Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Review: Combination for iPhone and iPad

+Christopher Jefferson wrote me some time ago to remind me about his good puzzle game Combination, which is one of my favorites. Unfortunately, after whetting my appetite with news about an upcoming new game, he disappeared into a void. So reviewing this game is all I can do for now.
Combination is played on rectangular boards of various sizes. The pieces you control, when placed on the board, fire colored beams in 4 or 8 directions. You can also think of them as Rook, Bishop, and Queen chess pieces. The goal is to place all pieces on the board, avoiding that any piece is hit by a beam of a different color.
The pieces must be placed on the white squares. The gray squares allow beams to pass, but you can't put pieces on them. The walls block the beams.
So the solution to the above puzzle would be this:
One thing that isn't visible above is that the beams don't cross the pieces they hit. This property often needs to be taken advantage of to solve a puzzle.

Solving the puzzles is fun, and usually requires a lot of tinkering until the placements are just right. The user interface is intuitive and never gets in the way.

I particularly like the smallest puzzles, where you have a small number of pieces to fit in a tight space. The resulting web of beams is intricate, and it sometimes seems impossible that everything could fit.

The game has no less than 17 difficulty levels, which I think is a bit excessive. The hardest levels look like this:
The board is still small, but there's a large number of pieces to fit. I like these puzzles less--they're too complicated for me and I don't see a way to attack them systematically using logic.

The one thing I don't particularly like is the graphics style; I would have preferred something more abstract. But this something easily forgiven.

Combination is currently free, so there's no reason to not go and download it right away. The mechanics are excellent, and the difficulty range is so vast that it's sure to appeal to everyone.

Summary

Nontrivialness★★★★★
Logical Reasoning★★★☆☆
User Interface★★★★☆
Presentation★★☆☆☆
Loading Time★★★★★
Saves Partial Progress
Status Bar

©2013 Nicola Salmoria. Unauthorized use and/or duplication without express and written permission is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicola Salmoria and nontrivialgames.blogspot.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Thursday, 25 April 2013

Review: ON/OFF for iPhone and iPad

1Button is an indie studio that develops apps and games with a very distinctive, minimalistic style. Their latest puzzle game is called ON/OFF, and it has been downloaded over a million times, so you might know about it already.
At the time of writing, there's a promotion going on: by tapping a button on the developer's website, you can unlock all available levels for free.
At the core, this is a tile sliding puzzle, where each row/column scrolls at once, wrapping around at the sides of the board. On the App Store there's a gazillion of apps using these mechanics, so nothing new so far.
One novelty when compared to similar puzzles is that instead of reconstructing a picture, you have to connect coloured "switches" on the sides of the board, using tiles of the same colour.
Another novelty is that the playing area is not necessarily square or rectangular, but can be any shape, as one of the first puzzles illustrates.


Early on, another puzzle element is introduced: black tiles, which cannot wrap around from the sides of the board, therefore limiting movement possibilities.

Other elements introduced later include tiles larger than 1x1, which cause multiple rows/columns to scroll at the same time, and must not be split by wrapping around the sides of the board.
There's currently a total of 220 puzzles, split across 11 "worlds". Some worlds are free, others can be bought using in-app purchases. The puzzles can be played in any order, but some worlds are locked until all puzzles in the previous world are solved.

The puzzles in this game can be hard, however my feeling is that they are more tedious than difficult. The boards are often unnecessarily large, as some of the screenshots in this review illustrate. Solving such puzzles surely requires patience and a lot of mechanical repetition, but the need for intuition is too diluted to make me find them interesting.

 Summary

Nontrivialness★★★☆☆
Logical Reasoning★★☆☆☆
User Interface★★★☆☆
Presentation★★★★☆
Loading Time★★★☆☆
Saves Partial Progress
Status Bar

©2013 Nicola Salmoria. Unauthorized use and/or duplication without express and written permission is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicola Salmoria and nontrivialgames.blogspot.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Sunday, 21 April 2013

April 14th-20th, 2013

4 Winds Fantasy Gaming Updates
First up for new releases is Sean O'Connor's next contribution to the Paths of Power II: Paths of Blood.

Player's Option: Elves
Player's Options: Elves [PFRPG]

Every era and every culture has legends, long believed, of a fairy folk that lives long years, collects knowledge like sweet acorns, and possesses a casual magic beyond the greatest efforts of men. Elves.

Tall, graceful, beautiful, skilled; creatures of the forest, occasionally visiting the realms of lesser races. And while most (with notable exceptions) hold to the standards of good and the preservation of nature, there are those who become jaded with the weight of long life, and seek purposes somewhat less noble, pursuable only by those of their eldritch otherness. For their ways are not the ways of other races, and their power is the power of ages, with no limits.

Presented here are several options for your elven character, including two variant races, and numerous feats, flaws and equipment, to revitalize an intriguing race as old as fantasy gaming, as old as civilization itself... Easily introduced into your Pathfinder-compatible campaign!


This product is part of the Paths of Power II: Paths of Blood subscription.

Next was a new release in the Deus ex Historica series. 

The Radar Family - Art by Kate Bradley
Ripped from the pages of Deus ex Historica.

