Avatar Review Roundup – XBLIG Review AND Giveaway

Lighthouse Games Studio is quietly becoming a master of the Flash-esque “Fun for a few rounds every now and then” casual gameplay that has brought numerous Flash portals all over the internet such fame and attention. But instead of being a browser-based crew, they operate in the realm of XBLIG, which means that we can put the spotlight on them.  Today we have the opportunity to review not one, but two of their games, and if you stick with the review, you can earn yourself a free redemption code for a third game of theirs.

A WDesm double-dose for XBoxHornet

“Great way to have a little fun ‘blast’!”

Avatar Cannon is a simple game with a simple premise: Take your avatar, aim the cannon, fire the cannon, and watch ‘er fly.  Depending on your skill (luck), your avatar will interact with various African fauna, which will drastically extend the distance you cover.  A total of three launches are given to you, and the sum of your adventures is placed on a global leaderboard.

Your hard work and effort is rewarded in-game with small rewards via completing the “Awardments”, which is always a nice encouragement, and there’s even an Awardment (“Fan Boy”) that can be gained only by looking at their studio page, so be sure to give that a click.  The rewards will assist you in getting a higher score, so keep at it, and you’ll be sure to climb the leaderboards easily enough!

Avatar Cannon isn’t a “sit down, play for 10 hours” game – it’s straight-forward, fun, casual, but there’s little meat on the bones.  It may, however, fit in a very sweet spot when you have five minutes to kill waiting for a DLC, movie, or game to download, and you can always push yourself to unlock just a few more of its gimmicks.

Download a demo of the game here.

“A SECOND way to blast away time with your Avatar”

Avatar Rockets is our second feature by Lighthouse Games Studio, and, dare I say, the better of the double-feature.  The principle is much the same: With a little skill and a lot of luck, waste a few minutes firing your avatar off into the unknown.  In the case of Avatar Cannon, it was a horizontal flight with animals acting as further propulsion.  In Avatar Rockets, it is a vertical adventure, and seemingly-randomly spawned fuel pods are what you have to aim for.

The game doesn’t include Awardments, unlike Avatar Cannon, but does include a small amount of customization: A bevy of spaceships await for you, as well as the option to use a simple painter to paint your own design.  Additionally, unlike, the exclusively single-player adventure of Avatar Cannon, where the only inter-person competition is on the leaderboard, Avatar Rockets includes Xbox Live Party support, with either public or private matches, so that you can show your friends up and reach for the stars.  Ultimately, much like Avatar Cannon, however, this game will serve better as an intermittent and occasional time waster, and not the primary focus of a gaming session.  Avatar Rockets also has the bonus of being 1/3rd the cost of Avatar Cannon, which, when you’re looking for a casual time-waster, can be a selling feature.

Download a demo of the game here.

Both of the games looked at above are good ways to goof off with your avatar, although they do have limited longevity and are a tad skinny on features.  Fortunately, not all of Lighthouse Games Studio’s offerings are designed for ten-minute bursts, and today, we’re going to give away a redemption code for myFishtank, an app XboxHornet reviewed back last May.  To enter, simply leave a comment below stating which you prefer: Avatar Rockets or Avatar Cannon, and why.  A winner will be chosen next Saturday (March 27th, 2010).

MotorHEAT – XBLIG review

A WDesm review for XBoxHornet

“Fantastic.  Simply Fantastic.”

Milkstone Studios has managed to hit upon that je ne sais quoi that can make a racing game so addictive.  MotorHEAT is a fantastic hybrid of adrenaline-fueled speed and simplistic gameplay that hooks you for the long (and fast) haul.

The gameplay is simple and straight-forward: You are in a start-of-the-art car, and you can drive really fast.  You drive at irresponsible speeds, wildly swerving through traffic, and the longer you can keep it up, the better score you get.  A ‘boost’ bar serves to make things even more ludicrous, and your boost bar can be recharged by narrowly missing a collision with another vehicle.

Extra speed and bonus points for nearly crashing? Yikes.

