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.

  

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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.

  

App of the Week: Joust Legend

Developer: Rebellion Games

Compatible with: iPad 2 and up,  iPod Touch 5th Gen, iPhone 4S and up

Requires: iOS 4.3

Price: $1.99

Available: here

I think I would have liked to have been a jouster. Sure I can’t ride a horse and am lacking in upper body strength, but my enthusiasm for wearing battle armor and charging at people full speed with vicious intent is second to none.

Sadly since jousting has gone out of fashion in the last several centuries or so, my passion for the sport is relegated to watching “A Knight’s Tale” far too often (it’s both the “Varsity Blues” and “Citizen Kane” of jousting movies), or trying to drunkenly recreate the activity at the pool to mixed (ok, just horrible and awkward) results.

Luckily a new app called “Joust Legend” has come along, and provides me the chance to test my skill on the field of joust, that up until now has been so cruelly withheld.

“Joust Legend” isn’t actually the first jousting game ever, but I can tell you it is the best playing, and by far best looking. The graphics on this app are some of the best the mobile world has ever seen, and are sure to turn heads wherever you take it, as well as constantly surprise you not just with the visual pop they provide, but with the well thought out and executed artistic design that enhances their appeal far beyond the initial wow factor.

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As for the gameplay, it’s as simple as can be. There’s really only three parts to the jousting mechanics (the take-off, lowering your lance, and hitting your target) and all of them are executed with very basic timed swipes and presses. As such you pretty much learn all there is to know about the core game on the first few goes, but really for such a concept, you don’t need anything more than that. The elements of timed control that are present fit perfectly within the basic set up of a joust, and though you may repeat the same movements over and over, the satisfaction of executing them perfectly never really goes away.

The system truly shows its value, however, once you take into account the multiple tournaments, challenges, modes, skills, and various unlockables there are in the game. Good mobile games usually provide you a simple, replayable, and addictive experience, but  the best ones always tack on another reason to keep coming back, and the torrent pace that you unlock new things to do in this game makes each already enjoyable session that much more rewarding.

This is one of those apps that may initially appear to appeal to a niche market, but deserves a download by anyone that appreciates well-made mobile action games that are easy to keep coming back to for short bursts of pure fun. Though the competition isn’t exactly fierce, “Joust Legend” stands alone at the end of the fight as the champion of jousting entertainment, and my app of the week.

  

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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