The Radar Family is a short collection of three linked heroes: Radar Man, Sky Wave, and Sonar Girl
This release contains details three silver age heroes PL 10/8/10.

This is the 21th in a series of releases that will make up the final Deus ex Historica. The entire series can be picked up as part of an affordable subscription or by individual parts.

Super-Powered by M&M and its associated logo are Trademarks of Green Ronin Publishing and are used under the provisions of the Super-Powered by M&M Trademark License

Purple Duck Games Updates
We have two new releases this week Heroes of the Fenian Triarchy by Josh McCrowell and AL 5: Stars in the Darkness by Daniel J. Bishop.


Lizardman Witch with Bog Mummy by +Ryan Rhodes 
Come to the Fenian Triarchy!
  • Play as Boggards, Feykissed, Grippli, Half-Elves, Humans, or Lizardfolk!
  • Visit the legendary distilleries of Greenwall, the evershifting City of Boats, the grand markets of MacCool, or walk the green in Siobhan.
  • Train as a warrior poet (barbarian), otherworld druid, wild huntsman (ranger), whisky runner (rogue), cunning-folk (wilder method), bog witch, taseck (vitalist method), or vate of Chiuta.
  • Select from four new swamp-related feats.
  • Marvel over a dozen new herbal remedies and tools.
  • Select from even more spells, wondrous items, and psionic powers.
  • Check out the shops extensive equipment lists and make sure you pick up your bottle of Fenian whisky.
There are adventurer tools for everyone in the Fenian Triarchy.

(A first in-depth look at one of the regions of 
the Lands of Porphyra campaign setting.)

What is really awesome

AL 5: Stars in the Darkness (DCC)

AL 5: Stars in the Darkness by Daniel J. Bishop (Raven_Crowking).

The Bridge over Infinity by Christopher Heilmann
In millennia past, the ancestors of the elves protected the stars as they followed their courses, for there are wolves in the outer dark.  Yet what manner of creature would dare to consume stars as though they were sheep in the field?  And what has become of the ancient starherds who once stopped such monsters?  For such a monster is back - Urstah, the Star-Drinker.  Stars are disappearing from the night sky, and with the loss of those stars, luck is being drained from the world.  Your luck.  Dare you enter the caverns, face the star-drinker, and release the stars in darkness?

Stars in the Darkness is a DCC adventure designed for four to eight, third level characters, that can easily be dropped into your campaign.  In it, characters seek to stop an ancient evil from arising, with possibly devastating effects should they fail.  This is our largest, and most epic, adventure for DCC to date.

All products in the Adventure Locale line present one or more dungeons that can be quickly picked up and used for a session of the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game.

This product is based on the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game, published by Goodman Games. This product is published under license. Dungeon Crawl Classics and DCC RPG are trademarks of Good­man Games. All rights reserved. For additional infor­mation, visit www.goodman-games.com or contact info@goodman-games.com.

Rules Set: DCC RPG
Writer: +Daniel Bishop
Page Count: 38 pages
Artwork: Christopher Heilmann
Cartography: +Kristian Richards 

Super Secret Fact: If you use battle maps with DCC, +Kristian Richards has battle maps that can be used for this adventure as well. AL 5 shares the same maps as Purple Mountain III but a completely different and utterly unique DCC experience.


Oh, right I also have a secret code that even lets you get this massive module for a $1 off.

Print-On-Demand versions of AL 4: The Waystation and AL 5: Stars in the Darkness should be ready by June.

Reviews of our Products
- Erik Tenkar of Tenkar's Tavern has a mini-review of AL 4: The Waystation.
- Jeffrey Tadlock of the Iron Tavern has his review of AL 4: The Waystation as well.
- Endzeitgeist has a new review of Robert Thomson's GM's Options: NPCs 2 - Bards, Fighters, and Monks.

Playtesting
We just finished the playtest on Purple Mountain - Level 6 written by Perry Fehr. I believe he's going to take it to do some revisions and maybe by June it could be out. 

Next Release
The next release from Purple Duck Games will be freebie to kick off our Tome of Monsters Encounters series written by Perry Fehr and myself. It may be out next week, but I'm not counting on it because I have a very busy week coming up.


Saturday, 20 April 2013

Review: Fields for iPhone and iPad


Fields by Kevin Langdon is a restyling of the classic Fillomino logic puzzle, which is published by many magazines.
I like when developers take their time to rethink how a classic puzzle is played, in order to make it work better on a touch screen.
On paper, Fillomino is typically played by filling with lines and numbers a white grid, like this image taken from janko.at shows.
This works on a magazine, but it would look pretty boring on an iPhone screen. Fields adds colours, by associating each number with a flower (except for 1 which becomes just rocks).
To fill an empty cell, you just drag from a populated cell nearby. The goal is to completely cover the grid with flowers, in such a way that the size of each area matches the numbers given. So in the image below, we want to have 4 sunflowers and 2 violets.
One thing that isn't immediately apparent is that the dragging you make doesn't need to be a single motion; so in the case above you can drag right from the 4 to colour two cells, then lift the finger, and drag down from the 4 to colour an extra cell.

