Blocks that Matter – Review

Blocks that Matter is the non-true story of two game developers who came up with a game so sought after that they were kidnapped at gunpoint and ordered to finish it. Except they weren’t working on a game at all, they were working on you.

You are Tetrobot, and if one was to describe Blocks that Matter as an enormous cliché, it would be this: it’s a love letter to gaming. Well, a love game to gaming. It loves gaming about games. Games, er, gaming? This has gone completely wrong. Moving on.

Tetrobot, who looks a bit like a washing machine, embarks on a quest to save his creators through numerous levels, encountering references to block-based videogames everywhere he goes, and collecting up blocks. There are two kinds of block he’ll encounter. First are the blocks of matter which are in plentiful supply around each level. These are collected by either drilling them, or smashing them by jumping up at them. Once you’ve collected four, you can enter build mode and construct your blocks into Tetrominoes (the explanation behind this is wonderful) and then use this new construction to reach further parts of the level.

Blocks that Matter is a platformer in screenshots, but it’s very much a puzzle game in operation. You must collect blocks and then use them to reach new areas where you can collect more blocks. The challenge doesn’t come from getting there, it comes from working out how to get there. There are not many areas that will require precision platforming, though the perfect controls and jumping mechanics mean that when this is needed, it’s within your grasp.

The game really shines in its level design, which is often very clever and will give you just enough materials to succeed – as long as you’re using what you’ve got in the right way. Even when you’ve got many blocks to build with, you may find yourself in a tiny area and the limitation on the way that you can place blocks (you can only build them into Tetrominoes, remember) means that it’s not just as simple as placing the blocks to get where you want to go.

Sometimes, it will be important to keep track of the types of blocks that you’re placing, too. Blocks made of wood or rock will remain in place when you build them, but blocks made of sand will fall to the floor if there’s nothing there to support them. Then there are many other types of block, too, which behave differently. This adds an interesting element to puzzles as you’re sometimes required to take advantages of these differences to reach your destination while making sure you keep enough blocks to build with. You also may need to take advantage of other powers you receive, such as being able to destroy eight blocks at once, if they are placed in a horizontal line. There aren’t often many ways to solve a puzzle, but with so many options it means that the solutions aren’t always as clear as you’d expect.

The second main kind of block in Blocks that Matter are the Blocks that Matter, of which there is one in each level, in a treasure chest. These are either well hidden, or in plain sight but difficult to reach. There are times when you won’t be able to reach it at all and you’ll have to come back later when Tetrobot has gained a new power. While getting to the end of the level is sometimes simple, working out where the Block that Matters is and then how to reach it is always a challenge.

It’s a challenge worth taking on, though, as not only does collecting these unlock bonus levels, but each one also represents a block from a game from the past and a lovely pang of nostalgia. There is so much fun to be had collecting these and seeing them represented in the art style of Blocks that Matter, and then wondering what game will appear next – or if your favourite block will make an appearance. It’s obvious from the very first second that this game was made by a team that love gaming, but it’s never more apparent than in the respect and the love that they show for these games, and their Blocks that Matter.

Of course, none of this love for games would carry any weight if their own game wasn’t tremendous and so, luckily, it is. The puzzle design, the graphics and the controls are top class and it comes together with so much care that there’s just everything to like. If ever there’s a sequel, they’ll have to refer to their own game among the best games containing Blocks that Matter.

Blocks that Matter is available now for 240 Microsoft Points.


Sequence – Review

It feels almost ridiculous to compare Sequence to Puzzle Quest, because they’ve really got nothing in common at all, and yet somehow it’s still the best comparison there is. Puzzle Quest took an RPG narrative, but in place of battles it put a Bejeweled style puzzle game.

Iridium Studios’ game has a similar kind of mix of genres, but in place of the puzzle game it puts rhythm action, and it works better and is more fun than Puzzle Quest ever was.

The story begins when 24-year-old Ky wakes up in an unfamiliar place with no idea how he got there. The only chance at an explanation comes from a voice over an intercom telling him that he’s in danger, and that to get out of it he has to ascend a tower. To get to higher floors he’ll need a key, to get a key he’ll need to craft it, and to craft it he’ll need to gain materials from monsters.

To get materials from monsters, they need to be defeated in a duel. A musicky duel!

Combat can be daunting at first (and certainly in screenshots) but is easy to get used to and totally natural after a couple of fights.

