App of the Week: 868-HACK

Developer: Michael Brough

Compatible with: iPhone,  iPod Touch, iPad

Requires: iOS 5.0

Price: $5.99

Available: here

“868-Hack” is not a game for everyone. Admittedly that’s an unusual way to start off this column, but in a game as bizarre and challenging as “868-Hack,” it also happens to be the one definitive truth.

A rouge-like game (meaning an RPG with permanent death and randomized levels) the basic concept of “868-Hack” is not immediately easy to understand, but essentially it sees you navigate a smiley face avatar of your hacker through a 6×6 computer grid. Along the way you hack grids for currency and data to gain new abilities and increase your score and move on to more and more challenging grids. Impeding your progress are computer virus enemies that are often triggered en mass by hacking the most valuable grids, and have to be dealt with by swiping attacks at them when they are lined up with you. Just be sure to stay on top of them, as three hits and the game is done.

In a way the design is reminiscent of free game staple “Minesweeper” in that you must constantly plan for and around the most dangerous areas, and think several moves ahead (as well as take leaps of faith) to even stand a chance of progressing.  This is made all the more challenging by a turn based system that forces you to not only account for your moves well in advance, but those of your enemies as well, as you must constantly juggle between attacking and evasion, along with snagging valuable resources.

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Inevitably there will be a point where you cannot make the right decision that keeps you alive and, since this is a rogue-like, that means you start all over and lose your progress. Games of this nature are supposed to be difficult, but considering how quickly things can go bad here even if you’re playing the game right, this has to be one of the more challenging experiences available in gaming. That, along with the fact that such a merciless experience is rarely available on the mobile platform, leads to the whole “not for everyone” catch.

But damn, is this a great game. It challenges you at every step to be better than you were before, and if you’re the type of person who welcomes an intellectual test, and laughs at the idea of inevitable death, you’ll find an experience that may constantly beat you down, but shows you successes sweeter than any other to keep you as hooked as you’ll ever be to a game of any type on any platform.

It’s that element that justifies the higher than usual asking price for “868-Hack” and turns it into a game that is not only atop the list of mobile games of the year, but actually puts it somewhere in the conversation of best games of the year on any system. No it isn’t for everyone, but sometimes you have to stand back and look at something as a whole and appreciate it just for its brilliant design. Do that, and you’ll be left looking at an unforgiving and intelligent app of the week.

  

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App of the Week: ReRave

Developer: Step Evolution

Compatible with: iPhone 3GS and up, iPod Touch 3rd Gen and up, iPad

Requires: iOS 5.1

Price: $0.99

Available: here

While there are quite a few gaming franchises I want to come back (“Crimson Skies”!!!!!!), I think the one that I may be most personally nostalgic for is “Elite Beat Agents.”

Released around the height of music gaming’s popularity, “Elite Beat Agents” may have been based around a bizarre story (save the world with the power of dance, basically), but the gameplay couldn’t have been more simple, as you tapped various buttons in time with the beat of a song, en route to victory. Impossibly addictive and incredibly unique, this game wore down my stylus to a nub and stands amongst the crowded DS library as a true highlight.

The fact that talks of a sequel remain only rumors used to sadden me, but those feelings have been recently alleviated somewhat by the discovery that there is a spiritual successor to that experience by the name of “ReRave.”

Though it bears no official similarities to “EBA,” “ReRave” sports a similar concept that sees you tap circles in correct sequence to the beat of the songs. The difference is, that whereas “EBA” required a shrinking outer circle to reach the borders of your button before you could tap it, “ReRave” sees you manipulating circles that bear resemblance to the power button of many devices, and tapping them only when the line on the bottom reaches the 12 o’ clock position,until the song is done. While most are vanquished with a  simple touch, some require you to hold them until they finish a bath, some require multiple taps at 1/8th beat intervals, and the dreaded double circles appear that must be completed simultaneously.

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Like any good rhythm game, this is a system that allows for an “easy to learn, tough to master,” philosophy, and quickly pulls you into the overall experience. A big part of this has to go to the music which may not make my playlist in everyday life (it’s a lot of club like music), but works absolutely perfectly in a gaming environment such as this, as their unique beats and paces result in creative playgrounds of rhythm based tapping that will have your fingers dancing across the screen with maniacal precision. Thankfully multiple difficulty levels allow you to adjust as needed if things get too intense, or not near intense enough.

