App of the Week: Stealth Inc.


Developer: Curve Digital Games

Compatible with: iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch

Requires: iOS 4.3

Price: $4.99

Available: here

There are two types of games that get ported from other platforms to mobile devices. Those which the developers struggle to adapt to the new platform and often end up feeling like a “good enough” effort, and those that fit into the mobile scene like a glove, and sometimes end up being better than their original incarnations.

Consider “Stealth Inc.” to not only be a member of the latter party, but a candidate for its poster child.

Originally known as “Stealth Bastard,” when it debuted on the PC and Mac, “Stealth Inc.” may have undergone a PR friendly name change, but still maintains the incredible challenge that made the original title so apt. Yes, “Stealth Inc.” is one of those games that punishes you over and over again in your pursuit of victory. It’s often compared to the indie sensation “Super Meat Boy,” which is fitting consdiering both games force you to navigate an increasingly difficult series of levels in the pursuit of making that one perfect run which will see you proceed to your next little slice of hell.

The greatest difference between the two is  “Stealth Inc.’s,” use of its titular stealth elements. Whereas “Super Meat Boy” used a variety of old school gaming traps to help you meet your demise (fire, spikes, etc.), “Stealth” borrows more from games like “Splinter Cell” and “Metal Gear Solid” as many of your traps include security cameras, spotlights, and good old fashioned guards. For the most part, the shift in style is largely a cosmetic one as in the case of both games regardless of what the trap is your entire purpose is still to avoid them. However, there is a slight gameplay benefit to this seemingly minor change of obstacle, as there are the occasional moments where you are actually able to stop and formulate a plan, rather than just rush in and hope for better results through trial and error.

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However, even on an aesthetic level the shift to stealth does the game an incredible benefit, as the art style and game world are all deeply committed to the stealth genre and help to really lend an enjoyable sense of environment to the game. It’s refreshing that in a game as big as this one (over 80 levels, before the optional community map pack), that such an effort was put into keeping things visually fresh throughout.

The appeal of these types of games from person to person are always based off the question of whether or not you are prepared to handle the challenge they throw at you. However, unlike other similar games which are all difficulty and little else, “Stealth Inc.” proposes a challenge that is often frustrating, but is never caused by bad controls or cheap tactics. Instead this is a test of your mettle and reflexes that may ask of all that you have to best it, but dangles that carrot of victory just far enough in front of you that you are rightfully convinced that with enough determination above all, you can reach it.

“Stealth Inc.” is another in a thankfully long line of examples that the 2D platformer is as alive and well on the mobile scene. However, there is a sense of style and cleverness about it that immediately sets it apart from some admirable competition, and makes it worthy of your consideration first above all others. “Stealth Inc.” recognizes that the value of a reward increases as the difficulty of obtaining it does, and doles out brutal challenges and great rewards in equal, generous measure throughout its considerable length. “Stealth Inc.” may not appeal to everyone, but it’s hard to not see it as the app of the week.

  

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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.

  

App of the Week: Pocket Trains

Developer: NimbleBit

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

Requires: iOS 6.0, Android 2.2

Price: Free

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

Did you know that video game technology has become so advance that we are able to use it to make the most mundane activities exciting? From punching trees in “Minecraft” to driving trucks across Europe in “Euro Truck Simulator,” it seems like there is nothing a capable developer can’t turn into compelling subject matter.

While managing a series of trains, railways, and cargo has been on that list for a while thanks to a surprisingly strong amount of train simulator games, developer Nimblebit presents maybe the most compelling example of the idea with “Pocket Trains,” the next in their line of incredibly addictive series of games that focus on micromanaging a specific set up (for example their airline manager “Pocket Planes”).

“Pocket Trains” doesn’t deviate from the formula set in the studio’s previous games much, but it does manage to almost perfect it. You start off with a couple of trains and a few railways available to you in Europe, which you use to deliver a variety of, often wacky, cargo from city to city. Completing a run awards you points and cash which are used on everything from purchasing new parts to build more trains, upgrading current trains to be more efficient, and buying new railways to connect your available cities and expand your cargo empire all over the world.

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There’s a variety of additional gameplay elements such as challenges which provide additional rewards upon completion, along with an RPG like level system that also rewards you as you advance, and while thy are very welcome, the real draw is the addictiveness of the core gameplay. It’s actually quite difficult to build a functional railway system, mostly due to the fact you that each individual train can only occupy certain lines (unless you buy a line out each time which gets costly) meaning that you have to strategize the use of railways and hub cities to maximize your best trains potential. Despite those complexities, the very basics of the game are so simple that learning the deeper ins and outs never feels like a chore, and rather extends the gameplay naturally.

Put it all together and you’ve got a game that manages to achieve that rare balance between being brain teasing and easy to pick up and play, that could only come from years of honing this style of game to perfection. You may initially pick this up as a curiosity or because you subscribe to the “what the hell it’s free” school of app downloads, but just know that doing so is the equivalent to signing hours of your free time away building a railroad empire that dominates the globe.

Most mobile games have to choose between being something perfect for short sessions and killing time, or going for something deeper that asks for hours and hours of your time to truly appreciate. That “Pocket Trains” manages to seamlessly combine both of those game types into an experience that is near impossible to put down is a feat that can’t be overlooked. You may not think “Pocket Trains” sounds like it has much potential, but it will crush your reservations and pull out of the station with your free time, along with the title of app of the week.

  

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