The puzzle above clearly has two solutions. I had hoped that this was just because it is part of the tutorial, but unfortunately it happens on normal puzzles as well, like this one:
Here you can see that there are two ways to complete the 3 field, and both lead to a valid solution.

This is a major letdown for a puzzle like Fillomino. These puzzles must have a single solution to be fun.

Currently, Fields contains 100 puzzles of various sizes, from 4x5 up to 8x11. 8x11 feels a bit tight on iPhone and you need to be careful where you touch, but it's still playable.
Like other puzzles released recently, the game is free and offers the ability to buy hints through in-app purchases.

Fields makes me a bit sad. It has a good user interface, much more enjoyable than other ports of Fillomino, but some of the puzzles are sub-par due to the multiple solutions. Luckily, this shouldn't be too difficult to fix in an update.

Update 10th June 2013: the issue of multiple solutions has indeed been fixed in an update.

Summary

Nontrivialness★★★☆☆
Logical Reasoning★★★★☆
User Interface★★★☆☆
Presentation★★★☆☆
Loading Time★★★★★
Saves Partial Progress
Status Bar

©2013 Nicola Salmoria. Unauthorized use and/or duplication without express and written permission is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicola Salmoria and nontrivialgames.blogspot.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Update: Brain Twirler 1.0.2

A small update to Brain Twirler has just been approved by Apple.
The only significant change is to what happens when you tap a solved puzzle. Previously, it would just go to the next puzzle, but this was confusing many people. Often times, people would select a solved puzzle, and then tap through a number of solved puzzles before reaching the first unsolved puzzle. So now tapping a solved puzzle jumps right to the first available unsolved puzzle.


The state of the puzzles is persistent between sessions, so if one wants to play again a solved puzzle, it needs to be explicitly restarted using the restart button.

There's also small changes to the graphics.

Have fun and thanks to all the people that downloaded Brain Twirler!


©2013 Nicola Salmoria. Unauthorized use and/or duplication without express and written permission is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicola Salmoria and nontrivialgames.blogspot.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

April 8th-13th, 2013

New Dungeon Crawl Classics Support
This week we returned to the dungeon with David Pryzbyla's AL 4: The Waystation for the Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Games.


The Dwarves of Upanesh were prosperous and widespread; their transport/mining system was efficient and admirable.  Their ancient downfall was tragic, but not without its heroes. Minoc Manshield and his mystical hammer Stone Fist, tools of the great god Upan saved many of his people and took many invaders with him, in the humble battleground of a Waystation… can you pierce the subterranean depths and recover Stone Fist?  Who or what still remains in that desolate domain of death?

The Waystation is a DCC adventure designed for four to eight third level characters, that can easily be dropped into your campaign for a short ‘detour’, or be part of further adventures in the realms of the Upanesh. Stone Fist awaits! 

All products in the Adventure Locale line present one or more dungeons that can be quickly picked up and used for a session of the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game.

This product is based on the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game, published by Goodman Games. This product is published under license. Dungeon Crawl Classics and DCC RPG are trademarks of Good­man Games. All rights reserved. For additional infor­mation, visit www.goodman-games.com or contact info@goodman-games.com.

Rules Set: DCC RPG
Writer: David Pryzbyla
Page Count: 19 pages
Artwork: Luigi Castellani, Marc Radle
Cartography: Kristian Richards

The Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game supplements were our most profitable sector last year with AL 1, AL 2, and AL 3 taking the top three earnings spots on the Purple Duck Games bottom line. Thank you to the fans of DCC for supporting 3rd party publishers.

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New Publisher Resources
The week we released a whack of new stock art from Carlos Torreblanca. Carlos wrote and illustrated Celurian's Magical Miscellany. All of the artwork from this project is now up on sale as stock art as a collection and soon individually as well.  

 


We have stock art agreements with several of our artists and have over 300 pieces currently available at very reasonable prices.
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New Reviews
We have garnered a few more reviews this week. 

Endzeitgeist (Runelord of Evaluation) took a look at two products for us this week. 
Stardust Productions reviewed Carlos's Female Half-Orc Monk and gave it a 5 star rating because it was exactly what they were looking for in a project piece.

If you are interested in looking at the options Ryan created for humans or Carlos's unique magic items you can check it out at any of our vendors in the sidebar. If you are interested in the stock art Stardust Productions reviewed you can currently only find it at Rpgnow.


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Next Week
Should be onto the Silver Age of Comics with Deus ex Historica. Sean O'Connor's Player's Options: Humans should be ready to go and hopefully I'll get out some more Purple Duck Games stuff as well.





Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Announcement: Brain Twirler for iPhone and iPad

Brain Twirler is now available on the App Store. It is my second game for iPhone and iPad, and the first to appear under the Nontrivial Games label.
The inspiration for this game came from Spin Mix by Ivan Vassilev, which I reviewed some time ago.
It is played on a grid containing some dots, and pieces resting on the dots. You have to rotate the pieces around their endpoints, avoiding intersections, until the red piece is at the top of the screen. The first puzzle is trivial, and acts as a tutorial:
There are three kinds of pieces. The red one is the shortest, and there's always exactly one, because it is the piece that needs to be moved to the goal position.
The yellow pieces are twice as long, while the blue pieces are something inbetween (sqrt(3)/2, to be precise). All pieces can turn by 60 degrees at a time, but the interesting thing is that while the red and yellow pieces can be parallel to each other, the blue pieces are offset by 30 degrees. This adds variety to the puzzle mechanics.
The dashed circles indicate the pieces than can be moved. This is useful while learning how to play, and gives a substantial help while playing. For an additional challenge, there's the option to turn them off.

