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If you have spent any time on the internet at all, you already know that it can be hard to get away from negative and toxic content, video game communities included. Hate speech, trolls, unwanted aggression, intolerance, and so on continue to poison many digital gathering spaces. One element to the creation of toxic digital spaces is the anonymous nature of the internet, but ThatGameCompany seems to have designed Sky with that cautiously in mind. Sky proves that anonymity itself doesn’t have to be fuel for negativity, but rather can exist in a system where everyone is uplifted. In this IOS exclusive the main way players progress through the game is by interacting with others in an anonymous format, and yet I was genuinely uplifted emotionally every time I logged on.

The gameplay goal of Sky is simple, the layout is somewhat similar to Journey The classic indie adventure from the same developers. Players progress simply by traveling the distance from the start to the end, while looking for Spirits and Ancestors to open each new area. Levels are made up of simple puzzles and large play areas that offer exploration and sightseeing as the main activities generally. Players spread their wings and fly through the open sky and narrow wind tunnels, through forests in the clouds, and into ancient temples and ruins. The players only resource/HP to really manage as far as world progression is the light that fuels your flight ability, which can easily be gained by standing near any fire, candle, friendly creature, and even other players. Players must locate ancestors in each level which somehow brings life back to the lost souls and allows for the next level to be explored. All Ancestors and Spirits found move the player closer to gaining new cosmetic items and allow the option to build relationships with other players and spirits themselves. This loop of gathering light to fly, flying to explore, and exploring to “rescue” the spirits and ancestors on each stage make up the body of the game. The game is certainly best experienced with companions, and many of the obstacles to success in Sky such as the flame draining rain or getting lost are also alleviated with a friend or two to help.

I wanted to enjoy Sky a lot when I discovered it but was concerned that the beautiful landscapes and scenic skies would clash with my player-to-player interactions. I was delighted immediately as I started my adventure, and quickly found I could not have been more wrong. Not only did the developers find a way to keep player interactions focused on the positive, but they built player reciprocity and giving into the actual progression mechanics of the game. It is clear that Sky is doing something great, and other games could take a note from it’s successful focus on positivity in it’s handling of multiplayer interactions.

Here are some of the mechanics that created such a positive a beautiful experience:

  • You name others, not yourself

When you encounter another player in the environment they are grey and without distinction, like a colorless ghost. Offering friendship to them is shown as you offering a candle to them, and rather than showing a name they picked for themselves, you will give them a name that is only for your reference. The grey melts off the shadow as light illuminates your new friend, and all their cosmetic items and chosen style are no longer hidden. This is when the player is prompted to name their new partner. No more immersion breaking names made of crass middle-school humor between the numbers 420 and 69, now the only names you see are the ones you give others. Sure if you wanted to you could fill your screen with silly and wildly inappropriate names, but if you did it wouldn’t bother any other player’s scenic pleasant experience. Names are only visible to those who named them. in a small way, this feature also has the secondary benefit of giving a small amount of creative control over their game of Sky. Someone who wants their world to be more mystical may name players based on fantasy names, or name friends based on the context of meeting (which is what I do). If I am playing and I meet someone in the rain who gives me fire when mine is out (a wonderful mechanic also just put in there to be nice and promote cooperation), I may name that person something like “Friend in Floods”, or “Shrouded Healer”. All friends are added to your progression menu (shown as constellations in the sky), and you can then freely boots all your friends light levels when you log on.

  • Giving and receiving is mutually beneficial, so everyone benefits from sharing the light

Though it does cost a lamp to friend another players (an item crafted by collecting lots of light), this is still essentially paying a small amount of candle light now to get more in the future, as boosting friends light is free and is the best way to get people to send you light back.

  • You can offer to help others by letting them tag along for a ride by holding hands

If you are having trouble finding some of the more well hidden spirits and candles you can always offer to take the hand of someone else and both characters will hold hands. One person is in control then and is free to fly or walk around the map without worrying about their new friend getting lost or falling behind. The ability to hold strangers hands and to fly around in an incredibly beautiful environment with someone else is magical. I’ve had a lot of good experiences just hanging out with new friends and bringing light to other players we come across. There seems to be no limit to the number of players who can hold hands and at one point I had joined a group that had 5 players all soaring and adventuring across the landscape together.