Gameplay happens in the centre field, and you can cycle between it and the outer fields with the triggers. The fields correspond to defence, attack, and mana. Arrows can appear in any of the fields at any time and when they do, you must first select the correct field and then press one of the face buttons (or use the left stick/d-pad) depending on which way the arrow is pointing, as it passes the mark at the bottom. If you miss an arrow in the attack field, your spell will fail. If you miss an arrow in the defence field you will be attacked and will lose hit points. There’s no penalty for missing arrows in the mana field and so this can be ignored unless there’s nothing else to do, or you need to restore some of your MP to cast more spells.

Spells are selected by pointing the right stick to the correct place on the spell ring at the bottom, and then pressing RB. That spell’s specific pattern of arrows will then appear in the attack field. By now you’ve been told to use almost every button on the controller and are slightly confused, but once the controller’s in your hand and the game screen is in front of you, it becomes second nature.

To win the fight, you have to reduce the enemy’s HP to zero before they do the same to you, or before the song ends. With songs differing in length this means that it’s sometimes necessary to vary your strategy because there’s simply no time to waste.

An extra element to the battles comes with special abilities that are activated once per battle by an unseen presence, and can throw the battle in your opponent’s favour. These abilities range from obscuring the arrows to covering up the outer fields and various things in between. If you find the going tough, an item can be crafted to nullify these effects.

The music in the game comes from Ronald Jenkees and Michael Wade Hamilton, and is consistently brilliant. One criticism that it’s easy to foresee is that there are only 12 songs that can be fought to, and this could lead to a repetitive feeling over the course of many battles. Firstly, not only is this a feeling that never really occurs (even fighting one monster fifty or so times didn’t become tiring) but look at how many battle themes something like Final Fantasy VII has. A few for bosses, perhaps a few for regular fights, and overall far less than you’ll find in Sequence.

Outside of battles there are two main things you’ll be doing. The first is crafting items, either to equip or to learn new spells. The items and their descriptions are often hilarious and full of all manner of puns, so don’t forget to check them out. The humour also carries over to the other main thing you’ll be doing, watching the story unfold.

The cut-scenes in the game are funny enough that you will laugh out loud, both at the superb dialogue and at the amazing cast of bizarre characters that populate the tower. Getting to the next boss is a constant joy just to see what the game has in store for you next, with Caleb a particular favourite.

The most astonishing thing about Sequence is just how professional the whole thing is. Throughout the entire game all you’ll think is “why isn’t this on Xbox LIVE Arcade,” because it’s better in quality, and in presentation than most games on that service. The voice acting is a prime example, because it’s simply astounding. That this kind of quality voice acting can exist in a game that costs less than two pounds is incredible, and when even retail games made by teams of hundreds can’t manage to get something this simple, this right, it’s testament to the quality of this game.

It’s impossible not to fall in love with Sequence. Even if the combat takes a few fights to get used to, there’s so much else to like about the game that by the end, no matter how much you try to fight it, it will have stolen your heart.

Sequence is available now for 240 Microsoft Points.

Astroman – Review

Astroman, from StarQuail Games, is a quite excellent MetroidVania.

Although, it does differ slightly from other games in the genre and so to dump it in with them isn’t entirely accurate. Rather than being set in one huge level, Astroman takes place over nine huge levels, with a hub world between them. You must find equipment to upgrade your ship to access later levels, and items for Astroman to enable more efficient exploration of previous levels.

As you can also plainly see, it’s a 2D platformer.

So, that ship of yours. You were happily driving it around in space (does one drive in space?) when you were shot down and landed on a planet. Bits of your ship were scattered across the system (I won’t call it a solar system, there’s no sun) and its up to you to find them so that you can go home, or wherever you were going in the first place.

You do this by running around in elaborate, huge, 2D levels, and shooting a variety of excellently designed enemies, each with unique attack patterns that you must learn, prepare for, and exploit. Explore the levels carefully, because as well as heart containers (collect four for an extra heart’s health) they may contain an item to aid your adventure. A boost pack allows Astroman to travel further, and a spring jump allows him to do Mario-style double and triple jumps to get to hard to reach places.

You might also find parts of your ship, which is used to travel between levels. Initially an asteroid belt limits progression beyond the first three levels, but find a gun for the ship and you can blast your way through to the next three where you’ll find more items to aid your journey. As your skills improve, you can return to previous levels and seek out more heart containers that you couldn’t reach the first time round, or ship parts that proved illusive before.

Initially the game can be very vague about where you need to go. There’s no clue in the hub as to whether a level contains a ship part or an upgrade, which means you need to explore without even knowing if there’s anything to find. In world five, though, you can find the scanner which will tell you which levels contain items for you to find. This improves the experience greatly and get it as soon as you can.

