing how the game doesn’t have a save function…).

Soul’s target audience is a rather niche crew, but if you’re willing to try it out, it’s easy to appreciate the atmosphere, and the gameplay holds a decent challenge. It won’t hold a serious platformer’s attention for long, but they’ll enjoy what they get, that’s for sure.

Game Score 7.5/10

Download a free trial of the game here.

I Heart Shift – Xbox Indie Review

An XboxHornet review by WDesm

“Relax, chill, enjoy.”

I Heart Shift has an interesting history. Taking the story from the developer’s own website, Fronominal (a lone coder by the name of Keir Miron) wanted to create an action-game colour-based puzzle solver, and looked to a variety of sources to make their first XBLIG entry; Fronominal cites Zuma, Geometry Wars, and Pixel Junk: Eden as being part inspirations for I Heart Shift. I, however, see a different analogue to their finished product, and that’s Rez. Rez is known for (aside from the overplayed vibrator references) being a “chill” shooter game where the rhythm plays into your game, and I Heart Shift is the exact same way. It may take a few levels to get the hang of it, but the aim of the game is definitely casual enjoyment, and it gets the job done nicely.

In I Heart Shift, you control a small ship, much like a regular twin stick shooter. Unlike a shooter, you cannot control your fire rate; that is controlled by the tempo of the music, which increases as you gain larger combos. You can also move your ship around, using the traditional “left stick move, right stick aim,” and like the above-referenced Zuma, you shoot your coloured block into a pre-designed stage, hoping to score a big combo. Assuming you don’t miss a shot, the combo multiplier grows, the tempo increases, and your reward (if the above wasn’t enough) is a musical tune of increasing complexity (each successive boost to your combo lengthens the tune you hear, starting from a single note into a complicated rhythm).

The above (a musical puzzle based game) would stand well enough on its own (indeed, the upcoming Chime for XBLA is banking on just that), but I Heart Shift has an entire extra game-mode hidden still: Once you have cleared enough of the stage to have a clear aim at one of the bounding walls, you can fire a shot off the screen, switching the gameplay to “alternate mode”, a full-featured twin-stick shooter. The trick is to time the switch so that you have accrued a large combo multiplier in puzzle mode, so that your shooting nets you the highest bonus possible.

Ambitious? Certainly. Well Executed? Almost Definitely. Missing Anything? …Well, some form of local co-op would have been nice, but I suppose that if the aim of the game is to relax, match colours, and slowly unravel a musical melody, then a two player mode might have detracted from that. What would have really been a boon to the game would have been some sort of “endless mode,” or “no-fail” mode, for when you want to play just to enjoy the game, rather than specifically play a stage. Either way, I’m surprised at both the game design’s simplicity and the resultant complexity of this game: If you appreciated Rez (beyond just being a crude sex joke between gamers), or enjoy puzzle matching, you owe it to yourself to try this gem. Just be careful to read the (sparse) tutorial page; the game drops you right in the thick of it, and it will take a few stages before you begin to appreciate its unique flavour.

Game score 9/10

Download a free trial here.

Armor Valley – Xbox Indie Review

An Xbox Hornet review by WDesm

“Remember Herzog Zwei and/or Brutal Legend? Want More? You’re In Luck!”

Herzog Zwei, for those who don’t know, is considered one of the first Real Time Strategy games, predating the iconic Starcrafts, Warcrafts and Command and Conquers that most people recognize the genre by. Being one of the first RTS games, it didn’t have all of the now-familiar standards, such as the “omniscient player” approach to gameplay (for example, in a Command and Conquer game, “you” are untouchable, even if your team is destroyed), and you manually controlled an avatar that participated in battle, even while controlling more familiar features like unit production. This action/strategy hybrid was recently revisited in Brutal Legend, and now has skillfully been brought to the Xbox Indie Scene.

Armor Valley has you controlling an oversized helicopter, a “hovercopter,” complete with a mini-command station, missile bays, and machinegun turrets. Your goal is to progress from your base towards the enemy’s, and you certainly can’t do it alone; you’ll need to stay close to your base for reloading and refueling, and near your allies for their additional firepower. Each type of ally you can create has a different purpose, be it to capture buildings, ground-to-ground fire, or surface-to-air attacks. A fourth type, the Disrupter, is perhaps the most key of all: The mission is “won” by getting a Disruptor unit into the enemy base, destroying their defenses around their command base. The controls are solid, and have a sensitive “feel” to them that appropriately mimics the fact that you are in a levitating steel whale, but the gameplay is forgiving enough that you won’t be throwing your controller in rage. As well as beating the story mode, you can play ‘quickmissions’, either against an AI or against another (local) player, and are even given your choice of multiple styles of hovercopter, including a jet variant, which pleasantly requires control over the wing tilt to fly rather than the hovercopter’s physics. Sadly, the 2-players options are exclusively local/competitive, which means that Protégé Productions missed both an opportunity for cooperation and online modes, for example, a 2vs2 mission against two other players over Xbox Live would have brought four friends together in this excellent Indie release.

The production values for Armor Valley are top-notch, through and through. Armor Valley shows a decent 3d engine, quality sound effects and music, and a shining polish to the presentation. Even small details, such as a helpful and non-intrusive tutorial, are included, showing that Protégé Productions didn’t cut any corners to make their debut on XBLIG a smash success.

Despite a rather cookie-cutter approach to multiplayer, I thoroughly enjoyed Armor Valley, and it scratched an itch that had had me looking at Brutal Legend longingly. If you’re thinking that action and strategy are two great tastes that taste great together, or wouldn’t mind reliving your very own epic Air Wolf (or Whale, I guess, given the hovercopter’s size), you should really check out Armor Valley.

Game score 9/10

Download a free trial here.