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Kinect Party Review

I’m not a huge Kinect guy, but I am absolutely a true-believer when it comes to Tim Schafer and Double Fine Productions. By extension, I am a Kinect Party convert, and so are my kids. A sequel to Happy Action Theater, which I reviewed together with my family earlier this year, Kinect Party successfully uses Microsoft’s super-duper techno Wall-E lookalike camera in the most sensible manner imaginable: as a portal into a virtual rumpus room.

Kinect Party features the smart and clean aesthetic and fun sort of sensibilities Double Fine has become known for. It’s cute, adorable, and has tons of visual character. Much like Happy Action Theater, it’s pretty much the easiest game to get into and play once you turn the thing on. There’s really no menu to fuss with; it just starts and, if you let it, Kinect Party just goes.

There are loads of Minecraft references in Kinect Party.

Leave it in Autoplay Mode and it will run through all 36 of its “channels”, so named as each event or stage is presented as a self-contained program of sorts. These events, stages, channels, toys, whatever you want to call them, are split between new and old; 18 of these are brand new, the other 18 come directly from the aforementioned Happy Action Theater.

You can quit out to a hub and pick specific events to play, or view and share photos. Getting to the hub is the only semi-fusty element in the game, as sometimes it’s hard to get Kinect to read your hand motion to quit. Otherwise, everything works smooth and easy as can be.

Each of Kinect Party’s channels is a little different from the next. In one, you’re running through a Minecraft-inspired canyon avoiding obstacles, in another you’re popping balloons, in still another shooting toilets in a Tempest-like neon grid, and in still another you’re a dubstep DJ – which, you know, we’ll give them a pass on this one time.

These channels aren’t “games” in the traditional sense of the word. You don’t really keep score, you can’t fail, and you’re not judged or tested. Instead, you simply play, the stage changes, and you play some more.

Though there’s plenty of variety, all of the games are tied together by a common through line of simple action fun. These basic acts – popping a balloon, dancing, posing, moving to avoid things – all teach players the rules with intuitive “learn as you go” prompts and direction, which you pick up in the first few seconds of playing. No tutorials, no interruptions, no prompts, no wasted time. Just play.

It’s because each event is so bite-sized, it can feel like you’re the leading star in a never-ending, constantly shifting stage production of the world’s craziest happenings, and just as you’ve got the hang of what you’re doing, everything changes. It sets up a curious rhythm of introduction, learning, mild mastery, and then switches, with each stage compelling you to move with it, laugh with it, and obey it.

Watching my kids play, or rather, watching it play my kids, it really becomes apparent that the Kinect can serve as the ultimate Simon Says simulator when paired with the appropriate software. Their collective reaction to the game is similar to Happy Action Theater.


Let the kid mosh pit begin!

Madison, my ten-year-old daughter, played it the most, flinging herself with abandon into the scenes, voguing and competing in the non-game games.

“I like how it just goes from thing to thing,” she volunteered, catching her breath.

“If you had to score it, 1 to 10, what would you give it?”


Alrighty then.

The new added ‘channels’ are smart, fun, and kids LOVE THEM.

My eight year-old son Ryan was no less effusive when asked, “What’s your favorite part of the game?”


Mkay. Totally objective.

I asked my three-year-old cute girl, Harlow Grace, what she thought of it, because, you know, three-year-olds know their game criticism.

“Do you like playing this game, Harlow?”

“1, 2, 3, 4, 5,” she chirped while doing jumping jacks before freezing for the camera. I’ll take that as a yes.

Kinect Party plays you as much as you play it.

The game actually supports pet play, meaning if you have a dog, he or she can jump right in and be transformed into a bearded robot or happy monster. I was unable to talk to a dog for this review by the time of publish. I’ll update if that changes.

That said, my chief criticism is the same that I hold for Happy Action Theater: like any toy that only does one thing – however well it does it – it can get old, and fast. Once my kids had played for a few hours, they got it, and would probably be fine not playing it again. When friends come over, it’s a great party game because no one has to learn any controls and there’s no setup, but, even then, once you play through all the channels, the shine wears off a bit. This would be much more objectionable if the game was pricey, but it’s not. In fact, for the first two weeks of its availability, from now until December 31, 2012, it’s free. Afterwards, it will cost $10 to unlock everything, or $5 to unlock everything for owners of Double Fine Happy Action Theater, or you can buy individual stages for $1. This is to say that it’s a cheap date, and compared to a trip to Chuck E. Cheese or some other pricey attraction, Kinect Party is an easy buy.

All of this is very, very fun. When done right, it’s amazing how happily you’ll want to just go right along, never questioning or caring why in one moment you’re playing dress up and the next you’re a winged dragon terrorizing a castle that needs stomping. This means it’s fun regardless of age. College students, friends, DINKs, parents, kids, everyone will smile – the game sort of dares you not to.