  • Actual player to player chat is always consensual, opt-in, and you must be friends first

Another feature that seems to help greatly in making sure that chat and social interaction is as positive an experience as it can be is that chat is only available to friends, and you actually have to sit on a bench in the game together, and both opt to have a conversation. This small barrier that requires consent and intentionally leaves little reason or room for harassment. It’s more about letting people talk one on one if they have spent time in game together and want to communicate, rather than a message board for anyone in the game to shout through. It’s more spontaneous and intimate, because the players have to find a bench first surrounded by natural beauty. Again, of course people can still inject negativity into another players experience, but if desired players can opt to just not see messages and just enjoy the music and scenery.

  • The setting of the game is clearly about wonder, beauty, collaboration, and sharing

With all the helpful steps that the developers took to ensure that players feel deep positive feeling while playing their game, the setting might be the strongest influence of player behavior. Though the various game mechanics make it harder for people to be a jerk while playing, it’s really the visuals, music, and story that make the player want to be respectful and kind to others. It is true that the specific themes in Sky may not always translate well to other more competitive games, but the concept still works. Things like being able to vote for teammate medals at the end of an Overwatch match are a great example of devs giving players opportunities to opt-into positive interactions in a competitive game. If the future of gaming is to reach bigger and more diverse audiences incorporating intentional mechanics and themes of positivity into future games is a vital element. Sky is a great example of how relaxation, collaboration, and entertainment can all exist within one game, bringing those who engage with it, closer to one another, and can even encourage compassion and other positive emotional skills that are vital to our national and personal prosperity.

If art is powerful, as I believe it is, interactive art has a particularly impactful influence on those who engage with it. I’m grateful to have a place as peaceful and simple as Sky to visit at the end of a day full of stress or anxiety.  Interactions with others are usually focused on exploring together or simply exchanging simple gifts, and demand little from players with social anxiety. And while the visuals and music are incredible and would make for a peaceful experience by themselves, the ability to experience the seamless immersion of Sky with other players is the most magical part of the journey. We are all in this life on Earth here together, let’s work to make physical and digital spaces both places that welcome all and encourage cooperation and creativity.

As always, Happy Gaming Friends

Indie Studio Mobrite returns with a followup game to their original zombie hit Dead Ahead. Fight rather than flee in this combat focused squeal. 

Dead Ahead: Zombie Warfare is the follow-up game to the mobile game simply titled Dead Ahead from developer and publisher Mobrite. It is available on IOS and Android and is free to play. Dead Ahead is a simple game where the player is tasked with escaping the zombie hordes that are chasing them in a side-scrolling, obstacle-filled driving game for mobile. Zombie Warfare features the same unique visual charm, with a huge array of new characters, enemies, weapons and locations to enjoy the apocalypse. As the name implies, Zombie Warfare’s gameplay is focused on combat, but with a heavy coating of micro-transactions it’s hard to focus on its interesting gameplay and graphics.

Setting and Graphics – An Expanded World for Dead Ahead

One of the main ingredients that made the first game a joyful experience to play was the game’s graphics and subtle world building. The first game’s opening cinematic creates a sense of dread but also shows a glimpse of the world the player will be inhabiting. Its characters are hand drawn and have a cute, almost chibi quality to them. The player drives a pizza delivery scooter, and most of the zombies have cute (even mildly sexy) designs, making Mobrite’s apocalypse a fun, playful and unique world to survive in. This followup game features even more of the same high-quality pixel art, and creative character and enemy designs. There are a large collection of survivors to unlock from civic employees and civilians like the shotgun-wielding farmer and the armored Fireman to fully armed military and police units. There are plenty of new zombies and even human enemies as well. Your squad will occasionally go up against roaming gangs, some of which are half infected with the zombie virus and brandish ranged weapons or special armor.