There's support for unlimited undo/redo, which is preserved for all puzzles, even after quitting the app, and even after restarting a puzzle (after restarting, you can use the redo button to replay the solution step by step).

I'm particularly pleased by the style of the thumbnails in the puzzle list. They remind me of some abstract art paintings.

I wanted a clear progression throughout the game, and I didn't want to have too many puzzles, because the mechanics could get boring after a while, so the game has just 50 puzzles. Puzzle 1 can be solved in 1 move, Puzzle 2 in 2 moves, and so on; Puzzle 50 can be solved in 50 moves.

You get one star for solving a level, and two stars for solving it in the optimal number of moves.

It gets much harder to earn 2 stars in the later puzzles. How well you did is summarised in the puzzle list, using a "par" notation.
61 above par! I have to improve that one.

At the beginning, 4 levels are unlocked, and for every puzzle you solve, a new one is unlocked.

If you get stuck in a puzzle, there's a built-in solver which will suggest the best move from the current position. You are awarded an extra hint for every level you complete with 2 stars. If you run out of hints, you can get more through in-app purchases. I think limiting the number of hints should avoid the risk of spoiling the game by abusing them, while still leaving the option open when you are seriously stuck.

I tried to include the most possible variety across the puzzles, by changing the number of blue and yellow pieces. In most puzzles there's a combination of both, but there are also some with a single type, like puzzle 43:

If this game does well, I hope to also update Twin Beams in the future, adding new puzzles and switching to the Brain Twirler user interface style, with native iPad support.


©2013 Nicola Salmoria. Unauthorized use and/or duplication without express and written permission is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicola Salmoria and nontrivialgames.blogspot.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Thoughts on Bioshock Infinite

Introduction
So I just finished Bioshock Infinite and I feel I need to write something about it. There is a lot that is really good about the game, but the way it all comes together seems like a wasted opportunity. This does not mean it is a bad game, far from it. I played the entire game in a couple of days, a rare thing for me, and had (mostly) fun doing so. What really stuck to me, though, is how it abuses its own premise. The capability for true greatness can be seen throughout, but is constantly hindered . This is also why it is so interesting to talk about it. By taking a closer look at Bioshock Infinite we can perhaps learn to harness its dormant potential.


Narrative
Before we get into it all, I need to clear up a concept. When I talk about the narrative in a game, I see it as the totality of the experience. It is not just cut-scenes and audio-logs that make up a narrative, it is also the shooting, jumping, and all other actions that I perform as a player.

While not that many talk about narrative in this way, I think it is really how most of us interpret our experiences. When we take part in interactive storytelling, what we really care about is our activities and the scenarios. While we of course are able to talk about the narrative in a separate, dual world-like, sense, it is not how we live through the experience. We do not absorb gameplay on a purely abstract basis, we connect it to the game's virtual world and incorporate it into our subjective narrative. The journey we take through the game becomes our narrative.

We want to play the story. I think this is true for anybody who has interest in a videogame storytelling. I see this as the gold standard for any work of interactive fiction, and it is through this lens that I will inspect Bioshock Infinite.


Combat Design
First up, I will go over the combat. I am not fond of combat in games, mostly because it is so overused, but when done well I have nothing against it. The grandfather of Bioshock Infinite, System Shock 2, is a great example of combat done right. Every enemy conveys an aspect of the story, the flow complements the overall mood and the tactics are connected with the progression of the protagonist. When fighting in System Shock 2 an engaging narrative is created; one that ties neatly in with the rest of the story elements.

On the other hand, Bioshock Infinite's combat has probably the worst narrative connection of recent memory. It is basically on the level of Smash TV; arena like battles where you need to kill all hostiles in order to progress. Enemies just run at you and attack, lacking any of the awareness-state nuances seen in previous Shock games. It all boils down to a hectic and often chaotic spectacle. While it can have some charm, it very rarely creates any sort of narrative experience. It is just a matter of clearing waves of enemies in order to move the story forward.

Worse still is that the elements of the battles have little to do with the story. Enemy fiction does not get any better than them being the henchmen of whichever bad guy happens to be your current antagonist. The same is true for your powers. The different magical spells acquired seem to be there simply because they were present in the previous game. They get mentioned on some billboards at the start, but serve no further narrative purpose. Like so many other things in the game they are there just to comply with the predefined combat mechanics.

The game also features looting and vending machines, elements that seem to belong in neither in combat or the story. Yet again these elements are there because they were in the previous game. Possibly also for fear that the player might get bored. To me the overall impression is just one of disconnect. It is a clear example of how much the little touches in earlier games mattered. Combat in System Shock 2 is probably a lot less complex than that in Bioshock Infinite, but because it ties neatly into its fiction, the emergent narrative is so much more engaging.