Points are scored based on your current multiplier, which slowly increases the longer you avoid a collision, and points-earning can be augmented by a variety of power-ups that spawn randomly – from the simple ‘bonus points’ or ‘bonus multiplier’ to the nearly-game-breaking temporary invincibility (hint: since collision detection is disabled under invincibility, you actually want to AIM for cars while holding down the boost button).  The gameplay starts off hectic, and as you start to swerve past and around the walls of cars, it becomes a desperate bid to move fast enough to finish the ‘level’ – the length of a lap – before the clock runs to zero.  Your ranking, always displayed in the bottom-left corner, is an automatically-updated connection to global leaderboards, telling you how far behind the next-best in the world.

With all of the ways that points and levels and scores are tallied, the game certainly encourages intense and reckless speeding, although I actually found the gameplay rather zen-like after a while.  No matter the visibility (which changes each level to include different times of day, as well as weather), you will always be able to make out those deadly brakelights or tantalizing power-ups, and that simple game mechanic never changes.  Milkstone Studios has found that perfect concoction of ‘easy to enjoy, fun to play, but difficult to master’, although  I might be cursing them later as I try to desperately claw past the 100,000,000-score supergiants already on the leaderboard.

Despite the game mechanics being relatively simple, meat was certainly added to the bones to ensure gamers got their money’s worth.  The game includes superficial car customization, which, while primarily for your own amusement, is reflected on your leaderboard runs, and the game includes a full set of badges/awards, seamlessly integrated into the gameplay in the same way a full retail title would.  Speaking of full retail titles…well, see if you can catch the reference to one in the badges.  Much like the game it alludes to, you’ll be working on that one for a while.  And early adopters will appreciate one badge in particular – complete a run in the top 5% of the global leaderboard.  The fewer players on the leaderboard, the easier that one should be.

Overall, I can’t really recommend MotorHEAT enough.  The game is a well polished example of the sort of game XBLIG needs more of, and if you pick it up soon enough, you’ll have a sweet chance at earning some awesome prizes in the Milkstone Studios Contest they currently have running.  I haven’t felt so enamoured with high speed collisions since I first played Burnout Paradise.  My wish list for this one is short: with awards, online leaderboards, and customization, Milkstone really tried to stack the game with everything, but why don’t we have a splitscreen co-op mode?

Game Score 9.5/10

Download a demo here.

Watch the trailer here.

Learn about the contest here.

Magical Cube – XBLIG Review

A WDesm review for XBoxHornet

“An Impossible Edition of Colour-Matching Puzzle Games”

Colour-matching puzzle games have come a long way from Columns – whether you look at the refined ultra-casual Bejeweled or the RPG-Lite of Puzzle Quest, the series has extreme appeal for gamers of any walk of life. FixedStarWorks has tried to tap into that huge market with Magical Cube, a gem-matching game with some lite RPG elements, and while the gameplay is solid and enjoyable, the difficulty level invites only the hardcore to stick around.

The storyline has you playing as a young magical witch, ready to prove.  My apologies for that, let me try again: The storyline is completely unimportant in a puzzle-game, and is completely forgettable.  As there is even less overarching interaction than, say, Puzzle Quest, the storyline might as well not exist.  That shouldn’t be taken as a slight against Magical Cube, however – there are tons of games where the storyline is unnecessary, and certainly, puzzle games (rivaled only perhaps by card games) would be those top genres.  So then, onto gameplay:

Gameplay is slightly different than other colour-matchers: Instead of flipping the location of two pieces, you instead shift an entire row (or column) left or right (or up/down), with edge pieces moving around to the other side of the board.  It’s a simple enough mechanic, and you’ll certainly get the hang of it quickly.  The trick arises in actual gameplay, when a myriad of abilities can nearly instantly spawn, and unless you’re ready for them, destroy you.

The game isn’t technically turn-based or timed – you could, hypothetically, play at whatever speed you wish.  The caveat, however, is that an enemy on the other side of the field is trying to kill you as fast as they can, and this demands that you work at breakneck speed.  While you are matching pieces, your overexcited schoolgirl will launch spells at the enemy, and the more chains you create, the more damage you do.  Power-ups can increase the amount of damage you do, which appear randomly and temporarily on the board, while other icons signify other dangers: Health Boosts are fantastic for you, but should you fail to collect one, the enemy gets the health instead; Locked Squares restrict motion on either the horizontal or vertical axis, demanding you really rethink your plan; Monsters appear on the map randomly – failure to get rid of the squares that the monsters reside upon gives your enemy power to use his spells on you.