That leaves only a slight issue in the night-time levels. One gimmick that these levels employ is that in certain places they fade the screen to black and only let you see a tiny (really tiny) area around Astroman and other enemies, as well as around some special blocks. While it’s a neat effect, it makes exploring these areas impossible and feels at odds with the overall theme of the gameplay.

It’s only a problem in a few of the levels, and doesn’t affect the player’s ability to finish the game, but it leaves them never quite sure if they’ve explored those levels thoroughly or not.

As mentioned, Astroman’s levels are massive, and you’ll be exploring a lot. Each of them has multiple routes through depending on the skills you possess at the time, and returning to previous levels is a lot of fun, even if there’s just a few heart containers to find, as you reach places that you had no idea even existed.

As well as looking wonderful, with three distinct styles of world and crisp graphics with lovely smooth animation, Astroman plays great as well. The controls are responsive and the jumping has a nice weight to it that makes it a joy to play.

There aren’t many Xbox LIVE Indie Games with the scale of Astroman, and certainly there are no platformers on the service that offer levels as big, or the sheer amount of exploration that’s found here. While the main campaign will take around four hours to complete, finding everything that the game has to offer could take more than double that. There was a lot of ambition in creating this game, and StarQuail have pulled it off almost perfectly.

Astroman is available now for 240 Microsoft Points.

Hypership Out of Control – Review

It’s not really any secret that I’m totally in love with Fun Infused’s Hypership Out of Control.

While the game looks like a vertical shmup (and indeed, you can shoot and that) it’s actually nothing like that at all. There are no enemies as such, and the only hazards are environmental. No, your task here is to survive rather than to kill, and it’s surviving that awards you the big money. Or “points” as you actually get.

There’s one problem with your task of survival. Your brakes are out. I know, sucks, right? Imagine how much it would suck if the accelerator was jammed as well. What? You mean. . . Oh no!

So as you travel through each wave, going faster and faster and faster, all you can really do is dodge, and that’s the aim of the game. The waves consist of various hazards: blocks that form corridors; asteroids; mines; bouncing balls and various other things – all designed to kill you. Once (if) you reach the end, they loop back to the start to enable even higher scores.

As you travel further and further, your points are increased based on how far you’ve gone. You also get points for collecting coins, and the coins count towards a multiplier that means you’ll get even more points for the distance you’ve travelled.

The coins are hilarious, in a way. Often you’ll happily follow a trail of coins as they lead you through a path of asteroids, only to see on the other side of the screen a power-up, or something that’s worth even more points. In your blind faith to the yellow coins though, you’ve missed your chance. You’re going too fast. There’s no way to get there in time. The developer is laughing at you and you’re laughing with him. Next time, that item is yours.

The power-ups you can get include items that make you invincible for one hit (this is essential,) items that speed you up, slow you down, or increase the power of your guns to allow you to blast through blocks at will. Amongst other things.

The point of all of this is to get your best scores on the in-game leaderboards which, if you’re an Xbox LIVE Gold member, are online. There are separate leaderboards for every mode.

Because there’s a few different ways to play. As well as the normal mode which gives you three lives and sets you off to get as far as you can, another mode gives you the same goal but with just one life in which to do it. Hardcore. Another mode gives you some coins, but they constantly tick down and you have to keep collecting more. If you run out, it’s game over. You have unlimited lives in this mode but dying will sacrifice some coins. Again, get as far as you can.

Oh, and every mode can be played backwards, or with up to four players in a crazily chaotic experience. I’m not really sure what more you could want.

Achievements, maybe? Want them? Well, while there are no actual achievements, there are a number of awardments on offer which track your progress through the game and work just the same as achievements do, though without adding to your GamerScore. Completing waves, collecting items and various other tasks will award you an. . . award. . . ment. . .

Hypership Out of Control is available now for 80 Microsoft Points, which is practically nothing for what you’re getting.

Leave Home – Review

Leave Home is a side-scrolling shmup unlike any I’ve ever played before. Then, when I played it the second time, it was unlike any side-scrolling shmup I’d ever played before. Then, when I played it the third time, I stopped with the convoluted introduction because I felt that the reader was probably getting the idea at this point.

Leave Home is a game that changes every time you play it.

And it’s you that changes it.

Leave Home has a dynamic difficulty level that means how well you play will determine how difficult the game is. If you play well, the game will get harder and harder. If you die a lot, the game will get easier because, bless your little cotton socks, the big bad game was too hard for you. I’m in the latter camp.

It’s impossible to truly die in Leave Home, though, as no matter how many lives you lose you’ll always get to the end of the game. All it means is that you won’t see the same end of the game that a better player will see, you won’t have the opportunity to score the kinds of points that better players will score, and you’ll be ashamed of yourself, as will your family. You may even be forced to Leave Home. It’s a totally unique scoring hook though, that allows more points with better play in a way that’s rarely, if ever been done before. And it’s entirely compelling.

