Cardboard Castle, Vacation Vexation and Shovel Shuffle

Cardboard Castle by Advanced Mobile Applications

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Cardboard Castle is a puzzle game in the form of clearing a path for a knight to advance from one end of a level to the other. The cardboard cutout motif is more than just a style choice – many of the solutions to clearing obstacles pertain to their papery nature. If there’s a pair of scissors handy, you can use them to cut down a tree or kill a baddie. Or you can dissolve a baddie with a glass of water to turn him into cardboard mush. Put the mush in a hole then let the sun dry it into passable ground, then you can take the baddie’s axe, cut down a tree into a plank with it, then use the plank to bridge another gap. The puzzle is working out in what order to do everything so you don’t paint yourself into a corner. You have one glass of water – do you mulch a cardboard baddie with it or water a tree to get a cardboard apple? You might realise you need to drop a cow down a hole to proceed – but should you do it right now? Is there anything else you can do with the cow first?

The game tries to be charming with its dinky cutout style, but isn’t quite as cute as it thinks it is. The music is irritating and best turned off, and dragging items is a bit pixel-perfect, which is tiresome in a touchscreen game. I also encountered an annoying glitch in which I painted myself into a corner and made the level unwinnable, and it wouldn’t sort itself out on resetting the level. To fix it I had to quit to the main menu then go back in.

There are enough playable chapters for it to have been a worthwhile purchase for me, but I think it could do with introducing a few more mechanics as it went on rather than just having more of the same for too long.

Quiet Christmas and Vacation Vexation by Nostatic Software

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I planned to only review one paid title this week, so I can make my £5 wallet topup stretch across at least two weeks. But I genuinely enjoyed Quiet, Please enough that I wanted to try the other two in the series.

It’s great that the developers have remembered that the game is playable on a Vita, not just a phone/tablet, so they’ve included functionality for the thumbsticks and fascia buttons. Too many PS Mobile games use just the tapscreen. You can use either touch or physical controls for the Quiet games, and both work well.

Quiet, Please (reviewed last week) was a short and sweet little point and click adventure in which a girl who just wants to sleep peacefully has to neutralise all the sources of irritating noise in and around her house, and the two sequels continue this theme. Quiet Christmas sees you getting the house ready for Christmas day by – among other things – fixing tree lights, making cookies for Father Christmas, and taking out neighbour Mr Peabody’s annoying musical Santa so you can get to sleep.
Vacation Vexation revolves around trying to relax on the beach with a good book, which is a fairly simple objective in its own right (albeit including petty larceny) but turns out to be the catalyst for having to fix everybody’s problems around the beach area. Art gallery director won’t stop yakking on her phone about how the gallery is missing an exhibit? Looks as though you’ll have to make an artwork and sneak it in so she’ll get off the phone and you can go back to your book. Little brother in floods of tears over a dropped ice cream? You’ll have to find him a tasty treat to stop him crying, and you’re out of money.

Quiet Christmas is very similar to the first game, with a minor bit of polish (the text is more readable than last time). It even takes place in the exact same map as Quiet, Please and acts more like a direct continuation than a sequel. Vacation Vexation is a step up in longevity and, in my opinion, fun and humour. It saves your progress as you solve puzzles, something the first two games were too short to really need. Amusingly, it includes a seaside arcade with playable games (a clone of Frogger and Space Invaders, and a mini version of Kung Fu Fight (another of Nostatic’s games)), which is a nice touch.

The only bad thing about the Quiet series is that there is pretty much no replayability, and like all point and click adventures the logic sometimes borders on incomprehensible. At one point, for example, you have to burst an inflatable object using a tree branch, even though you have access to your dad’s tool box, which must surely contain an array of pointy things. I think the games could be improved with multiple solutions to puzzles.

I encountered a glitch in Vacation Vexation that forced me to reset the game to fix it. I put an object down near a door, then opened the door, which blocked the object from view. It despawned with no way to get another without reloading the game. Tiresome.