Now while it’s nice that the game features leaderboards, downloadable songs (both free and paid), and a ton of achievements, in truth if the game came with nothing but a few tracks and just the gameplay screen, I’d still be hopelessly addicted to it. This style of gameplay for a music game was flawless in “EBA,” and it maintains that untainted luster here as “ReRave” is one of the most engrossing games available in the music gaming genre, and in all of mobile gaming.

Normally I’d look down on a game for borrowing so liberally from another title, but it’s about time someone brought back this style of gameplay to mobile gaming, and the team behind “ReRave” have done so with near flawless execution. When you really think about it, gaming has long been pressing a series of buttons in proper order, so it really says something that the concept has almost never been as hopelessly addictive as it has in “ReRave,” a can’t miss app of the week.

  

App of the Week: HabitRPG

Developer: OCDevel

Compatible with: Android Devices

Requires: Android 3.0

Price: Free

Available: here

When it comes to self-improvement apps and myself, I have to reference the classic movie “Office Space” and say that it’s all a question of motivation, in that it’s not that I’m lazy, it’s that I don’t care.

Most self-improvement apps show you a lot of graphs and statistics, but don’t exactly do much to motivate you besides the desire to see a series of graphs and statistics that reflect the new, and better you. Sure they may help keep you in line, but that’s about the extent of their involvement.

“HabitRPG” is a website, and now Android app, funded by Kickstarter that takes a gamification approach to the subject, by turning your self-improvement into a role playing game. Basically what you do is create a virtual 8-Bit avatar, and set a series of goals. If you accomplish those goals (for instance “Do 50 push-ups”), then you get to award yourself points. Fail to accomplish those goals however, and you have to take away hit points from your character. Gaining enough points, allows you to reach new levels, buy new equipment, or put them towards any number of custom rewards you set (Like “Watch 2 hours of Netflix”), however lose enough points and your character can “die” resetting all of your progress.

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While it’s a system that is more dependent than others on you being honest with yourself (especially when it comes to removing points for missteps), and there are some interface issues that could use some ironing out, the basic idea this app is built around is generally inspired, and a great overall use of the gamification idea to inspire you to be more productive.

Turning you into a virtual RPG character, and your life into a quest, is certainly an effective tool for those looking to make some serious lifestyle improvements, but honestly for most this will serve as the absolute coolest to do list available. A big part of that has to do with the expansive system of tasks and rewards the app allows you to enter, all of which can be tied into game elements that may be simplified, but provide a rewarding experience all the same.

In fact, it’s easy to imagine the intended use for this app is for the user to start using it as a simple checklist for their life, and gradually add more and more to that list as you go along until you find yourself becoming better and better and finally reaching your ultimate goal at a progressive pace. Kind of like…well…an RPG.

Not quite a game, but much more than the usual planner, “HabitRPG” is a hybrid app that gets it right, and at the very least deserves a spot on the Android device of every gamer with a to do list. For making your routine anything but, “HabitRPG” levels up to my app of the week.

  

App of the Week: Knife That Guy

Developer: Flyover Games LLC

Compatible with: iPhone3GS and up, iPod Touch 3rd Gen and up, iPad, Android Devices

Requires: iOS 6.0, Android 2.0.1

Price: $0.99

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

Sometimes when trying to explain a new game to someone, its easiest to use other similar games as a reference to it. For instance, I would describe “The Last of Us” as a mix of “Uncharted 2,” and “Resident Evil,” with a little “Splinter Cell” tossed in.

In trying to do that with “Knife That Guy,” I found my reference concoction overflowing with comparisons to titles like “Bomberman,” “Pac-Man,” “Hotline Miami,” “Q-Bert,” “Temple Run,” “Stealth Assassin,” and a few others, when I realized that technique wasn’t going to work.

It’s also pretty unnecessary as at its core, “Knife That Guy” is a simple game that sees you play the role of a guy with a knife patrolling a pressure operated floor of colored tiles with the sole objective of finding the titular that guy and…well knifing him. You’ll be able to recognize that guy as he’ll have a red arrow above his head, which is handy considering the floor is populated with a variety of people who are not that guy, who you do not want to knife, as doing so depletes your lifebar.