Overall the art style and environment in Dead Ahead: Zombie Warfare is high quality for what is there, but does seem to be lacking a bit of the charm that was present in the first title. This specifically is felt with the game having no cartoon cinematic into, and the campaign feels very much like a set of levels, not a continuing journey, and there is no story at all. This would be fine but it seems like the game is trying to have a larger scope than the first title, though it really is just in level variations and not in an overarching story. It’s hard to not be a bit disappointed by this, as it seems like a missed opportunity, especially as the world map gives the feeling of being in a whole world of zombies to explore. This is not a major mark against the game though, as the levels feature a high variety of enemies and visual palettes.

Gameplay and Mechanics-  The Game has Good Bones, with Flawed Execution

Pushing any non-gameplay issues aside, there are great things to say about the backbone of the game.  The concept of a PvZ style strategy game in the universe of Dead Ahead works well on paper. Seeing the small pixelated characters running off their battle bus into the zombie hoard is great. The basic game rules are that the player has 2 main resources to manage: “Courage” (blue meter) and “Rage” (Red meter). All units and abilities cost one of these resources and the player will have to choose a “hand” of 6 units/abilities out of their total unlocked (or bought). As the level timer ticks on the player slowly builds courage, while every kill builds rage, both of which are used to drop units and objects onto the battlefield. all units attack and move automatically, and the player must deal a certain amount of damage to the enemy barrier to win. Unlike PVZ though, units behave somewhat as if they are in lanes, but there is no way to control which of these invisible “lanes” they will move to attack or defend it. The player units have AI behavior that is designed to have them respond to threats ahead of them or when enemies are in close proximity, but sometimes the AI is not very responsive, which is a huge problem in a game where taking ANY DAMAGE to your battle bus at all will cause the player to lose their 3-star score. This has lead to many frustrating times of my units allowing a single weak zombie to run past, or to not fire at the most critical target because they moved to another lane automatically. This could be fixed with set lanes, or with the addition of manual focus fire or move orders, but neither of these are in the current build.

Price and Micro-Transactions – Mid to Late Gameplay is Very “Pay-to-Win”

The promising qualities of great art, a good gameplay premise, and the pedigree of an enjoyable first game make Dead Ahead: Zombie Warfare all that more disappointing when the whole product is taken into consideration. In order to actually enjoy the positive game elements, the player will be loaded down with having to watch a lot of ads that remind them that the game is going to be unbalanced if they don’t start paying real money. I will say that when playing this game to review it for this article I did not pay any money but rather just relied on the daily login bonus and set out to grind for any currency I lacked. This made the experience start off as a fun game with a simple loop of fighting and upgrading my units. As with most games that feature an XP or currency-based upgrade system the amount of currency or XP required for a level up or upgrade is increasingly high for each new tier. This increase in upgrade prices is unreasonably steep and causes players who are not using micro-transactions to essentially be soft-locked out of the higher level units and even the final worlds of the game. At this point in the game’s progression, it is becoming obvious that the game is designed to have players pony up more than just a few bucks now and again to be able to continue playing.

Is having to pay for a mobile game really that absurd? Well no, it would not be if there was a way to pay one time to remove adds, but there is not. It wouldn’t be so bad if the paid products where at least priced well so that $3.99 (what I would pay for this title if the progression was balanced) got you enough gold to buy all the “base” units, but it is not. Not even close. For example, if someone pays $2.99 they get 500 coins. Several of the low power units cost around 700 coins, and the ones you’ll need halfway through the game’s progression are usually 3,000 – 15,000 coins. See? Not even close… Also to really put the nail in the coffin, the most interesting units are not only super expensive, but they can ONLY be bought with real cash, like the pic below of the super OP SWAT unit bundle, demanding $30.

All the extra bits – everyone loves bonus content!

The development team did seem to add some clever extra bits to the game that are worth mentioning. These extra features are not particularly robust or game-changing but are still worth mentioning. Elements like a simple auto battle PvP mode to get a few extra coins, a bonus game mode that cycles through several options a month, and a community discussion board in the game app that allows people to post fan art, and discuss strategy are all good ideas that add just a little extra content to the game. The bonus game modes and the PvP game show the differences between paying players and free players very obviously, and it is unlikely that non-paying players will be featured on any high score boards.

