Monument Valley 2 Review

Monument Valley 2 by UsTwo Games isn’t just an amazing game, and isn’t just a sequel to an amazing game. It’s a rich, emotionally-intelligent art piece, bursting with creativity and polished to perfection.

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I can’t help but describe Monument Valley 2 with enthusiasm. The first Monument Valley was an achievement in its own right, an ingenious puzzler with a melancholy ambiance and creative-yet-accessible M.C. Escher-esque traversal puzzles, perfectly suited for touchscreen gameplay. But despite my fond memories of the original game, when I first glimpsed its follow-up in the App Store, I was worried. Could the sequel live up to the original’s legacy? Or would it simply retread old paths, failing to break new ground?

Upon launching the game, my fears were immediately laid to rest. Monument Valley 2, while arguably less difficult than the original, is more cinematic, creative and emotionally engaging than I could have anticipated. The core gameplay is the more-or-less the same as the original, requiring players to rotate and shift impossible architecture, making way for their characters to traverse mind-bending puzzles on-foot. However, the game is more varied this time around. Tricks of light, multiple characters and brand new structures are only a few of the new additions, keeping the experience fresh and engaging, without relying too heavily on a single innovation.

Monument Valley 2 employs simple polygons and stylish designs to create a world that is mysterious and dreamlike, yet intensely perceptible. The game’s music and sound design work in tandem with the visuals, utilizing musical cues to heighten atmospheric tension, from ominous footsteps in a quiet room to an orchestral swell when the player triggers a cutscene. It’s extremely immersive, from beginning to end.

Thematically, this is a story of mysterious grand designs, small cogs that can turn big cogs, and a love that transcends separation and the passing of time. By introducing a mother-daughter relationship to the game, UsTwo widens the game’s breadth of gameplay, and adds a new layer of emotional depth to the player’s experience. What does it feel like to be a parent? How can the concerns, fears and love of a parent be harnessed to engage players? For instance, a collapsing wall, on its own, is a frightening and dangerous thing. But what if your own child is standing at the top of the wall? What if you are powerless to reach them? What if you do have the power to reach them, but are short on time? Can one character have the same emotional impact on a player as two characters, engaging with each other on a relatable level?

Monument Valley 2 is an emotionally-engaging, mind-bending, visually-stunning tour de force, and despite its short play time, is one of the best games available on iOS. For the amount of sheer effort that’s clearly been poured into it, $4.99 is a steal. Buy it. And play it with the sound on.

6 Stars

 

Miles & Kilo Review

Since the release of Canabalt in 2009, auto-runners have cornered the iOS platforming market, and for good reason. For all their benefits, touchscreens are unfortunately cursed with a lack of tangible feedback, and aside from a few specific titles which benefit from onscreen arrows and buttons, virtual controls in mobile games are often clunky, unappealing, and result in wasted screen real estate. The alternative is a one-or-two-tap control method, without onscreen buttons, although this method presents its own set of challenges. Tackling multiple actions with a single tap can be confusing to a first-time player, so it’s important to somehow introduce varied gameplay with these limited controls, while still maintaining a connection to the player’s intuition. Miles & Kilo nails this style of context-sensitive control, harnessing the power of a single button to control punching, ducking and throwing, elevating the game to the top of the auto-runner pack.

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From Michael Burns, the creator of Kidd Tripp, Miles & Kilo follows the adventures of a boy and his lovable-yet-overly-enthusiastic dog. Both Kilo and Miles are cute, memorable characters, and the developer’s charming cutscenes are more than effective in endearing the duo to the player. However, well-designed protagonists can only carry a game so far, and thankfully, Miles & Kilo delivers with tight controls, creative twitch mechanics, and a sense of adventure rare in the auto-platforming genre.

The player’s primary objective is to complete each level within a tight time limit, while also maintaining a collection of five fruits in your inventory. The fruit-collection aspect of Miles & Kilo adds an element of risk and reward, as the fruit can also be used as projectiles. The whole experience is truly challenging, and while I was able to achieve an A rank on most levels within two hours of playtime, the even-more-satisfying S ranks were simply too challenging for me to nail down.

Does a player feel more satisfied with their performance when awarded with gold stars, or instead with the grade-school throwback of letter ranks? Does a one-star performance still feel like a victory, as opposed to the slap-on-the-wrist of receiving a D rank? Does an A rank conjure feelings of success when an S rank is just out of reach?