It is within these circumstances that Kinect Party can become magical, for anyone – young or old – but you have to let your guard down to really appreciate it. Scoffers will stay bored. But let Kinect Party run you through its paces, let it play you, and you’ll realize something much more special is at work behind the gesture-tracking tech and all the silly ones and zeros Double Fine has assembled here.


Other than Dance Central and The Gunstringer, there simply isn’t any other Kinect game that screams “must play”, but scream, bounce, roll and somersault Kinect Party does. And you will too.

Kinect Party is a great game that’s really fun to play. It doesn’t require much more than your attention and the permission to let your guard down. Once you buy in and let the grins come, you’ll be surprised at the trade off that occurs, you playing Kinect Party, and it playing you.


Pudding Monsters Review

Pudding Monsters is the first fresh title from Zeptolab since its smash-hit Cut the Rope took the App Store by storm in October 2010. That game received significant praise from IGN and other outlets for its collection of clever puzzles and very high level of polish. Pudding Monsters is jam-packed with Zeptolab’s trademark shine, but the puzzles themselves don’t quite stack up to the standard set by the company’s modern rope-cutting classic.

Pudding Monsters is essentially a collection of 75 block-sliding puzzles. Each stage opens with a handful of pre-placed little monsters. Swiping a monster up, down left or right sends it flying in that direction – it’ll keep going until it hits another pudding monster or another object on the stage. The goal of each level is to swipe your collection of pudding monsters until they’ve all glommed together, forming one big super-monster.

Like any puzzler worth its salt, it’s a simple and instantly understood premise that evolves over time. Players will need to swipe their pudding monsters in the proper order and in the proper direction to avoid one from flying off the stage forcing a restart. Zeptolab regularly introduces new gadgets like teleporters and spring-loaded bumpers to keep things fresh. New monster types also add fresh wrinkles. Green monsters leave a sticky trail of slime that will catch and stop other sliding monsters. Psychic monsters move as a group – swipe one and all the rest move too, regardless of where they are on the stage. All these new mechanics do keep things spicy, but they come and go very quickly before it feels like they have been fully explored.

There’s nothing explicitly wrong with Pudding Monsters’ puzzles but there’s nothing especially delightful about them either. Each stage is solved by swiping a handful of monsters in the proper direction and in the proper order, so trial and error can be used to reduce the difficulty of even the trickiest stages. I blew through all 75 stages in around 90 minutes, solving each via the most challenging three-star method. There are a few moment of lightbulb-goes-on puzzle-solving bliss but most of the puzzles are too simple.

Pudding Monsters does do something quite clever and laudable with its three-star system, however. Each stage has three star-tiles on the floor. To earn three stars, a player’s final, fully-joined pudding monster must rest on all three. This leads to the game’s most satisfying moments, as I often found myself knowing how to get my monster on one side of the screen, but unsure how to end the stage with him on the other side, where the star tiles would inevitably be. The twist is that Pudding Monsters also tracks whether you complete a stage with zero, one or two stars. Completing a stage in every way possible nets you a gold crown, meaning each puzzle stage is actually a collection of multiple puzzles. Although it is a smart way to stretch the content, once you’ve found the three-star solution finding the one-star or two-star solutions usually isn far behind.


Pudding Monsters doesn’t quite stack up to the great App Store puzzlers like Cut the Rope or Where’s My Water, but it’s still a pleasant and diverting puzzler with plenty of charm and polish. Gamers with a few minutes to kill will appreciate the bite-sized nature of the stages and the frequent introduction of new gameplay twists. Hopefully Zeptolab is cooking up a set of ultra-tough stages to challenge the community of mobile gaming puzzle veterans it helped create with its previous hit.


Sky Gamblers: Storm Raiders Review

Flight simulators and air combat games can sometimes feel like an entirely separate universe. Take the feature list in Sky Gamblers: Storm Raiders. While most games are saying “incredible Unreal graphics” – Atypical Games’ new release touts accurate atmospheric scattering, refractive raindrops, specular masks and volumetric clouds. What this means in human language is that there is immense, near absurd detail to every aspect of the flying experience and amazingly all of it is boiled down to a touchscreen interface.

Sky Gamblers: Storm Raiders sets your touchscreen flight action across the World War II theater of battle, from the European mainland to the attack on Pearl Harbor. You’ll be participating in dogfights and sorties with a huge number of teammates and foes. The HUD can get hectic with the sheer number of targets zipping through the sky. Doubly so if you elect to use the on-screen control method.