It is pretty amusing/worrying how increasingly sadistic your actions towards Ned Flanders Mr Peabody become as the series progresses. You go from sabotaging his lawnmower to pelting him with snowballs to actually inflicting bodily harm on him in VV. Presumably the next game will have us pushing him down a well or gluing him to a wolf. And I hope there is a next one! I’m really enjoying these.

Shovel Shuffle by Chair Warming Facility

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I kept forgetting what this unmemorable game was called, so the draft version of this document refers to it as Tunnel Wanker. I picked this up because it was free (or so I thought; turns out only the smallest board size is free and you have to pay if you want a bigger play area).

It’s guff. It looks and feels like someone’s first creation with some game-making software, complete with half-arsed MSPaint graphics. Simple graphics are fine if it’s clearly an artistic choice, but this looks like placeholder art. I could explain the rules, but I can’t really be bothered. There are better games than this on Kongregate, and they’re free.

Rymdkapsel, Monster Hotel and Quiet, Please

In what I hope will be a semi-regular feature, I will aim to buy and review a PlayStation Mobile or Minis title once a week-ish. I might end up reviewing more than one at a time, since the minimum you can add to your ‘wallet’ in the PS Store is £5 and most of these games are under £2 or so.

Rymdkapsel by Martin Jonasson

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I loved this! I deliberately bought a game I wouldn’t normally buy (realtime strategy) and I’m glad I did. In Rymdkapsel you build a space station and defend it from periodic attack, extending the corridors of the station until your minions (delightfully named) can reach the ominous-looking space monoliths and research their secrets.

What makes this different from most base-building games is that the rooms and corridors you build are all tetrominoes. An indicator in the top left corner shows which shape you’ll have to build next. (You can’t skip it, but if you don’t like it you can set it out to build and then immediately cancel it with no penalty, causing the game to move on to the next shape.) All room types have a fixed cost. Two of the three resources you’ll need (food and reactor energy) are effectively infinite (energy comes from your solar-powered reactor, and food is made in your kitchens from sludge harvested from your gardens), whereas physical materials are a limited resource harvested from particle clouds. It’s possible to paint yourself into a corner by building too much sprawling mass and leaving yourself unable to build a corridor to the next particle cloud. To avoid this scenario, the game gives you ample warning, and you can destroy deprecated rooms for a portion of their initial cost (once a particle cloud is depleted, there is no need to keep the extractor unit that was harvesting it).

Periodically, your base is attacked (a red bar at the bottom of the screen slowly fills, indicating time until next attack), necessitating re-assigning most of your minions to defence until the attack passes. I played two games of this, each one lasting just over an hour before I was overwhelmed by too few minions versus too many enemies.

I would have liked an option to prioritise which queued-for-construction room should be worked on first, but I suppose that’s my fault for spamming my minions with so many requests at once. I’d also like to be able to have more than two minions at a time in one weapons room. One space dragon is no match for two minions, but later on as the attacks increase in intensity and frequency, two aren’t enough. I can’t see a way around this besides building big batteries of weapons rooms, but it’s possible that the enemy intensity is working as intended in order to bring the game to close in about an hour. One of the objectives is to research all four monoliths in the field in under 45 minutes, and in my second game I’d researched only two. I’m keen to try again!

Bugger.

Bugger.

Monster Hotel by XMPT Games

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The vampire in the red room is cheesed off because they want to be in a room with a swamp thing and aren’t.

I love the idea of this (keeping monster guests in a hotel happy) but find it very difficult even on the easiest setting. I’m hoping it will grow on me, as it’s very droll. The proprietor of the hotel is inexplicably a penguin.

Monsters are seemingly incapable of changing rooms or even moving to the lobby of their own volition, and their whims change very frequently, forcing you to constantly pick up and drag monsters to a new room. It’s not like one of those static logic puzzles where you can’t put two people wearing the same hat next to each other; it’s a constant juggling game. It’s also doomed to failure, as it’s impossible to keep every monster happy simultaneously and you must choose which monster will cause least damage if left angry.