Aside from a pretty nasty difficulty spike on the game’s second boss, everything else about the game is immaculate. Chris Kukla’s soundtrack is fantastically retro, conjuring memories of classic NES soundtracks for Mega Man and DuckTales, expertly complimenting the game’s nostalgic overtones. Graphically, the whole thing is bright and whimsical, and the entire game ran at a smooth framerate on my iPhone 6.

Miles & Kilo is an absolute gem. It’s professionally crafted, loaded with charm, full of great music and has an exceptionally well-designed learning curve. Most importantly, it’s simply a blast to play. I’d love to see Kilo the dog in his own spinoff game at some point, as his unbridled enthusiasm is a joy to behold, but with or without him, I’ll certainly be on the lookout for more titles by Michael Burns in the future. At its current price of $3.99, I highly recommend that any fans of twitch platforming check it out!

5 Stars

 

Death Road to Canada Review

It’s tough to avoid being a cynical crank about zombie culture. After mowing down thousands of them with a pea-shooter, bashing their skulls in with a crowbar, and stealing their twinkies, there seems to be no end to the abuse that zombies are willing to take. Like the creatures themselves, zombie culture plods on, refusing to die, and it’s only natural to be a little put-off by games and movies that use the concept as a cheap hook.

Thankfully, there is now a cure for zombie-induced cynicism. Death Road to Canada, Rocketcat Games and Madgarden’s self-proclaimed Permadeath Roadtrip Simulator is a surefire cure for zombie fatigue. From Hook Champ to Wayward Souls, Rocketcat’s games never cease to charm, so despite my own reservations toward the zombie-survival genre, I couldn’t help but pick up Death Road to Canada on Steam back in 2016. Now, the game has made the inevitable jump to iOS, and even on a handheld with limited controls, Death Road shines as a classic in its own right, overflowing with challenge and wit.

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The game, at its core, is about survival. Your humble band of travelers is initially comprised of randomly-generated characters, but if you prefer, you can build your own zombie-fighter using an in-game character builder. You’ll need to carefully manage your food, gas, health and ammo if you hope to reach Canada, and if you die, you’ll have to start again at the beginning of the Death Road.

Gameplay is split into two different modes. Most of the game’s random encounters occur within an Oregon-Trail-styled text-based survival mode, in which the team must make difficult choices with unpredictable results. For instance, your team might encounter a moose, and be forced to decide to either befriend the creature, kill it for its meat, or drive somewhere else. Depending on your characters’ stats, these encounters can be hugely beneficial, or fatal. It’s a well-balanced system with a ton of personality, and lends a huge amount of variety to each individual playthrough.

The majority of playtime is spent in top-down exploration and zombie-battling sections, which can be nail-bitingly tricky. The zombies at the start of the Death Road are quite slow, and if you’re armed with something as simple as a lead pipe, you should be able to manage them without trouble. But as the levels progress and you get closer to Canada, the zombies become much, much faster, and it takes more than weapons to survive. Strategy and risk-reward decisions form the heart of Death Road’s challenge, and with one wrong move, your whole team can perish in the blink of an eye.

The game’s music by Joey Grady is quite energetic for a zombie title, and it lends itself well to the game’s self-deprecating sense of humor. All zombie and weapon noises fit the bill, the graphics are charming, and the game runs at a solid clip with very few framerate drops, even with dozens of zombies on the screen at once.

If there’s one thing that irks me about the iOS version of Death Road, it’s the controls. I initially played the game on Steam using a gamepad, and upon transitioning to play on iOS, found the virtual joystick just a little too inaccurate for a game this challenging. After all, if ever a game needed strong touch controls, it’s a Permadeath Roadtrip Simulator, and although the game’s touch controls are intuitive, they’re just unresponsive enough to warrant mentioning.

Death Road to Canada is a unique, must-play experience, even for gamers who aren’t on-board with zombie games. However, as happy as I am to finally get to experience the game on iOS, I definitely recommend picking up the Steam version instead, if you have access to a gamepad. Death Road is a punishing, challenging game, and without dead-on controls, the game can prove to be a little frustrating. That said, if you’re primarily an iOS gamer, I still highly recommend checking out the game on iOS, at its current cost of $7.99.

4.5 Stars

 

Gravity Galaxy Review

Gravity Galaxy by Pixelbyte has all the qualities I’ve come to expect from titles published by Ancient Games. It’s packed with charming low-poly graphics, intelligent puzzle design, and filled to the brim with unlockables. At launch time, the gravity puzzler’s playtime is admittedly a little short, but despite the general lack of replayable content, the game is addicting, expertly-crafted and a pleasure to play.