By having this detached fighting system, a very interesting question is exposed. Does Bioshock Infinite need combat at all? The problem is so obvious that many mainstream outlets have picked it up, something I have never seen before. But before this issue is dealt with, there are other things to discuss.


Basic Elements of Story
I will now go over the different ways in which Bioshock Infinite chooses to tell the story, and point out the many problems that it has with its story's basic constituents.

The first thing to note is how the combat design spread to and corrupt other parts of the game. When in combat mode most of the normal storytelling bits go away, but when leaving a combat arena many of the combat mechanics still remain. The most obvious of these is the looting. In System Shock 2 this made sense, but in later installations it has been simplified and lost much of its narrative connection. The problem peaks in Infinite, where it boils down to mindlessly searching and emptying any vessel in sight. Searching objects would be used to contextualize the backdrop, but it does the opposite here. Much of the scenery is turned into power-up containers. This cheapens exploration, giving it a mechanical and forced feel. All these problems get so much worse when the contents of the loot directly contradict the surrounding environment; for instance, starving children standing next to barrels of fruit. The insistence to place coins everywhere is a similarly damaging feature. Adrian Chmielarz has written a very revealing article of how these elements infest the very beginning of the game.

Vending machines that turn up in strange places and magic potions thrown about are all also hard to mold into any sort of narrative. But perhaps worse of all is how the combat ties into, and corrupts, a major character and theme of the game.

For most of the journey the player is followed by a young woman called Elizabeth. She comments on scenery and keeps the narrative going.The game shows how having a character that stays out of the way, and manages herself, makes her a lot easier to get attached to than one who is in constant need of attention. When not in combat she is a great companion who has her own personality, feels like a fluent part of the game and is of great narrative importance. It is really something to take notes from. But when in a fire fight, which is the bigger part of the game, she is reduced into a power-up dispenser and portable lock-pick. I guess the intention was that this would help the player bond, but because it happens so often it just dispels the illusion. As the game passes, she turns more and more into a gameplay device, and less of a living individual.

Another prominent feature of the games fiction is the existence of parallel worlds. Elizabeth is able to peek into these, opening tears that can let objects travel between dimensions. This is an intriguing concept and something that should be possible to explore in an interactive story. As it turns out, except for a few rare occasions,  the only real interaction with these tears is during combat. They are simply used to conjure up generic objects, all used for their mechanical gain only. Here we have a feature that could have had an almost limitless array of exploration opportunities, and it is used solely as a gimmicky combat tool.

While Bioshock Infinite paints a breathtakingly beautiful world, it is all on a "look, don't touch"-basis. The code governing the game's plentiful NPCs are on par with an old school JRPG. They are all static automatons waiting for the player to show up so they can deliver their one canned response. This is especially jarring in a detailed first person game where objects can examined so closely. I think that even the slightest AI improvement, such as moving out of the way, would help tremendously. The rest of the scenery follows the same formula. Apart from a few, and often rather boring assets, the world is static and void of interaction. It is evident that most code complexity has gone into the combat mechanics, instead of features that give rise to narrative.

Building from its pedigree, the game is of course loaded with audio-logs. The System Shock games handled this quite nicely and tried to fit them into the fiction. It has since been abused in many games, and I have to say Bioshock Infinite is one of the worst examples I have seen. The reasons for recording are dubious and, worse of all, the placement is awful. For instance, you can find personal recordings of the city's ruler lying on the table of  a crowded cafe.

After the game literally smashes a book about Quantum Mechanics in your face, you expect the technology to at least be somewhat justified. This would also make sense as the game has plot aspects that encourage thinking about similar topics. Older games in the series have at least tried to do this; making sure that creatures and contraptions form a coherent whole. But in Infinite, almost nothing is explained. I am not saying there needs to be an in-depth explanation, but it must at least seem plausible in the fiction. When the game is so dismissive with most of its story elements, it is hard to give anything a deeper consideration. This directly counteracts the intended deep themes of the game.

Also worth noting is how simplistically written the characters are. The game paints a backstory and world that could allow for really elaborate discussions. Instead we just end up with villains without much depth. The game simply points out that both sides can be evil, and that is it. It is a shame, as these kind of worlds are often great ways to explore many social issues; China Mieville's books being excellent examples.

What we arrive with is a game that does not seem to take its fiction seriously. It builds up this extraordinary backdrop but never makes any attempt to pull it all together or make any deeper explorations. It seems content with being shallow. It really is a shame.


Narrative Focus
I will now drop the specific details and talk about the narrative experience as whole. Here I think the flaws show up even more clearly. I can forgive that specific elements make little sense, but I find it much worse when a game lacks a clear ambition and focus in the way Bioshock Infinite does.

It seems obvious that the narrative has not been intended as the main source of engagement  During most of the game understanding and enjoying the story is not of importance. There is always an arrow telling you where to go, combat encounters are frequent and there is ever present loot to be found. The game never relies on you being caught up in the narrative, but makes sure that you are constantly exposed to the core gameplay loop. Despite this, the story is a very big part of the game, the world reeking with narrative elements. It seems like the game is not sure what it wants. It tries to do two very different things, and end up doing neither particularly effective.