There’s more to it than just that, though, and the gameplay itself is tremendous. You can fire ahead of yourself like you would in any shmup, but also you can use the right trigger to change the direction of fire. It soon becomes a balancing act as you try to shoot enemies in all directions by applying the perfect amount of pressure to the right stick to kill as many at once. Getting this right is the key to high scores. High scores are the key to happiness.

It seems silly not to mention how incredible it looks, but I can’t possibly do it justice. Just you go and see for yourself.

Personally, I’m rubbish, but if you’re good there might be some surprises for you later in the game, and who knows, maybe you’ll get to Leave Home. The promise certainly keeps me going back, despite my general ineptitude.

Leave Home is out now and yours for 80 Microsoft Points.

Ninja360° – Review

Ninja360° has been released by DoereiGames (Bloom*Block) to no fanfare whatsoever but is all kinds of amazing. Seriously. Think of a kind of amazing: that’s what kind of amazing it is.

You’re on a small level and have to collect all the coins to finish it. When you’re standing on the level, it rotates with you as you move, Mario Galaxy-style. When you’re jumping, the level is stationary and you can take advantage of this to get better times or mess up and fall off. If you fall off and die, you don’t lose, you just go back to the start or a checkpoint, with your collected coins still collected. You can sometimes exploit this for faster times.

The big addictive hook comes from trying to earn better times, which are rewarded with medals. It’s almost a puzzle trying to get gold medals, because the times are so difficult to achieve that you’ve gotta really think outside the box to achieve them. You can watch videos of a few levels at the start and I guarantee you’ll think: “wow, I’d never have thought to do that.” Also, if you achieve a silver medal it unlocks a video demonstration of how to achieve gold. And some are just so clever, and use the basic mechanics in such awesome ways, that it’s impossible not to love the game for its sneakiness.

It looks great, with humorously animated backgrounds that you can change at will. It also controls really well, for the most part. There are occasions where you’ll want to wall-jump and the ninja will open a parachute to glide, making you slip off the wall. These times aren’t that common, though, and the levels are so small that even if it happens, you’ll rarely lose more than ten seconds of progress.

And how much content is there? 99 levels. 99! And it costs only 80 points. Can’t really argue with value like this.

Apple Jack – Review

Apple Jack came out at around the same time as Super Mario Galaxy 2 on Wii did. I got Mario first, played it solidly, but then downloaded Apple Jack because it was there. I expected to play it for a few minutes and get back to Mario but from the very first second I was totally hooked, and didn’t play Mario again until I was done with Apple Jack. That this Indie Game was more compelling than a game with a year of hype, made by an experienced team in a major franchise confirmed for me that Indie Games had “arrived,” as it were. That there was more potential in this service than in any other distribution method.

The first game I ever remember playing properly was a 2D platformer (Alex Kidd in Miracle World, history fans) and I’ve loved them ever since. Xbox LIVE Indie Games have been very good to me in this regard, and Apple Jack is the best of the lot. There’s just so much going for it. Most importantly, it gets right what so many get wrong, the jumping, which has a perfect weight to it. Too floaty or too heavy and your game fails, but Apple Jack is spot on. This perfection carries over to the rest of the controls too, and playing it is a total joy.

This is aided by gameplay itself, which is great. Your goal in each level is to defeat every enemy, and this is done by throwing them into one another, which destroys both. There’s a ton of variety in the enemy design and each has its own attack and movement patterns which means you have to learn them to use them to their full advantage. Some enemies are colour-coded and can only be destroyed by enemies of the same colour which adds a brilliant puzzle element to levels, the design of which is excellent.

There are 100 levels, all set somewhere in the British countryside. There’s no relation between the places the level is set in and the level itself, but being English myself it’s lovely when you happen to be playing somewhere you’ve been or heard of before. To add a little bit more addictiveness, is the multiplier system. Killing a pair of enemies releases coins, killing another pair quickly gets you twice as many, then four times, eight times, 16x, 32x, and it keeps going and going until the screen is totally filled with coins which looks glorious. So many levels I had to replay after insisting to myself that I could complete it better.

I’m also really proud of the fact that I’m one of the very few people that will have completed the super-hardcore version of this before the patch came out that made it easier! It’s still difficult, though, and there are levels that’ll take loads of attempts to beat – the difficulty curve is, like everything else in this game, perfect.

This is absolutely the best 80 Microsoft Points you will ever, ever spend. I don’t think I can express my love for this any better than Robert Florence did, though. “Apple Jack, I love you to your core.”