It’s a little tricky thanks to the monsters’ speechbubbles overlapping when more than two of them are in the same room. I would like to see some way of having the bubbles align to a grid. The fast pace and hard to read bubbles mean that most games are over very quickly, making this good for an on-the-toilet game but not for much else.

Quiet, Please by Nostatic Software

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This is ever so short, but for 79p I can’t really complain. (Then again, Picbox cost me only 70p and I managed to clock nine hours on it.) I enjoyed it enough that I’d like to pick up the next game, Quiet Christmas, and I’m only put off by the fact that I’d have to put another £5 in my Sony wallet.

You play as a girl who just wants peace and quiet so she can go to bed, but is thwarted in her desire by a neighbour’s lawnmower, a noisy telly, squeaking kittens, a boisterous little brother who wants to play, etc. You have to silence all these sources of noise somehow. It’s hard to give more detail without giving away the solutions of the puzzles, but I will say that it’s largely straightforward apart from one bit where I became very frustrated because I couldn’t see a solution. It turned out that there is one object that is required to solve two objectives, which the game has tricked you out of considering because until that point each object you can pick up has been used to solve precisely one objective. Sneaky.

I liked this and don’t really have anything bad to say about it apart from the fact that it’s so short (20-30 minutes) that there almost isn’t anything of any substance to criticise. It’s not a game to go specifically to the Vita store for, but worth picking up if you end up with a spare 79p in your Sony wallet.

Rayman Origins

I started writing this shortly after I got the game in late February. It’s taken me this long to get round to finishing it, because I’ve been having too much fun actually playing the game and chasing PSN trophies.

In this time of prequels and reboots, it’s refreshing that the oddly-named Rayman Origins is neither. There is some minor exposition, most of it on the game’s official website, but Rayman’s ‘origins’ here largely mean a return to the 2D platforming of the original PSone game.

Origins is a very good advert for both the Vita and the Ubi-Art engine with which the game was made. It’s a port (from 2011’s P/X/W version), but what a port! This kind of gameplay was what handheld consoles were made for, and the graphics look gorgeous on the Vita’s screen. It also makes use of the touchscreen with some features not present in the P/X/W version.

Like the original Rayman (released in 1995 for the PSone), Origins is very pretty and absolutely nails. Unlike the first Rayman, Origins is made much more fun by virtue of not using the quaint mechanic of finite lives, and by being easily the silliest game in the Rayman franchise (with the possible exception of Raving Rabbids, which has been retconned out of the series’ continuity). It has Loco Roco-levels of brightness and cheer with almost Ren and Stimpy-esque character animation.

There’s almost no plot to speak of. Oh sure, the game’s blurb says something about saving the world before it vanishes like a bad dream, but the game keeps it unobtrusive. All we take from the brief & wordless intro video, and all we really need to know, is that the baddies were woken up by Rayman & co’s loud snoring, and stole all the lums and imprisoned the electoons in a grumpy huff. You need to go and get them all back, and you might as well stomp on the baddies while you’re at it. (Incidentally, lums are “‘looms’ like ilLUMination, not lums, for dumb.”)

Progress is simple: reaching the end of a level unlocks the next one. Incentives for doing more (finding relics, finding and opening cages of trapped electoons, collecting lots of lums, or successfully speed-running a level), include PSN trophies, extra characters and a couple of exposition scenes.

Origins is a very fluid platformer that needs quick thinking and responses, and pulls this off well enough that it feels more like not thinking and just acting. The enemies are often the most static and least menacing obstacle – the challenge coming from the environment shifting beneath and around you. Cliffs break, bouncy plants sprout, walls re-align and form a different path from the one you were going to take a split second ago.
The game has a nice difficulty curve, and is saved from repetition by granting you a new power at the start of each new world (Rayman yet again having forgotten how to attack, glide, swim etc. at the beginning of a new adventure).