It feels like an attempt to tell a serious story through a theme park ride. The game tugs you along these fantastic, but mostly lifeless settings; often stopping to engage you in some repetitive activity. It is hoping that the sheer spectacle of the ride and constant feeding of candy will make you forget all of its short comings. Because the game is such a straightforward ride, there is never any proper thematic exploration. There is a lot of things to discuss after a play session, but nothing of the sort happens during actual play. An engaging narrative never emerges, and the good things left are punctured by unrelated activities.

Because of the game's insecure nature I am forced to constantly doublethink. I need to neglect certain elements, forget what I have heard/seen and toggle my view of the world. When in smaller bursts, one can often see past this. For instance, it is possible to feel part of a play even though you know it is just actors on a stage. But when the conflicting elements are so interconnected and frequent it just gets harder and harder to ignore. In the end, the only way for me to go on was not lose myself in the fiction at all. I had to take it all in on a very superficial level. The doublethinking just became too much. It was still possible to enjoy the game, but all along it was evident that a lot was missing.

To me, Bioshock Infinite stands as a clear example of how a lack of focus lessens the emotional impact. Had the game just made sure to set a firm focus on telling a story, it could have been so much more. I am having the same kind of feelings I had after playing Dead Space 2; the feeling of unlocked potential, that the developers just did not dare to take the game were it should have gone. I hope that people playing Bioshock Infinite will see this and take note.


No combat?
Back to the question I asked earlier: is combat needed? This is something that has been uttered by many: that the violence is detracting from the story. This is response is awesome, and I cannot recall the issue being raised in this way before. But at the same time, I have not seen any good examples of what to have instead. This is what I will talk about here.

First of all, note that the combat does not need to be removed. It is possible to have a narrative focused game with a lot of fighting. System Shock 2, or whichever other immersive sim, can be checked to see how it can be done much better. That is not really that interesting though; it seems much more rewarding to see if we could do away with the core combat gameplay all together.

Before going into that, it is worth asking the question if it is worth it. Would the experience improve? If the goal is to have a game that is about relationship, revolution and parallel universes then I would say yes. Some quick reasons:

  • Having any sort of cognitive demanding activity has been shown to decrease our capability to feel emotions.  Not having combat can heighten the sense of empathy and connection to the characters.
  • Avoiding combat removes the tunnel vision that comes with it. Competitive fighting makes players focus on a very specific activity and make it easy to ignore other aspects of the game. The world's non-combat features come to a stronger focus if combat is dropped.
  • As I have argued at length, the common combat design drastically decreases the set of actions we can let the player do in a game. If fighting is removed more actions can be added for the themes we want to explore, actions that will make the player think more deeply.
(Important to note here is that the above reasons all concern a core combat loop. The game could still have the player shooting stuff, but it would have to happen in special sequences like in Walking Dead or Snatcher.)

If we just use the current Bioshock Infinite as foundation, removing the fighting is fairly easy. The most trivial solution would simply involve taking away all of the combat sections. I have not checked this down to all the details, but I am pretty sure that Bioshock Infinite has such separate combat that you could just rip 99.9% of it out and the narrative would remain essentially intact. A slightly more interactive Dear Esther would emerge. Given almost all problems above come from some extension of the combat, I am fairly certain this simple change would make a much better game as well. (I wonder if it would be possible to mod and try and make it happen.)

This is of course not something a major studio would consider doing. The most obvious reason would be that it is hard to market and sell. This might be true, but I think there is another reason that lurk beneath. Many designers are simply dead afraid of the player getting bored. When a game is missing a "fun" core loop it gets extremely hard to test. Some experiences are only possible to be engaging to a fresh mind and cannot be easily evaluated by its creator. It is not possible to get simple objective feedback data. One has to rely on gut intuition and, dare I say it, create art.

But if one embraces the idea of doing away with the "fun" core, Bioshock can be taken beyond being a Dear Esther clone and go much further. The game already contains much of this in rudimentary form, and it just a matter of making these seeds blossom. Here are some quick suggestions:

  • Adding more involvement from Elizabeth. Let the player choose what space to be explored and then let Elizabeth act out there. She can be a sort of extended interactive force. Early trailers had Elizabeth playing with masks for instance.
  • Why not take more advantage of the tears. Let the exploration of tears be a main pull throughout the game. Since we are visiting worlds that are slightly similar to the one we are in, there are all sort of thought provoking things to add here. Again early trailers already showed some of this. 
  • While we are at it, why not use tears instead of the audio logs. It would make a lot more sense.
  • Add more direct interaction with the people and explore the themes through that. For instance, the player could find food but not enough to go around, if you give it to a kid his friends might jump on him and fight over it, etc.
I do not want to sit on a high horse here and proclaim how I would have saved Bioshock Infinite or something like that. The above are just simple ideas on top of my head. I am just trying to show the avenues that open up when we let go of that core loop and focus on narrative delivery. The above is not that hard to do; probably a lot easier than it was to do the combat code and assets. It is just that it requires a new kind of thinking. As early trailers show, the idea was already there but something, probably the urge to make combat work, led away from it.


