By Robert VerBruggen
Blow | Dev: David Flook | Score: 4.4
This is a terrific, if slow-paced, puzzle game. You're in a forest environment, and there are bubbles dropping down from a . . . well, a bubble spawner. Your job is to place fans in the environment such that they blow the bubbles from the spawner through any flowers that are around and, finally, to the level's exit point, without touching any trees or other solid objects. You can adjust the fans' strength and temperature (if a fan blows hot air, the bubble will warm up and rise; the opposite goes for cold air). The catch is that you have a limited amount of gold with which to buy the fans.
There are 70 meticulously hand-crafted levels, and they're a joy to play through. The aesthetics evoke those of Braid: the soothing piano music neither gets old nor annoys, and the graphics do a great job of bringing out nature's beauty. Some stages demand precision; it's an art setting up the fans to blow in exactly the right direction, at just the right speed, and at just the right temperature to get the bubbles to navigate the course. Other levels require that you use your gold wisely, and not use more fans (or more power, which costs extra) than you absolutely need. Still others add twists, such as wind, extreme temperature, or spinning wheels that you control with fans.
You can also play in "Adventure" mode, which randomly generates levels. These tend to feel randomly generated, and lack the creativity of the human-made levels. This mode adds the twist of "flames" - fairies follow your bubble and collect any flames it goes near. You can sell the flames for more gold.
The only irritating aspect is that once you set up your fans and can tell they're blowing the bubbles the right way, you have to hit a button to release the "king" bubble, which determines your score but travels on exactly the same path all the other bubbles do. Especially if it took you awhile to set up all the fans, or if it's a long level, it's boring to watch a bubble with a crown on it navigate a course you've been staring at for some time already.
That's not nearly enough to make this game unenjoyable, of course. A must-buy for fans of puzzle games that involve getting things from point A to point B.
CarneyVale: Showtime | Dev: Gambit | Score: 4.6
CarneyVale: Showtime's developers bill the game as a "vertical ragdoll platformer," but the idea is much more interesting than that name would imply. You play as Slinky, a ragdoll and aspiring circus performer. You are incapable of jumping, but you can swing around the various trapezes strewn about each level and move left and right through the air. The main goal is to make it from the bottom of each course through the ring of fire at the top.
The main skills are to let go of the spinning trapezes at just the right moment to hit the next ones and to steer your longer jumps correctly. You'll need to avoid everything from fire to electrical shocks, each of which will take away a life. You can also take advantage of various items in the environment, from walls that bounce you a long distance to rockets you can steer. If you lose all your lives or fall through a hole at the bottom of the course, you have to start over.
There are 18 well-designed stages built into the game, and an easy-to-use level editor for making your own. Besides completing each course by jumping through the ring of fire, there are five bonus goals: finding the secret star, finishing in a set amount of time, completing the level without losing a single life, and collecting all the balloons found throughout the course.
The game boasts a polished presentation, with colorful 2-D graphics and the expected circus music. Its short length is a definite downside, but you can complement the built-in stages with your own. It would be even better if you could share your levels with friends; maybe that's in the cards for an update or sequel?
Colosseum | Dev: Shortfuse Games | Score: 3.3
This is an ambitious 3-D beat-'em-up that can be a lot of fun to play, but whose innovations end up hurting more than helping. The core of the six-level single-player gameplay is that you fight large groups of enemies in a series of arenas, introduced with (we hope) intentionally bad dialogue and presented via nice-looking graphics and well-produced (if cheesy) music. There are three major deviations from the standard beat-'em-up formula.
The first is the controls: you execute fighting moves and combos with the right joystick, and press the four regular buttons to use power-ups (which do things like add health, push enemies away, and bring enemies closer). Because fighting demands more precision than powering up does, however, it's not at all clear to us what the advantage is supposed to be. It's workable once you get used to it, but it never becomes as intuitive or user-friendly as the normal setup.
The second deviation is that, in an apparent attempt to split the difference between beat-'em-ups and one-on-one fighting games, the enemies here take much more damage than the enemies in, say, Streets of Rage 2. The problem is that you face lots of enemies at once, and more "waves" come when you get rid of them, so this soon becomes fatiguing more than fun or challenging.
The third departure is that the move animations take a remarkably long time to play out. On the one hand, this adds a level of strategy, because when you choose a move, you have to bear in mind that you'll be executing it for awhile. On the other hand, it takes away the fast pace and tension upon which all punch-and-kick games rely.
To the title's great credit, the multiplayer experience is significantly different, and significantly more enjoyable. The basic gameplay remains the same, but there are a five well-designed modes to choose from (four of which you can play in teams), and it's a lot more fun to beat up real people (2-4 players, local) for an extended period of time than it is to wear down computer-controlled drones until your eyes glaze over. It's also here where the different fighting styles, the more difficult maneuvers, and the nuances of the fighting system really come into play.
Finally, this title has a full set of features. You can create your own fighter, take on special challenges (kind of like achievements), and, in the single-player mode, choose from three difficulties. There's also a simple tutorial that schools you in the fine arts of blocking, dodging, entering the game's many combos, and using your power-ups. Not a bad use of $10, but only for a dedicated beat-'em-up or fighting fan.