App of the Week: Skulls of the Shogun

Developer: 17-BIT, Inc.

Compatible with: iPhone 4 and up, iPad 2 and up, iPod Touch 4th gen and up

Requires: iOS 4.3

Price: $4.99

Available: Here

Strategy games on the mobile scene are a tricky lot. Too often many of them just default to the tower defense style and get lost in the masses of that sub-genre, while those that aim a little higher tend to be crushed under the weight of their own ambition or simply don’t appeal to those not looking for an in depth strategy game on their phone and tablets.

Yes, it’s not easy to make a compelling new strategy game for mobile devices. That’s why “Skulls of the Shogun” is all the more impressiv

Now, the first thing to know is that “Skulls of the Shogun” had a long road to becoming a mobile title. It started out its life as a Windows 8 exclusive, and has made an appearance just about everywhere else since then. However, it’s on the mobile scene where I feel confident saying it may have finally found its home.

A big reason behind that is the simplicity of the game’s combat and movement. There’s only a few units in the game (generals, monks, archers, infantry, cavalry) with a few variations, and they all work in a rock, paper, scissors format to insure that no one unit is necessarily more powerful. Moving them around is also as easy as it gets, as you simply tap your unit and choose where in their movement circle you’d like to place them. Combat also only consists of a few taps, when you are in range.

There are a couple of variants in place, though, that keeps things interesting. For instance there are various rice fields on the battlefield which can be occupied by your units and produce currency which is then used to purchase additional units. There’s also terrain advantages and disadvantages to consider such as bamboo used for hiding, and spikes which can cause additional damage to both you and the enemy. There’s also a somewhat morbid, yet very interesting, mechanic which requires you to devour the skulls of your enemies in order to power up your general.

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It’s a set-up that reminds me of the “Advanced Wars” series. That’s a comparison that I don’t make lightly, as those happen to be among the greatest strategy games of all time despite their relative simplicity. In both cases, these games take their smaller set ups and turn them from a potential detriment, into games that take advantage of the smaller number of variables and provide some of the tightest, most intense, and most rewarding experiences in the genre.

Now, don’t take that to mean the game is difficult. It isn’t. Instead it finds a rare balance in challenge that makes it so you often have to consider your movements, but are never overwhelmed by what is happenings. It’s a balance that makes it part of the reason the game works as well as it does on the mobile format, as you move along at a brisk pace, yet spend your game time still having to consider your options and their consequences.

The game’s art style is also perfect for your device as while it is far from visually taxing, the level of commitment put into the art style is head and shoulders above many modern games. More than just visually pleasing, the art style maintains a consistency throughout the game’s run that ensures that every new element introduced fits perfectly into the incredible world they come together to form. Even better, that world adds a dimension to the experience that easily sucks you into the proceedings in a way that only the best visual designs can.

There’s few games as easy to recommend as “Skulls of the Shogun.” It’s the type of game that mobile devices could use more of, as it feels like something that would have been released to great acclaim on a full fledged mobile system like the Nintendo DS, but comes in at a fraction of the price of one of those titles. It’s an immediately appealing and constantly engaging game that never wears out its welcome and encourages you to keep coming back based on no other factor than the consistent fun it provides.

One of the most complete experiences available on the app store, “Skulls of the Shogun” is also my app of the week.

  

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App of the Week: Aereo

Developer: Aereo

Compatible with: Android Devices

Requires: Android 4.2

Price: Free ($8 a month subscription fee for service required)

Available: here

It’s not a huge surprise that one of the more popular demands in the world of technology is for people to have easier access to their favorite content for far less money, but it is interesting that there are a number of programs and companies out there providing just that. Steam does it for games, Spotify does it for songs, Netflix does it for DVD’s, and a growing company called Aereo is proposing to do it for live TV.

Of those Aereo is by far the least established, but among the most desired. More and more people are ditching their cable services, but there is still a strong desire to have access to basic television content (like sports) that keep a large number of subscribers paying more than they should for the content they actually watch. Aereo proposes, as an alternative, that you pay them $8 a month to have both live and DVR access to all the major basic cable networks, along with a growing number of preminum cable channels online. Available only in America, and largely on the East Coast, they might not have the coverage they’ll need to accomplish that goal quite yet, but the service they offer is very legitimate, and quite effective.