In Closing
In one way it felt weird and annoying to play Bioshock Infinite. There was a constant bombardment of things that I found obviously wrong. Despite this the game was given perfect scores all over, the many imperfections swept under the rug. But then I saw the articles that followed, discussing aspects of a game I have never seen in the mainstream before. This makes me hopeful that we are onto something here. I am unsure if any larger studios will change, but I think the game has opened eyes of many. This might also be where all those high grades are coming from; the sight of this enormous potential; the thought of what videogames could be. That is at least my sincere hope.

Review: Subway Shuffle for iPhone and iPad

Subway Shuffle is a classic. It was first released in August 2008, just a few weeks after the App Store opened. It is so old that people didn't consider an outrage its initial price of $2.99 (don't worry, it's $0.99 now). It's impressive how much things have changed in these 5 years.
The web site linked to by the App Store, www.subwayshuffle.com, doesn't even exist anymore, though we can still look at it on the Wayback Machine.

The game was created by +Bob Hearn, an MIT graduate whose thesis is suitably titled Games, Puzzles, and Computation. It's full of interesting material and well worth a read for anyone interested in complexity theory.

The play area is a graph with colored edges, which represents a subway map. Some nodes of the graph contain a colored dot, which represents a subway car.
The goal is to move the red car to the big red circle. To do that, you move one car at a time, with the constraint that cars can only move along edges of their same color.


The layouts are aesthetically pleasing, and nicely represented by thumbnails in the puzzles list.
The puzzles look deceptively simple, but solving them can be harder than it seems.
Every puzzle shows the optimal number of moves needed, and you get a double tick for matching it.

Most puzzles are planar, but some have intersecting routes:
There is a total of 100 puzzles. The difficulty escalates in the last few, with Level 100 needing 589 moves. If you want to have a go at it, good luck.
This game is a must have, but if you have doubts, there's also a free version, Subway Shuffle Lite. It containins just ten sample levels. I'm pretty sure that after trying them, you'll want the full version.

Summary

Nontrivialness★★★★★
Logical Reasoning★★★☆☆
User Interface★★★☆☆
Presentation★★★☆☆
Loading Time★★★★★
Saves Partial Progress
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©2013 Nicola Salmoria. Unauthorized use and/or duplication without express and written permission is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicola Salmoria and nontrivialgames.blogspot.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Monday, 8 April 2013

Review: Simon Tatham's Portable Puzzle Collection

Often, puzzle collections aren't very good. I prefer games that are focused on doing a single thing in the best possible way.
Simon Tatham's Portable Puzzle Collection, however, is a different story. It is more than a classic: it's a piece of history. The "Portable" in the name doesn't refer to mobile devices, but rather to software portability. It was initially created in 2004, before the iPhone even existed, and initially it ran only on Unix and Windows. I used to play it 8 years ago, on a Palm Tungsten E2, using a stylus.

The portable collection consists of good logic puzzles, some well known, other less known, and it's still growing and being maintained. Currently it includes 36 different puzzles.

The collection was actually already present on the App Store, under various names, both as a whole and as single games; as far as I know, in most cases this was done without acknowledgements to Simon Tatham. At long last, Greg Hewgill has done a "legit" port of good quality.
Some of the puzzle names are a bit odd, for example Sudoku is called Solo, Slitherlink is called Loopy, and so on.
My favorite has always been Loopy. Over the years, it has evolved from standard Slitherlink, acquiring the ability to play on all kinds of non-square grids, for example Snub-Square:
The beautiful thing about this collection is that all puzzles come with a range of predefined sizes, parameters, and difficulties, which can be quickly selected.
If the predefined settings aren't enough, there's a Custom option where you can set everything to your liking.
This incredible flexibility can be achieved because all the puzzles are randomly generated every time you play. This is often a weakness in logic puzzles, as I am convinced that the best puzzles can only derive from careful selection and cannot be generated on the fly. Still, this is a reasonable compromise in the scope of this collection.
There are some small criticisms to make to this first version of the port to iPhone and iPad, which will hopefully be addressed in future updates.

Several puzzles give the ability to place crosses or other marks. When played on PC, that maps to the right mouse button, while on iPhone it has become a long press.
In puzzles where you need to place several exclusions in a row, like Loopy, this gets a bit tiring and slows down the solving process. This could be mitigated by using a toggle switch in the toolbar.

On iPhone, the puzzle selection list would probably work better if it used smaller thumbnails and shorter descriptions. Seeing just 4 lines at a time is a bit too little and requires a lot of scrolling to reach the puzzle you want to play. On iPad the puzzle list is a grid so it works much better.
Finally, on iPhone, large puzzles are a hard to play and really need support for the pinch gesture to zoom. Again, this is less of a problem on iPad.
Good logic puzzles, lots of variety, free, no ads, no in-app purchases. It's a no-brainer to highly recommend this collection.