Controls, sadly, were the greatest issue I had with Sky Gamblers: Storm Raiders. Atypical Games did make a heroic effort to accommodate every imaginable need someone might face in a flight combat game on iOS. Five arrangements skew from full simulation, where pitch and yaw are controlled by gyroscope and accelerometer, to the above-mentioned casual on-screen control pad. Each changes the game dramatically in difficulty, but in my case the changes took the experience from “impossible” to “merely hard.” Despite trying each method, I found acing turns and trailing foes endlessly frustrating. I found myself fumbling more than fragging my opponents. With a few hours of gameplay I was able to manage dogfights better but I never felt quite like Maverick in Top Gun. The learning curve is intense, to say the least.

Those red arrows? Enemies that want your blood. No biggie.

Controls aside, Sky Gamblers: Storm Raiders brings a veritable B-52 bomber full of gameplay modes to the table, including multiplayer (local or online), campaign, survival, capture the flag and (a lot) more. The robust collection is enough for anyone to find the mode that suits their flying style – my favorite being free flight, a casual jaunt around just to check out the compelling graphics and scenery.


There’s no shortage of historical flying action in Sky Gamblers: Storm Raiders. From the bombing of London to an entire fleet of customizable planes, the game is an ode to WWII air combat far beyond anything comparable on iOS. For me though, the steep learning curve took the wind out of the wings and kept this bird on the ground.


Theatrhythm Final Fantasy iOS Review

Spanning more than a dozen core titles and a quarter of a century, Final Fantasy’s musical roots are nearly unparalleled. Theatrhythm Final Fantasy, which debuted on the Nintendo 3DS and has now made its way to iOS, draws upon this rich musical legacy to create something of a celebratory rhythm RPG hybrid. The merging of these two genres is ambitious, to say the least. The result of this fusion is a rich and wholly enjoyable rhythm experience, albeit one that doesn’t utilize its RPG roots to the fullest, and was a much better financial deal on the 3DS than it is on iOS.

Like most music games on touch devices, Theatrhythm’s gameplay largely amounts to tapping and sliding on the touch screen. Nothing is lost in the transition to iOS on this front, as in this instance tapping with your finger works just as effectively as tapping with a stylus. It’s the sort of simple gesture that iPhones and iPads excel at, and it works perfectly well here too. It’s noteworthy, however, that the game controls a bit better on an iPad, as moving your finger around in time with the triggers can sometimes be a challenge on the iPhone’s smaller screen.

While the controls are simple, the developers went to great lengths to keep players engaged with a couple of different play options. Theatrhythm is split into two different types of gameplay, each defined by the pacing of the songs. Battle Music Stages feature a faster beat, and task players with defeating as many enemies as possible by correctly responding to the given rhythm “triggers” (the circular prompts that tell you how and when to tap and slide) that scroll across the screen along four separate lines. Field Music Stages are a bit slower, and have the player moving their finger up and down along a continuously flowing line.

Unfortunately, the Event Music Stages from the 3DS version (which revolve around an important moment in each Final Fantasy game and are easily the most visually memorable) are completely absent in this release. The other two modes are just as fun from a rhythm gameplay standpoint, but it’s still a shame this version doesn’t allow players to tap and slide while Squall and Rinoa waltz or Aerith’s saga unfolds in the background.

As for Theatrhythm’s visual presentation, Square faced the interesting challenge of trying to effectively bind 25 years of wildly varying graphical styles into one cohesive package. The result is the “chibi-fication” of the franchise’s most notable characters. Small, stylized versions of Squall, Cloud, Lightning and Cecil – along with chibi Chocobos, Moogles, Summons, enemies, and the like – all populate the colorful world of Theatrhythm. While it’s a shame the Field segments all use the same scrolling background, the whole production offers an amazing, unique tribute to the franchise, an experience that should prove quite nostalgic for longtime fans of the series.

As a music game, Theatrhythm is top notch, with just about the best song selection you could ask for. The developers also incorporate some RPG elements, which FF fans should be rather familiar with. After choosing a party of four, your chibi team of notable FF characters marches into battle. If you miss a trigger or execute one poorly, the team’s shared HP bar goes down. If that hits zero, it’s game over, meaning you’ll have to start that segment over from the beginning. Each character also has customizable abilities, such as Focus or Brace, which grant them different benefits in battle. It’s too bad the ability to use items has been removed from this version, but in truth they never really added too much to the experience anyway, so it’s not the biggest loss.

The incorporation of RPG elements could have set Theatrhythm apart from other music games in a meaningful way, but unfortunately these aspects aren’t as integral to the experience as you’d think. While leveling up in a rhythm game is a fun notion, in truth, playing with a level 1 character feels no different than playing with a level 65 one. Theatrhythm is still an incredibly fun music game, but it’s a shame more wasn’t done to make the RPG elements feel necessary.

I shall call him… Chocobo Joe.

One of the best parts of Theatrhythm is how it offers something for everyone. Music game novices can stick to the Basic Score of each song and simply enjoy the music, while those looking for more of a challenge have the Expert Score and the blisteringly hard Ultimate Score to flex their skills. Each song also features a practice mode so you can work on getting to the end without worrying about your HP.