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The physics and puzzle gameplay in Gravity Galaxy aren’t tough to grasp. The player controls the launch sequence of a single ship, which activates when the screen is tapped, sending the player’s tiny ship careening through space in whichever direction it was launched, its path altered only by the gravity of surrounding planetoids and asteroids. Each level contains three stars to collect, which are simple enough to grab in early levels, but as the game progresses, these three-star challenges can be deviously difficult. Additional ships can be collected by watching video ads, which will be either a welcome addition or a frustrating one, depending on the player’s access to WiFi. Personally, I play most of my iOS games while I’m on the go, so requiring video ads to be watched to unlock in-game content is a frustration, albeit a minor one.

Although Gravity Galaxy has launched with only 40 levels, hints in the level-select screen suggest that Pixelbyte plans to add at least 30 more levels sometime in the future. Each level is varied, introducing destructible planetoids, flashing lasers, missiles, and tricky button-activated asteroids. The majority of the game’s levels shouldn’t take an average player more than a couple minutes to complete, but due to the three-star challenges and the satisfying physics and animations, there’s more than enough to do during the short playtime.

Pixelbyte’s sophomore mobile effort is enjoyable from beginning to end. It’s challenging, well-designed and the neon-vector aesthetic really is a feast for the eyes. As Pixelbyte plans to add more content in the future, I highly recommend the free download to any fans of gravity-puzzlers.

4 Stars

 

 

Milkmaid of the Milky Way Review

The point-and-click adventure genre can prove to be a little dense for newcomers. Long passages of dialogue and obtuse puzzles can bog down even the best games in the genre, but thankfully, Milkmaid of the Milky Way, a whimsical point-and-click adventure title by Machineboy, keeps things simple, earnest, and quick-moving. While it isn’t a lengthy experience, or even an exceptionally deep one, its childlike whimsy and charming visuals are enough to make the game a must-play, even for a newcomer to the genre.

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The player controls Ruth the milkmaid, who lives in an isolated area of Western Norway in the year 1929. Her home – Calf Ledge – is drawn beautifully, and comes to represent Ruth’s own attachment to her upbringing. Her dairy buyers have become less interested in her wares in recent days, as modern consumers make the capitalistic shift to low-quality butter and cream, but Ruth is stubborn, refusing to change her ways for anyone. But as the story progresses, it becomes clear that change is coming to Ruth’s life, and she’ll have to face it, whether she likes it or not.

Machineboy’s sound design and art direction steal the show, adding a magical touch to a solid story. Every sprite bursts with personality and imagination, the music is varied and understated, and the backgrounds are imaginative and colorful.

Ruth walks toward where the player taps, and runs if the player double-taps. As in most point-and-click games, there’s an easily-accessible inventory of items at the bottom of the screen, which are collected as the game progresses, and can be used to solve puzzles and unlock areas. Only once or twice did I find myself frustrated with the gameplay, as certain items and interactive objects were not easily differentiated from the background, and as such – especially in the case of a puzzle later in the game involving a metal pipe – it was sometimes difficult to tell which objects were puzzle-related, and which were not. However, the majority of the puzzles in Milkmaid of the Milky Way are quite intuitive, and the game’s progression is quick-paced, offering 2-3 hours of play, depending on how proficient the player might be at puzzle games.

Milkmaid of the Milky Way is clearly a labor of love. Ruth’s story is earnest and whimsical, and the entire game is wrapped up beautifully with detailed pixel art, heartwarming animations and atmospheric music. Any minor frustrations with occasionally counter-intuitive puzzle design are negated by the well-paced story and reasonable play time, making this $5.49 purchase an easy recommendation for fans of the point-and-click adventure genre.

4.5 Stars

 

Pony Island Review

Pony Island is more than it seems on the surface, packed with unexpected content and surprises. As a result, there will be minor spoilers in this article. If you plan to play the game, proceed with caution!

Bright. Cheery.

First impressions aren’t always accurate, and such is the case with Pony Island by Daniel Mullins. After purchasing the game as part of a Humble Bundle on the recommendation of a friend, I found my expectations dashed to the ground as darkness seized the game’s helm, steering Pony Island into realms of horror, madness and self-aware charm, similar to one of my personal favorites, Eversion by Zaratustra Productions.