Conclusion

When considering that the game is soft-locked at higher difficulties unless players pay a unwarranted amount of cash, combined with the clumsy inaccurate nature of the enemies and units, along with essentially all resources being on timers rather than allowing for meaningful or satisfying progressing, Dead Ahead: Zombie Warfare is a game that has many compelling gameplay elements, but in the end is more frustrating to play than it is fun.

Final Score: 5/10

If you have an experience with this game you want to share, positive or negative feel free to share your thoughts in the comments. As always…

Happy gaming friends!

Stormbound is a unique battle card game emerging in a sea of competitors. Though it has nowhere close to the amount of content as something like Hearthstone, it has one unique trait that could possibly help it find it’s own dedicated audience, and that is that the whole game is played out on a 4×5 chess like board.

Developer: Paladin Studios

Publisher: Kongregate

Stormbound feels as much like a board game as it does a card game, implementing equal parts deck building and tactical strategy. I’m sure that initially, it is possible that many trading card veterans could be put off by Stormbound’s simplistic look and (relatively) small card library. The addition of units that move and battle on a physical board, however, makes its strategy different enough from similar games to stand out. The only question in my mind at this time however is; Does Stormbound have what it takes to be as fun and compelling for experienced players as it is right now in it’s beginning?

I’m happy to make it no secret that I personally am having a great time with the game. I have a few reservations that I will discuss, but generally speaking, the beginning of this game is really cool. I appreciate the style and execution and find it generally fun, but also challenging to master.

One of the biggest things that Stormbound is missing in its current state is a way to square up against specific other players. There isn’t a pass-and-play option or private online matchmaking. The matches are ranked, but they are always against random players. The campaign is relatively short and is essentially just to help new players learn the game and gain some helpful cards, while also getting a taste for the different play styles of the 4 factions. The bulk of the game is all about online battles; about testing your skills and decks against other players. Since the main hook of the game is competitive online play it seems only natural that the excitement of head-to-head fights would only increase with private matchmaking. Everyone wants their friends to play the same competitive games as them, usually, so they can crush and destroy friends and family, as we all like to do from time to time. That being said the game has ranked matchmaking so that at least you square up against people of a similar strength deck/player level.

 

Like pretty much any other mobile deck building game these days, you can spend currency (in-game “coins”, or premium “gems”), to upgrade cards, so having ranked matches is important. The loop of winning coins and cards to enhance, customize and upgrade your deck gives Stormbound a feeling of progression; an important quality in any trading card game for sure. The player ranks are all reset every month so everyone ranked at #1 will be reset to 30 (which is really much higher as each level has several stages), giving everyone a chance to work towards rank based rewards each month. The downside to all this is that as is the case with most free-to-play games in this genre, the progression can be a slog. Grinding for coins/gems can take forever. The third currency (fusion stones) are used for crafting new cards, and are earned only when players reach higher ranks. This can be difficult for low-level players as the grind for coins is slow and without at least some upgraded cards reaching those higher ranks is much more difficult.

I so far have not spent any money playing Strombound, and am finding that I can still enjoy building relatively diverse decks. There was at one time a welcome card pack you could purchase which if that was available again I think I would consider buying that, but otherwise I feel the game does not force players to spend currency to win, but rather rewards players for spending time with the game, and offers the option for purchasing cards to quickly expand the range of deck strategies available.

Even better news is that the game seems to have a team behind it that are continually adding balancing and quality of life updates. Recently there have been many free gifts to players (Halloween gift, loyal player thanks you, etc…) which is helping with the previously mentioned currency problems. I think that though it might have a slow start, if Paladin Studios continues to add content and support, Stormbound could do quite well. The combination of card collection and tactical army strategy is actually done really well. I’m still having fun playing it, and I sincerely hope that soon we get new cards that further develop the currently implemented gameplay mechanics. If It is going to be able to stay fresh and alive in a competitive market I think continued content additions are necessary. For now I’m gonna keep chasing that 1st place rank with my favorite decks! “Long live the Ironclad Union!”

Strombound is currently available and 100% free to play, and is available on IOS and the Google Play store. We would love to hear your thoughts about Stormbound, please feel free to let us know what you think of the game in the comments section below. And as always…

Happy Gaming Friends!