The level design plays with staple themes by mashing them together in ways not normally seen, resulting in something more fun than the sum of its parts. The Desert of Didgeridoos is a desert level – phooey. But wait! – mixed with a musical theme. Gourmand Land is the staple slippy-slidey ice level (and later fire level), saved from familiarity-induced boredom by being made of food.

Recovering plenty of electoons unlocks more playable characters, but all are simply re-skins of starters Rayman, Globox and two Teensies. There’s no difference between each except animations (though the Globoxes can be slightly easier to play because of the noticeable hurtbox/sprite dissonance).
Collecting lots and lots of electoons earns you access to the Tricky Treasure levels; the only reward that’s not simply cosmetic/flavour. Tricky Treasure levels are the game distilled and then turned up to 11. You must chase a fleeing treasure chest, and if it manages to get off-screen you die – if you don’t get killed anyway by spike pits, incoming piranhas, falling rocks, etc. Finishing all 10 gives you access to the incredibly hard Land of the Livid Dead.

Exclusive to the Vita version are the previously-mentioned relics. These are camouflaged against the scenery and must be collected by tapping the touchscreen. Most of them are so well-hidden that the only clue one is nearby is the rattling sound they emit. It’s somewhat odd, given that picking one up usually involves staying still, tentatively zooming in (pecking at the touchscreen with your fingers, like an uncertain pheasant) and poring over every millimetre of screen, hoping to spot a relic when it makes its periodic twitch. It’s quite a contrast to the running and jumping and gliding. It’s also the only bit of the game where sound helps you (and by a large amount) instead of just being atmospheric; if you can’t hear, your opportunities to pick up relics are probably limited to sheer luck.
Relics unlock wall mosaic tiles in the home level – when complete, they show why Globox is blue and how Rayman is able to use his hair to glide.

This game is wholly silly and delightful. It’s slick, and even the loading screens are gorgeous. The music is charming and jubilant. The whole package is a great blend of superb art direction and 2D platforming that shows it’s still a worthwhile genre.

Originally published in April 2012.

PlayStation Vita

I have a Vita and yes, it’s pretty amazing.

Hardware:

I went for the Wi-fi only version in the end. I wanted to get the Wi-fi + 3G version because get ALL the things, but decided against it after looking at how much Vodafone (currently the only Vita 3G provider) charge you. (Plus we don’t like Vodafone because they don’t pay their taxes.) It seems that the only thing you can really do with the 3G model that you can’t do with the standard one is use GPS – and while it would be well swish to have a pocket console that’s also a GPS, I don’t need it that badly.

The Vita is a more elegant shape than the PSP: its form is one continuous cartouche instead of having truncated shoulders. As with the PSP, the two shoulder buttons are contiguous with this shape, and are mirrored on the base of the console by two slits, presumably to attach wrist straps to. (A lanyard would be silly.)

It’s much easier (in convenience, not in accident-potential) to turn off or put into sleep mode than the PSP; you just press the power button quickly (to sleep) or hold it down (to turn off) instead of farting around with the PSP’s trigger switch’s position.

The screen is touch-sensitive, and so is the back, with two recessed inert areas on the back to put your fingers when you don’t want to touch the rear pad. The touchscreen has exactly the problem you’d expect – as it doesn’t use a stylus, it will grow a sheen of finger oil. This usually isn’t that visible, but it’s really obvious when you’re using anything that makes the screen display mostly white (such as the Twitter app), then you can see just how slick with oily interference patterns it’s become.

The touchscreen is remarkably sensitive, and I’ve made several accidental selections by just waving my fingers over it instead of actually touching it. It’s also capable of detecting two touch points: in many applications you pinch or spread your thumb and forefinger to zoom in and out, like a baffled finger-faced bird futilely pecking the screen.

There are two thumbsticks, and they’re proper thumbsticks with ball-and-socket bases as opposed to the PSP’s little slidey nonsense. The home button is curiously situated under the left thumbstick. Hard to accidentally press, true, but it seems more obvious to place it centrally under the screen, where the PS Vita logo is. The face buttons don’t appear to have pressure sensitivity (or I’m just sausage-fingered), but do have a nice decisive feel to them when pressed. It’s a little disappointing, as WipEout 2048 uses square for airbrake and I’m using to playing WipEout HD on the PS3 and being able to apply a gentle squirt of airbrake. The Vita’s face buttons feel much more digital.