I’d be lying if I said that the game was easy.  On top of this frantic pace, each monster has a special ability.  More than likely, the first ability that will drive you insane is from the third stage, where the icy terrain shifts the pieces one more space than you wanted, ruining any and all combos.  It isn’t impossible, but it certainly demands more lateral thinking than some of the other gem-matchers I’ve played.

Magical Cube certainly isn’t for everyone – it has a near vertical difficulty that will only appeal to the hardcore puzzle gamers, and the demo certainly isn’t indicative of the extreme difficulty the game can provide.  For those that appreciate a fair, if brutally unforgiving, puzzle game, you’ll have a blast testing your mettle, while unlocking various equippables for your character (each with small beneficial boosts like bonus HP), and mastering all the challenges that the game throws at you.   There’s no leaderboard function though, so your bragging rights will be all your own.

Game Score 8.5/10

Download a demo of the game here.

Watch the trailer here.

Colony Defense – XBLIG review

A Dominic Tarason review for XBoxHornet

“Colony Defense has some interesting ideas and gimmicks that set it apart from the most super-generic titles, but doesn’t really capitalize on any of them.”

I’ve played this game before. That statement works on multiple levels, too.

First of all, this is Tower Defense, pure and simple. Most of you know the drill already, from a thousand flash games and a hundred indie titles already. Nasty aliens are coming to wreck your stuff, and follow pre-defined paths across the level, hopefully getting cut down by your stationary defense turrets before they reach your base and eat/blow up/steal your stuff.

More recently, this game has a lot in common with the iPhone/iPod Touch game Star Defense, which takes the fundaments of TD gameplay and applies it to a spherical map. While it looks pretty, it actually only serves to hinder the players efficiency, forcing you to spin the little planetoid around to keep track of where enemies/bases are and zoom in/out to get a coherent view of the action – problems that Colony Defense adopts as well, sadly.

What sets Colony Defense apart from Star Defense is size and scale, primarily. The planetoids you’re trying to scrub clean of alien invaders are pretty huge, and often have complex networks of branching roads which means that enemies move in unpredictable directions sometimes. This means that the player has to focus their defenses around common roads or crossroads where multiple entry-points meet, rather than being free to pick and choose where objects go.

There’s a couple of additional interesting elements, including an orbital cannon that the player can fire at a small cost every few seconds, ideal for picking off a lucky enemy that dodged too much fire, and an experience system of sorts, letting you buy small, persistent perks (up to 5% off tower prices, up to 5% extra firepower on anti-ground turrets, etc) inbetween missions.

You get a lot of game for your buck here. The campaign mode is enormous, spanning over 30 levels, constantly increasing in complexity. You’re given more turret types every few missions, and new enemies are steadily introduced into the mix, each having their own particular strengths and weaknesses. Overall, it feels like this game is balanced for experienced TD players, though, as it’s very easy to misspend early on in a stage, and find your defenses woefully inadequate just a few minutes later down the road.

It feels like there’s largely one ideal ‘solution’ to each level, rather than giving each player leeway to pick and choose their own approach, like the best games in the genre. A more lenient difficulty curve, and a more flexible scoring system would have encouraged replays through seeking a higher score, rather than forcing it through failure.

All in all, this isn’t a bad game, but it’s also not a particularly good one either. Colony Defense has some interesting ideas and gimmicks that set it apart from the most super-generic titles, but doesn’t really capitalize on any of them.

It’s decent if you’re a particular fan of the genre, and you want something challenging, but it’s probably not worth it otherwise. You can get much better for less on XBL Indie Games (Nextwar is a particularly good TD title), or even for free on one of the countless flash game portals on the web.

Game Score 6/10

Download a demo here.

Watch a trailer here.

Zombie Armageddon – XBLIG review

A WDesm review for XBoxHornet

“Lock and Load, soldier!  This Tower Defense needs your gun (and better production values)!”