The fun isn’t just limited to the main game either. The iOS version also has a Quest Medley mode, which randomly selects songs from your catalogue for you to play through, as well as a Compose Scores mode. Don’t get too excited about that last one – you won’t be creating your own Theatrhythm Zelda with this thing, it only allows you to decide placement of triggers for songs you already own. It’s a bit of a downer compared to what it could have been, but it’s a decent enough addition to the package, and one that’s fun to toy around with.

While the game itself is still great, one downside in this version is the pricing model. The app is free to download, but don’t be fooled – it only comes with two songs. The 3DS version comes with around 40 songs, 65 if you include the Prelude and Ending Theme for each of the 13 games. So in order to rival the original version’s starting library (by purchasing 38 additional songs at $.99 each), it would cost you about $40. That’s intense for a truncated mobile version. Considering you can pick up the 3DS version for about $30 – which not only comes packaged with more songs, but also more bonus content and more playable characters to choose from (you have to buy these for $1.99 each in the iOS version) – that’s not the best deal. If you’re fine with just having a couple of songs to mess around with, you can’t argue with free, but by no means expect this to be a suitable replacement for the 3DS version unless you’re willing to drop a big chunk of cash.


Whether you’re a huge Final Fantasy fan or just enjoy great rhythm games with fantastic music, Theatrhythm Final Fantasyis certainly for you – just be prepared to pay big to get all the songs you’ll undoubtedly want to own. The RPG elements feel a bit wasted in this game (and the extra song mode and bonus features from the 3DS version are regrettably missing), but the brilliant music and adorable presentation still make for an excellent rhythm experience.


Air Buccaneers Review

Air Buccaneers sounds like it started life in one of those wildly speculative contemporary forum threads. You know, the kind that start out with a question like “Dude, what if Skyrim had pirates?” A few posts down, another person, perhaps caught up in the excitement over BioShock Infinite, then cracks that airships might make the experience even more enjoyable. Before long, the thread erupts into a half-serious discussion about how awesome it’d be if these pirates and Vikings use these ships to battle each other, and everyone would agree that it was perhaps the best idea that no one would ever make.

Except it was made, and several years ago at that. Air Buccaneers first appeared as popular mods for the 2003 and 2004 releases of Unreal Tournament that pitted Vikings and buccaneers against each other in dirigibles outfitted with cannons, and at its height, this outlandish formula enjoyed a respectable level of cult popularity that eventually inspired Guns of Icarus. It worked so well, in fact, that it’s hard to fault developer Ludocraft for keeping core adjustments to a minimum aside from the expected updates to the visuals and the UI. The few new changes tend toward welcome changes to accessibility, such as a new perk system and the way it ditches the need for two people (or, as in UT2004, shoddy AI) to man the cannons in favor of a simpler one-button fuse and fire system.

To win you need to work with your team.

But such changes do little to diminish the cooperative challenge so loved in the original; if anything, they heighten its intensity. Then as now, there’s no room for lone wolves in Air Buccaneers. It never lets you forget that this is a game about teamwork and the dynamics of battleship crews at heart, and few games do such a great job of hammering down the importance of all hands on deck pulling their weight. It’s worth mentioning that smaller ships like cogs and the aptly named kamikaze allow some personal glory, but they’re mere sideshows to the massive rickety battleships that lumber about the unfriendly skies.

There are no fixed classes; instead, players take part in roles that can change depending on the situation. For my part, I spent the majority of my time with Air Buccaneers as a Cannoneer, the guy who mans one of the cannons lining either side of the ship and adjusts their trajectories while the fuse counts down. Other roles include Defenders, who patch damage to the ship and shoot down cannonballs and airmines with muskets–not so realistic perhaps, but neither are Vikings with cannons–and Guerrillas, who grapple from ship to ship and take out enemy crews with sword and gunpowder (although, alas, with melee animations that rank only a rung or two above those found in Minecraft). It’s this visceral act of boarding enemy ships and fighting that goes a long way toward providing a marginally superior multiplayer experience to the similar Guns of Icarus Online.

And then there’s the Captain, who stands at the helm and steers the mighty gasbag across the wastes of the frozen north. This might have been a boring task in lesser hands, but in Air Buccaneers it emerges as the most essential and demanding job on the ship. It’s the captain who barks out most warnings about approaching ships, and it’s the Captain who dips and raises the ship to avoid incoming projectiles. In its best moments, no other role feels so rewarding. Catching an enemy ship by surprise from above counts as one of the most satisfying moments I’ve experienced in an multiplayer game this year, particularly when my crew used the extreme proximity to destroy the enemy ship by rigging one of the cannons with a flamethrower.