The cameras – a front-facing one that looks at you and a rear-facing one – are a bit crap. You tap the touchscreen to take a picture instead of pressing a physical button, which feels wrong, and the shutter sound effect is obnoxiously loud. The cameras do badly in lighting other than very bright, and it can sometimes be hard to take a picture of something with the rear camera because the Vita’s shadow falls on it. Everything you photograph also looks quite desaturated and washed out. You can also record video using either camera. Again, the quality isn’t great, and if you have a nice phone you’re probably better off just using the camera and video on that. Even my 6 year-old Nokia lets you zoom in or out when taking photos or recording video, which the Vita doesn’t.

The Vita comes with absolutely nothing besides its charger and some AR cards (more on those later). No carrying case, or even a memory card (the PSP came with a 32mb one, which was much too small for a game or add-on, but was enough for save files and a few mp3s). There are also no game demos included or pre-installed. I bought a memory card with my machine, and it’s absurdly tiny. Seriously, you could swallow it without a glass of water.

The game boxes are just darling; probably about half the size of a DS game box.

Default software:

The Vita ditches the Cross Media Bar of the PSP and PS3 for a couple of pages of dinky bubbles. It’s a little similar to the Wii’s system of adding blocks (‘channels’) to the home menu. The menu is very customisable: you can rearrange the bubbles (within a set grid) and add and insert pages. I immediately shoved all the bubbles I don’t think I’ll use often down to an extra page on the bottom, and kept the top page for games and page 2 for apps I like. You can also change the background of each page. I haven’t uploaded any pictures to use as wallpapers yet, so I’ve used some of the default animated wave ones, going for a nice rich pink-red one at the top gradienting down to a pale yellow on the last page.

The first thing the Vita tries to get you to do after entering the time, date, your DOB, and doing a system update, is to play with the Welcome Pack. This introduces you to the device’s functions and is somewhere between toy and tech demo. It even has trophies for beating the best times etc. You can use the tilt control to make a wee stickperson on a skateboard dodge incoming marbles, tap some numbered bubbles in the correct sequence to make them disappear (showcasing the touchscreen’s ability to register two touches simultaneously by making you tap two equally-ranked bubbles at the same time), and take a photo of something and have the Vita make it into a little slidey-panel puzzle (boring – remember how disappointed Child You was when receiving a slidey-panel puzzle in a Christmas cracker). The most odd of these gamelets is Faces, in which you take a photo of something that looks like a face, and then the Vita animates it, making it blink and talk. The results are invariably terrifying. I took a photo of a little painting of a barn owl I have on my desk, and the Vita animated its beak in a manner disturbingly reminiscent of the Navigators in Dune.

Near is a slightly sinister application that attempts to gamify your movement in the real world, and lets you see who nearby is playing what. You can set some locations as private (in which you’ll appear to other Vita users as an anonymous player instead of by your PSN name), so in the end I chose to let it show my location to other players, except for in a nice fat radius around my home town. You can also set individual games and apps to private.

The Vita also comes with a group messaging function for your PSN contacts, Google Maps (a little slow, but usable), and Party: essentially group chat using the mic. The web browser is much the same as the PS3’s. Nintendo had the right idea: they outsourced the DS browser to Opera. I’d love to see a version of Chrome or something for the Vita and PS3.

Test of anything with a browser: can it play Echo Bazaar? Yes, it can; it’s just rather clunky.

The onscreen keyboard is dire. I shouldn’t have to toggle another set of keys just to type an apostrophe or a number. There’s also no caps lock, meaning that to type anything in caps I have to keep tapping this button. That said, having it as a touchscreen makes it a damn sight easier to use than the Sixaxis-controlled PS3 keyboard (I do have a USB keyboard plugged into my PS3, but it’s usually under a pile of games and I can’t be bothered to excavate it).