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And now thanks to a public beta, you can download Aereo and have access to it on your android mobile device.  It’s the same service as you get through the Aereo website (and there is no additional fee to use the app), but it’s easy to see how the ability to stream live TV legally and for extremely cheap is much more appealing on the go than it is in the home. That’s especially true once you factor in the DVR capabilities the app retains, as you can pause, record, and save programs from your device as well.

A perfect companion to Netflix and Spotify, Aereo may just find its calling on the mobile market, especially for football fans who can never find themselves at home on a Sunday. While it needs a lot more channels to be considered a real threat to cable, the fact that you are able to get the most basic channels plus a few more for a cost that is more in-line with the content you’ll actually use than cable, suggests that this is a program that is on to something big, and might soon become the best friend to the growing number of people who’ve cancelled their cable and occasionally lament the decision.

Be sure to check if you have access to the beta (not all devices are compatible at this time) and if you are in Aereo’s market, but if so then it’s pretty easy to recommend the service, especially since the first month is free. Even in it’s clearly un-finished state, it provides a desirable product in an effective manner and deserves to be given a shot by anyone who occasionally wishes to have access to television as they know it at home while on the go. It remains to be seen if it can join the ranks of similar services and re-shape how we watch TV, but even as it stands now Aereo is certainly the app of the week.

  

App(s) of the Week: Dead Trigger 2 and Indigo Lake

Dead Trigger 2

Developer: Madfinger Games

Compatible with: iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch, Android Devices

Requires: iOS 7.0, Android 4.0

Price: Free

Available: here (for iOS) and here (for Android)

Indigo Lake

Developer: 3 Cubes Research

Compatible with: iPhone 4 and up, iPad 2 and up, iPod Touch 4th gen and up

Requires: iOS 5.0

Price: $1.99

Available: here

Perhaps it is my lifelong fondness for horror movies, or the strange joy of sharing scares with your fellow man, but I’ve always loved Halloween to the point where it runs neck and neck with Christmas for my favorite holiday of the year. Naturally then I sought out the best horror app I could find to honor the holiday, but ran into a bit of a problem when I ran across two worthy candidates. Rather than just give one a mention and highlight the other, I’ve decided to break the format a bit and present two horror gaming apps of different styles, but equal worth.

“Dead Trigger 2” is the sequel to the notorious mobile zombie FPS game “Dead Trigger,” and as the title may suggest, does little to stray from the template that series established. In other words, you’re still shooting a variety of zombies with a plethora of weapons, all while gawking at some of the best mobile graphics this side of “Infinity Blade.” There are some changes to be found here, including an optional button free control schematic (it works pretty well actually), and a much more varied mission structure, but for the most part you’re still just wandering around and mowing down zombies.

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That may sound like a knock, but it’s actually far from it. The original “Dead Trigger” found a niche in the mobile market by being a shooter that didn’t feel too far removed from its larger and more technically capable console brethren. It’s a role carried on by “Dead Trigger 2” which may make a host of technical and gameplay improvements implemented to make the game a smoother experience all around, but do nothing to hamper the core mechanics which made this game so much fun in the first place. The brilliant thing about the action in this game is that it’s the one place that actually acknowledges any sort of need to be limited by the mobile platform. It resorts, then, to a more classical style FPS which was all action, all the time, and feels like a breath of fresh air in a genre that’s becoming more and more tactical and cinematic based. There’s a cinematic quality to “Dead Trigger 2” to be sure, but it only serves to provide a loose justification and reasoning for shooting everything in sight.

“Dead Trigger 2” strikes a rare balance in mimicking the benefits of console gaming while taking advantage of mobile gaming’s capabilities to provide an experience that feels ambitious yet simple, and never fails to be fun. Fun is actually the key here, as while “Dead Trigger 2” makes some tremendous strides in giving the series depth, ultimately they’re really superfluous  when weighed against the game’s true job of throwing wave after wave of horror at you, and leting you shoot your way out of it, which it does with twisted levels of joy and ease.

“Indigo Lake” is a horror game of a different tune. While “Dead Trigger 2” used it’s horror as a backdrop for some classic shoot em’ up gameplay, “Indigo Lake” is a more pure horror game that ventures into the rarely successfully explored area of psychological horror. In it you play a paranormal investigator sent to solve a string of suicides in a small town. Fairly ambitiously, you do this in an open world setting which you’re able to explore on foot and in-vehicle. You’re objectives in this environment are pre-defined, but the manner and order in which you approach them is yours to decide.