Zombie Armageddon has joined the ranks as an XBLIG Tower Defense game, and, following in the steps of the amazing Soulcaster, it certainly has its work cut out for it.  How well does it line up?  Well, I won’t say its ground-breaking, but it does have some charm.  Read more to find out.

The game follows a small bunch of armymen traveling from fortified HQ to fortified HQ, aiming to escape a city overrun with zombies.  Each stage is a single screen, where zombies start from a discernible spawn spot, and travel the path towards your base.  Your survival depends on fortifying the path to your base, and a Humvee acts as your ‘Hand of God’ on the battlefield, rolling out from the HQ to deploy troops, rescue civilians, upgrade existing troop ‘towers’, or alter the very battlefield with more advanced features.  Your offense in the game comes from your deployed troops, who can fire from the safety of the rooftops onto the passing zombies.  Taller buildings have the advantage of offering troops a longer range, so ‘tower’ placement becomes tricky, as not only do you need to decide on the location of the troops, but also choose the appropriate rooftop, and your Humvee needs to be able to travel from the HQ to the location safely, without itself being overrun with zombies.

While there are many features available to you, there are explained in a clear-and-concise tutorial, so you aren’t overwhelmed when first left to your own self-defense devices, but like most tower defenses, it does promote the rather binary “there is a right deployment design and a wrong deployment design” logic that often crops up in Tower Defense games.  Thankfully, there is a demolition option available, so that you can create new paths or set up new killzones for your troops, but I found that the game didn’t offer enough money in each stage for me to use this feature – I often spent almost all of my money on defensive encampments and troop upgrades, and didn’t have the opportunity to really play around with level manipulation, which is a real shame.  The requirement that the Humvee be able to travel to any position you want to interact with is a sufficient penalty enough that money-generating could probably be marginally increased without drastically affecting game difficulty (or, alternatively, simply decrease the cost of demolitions).

The storyline is tied together with MSPaint-quality still images overlaid with mediocre voice-acting.  To be honest, I’m impressed at the high quality of the images achieved through such a simple medium, but the end result is still below the expectation for a ‘cutscene’ in a finished game, and while low-quality graphics work acceptably in the thick of the action-centric stages, it doesn’t cut it for commanding your attention.  The audio isn’t so unprofessional to have static or breathing sounds, but it still should have been done ‘correctly’, with quality equipment and well-rehearsed voices, or not at all.  The pain is compounded because new enemy types are introduced through these cutscenes, leaving you the unpleasant choice of auditory and visual violation versus entering the next stage unawares.  Honestly?  After stage 2, I chose ‘unawares.’

Ultimately, Zombie Armageddon is definitely a ‘try before you buy’ game.  The Tower Defense mechanic has a few unique additions to it, namely in how you have to choose where your troops are placed for optimal firing range, and how you have to deploy them via the Humvee, but the limited resources doesn’t truly enable you to play around with them enough.  The included Onslaught mode does allow you to have a more enduring effect on the battlefield, and does offer substantial replayability if the game is your cup of tea….just watch out for those deadly cutscenes.

Grab a gun and try this one out, if Tower Defenses are your forté!

Game Score 6.5/10

Download a demo here.

Watch a trailer here.

Fight Monkey of Magic – XBLIG Review

A Dominic Tarason review for XBoxHornet

“There’s a lot worse out there, but this is still far from good.”

The sprite-art and backgrounds are better than a lot of XBL Indie games.

And so my attempt at being positive about this game begins and ends. Fight Monkey of Magic is a 1-4 player isometric-view fighting game. You pick one of seven characters (only three available initially, the other four unlocked through slogging through the ‘story’ mode), ranging from a post-apocalyptic cyborg warrior, to a magic monkey and a busty elf-girl, and fight to the falling-over in seven effectively identical arenas.

You whizz around the arena like you’re ice-skating, minus the inertia, and your primary goal is to obnoxiously stunlock your opponent by repeating the same attack (no fancy special moves here – just an attack bound to almost every button on the pad!) infinitely until their health bar runs out. This will take some time, as you’ll inevitably drain your all-purpose attack energy bar in the process, forcing you to run around the arena like an idiot until you’re ready to renew your assault. Unfortunately, the game never tells you that your movement is limited to just the inner 60% of the screen, and attempting to run too far from your opponent will cause your character to begin jerking around until both the enemy and far-too-slow-panning camera catch up.

