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: Boson X

Developer: Ian MacLarty

Compatible with: iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch,

Requires: iOS 4.3

Price: $1.99

Available: here

Puzzle games and endless runners.

Despite the numerous advancements in mobile gaming technology (this week’s slightly pricey, slightly buggy “Shadowrun Returns” is a great example of all of them), it always seems to come back to endless runners and puzzle games when defining the mobile gaming scene. We’ve all downloaded one or several of them and, much like zombie games, you can swear up and down that the last one is the last one you’ll ever play, yet be back again to find yourself oddly addicted to another entrant in two genres that have become insanely refined.

“Boson X” is an interesting case of this phenomenon, as it does combine a lot of elements of both puzzle games and endless runners, yet doesn’t feel quite at home in either genre, considering its fast pace style and the fact its running is not necessarily endless, among other things. In it, you are tasked with navigating the constantly shifting platforms of a continuously building structure that somewhat resembles a cylinder consisting of varying sides, but is filled with so many gaps and other twists to navigate that it’s hard to define its exact shape. Only by spending enough time running on special blue blinking areas can you fill up a meter that allows you to proceed to the next level upon your next death.

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The game’s most popular comparison is to the mobile sensation “Super Hexagon,” and the comparison is an apt one in several respects outside of whole navigate your way out of a rotating geometric structure bit. For one thing, much like its infamous spiritual predecessor, “Boson X” is really, really hard. Like any good puzzle game, however, you won’t get a feel for how difficult it is until you get past the initial getting to know you phase, and see how it uses its easy to grasp concepts in an increasingly challenging series of ways. Also like “Super Hexagon,” it knows how to use this challenge not as a deterrent, but as an irresistible draw.

“Boson X” differentiates itself in important ways from “Hexagon” though, with the biggest difference being the move to 3D. Not only does this make the game much more visually appealing (visuals which are enhanced and complimented by a truly great soundtrack), but adds to the gameplay as well, as you’re goal of jumping from platform to platform while rotating the game world makes you question things like time, space, and distance when trying to survive more than you usually do you in these types of games. “Boson X” knows this, and adds unique tricks to its levels that prey on those additional perceptions, and challenges them. For instance, one level may make platforms move and shift on their own momentum, while another may present escapes not apparent until the absolute last second. The way the games uses this visual freedom makes for a much more compelling experience than the one way solution found in “Hexagon” and other similar titles.

If you’re desperate to classify “Boson X” an argument could be made for it being a runner or a puzzle game (or you could just settle by calling it a puzzle runner), but it feels cheap to classify a game that toys with your expectations from the outset, and only continues to do so by providing you a dynamic experience that challenges your every skill and provides that elusive sense of genuine satisfaction for having bested it. Taking all the game offers into account, the once label it is easy to slap on “Boson X” is app of the week.

  

App of the Week: Infinity Blade 3

Developer: Chair Entertainment Group

Compatible with: iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch,

Requires: iOS 7.0

Price: $6.99

Available: here

You really can’t understate the influence the “Infinity Blade” series has had on mobile gaming. While the drop dead, drop jaw, just plain unbelievable graphics have long been the most obvious selling point, they only represent one of many things that “Infinity Blade” showed could be done on a mobile device that simply wasn’t believed possible before. That includes a style of touch screen play that managed to adapt itself to the simpler control scheme of mobile devices but didn’t sacrifice any fun or functionality in the process.

Essentially, then, “Infinity Blade” showed that modern gaming as we know it was not only feasible on a mobile device, but could lead to an experience every bit as enjoyable and rewarding as larger console and PC releases. It was an exhibition of excellence that was carried on by the superior sequel “Infinity Blade 2,” and continues to thrive with the (allegedly) last, and most recent, installment in the premier mobile franchise, “Infinity Blade 3.”

This is usually the part where I may explain a bit about the story of “Infinity Blade 3” as an intro, but continuing its trend of defying convention, that’s not really possible here. The “Infinity Blade” series has managed to build a quite deep mythology that this game looks to wrap up in a satisfying manner. Unlike say “Mass Effect 3’s” attempt at this same feat, “IB3” actually does manage to tell a story that not only feels like a worthy conclusion to the tale so far, but is an incredibly entertaining tale to play through as well. That means that while fans of the series will gain the most from knowing the full ins and outs of this world and its characters, even those just jumping in will have no trouble enjoying the ride. That also means that going into details regarding the plot will be ruining a tremendous amount of fun to be had for everyone involved.

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Yet even if the story were either a complete bomb, or simply non-existent, the gameplay on its own would be well worth the higher than usual admission price. For the most part, it doesn’t stray far from the previous games, as you engage in a series of trying battles using a clever dodge and combo fighting system that never wears out its welcome, which is fortunate as you’ll once again find yourself starting over again and again thanks to a death system that borrows from rouge games, and sees you trying again and again to make it just a bit further.

There are some new additions however, including an enhanced skill system that is well implemented and adds another level of addiction to the already unforgettable proceedings, and a blacksmith for leveling up and improving your weapons. Two of the bigger new features (potion brewing and gem crafting) are a bit more superfluous, and occasionally cumbersome, but do reward those that invest the time in them, and do nothing to tarnish the overall pristine experience.

“IB3” doesn’t do quite as much to reinvent and improve the series as “IB2”, but it’s no matter considering how well the original system functioned in the first place. It’s more of a follow up than true sequel then, but in that role it allows the series to hit its stride and become something that doesn’t overstretch the boundaries and limits of mobile gaming, and doesn’t water down and shrink a console game, but rather provides a harmonious balance of the best of both worlds.

There are plenty of mobile games that prove that simplistic experiences not reliant on big graphic and bigger budgets can end up being as much fun as any other game out there, but every now and then, you want something that feels like you’re taking your favorite PS3 or Xbox 360 game with you without sacrificing a single aspect, and for those times there is absolutely nothing that can provide the experience like “Infinity Blade 3,” my app of the week.

  

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