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Many horror games require intense structure to place their scares in, which “Indigo Lake” abandons in favor of a more open, yet carefully restrained experience. While you do have a gun in the game, it’s used sparingly as instead you’ll spend most of your time solving puzzles and trying not to jump out of your skin as you slowly unravel the specifics of what is going on. The way the game never reveals it’s full hand at once turns out to be one of its great attributes, as you spend more time waiting on the big scares to happen, as opposed to experiencing them. This lends the rest of the game an intense feeling of dread and unease which is absolutely perfect for a murder mystery, as you never really feel comfortable or confident while playing until you reach your next big break (even then the empowerment is usually momentary). “Indigo Lake” is a horror game for the patient user then, making it the polar opposite of “Dead Trigger 2,” and an interesting companion piece as well.

To go much further into the game would run the risk of spoiling it, so I’ll stop by saying that those who are both patient and brave enough to stick with it despite the well played series of scares implemented to ward you off will find a game that manages to serve as a rare example of physiological horror done well, and therefore a unique horror game not just on the mobile scene, but in all of gaming.

There you have it. Two horror games which may take wildly different paths within the genre, but find an equal level of success in their endeavors. For the people that want to feel like Rambo in the middle of the zombie apocalypse, there is “Dead Trigger 2.” For those who want something closer to an episode of the “X-Files,” there is the brilliant “Indigo Lake.” If you’re a true horror fan though, I highly recommend both as they not only serve as the perfect primers for Halloween, but exhibit enough quality to be worth a play any time of the year, and are therefore equally worthy of being recognized as app of the week.

  

App of the Week: Device 6

Developer: Simogo

Compatible with: iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch

Requires: iOS 5.1

Price: $3.99

Available: here

Developer Simogo is a company on a mission. Their project history showcases some of the most artistically challenging, creative, and entertaining apps ever released, as they seem to be dead set on winning the race to make a gaming app that showcases the full potential of mobile devices, even when it feels like they’re the only ones really in the running.  While the music/stealth hybrid game “Beat Sneak Bandit” showed they were getting warmer, and the beautifully morbid adventure “Year Walk” almost got there, it’s “Device 6” that will likely go down as Simogo’s magnum opus, and one of the finest mobile experiences ever made.

I mentioned before that it felt like Simogo was aiming for the ultimate mobile gaming experience, yet somehow it doesn’t feel right calling “Device 6” a gaming app, or really trying to define it at all. On a very basic level it’s a callback to the old text adventures like “Zork” that saw you type in basic commands to advance a story. Your story here is that of a woman named Anna who wakes up on a mysterious island, unsure of how she got there, or what to do next. It’s a tired set up but, to be honest, then again so are text based adventure games. This makes the two something of an oddly appropriate match, but probably doesn’t help to explain why “Device 6” is so incredible.

The answer to that lies in the storytelling. “Device 6” doesn’t just tell a tale that you occasionally advance with basic commands, but rather presents a story that constantly requires you to interact with it in significant ways. Sometimes this comes in the form of “choose your own adventure” style moments that diverts the tale onto slightly different paths, but more often it’s in the way the game requires you to participate in mini-game like moments where you are momentarily put into the shoes of the character to solve a variety of puzzles and overcome other obstacles. Rarely taking the same form twice, these interludes of interactivity are, without exception, incredibly challenging and unbelievably creative moments that go a long way to breathing new life into the old text adventure format not just because they provide a game like break from the reading, but rather because they enhance the story in a way that allows it to evolve to a level far beyond what is possible with just printed words.

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Were “Device 6” to stop there, though, it would probably only find itself atop the growing heap of interactive story games on mobile devices. However, its trump card comes in the way it formats the text adventure. For instance, there’s a point in the story where you encounter a staircase. At that moment, the text physically diverges into both a downstairs and upstairs path which you’ll have to choose between. Another example of this imaginative style comes when you walk through a corridor, and the words suddenly form into a shifting single file line that requires you to tilt your device to keep up with them, simulating the feeling of walking down the same corridor Anna does. These may sound kind of gimmicky, but combined with the constant stream of timely visual elements and puzzles, they help to make “Device 6” the most engaging novel you’ll ever read.