Summary

Nontrivialness★★★★★
Logical Reasoning★★★★★
User Interface★★★☆☆
Presentation★★★☆☆
Loading Time★★★★★
Saves Partial Progress
Status Bar

©2013 Nicola Salmoria. Unauthorized use and/or duplication without express and written permission is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicola Salmoria and nontrivialgames.blogspot.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Review: Sia Sola / Ratio for iPhone and iPad

Sia Sola is a board game invented by Oliver Schaudt and produced by Clemens Gerhards KG. It is a sequential movement puzzle with clever mechanics, and on the App Store there is not one, but two versions of it:

Sia Sola ($0.99) / Sia Sola Lite (Free), developed by Feuerware;
Ratio - the puzzle ($1.99), developed by Pantorix.

Neither of the apps seems to be an official port, but they both credit Oliver Schaudt for the idea.

During gameplay, Sia Sola looks like this:
and Ratio looks like this:
Ratio is clearly better graphically, but let's talk about the puzzle.
The board is a 4x3 grid, containing two large stones and up to 8 smaller stones. As you can see, the large stones are placed inside the grid squares, while the small stones are placed over the grid intersections.
You only move the large stones. At the beginning, they are placed on opposite sides of the board. The goal is to swap their position.

The clever part of the mechanics is the role that the small stones have on the moves you can make. As is clearly explained in the instructions, you can move a stone through a side only if there is exactly one small stone on that side.
The reason for this rule is that when you do a move, the small stone slides across the side you passed through. So from the starting position higher above, if you move the red stone up, you end in the following position: not only the red stone has moved up, but the gray stone has moved right.
Effectively this means that you need to find your way through a maze which changes shape every time you move.

The puzzles are challenging; a lot more than it might seem at first sight. There is some sort of parity involved, but due to the two-dimensional movement of the small stones, it's more complicated than that. More often than not, when the solution seems close at hand, you find all your paths blocked and need to trace back.

In terms of user interface and content, I think neither Sia Sola nor Ratio is perfect.
Ratio has 32 puzzles, split across 4 difficulty levels, so I think it's a verbatim copy of the official game. Sia Sola has 50 puzzles.
Ratio is missing information about the optimal number of moves to solve each puzzle.
In Sia Sola you can move only with drag&drop, in Ratio you can move both with drag&drop and by tapping the destination square. I prefer the latter.
Ratio has a smooth and elegant menu system, which however isn't very intuitive to navigate.
All in all, I prefer Ratio, mostly because it is more polished. YMMV. Regardless of which one you choose, the puzzle is recommended for its elegant mechanics.

Summary


Sia SolaRatio
Nontrivialness★★★★☆★★★★☆
Logical Reasoning★★★☆☆★★★☆☆
User Interface★★★☆☆★★★☆☆
Presentation★★★★☆★★☆☆☆
Loading Time★★★★★★★★★☆
Saves Partial Progress
Status Bar

©2013 Nicola Salmoria. Unauthorized use and/or duplication without express and written permission is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicola Salmoria and nontrivialgames.blogspot.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Second Look: Perfect Tiling

After publishing the review of Perfect Tiling a few days ago and making some criticism on the apparent inability to solve its puzzles through logic, I realized that one of the puzzle modes is, on the contrary, perfectly suited to logic deductions.
I solved a few dozens puzzles in that mode and I couldn't stop playing.
Interestingly, despite the puzzles being randomly generated, they all had a unique solution, and the solving process was varied and fun. The difficulty seemed to be more or less the same for all the puzzles, until I stumbled onto this one:
Here it was easy to start by putting a red tile in the bottom right corner, but soon enough things got trickier and there didn't seem to be an obvious way to move forward through logic. Eventually, however, I figured it out, and completed the puzzle using only rigorous deductions. It was challenging and enjoyable—exactly what these puzzles should be.

Therefore, I updated the review to reflect my new discovery: just one of the ten available modes is enough to consider Perfect Tiling very good, and highly recommended.


©2013 Nicola Salmoria. Unauthorized use and/or duplication without express and written permission is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicola Salmoria and nontrivialgames.blogspot.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Legendary Classes: Covenant Magic !

I'm just going to get out of the way an let David talk about this.



A medium is willingly possessed by a raging ghost to lure it into a magical trap. An occultist bribes a satyr lord into granting him mastery over stormy skies and hardened hearts. A queen makes bloody sacrifices to fiendish masters for perpetual life. All use covenant magic.

Legendary Classes: Covenant Magic from David Nicholas Ross introduces covenants, secretive bargains allowing characters of any class to draw on the supernatural gifts of spirits such as fey, outsiders, and undead. This book also introduces mediums, true masters of covenant magic who can contact spirits, call on a spirit guide for supernatural attacks, empower allies and hinder foes with spell-like abilities, and enter a trance that unlocks covenants without a price and enhances their toughness and magical might.
This book contains the following:
  • The medium base class, specializing in one of 11 influences such as Angelic Choirs, Restless Souls, or the Unseelie Court.
  • Favored class options for mediums of nearly any race.
  • A new spell, expel spirits, for mediums and witches.
  • Covenant magic rules, including five new feats for characters of any class.
  • 60 covenants.

Legendary Classes: Covenant Magic
By David Nicholas Ross
Art by Matt Morrow