The challenge, and fun, of the game comes through the fact that solely knifing your target is a tall task considering the fact you cannot stop or slow down, and that the other non-knifable people surrounding your target, constantly get in your way and force you to think on your feet at all times. Even reaching your target only contributes to the burden, as the game speeds up upon each successful kill and more innocents with various walking paths populate your space. Play it too cautious though, and take up too much time, and the tables turn so that you are now the hunted guy with someone looking to knife you.

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Assisting you is a dash maneuver which propels you several feet in your chosen direction, and a bomb which launches knives in every direction. Both of these moves are helpful in the right hands, but if not used carefully can actually harm you more than help. Thankfully they were designed that way, and their risk of danger is not instead the cause of control issues, which are actually excellent.

The brutality of “Knife That Guy” extends beyond its challenge, as the game is pretty violent, even if it is in a pixelated cartoony way. Surely that will bother some people, but the consequences of stabbing an innocent are immediate and severe, making you feel incredibly miserable every time it happens. It’s not exactly a poetic analysis on the duality of man, and a moral guideline for all games to follow, but it does emphasize consequences for your actions more than many games do.

In a way “Knife That Guy” is an incredibly violent puzzle game that will have you going one more turn for hours on end, and getting a little better each time out. It goes beyond the average mobile puzzler though with its action/arcade elements that provides an adrenaline rush with every successful maneuver. The developers did a fantastic job of taking an incredible, but simple, concept, and honing every single style and gameplay element so that they all serve to enhance it. You may be able to learn the game in a few minutes, but it’s that creative craftsmanship that ensures every round will be a new experience.

“Knife That Guy” is, by its own design, a very odd game. Somewhere underneath its playful dementia, though, lies an experience as old as gaming itself, and crafted to a level you’d expect from so many years of experience to build upon and reference. In that way it may be most like “Hotline Miami,” but truthfully “Knife That Guy” doesn’t have many peers, and has no competition for app of the week.

  

App of the Week: Amateur Surgeon 3

Developer: [adult swim]

Compatible with: iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad

Requires: iOS 6.0

Price: Free

Available: here

In the early days of the Nintendo DS, the two series that really sold me on the portable device were the “Phoenix Wright,” and “Trauma Center” games, both of which used the dual and touch screen technology in innovative ways.

Of the two, “Phoenix Wright” went on to become the more popular, but it was the ER simulator “Trauma Center,” that may have been the more compelling, with its tense and elaborate surgery scenarios made possible by some perfect touch controls and inspired overall design. It’s a type of game that wasn’t done much before, and besides some spiritual follow-ups like “Surgeon Simulator,” hasn’t really been done much since.

The Adult Swim series “Amateur Surgeon” has always been a glowing exception though, as it took the basic design of “Trauma Center,” and injected pure craziness in it, to produce a series that never exactly reached the heights of its inspiration, but does carry on the legacy quite nicely.

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Not much has changed with the third entrant into the “Amateur Surgeon” series, but there are a couple of new features, of which the biggest is the move to a free to play format. Naturally this does mean the inclusion of some annoying pay to play elements, but they’re actually downplayed nicely, and you can get through the game rather easily without spending a dime. The biggest exception to that would have to be the new “tag” feature, which allows you to bring in a partner for their special abilities, but costs quite a bit of in game money, which you can of course purchase with real cash.

Other than that, what you have is another absolutely insane surgery game that sees you operate on mutated bears with chainsaws, and other less pedestrian activities. While the wackiness is part of the experience, the actual humor of the game is pretty hit or miss, and is only there to serve the far more entertaining gameplay.

It never really gets old trying to figure out how to fix bizarre injuries with even crazier tools, and that’s largely because the touchscreen, reflex and precision driven controls work as well for this type of game as ever. They are what elevates “Amateur Surgeon” to must have status, and help ensure that the initial joy of trying to figure out what to do on your first play through, doesn’t compare to trying to get that perfect run on every subsequent try.

You couldn’t be blamed for being attracted to “Amateur Surgeon” for its crazy sense of humor, and generally lighthearted nature. What’s going to keep it in your app game rotation though is a truly great gameplay system reliant on just about everything that makes touchscreen gaming so fun in the first place.  I wouldn’t want to catch my doctor playing it, but everyone else should get ready to find themselves addicted to stapling shut freshly shived hearts in what is simply a pure fun app of the week.

  

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