A lot of the combat is ranged, but it’s particularly unenjoyable as your characters can only face 8 set directions. If your target has the nerve to stand anywhere but in those 8 points, your attack (unless it’s homing, which a fair few are) will be rendered completely useless.

Now, I did say ‘infinite’ stunlocking, but that was a bit of an exaggeration. You can opt to spend part of your attack bar on blocking, which causes you to be invincible for a few seconds, but unable to do anything else. Some characters can’t even move while blocking, effectively just prolonging their lockdown. In short: Tedious and repetitive, and the game has the nerve of making you play a best-of-three match at least. You can increase that number up to best-of-21, but I don’t think anyone could actually survive that experience.

The sound and music are equally poor, too. Most arenas seem to have a 15-20 second loop of generic electro beats, and every character has a single ‘ARGH’ voice clip that plays every single time they’re hit. There are a few bloops and warbles for attacks, but they’re neither interesting nor memorable either.

There’s almost a saving grace in here. Slash Mode – a survival shooter playmode – but even that is sunk by the design flaws of the main game. You literally fight hundreds of identical miniature clones of a story mode opponent who do nothing but walk into you and (very slowly) drain your health.

Avoid this one.

Game Score 3/10

Download the demo here.

Ava the Firefly – XBLIG Review

A WDesm review for XBoxHornet

“Fly around as a butterfly and collect the colourful-yet-lost-fireflies.  Enchanting and enjoyable!”

Dreamwagon Games has exploded onto the XBLIG scene in 2010 with two XBLIG offerings, and the first one that we’re lucky enough to review is Ava The Firefly, a casual game about rescuing confused fireflies, and guiding them towards the light.  With no offense power or abilities to speak of, it’s a very different beast from the usual action games we see.

Ava, your butterfly/firefly (you can choose which creature you are on the options menu, although the choice is entirely aesthetic), is tasked with collecting lost fireflies, and bringing them back to the safe and inviting glow of the streetlamp (or the …moon?) .  Bats fly around, and while they merely scare off the fireflies, they can injure you, and a limited amount of ‘vita’ (life) is all you have to go on; If you run out of life, it’s game over.  Fortunately, you have a few tricks up your sleeve to help you out – a simple dash function allows you to quickly move in bursts for a short duration, a ‘rally’ function bundles all of your currently-following fireflies close together to keep tabs on them, and a ‘glow’ function, the closest thing you have to an offensive ability, that temporarily scares bats away.  Points are gained by safely escorting fireflies back to the lamp, and after a set number of points, you clear the ‘stage’ – your three bars (vita, glow, dash) are recharged, more fireflies and bats spawn, and the cycle begins anew.

Ava the Firefly isn’t an in-depth game, and you’ll quickly master the basics of gameplay – the emphasis here is on a quick ‘pick-up-and-play’ just for fun.  Ava the Firefly is a casual game – no flashing time bars scream at you, the music is serene and casual, and the fireflies you collect are all soft pastel colours.  Points are tabulated, based on a table (shown above in the screen) of how many fireflies you have in tow, and at the end of a game, there is both a local and online leaderboard for you to showcase your bragging rights.  I’m really happy to see the leaderboard – even in ‘casual’ games like this, if you get in a little bit of a comfy trance and zone out playing for a few hours, then you should be able to hold bragging rights over the rest of the digital community (as of writing this, my score is ~24,000 – try to beat me!)

Ava the Firefly probably isn’t going to win any awards for ingenuity, and could benefit from small boons like merits/badges (I’ll admit that I tried to collect single-coloured fireflies just to see if the game would reward me), more backdrops, or even a ‘no-die’ mode for the extremely casual, but at the cheapest pricepoint available, you have a colourful and relaxing game with the chance to brag on online leaderboards.  That’s something I can appreciate.

Game Score 7/10

Download the demo here.

Watch a gameplay vid here.