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Pony Island is, at its heart, a meta-take on game design, imagining what a video game designed by the devil might look like. As Lucifer is a little socially awkward, instead of hiring playtesters to provide feedback for his games, he captures human souls and forces them to play, eternally trapped in a state of limbo. All communication with the Devil takes place in text boxes via an in-game computer screen. The game’s text-based horror and humor are masterful, well-timed and well-delivered, drawing the player into the Devil’s twisted and self-conscious mind. As the game progresses, it becomes clear that with some help, the Devil’s game might be deleted, defeating Lucifer and freeing the playtesters from limbo.

The entire game is controlled with a mouse and keyboard, but the gameplay is comes in three different forms. Firstly, there’s the computer’s operating system, in which the player can click around, solving minor puzzles and searching for hints in Lucifer’s computer. Secondly, in order to hack into the computer and search for exploits to destroy it from within, mini logic puzzles must be solved, typically by using repeat functions and arrows to warp a key through a maze of obstacles toward an end goal. The third type of gameplay is Pony Island itself, the game of the devil’s own creation. It’s a simple runner, with a click-to-jump mechanic and a laser-beam power that shoots from a pixel-art pony’s mouth.

Any of these gameplay types could grow repetitive after a long play session, but Daniel Mullins brilliantly paces variation between each of them, ensuring that once a Pony Island level starts to grow tiresome, the story progresses and the player is quickly presented with a computer-navigation or puzzle section. For the entirety of my playthrough, I never once struggled to the point of frustration on any section, as the puzzles were fair, the jumping sections were short with frequent checkpoints, and the computer navigation sections were cleverly designed and full of hilarious trickery. My only frustrations with the game arose from the final boss battle, which was a little underwhelming in challenge after the brain-busting charm of earlier levels.

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From the horrifying realization of where your character really is, to the laugh-out-loud moments of comedic dialogue with Lucifer, to the mind-bending puzzles and obscure thought process behind the whole thing, every moment of Pony Island is brilliant. The game’s controls occasionally frustrate during the Pony Island sections, and some religiously-sensitive players might find issue with some of the content, but as per the meta-narrative, that’s the point of the whole experience. The Devil was never meant to make a game, but Pony Island – the game about his terrible game – is masterful, and a must-play. Buy it.

5 Stars

 

Ori and the Blind Forest Review

Ori and the Blind Forest by Moon Studios has been out for well over a year and has already seen the release of a Definitive Edition for multiple platforms, but I’ve only now just had the pleasure of playing it. Truthfully, the word pleasure is an understatement, as Ori and the Blind Forest is one of the most mind-bogglingly excellent games I’ve ever played, and is an absolute must-play for anyone with an Xbox One or a decent PC.

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The story of Ori and the Blind Forest is simple, but heartfelt. Ori, a glowing white spirit-creature, lives happily in a healthy forest, but disaster strikes when a hostile bird attacks the heart of the forest’s Spirit Tree. As in most Metroidvania games, the player must traverse the landscape, gaining new powers that enable them to travel further and grow more powerful, in order to restore balance to the world. Though the storyline might sound a little typical on the surface, the game’s audio and visual design elevate the experience to another level entirely, and I’d be surprised if even the most hardened cynic didn’t find a tear in their eye during the opening cinematic.

Ori’s gameplay, as with its visuals and audio, is transcendent. As the player gains powers and grows stronger through a simple upgrade tree, Ori’s controls become second-nature. Triple-jumps and complicated combos are no trouble for an upgraded player, and combined with the game’s incredible foley and visual effects, all combos and attacks are extremely satisfying to perform. All the while, gorgeous backdrops and lighting bring the world to life, tied together by a detailed and easily-navigatable 2D map: an essential tool in any Metroidvania, where a great deal of time is spent navigating the complex world maze. Ori moves quickly, so long distances are easy to travel, though there are always plenty of items to pick up along the way.

While the game’s chase-scene challenges prove to be quite difficult, Ori can save the game in any safe area, provided that his Soul Link meter is fully charged. It’s a wonderful addition to the game, and results in the player only needing to backtrack or replay an area if they failed to set a proper checkpoint for themselves. The game’s progression is well-paced and addicting, and while the game can be finished with 100% completion in only a few hours, the entire experience is so memorable and beautiful that the short completion time is completely tolerable.

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Ori and the Blind Forest is fantastic, from beginning to end. The controls are spot-on, the sound design is gorgeous and rich, the visuals are striking, charming and varied, and the overall experience is tied together beautifully with a heartfelt story and addicting game progression. If you’re running a decent PC and are a fan of Metroidvanias, 2D platformers or classic action adventure games, I can’t recommend it highly enough. Buy this game.

6 Stars