“Device 6” reminds me of another recent release “The Stanley Parable” in that both showcase new, and previously unthinkable, ways of telling a story within an interactive medium. Where “Device 6” differs though is that it doesn’t feel like an isolated experience, or test run to a new method of storytelling, but rather a fully realized showcase that might just redefine how books are formatted in the digital age, or even create an entertainment medium that we don’t even associate with traditional books. That might sound like a bold statement, but the confidence and skill that “Device 6” exhumes when showcasing its unique methods is all of the reference needed to justify it’s potential as a game changer. Like watching a hotshot backup on your favorite football team come in and win an impossible game for the aging starter, once you get a taste of “Device 6” it’s clear that there is no going back.

Book, game, something in-between…I don’t care what you call “Device 6,” because I’m just glad it’s on the app store so I can talk about it here and tip you off to the moment when interactive storytelling shed nearly all of its conventions, and the idea of the capabilities of e-books changed forever.  Then again even if “Device 6” doesn’t change the storytelling world, it still stands as a one of a kind experience without equal in concept or quality on the app store. For want of a greater honor to provide it, I humbly name “Device 6” my app of the week.

  

App of the Week: Launch Center Pro

Developer: Contrast

Compatible with: iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch

Requires: iOS 7.0

Price: $4.99

Available: here 

As much as smartphones help us in our daily lives, they are not perfect. While some of their imperfections can be traced back to the person using them (everyone wave, that’s us!), one of the biggest flaws of most models is their navigational structure. Phone manufacturers can do everything on their end to help make getting around the phone as painless as possible, but once you load it up with apps, contacts, and everything else in your world, it gets more and more difficult to smoothly get around to everything you need to do, with most applications requiring you to navigate several screens just to get where you’re going.

Some time ago, a developer named Contrast made an app that solves that issue called “Launch Center Pro.” It’s described as a speed dial for your phone’s various applications as it allows you to quick map various functions to a grid for one press use. For instance, let’s say you want to send a text to your girlfriend. Instead of having to open your contacts, find her, choose to send a text, then send the text, you can map a function to the grid which allows you to automatically start composing a text to her with just the press of a button.

That’s really just a small example of the app’s potential though, as the further you get into “Launch Center,” the more you discover what it is capable of. Essentially it gives you the nearly complete ability to jump instantly to any function you can think of. Always looking for new bars or restaurants in whatever area you’re in through Google Maps? Just make a shortcut that searches bars and restaurants using Google Maps instantly. Tired of having to virtually navigate your Twitter feed or Facebook page to get to once specific section? Just make a shortcut to it and get there instantly.

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It’s often described as the perfect app for “power” phone users, who use their phones like most people use oxygen, but I’m not sure that’s entirely accurate. While the hardcore phone user will certaintly get the most out of everything offered through this app, and explore its various nuances and sub functions to point they will be able to use just this program to have one tap access to nearly everything, even a casual user will no doubt be able to think of a few immediate ways this app can benefit them, with more coming once the considerable abilities of this app enter your mindset and you start factoring it into everything you do.

As mentioned, this app was first released a while ago, but only recently came out with its 2.0 model that was designed for iOS 7 in mind. That means many of the improvements are cosmetic in order to take advantage of the new interface (the ability to use real photos and custom icons for every function is a nice example), but one of the more substantial new features which allows you to set and swap between saved grid templates greatly expands the functionality and potential of “Launch Center Pro” in a way that again may benefit the most adapt of users more, but remains a useful ability to keep stored to the side even if you don’t immediately get the most out of it.

“Launch Center Pro” is an app all about discovery. It’s about not only discovering what the app is capable of once installed, but also discovering what your phone is now capable of when you can trim the interface fat and streamline it’s functions in a way that focuses more on your personal uses for your device, rather than the manufacturer’s idea, or the developers idea. Just about everyone that uses “Launch Center Pro” later comments that it is a staple on their home screen, which is fitting considering that it’s essentially a second home button that accesses your own unique interface.

Many of the apps covered here are highly recommended, or even must have. “Launch Center Pro,” however, is essential. It directly advances user interface in a logical way, and executes its lofty idea with such ease that I wouldn’t be surprised to see Apple (and other manufacturers) incorporate something similar very soon now that the template for how a program like this should work, has been quite simply honed to perfection. To use “Launch Center Pro” is to never go back to any other way to use your phone, which is a surefire indication of it being app of  the week.

  

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