For those who seek visceral death in bizarre, creepy fantasy lands, look no farther! Badland 1 was a great journey through a machine infested forest, and if you liked that then Badland 2 is the experience you’re looking for!

In 2013 Frogmind released the incredibly fresh and sharp game Badland. The original was compelling, surprising, eerie, and exhilarating. With the Game of the Year Edition bringing the single player level count to 100, I thought I probably didn’t want more Badland. After a few levels of Badland 2, I quickly changed my mind.

It should be noted that Badland 2 has been out for well over a year, but I personally hadn’t spent much time with it until just recently, and I think that it is well worth a mention here as a great indie mobile game recommendation. The game is a little old but still stands up incredibly well and is just as amazing as some of the better mobile games of this year.

Setting: Bizarre lands, familiar and new. The setting of Badland 2 starts off pretty much the same as the original. The unmistakable whimsy of Badland is seen through all the eerie and beautiful levels. The small fragile creature you control flaps through a twisted quiet forest that has been infested with machines. The sharp contrast between nature and metal starts as a familiar, yet effective mood. As the levels continue however the biome of the levels changes, introducing more realized versions of past level variations. Snow levels have new environmental challenges, like ice beams. Fire levels have lava flows, heat lamps, and lasers…so many lasers. And finally the hero (and their many clones) find themselves in an all new sort of void environment, with floating green plasma, new gravity mechanics, and puzzles.

No matter the color and style of the environments and puzzles, Bandland 2 is still very much the same game as the original at heart,  which is perfect. Any large departure from the original game mechanics would likely be a loss. The squeal feels much more like a natural progression from where the first game left off.

Gameplay: New Layers of Paint on the Same, Wonderful Game. For those who have not played the first installation, essentially the objective of any level is to get at least one of the flying (or rolling) creatures that you control to the end alive. Though there are other objectives, which i’ll talk about in a minute, this all the player needs to do to win any given level. There are of course always a gauntlet of spines, explosives, lasers, waterfalls, pits, and lava (to name a few) which the player must carefully avoid on their way to the goal. The controls are super easy to use, just tap the left or right side of the screen to move in that direction and keep from falling for a second. This creates a simple but challenging task as flying through levels usually demands a lot of avoiding things.

Some of my favorite times with Badland 2 (and 1 for that matter), are levels that incorporate a lot of the pick-ups that change speed and slow time. These are often combined with cloning pick-ups will split and duplicate the little creatures. There are some incredible moments in Badland 2 particularly that give the player a brief feeling of being out of control. Having  50 clones tear across an open map full of saws at super speed, then dramatically slowing time just before they all die is an example of the kinds of things that this game will impose upon it’s players. One new addition to the squeal is the occasional ability to stop time, which makes for some amazing moments. There are also pick-ups that will make the clones sticky, bouncy, fat and heavy, or tiny and fast. This makes for tons of crazy combinations that are tricky but always fun to experiment with.

Difficulty: Change your goals to change difficulty. Though the main goal of any given level is always to get at least one clone to the end, levels always have secondary objectives like getting a certain number of clones to the end, losing no clones, or finishing the level in one try. This challenge based objective system allows players to progress through most levels simply attempting them multiple times, while also allowing experienced players to challenge themselves by aiming for more specific (and much harder) goals. This allows Badland to be what the player wants; An atmospheric immersive experience, or a tight difficult set of challenges.

Badland 2 is not really new anymore, but it still holds up as one of my personal favorite mobile games. If you decide to get into the greatness that is the Badland games, bigger screens if available are recommended along with headphones. The game’s soundtrack is subtle but all the sound design blends together to make for a great audio experience. Badland 2 is available on Android and IOS. I believe that the only difference is that the IOS version is $4, while the Android version is free but plays ads unless you pay to remove them. Badland 1 Game of the Year edition is available on Steam for $10, with controls and levels adapted for PC. This Steam version also features a 4 player mode to play with friends!

The Badland games are some of my favorites for playing in my spare time and I defiantly recommend them to anyone at all interested!

As always, happy gaming friends!