You can take screenshots by pressing the Home and Start buttons simultaneously. I’ve yet to try this out because I’ve got only WipEout 2048 at the moment, and it sports a very fine screenshot mode of its own.

Other software:

Twitter app is ace. It even has a button for old-school RTs (used for writing MTs, as I don’t think there’s any way to copy and paste text). You’ll probably need it if you want to do any tweeting at all via your Vita; the actual Twitter website runs appallingly in the Vita browser, and often makes Javascript crash. The app only supports one account, though, unless I’m missing something.

The Flickr app is okay, pretty much what you’d expect. You can also upload photos you’ve taken with the Vita directly to Flickr, which I can’t see myself doing, as I see Flickr as a site for nice processed photos, not a place to dump your snaps.

Predictably, there’s a Facebook app. Not used it myself, but it’s there.

AR

The Vita comes with 6 AR cards, with basic QR code-like shapes on them, simple enough that if you lost the cards you could probably draw some new ones. Placing them on a table and pointing the Vita’s rear camera at them allows you to play some cute but gimmicky little games. You get 3 after redeeming a code in the PSN store (you can just download them free from there anyway, but the code conveniently loads them all into your download queue simultaneously): Table Football, Fireworks and Cliff Diving.

Fireworks is a piece of piss. You put an AR card down and it’s a house. The garden has a machine that ejects fireworks, and you can tap the fireworks to detonate them – do it at the apex of their ascent for more points. And that’s it. You can make it ‘harder’ by putting down 3 cards, each one generating a different building. Even with 3x the fireworks it’s still pretty much impossible to fail, so you can just sit there tapping fireworks until you get bored. Hardly a game at all; pretty much just a tech demo, and not a very exciting one at that.

Cliff Diving is quite funny: put down a card and a pool and diving board erupt from your table, and you then press buttons to make a little man do a dive. If you get it wrong the poor wee man crashes and you lose some of your prize money to his hospital bills. You can also use two cards at different elevations (one on a table, one atop a mug or something) and have the higher one be a diving board and the lower be a pool. It’s actually pretty hard to get both cards in frame in a manner that satisfies the Vita, and the game itself has limited appeal.

I didn’t get to play Table Football because it needs all 6 cards (3 for the pitch, 2 for the stands and 1 for the scoreboard) and I don’t have that much free space at my desk. I could go and try it on the dining table or something, but I can probably imagine what it’ll be like. I expect you’d need to play this one on a surface you can easily approach from all angles.

The AR seems to have the same problem the EyeToy had: it’s cute, it’s quite fun, but once you’ve been impressed by the tech it doesn’t have much to keep you visiting it, and you also need lots of room to play, and chances are you don’t have nice big open rooms like the people in the adverts. At the moment I can’t think of any use of the AR that would actually enhance a game rather than just look cool.

Demos I tried:

Lumines: nice, but it’s just Lumines. It’s still the exact same game you played on the PSP, just with different songs, backgrounds etc. There are a couple of new types of block, but can you really be arsed?

Dungeon Hunter: Alliance: crap. Game mechanics seemed okay, if generic (it’s an action-ish RPG), but the atrocious slowdown makes it unplayable.

I also downloaded the PSP game Daxter (an interquel between the first and second Jak & Daxter games) for £7, as it was one of my favourite titles on that machine (plug: I reviewed it for Gamestyle in 2006 here). It’s a little ugly, as the PSP game’s lower res is stretched to fill the Vita screen. I’d like to see a way of shrinking it to the original resolution, like you can do when playing PSone or PS2 games on the PS3. Speaking of PSone games, there doesn’t yet seem to be a way of downloading them to the Vita; I’ve bought a few for my PS3 and I’d quite like to put some of them on my new handheld. Considering you could play them on PSP, I’m assuming this is functionality that’ll be added to the Vita later.

Update: since this post was first written, PSone games downloaded from the PSN Store are playable on the Vita.