Yet again, the best download games available this week end up being the cheapest. It's been a running theme for some time, but it seems that precious few of the games that demand more of our money are any good. Often caught in a tricky middle-ground between being not boxed product material, but being too expensive to develop to warrant throwing out at an impulse price, it's a graveyard for all but the very best.
Download discounting is everywhere right now, with numerous high-profile offerings including Alien Breed Impact and the entire Sam & Max range (including the still-fresh season 3) slashed in price.
It's hardly surprising. When you see truly great games going for 59p, who would take a punt on something 10 or 15 times the price unless it was absolutely brilliant? As someone tasked with wading through all manner of mediocrity, it's surprisingly rare to come across much worth bothering with above the £2 mark. And yet with so much dross released on PSP Minis, WiiWare and DSiWare at well above that level, you have to wonder how anyone's selling anything when there are so many quality alternatives elsewhere at a fraction of the price.
Sam & Max: The Devil's Playhouse Episode 5 - The City That Dare Not Sleep
- PC, Mac, PSN (PS3) / £24.99 for the season.
For more than a decade, many of us would have given our left testicle for another Sam & Max game. Nearly four years since the comeback, we would perhaps have settled for just one genuinely brilliant sequel rather than a shedload that never quite hit the heights.
In the epic season three finale (the 16th episode in all), we catch up with the ever-patient doggie detective Sam trying to persuade his demented lagomorph buddy Max to stop being a giant slavering demonic hyperkinetic beast. Having long since dispensed with any vague sense of Sam and Max being a crime-fighting duo, Telltale seems content to follow a thread of surreal excess, with mixed results.
With the gameplay mechanics reduced to a largely predictable run of conversations and (in)appropriate use of objects, The City That Dare Not Sleep feels stuck in a rut much of the time. The season having started in such sparkling and imaginative fashion, this one's something of a formulaic slog by comparison. With the contrived return of season regulars barely raising a titter, there's little to keep you going other than dutiful routine. It's an underwhelming finale.
This far down the line, we wish more than anything that Telltale would have a complete rethink. While it always does justice to the central duo, the rest of the cast provide limited amusement, to the ultimate detriment of the series. Telltale also badly needs to freshen up the visuals and finally ditch the cheap and nasty 3D engine that is light years from Steve Purcell's wonderful art style. Maybe one day Telltale will also be brave enough to pour its creativity into a full-fat adventure game, rather than continue to head down this depressing creative cul-de-sac. We can but hope.
- Xbox Live Indie Games / 80 Microsoft Points (£0.64)
It says a lot about Microsoft's daft Xbox Live Arcade restrictions that a quality retro shooter like Gravitron has to slug it out with the detritus on the Indie Games channel in order to get a 360 release. Such is life for the average indie outfit: unless you've got a publisher backing you (and taking a big chunk of the cash), the XBLA portcullis slams down right in your face - regardless of how swish your latest effort is.
For poor old Ron Bunce, the situation is even more aggravating than usual. Released alongside no fewer than 35 titles in a five-day period at the end of August, Gravitron360 never even had a chance to stay on the new release blade for more than a couple of days. We'd all prefer to check out the latest spirit-crushingly awful Avatar and Zombie games, right?
But enough of the hard luck stories - the game's more than good enough to succeed through word of mouth alone. Ported lovingly from the PC, this ridiculously good value, neon-tinged shooter takes a pinch of Thrust, sprinkles in some Defender, and serves up one of the most accomplished retro evolutions around.
Spread across 70 supremely challenging levels, Gravitron asks you to gently coax a ship into the deadly caverns of a planet, rescue stranded scientists and destroy subterranean bases. With gravity providing an ever-present tug-o-war, piloting your ship through the twisting corridors is a delicate eye-of-the-needle operation, as you gently tap the thrusters and judge inertia.
But thanks to excellent level design and supremely solid controls, what might have been a frustrating slog becomes an artful dodge through some of yesteryear's forgotten mechanics. With four challenge modes to wade through, Gravitron360 offers an embarrassment of riches. A mandatory purchase.
- PSN (PS3) / £3.99
I'm the kind of guy who shows Alive to people before their first long-haul flight, so I'm maybe not the ideal candidate to run a chaotic air traffic control centre.
But thrust a PlayStation Move controller in my hand and ask me to plot squiggly descent paths on the screen, and I'm your man. At least until kamikaze pilots start haplessly making a beeline for the runways all at the same time.
This time around, mind you, you can get by with a little help from your friends, with up to four players supported in this motion-control-enhanced edition of the classic touch-screen game. The ability to meddle with each other's flight paths is obviously a recipe for disaster, but if you're planning on having four Move controllers to hand it's a quick and effective means of falling out with friends and family. You can also show off your spanking new 3D telly if you're a money-no-object type.
In its unexpected transition to the big screen, Firemint's two-million-selling sensation has lost little of its insanely addictive quality, with the instant precision of Move allowing you to be almost as quick off the draw when it counts.
Fine game that it is, though, Flight Control is still better suited to filling time waiting for public transport. Out of context, it just doesn't have the same allure.
- Xbox Live Indie Games / 80 Microsoft Points (£0.64)
Already established as one of the most prolific indie scenesters via the eye-catching Crossfire and JoyJoy, radiangames returns with its third game in as many months - and it's the best yet.
This time, the inspiration comes from mid-eighties dungeon-crawling classic Gauntlet, where you're always on the hunt for keys to an exit via enemy generators and an army of willing cannon fodder.
With slick twin-stick controls and spongy, organic visuals drawing you in, Inferno serves up retro-modernism of genuine class. Whether you play solo or with up to four accomplices, 30 heavily defended challenges await, with basic permanent upgrades available as a reward for progress. It won't take all that long to get through, but part of its charm is that it doesn't outstay its welcome.
The wrinklier among us will have enjoyed more wholesome versions of Inferno years ago, of course, but revisiting it with an abstract makeover is welcome - especially when all you're being asked for for the privilege is your loose change.
Ultimate Spider-Man: Total Mayhem
- iPhone / £3.99
Designing traditional third-person action games around touch-screen controls is always a risky business, and here's another prime example of why. With its virtual thumb-stick and buttons, everything in Ultiamte Spider-Man: Total Mayhem feels like an unsatisfying compromise.
But this is a direction that Gameloft seems determined to persist with, fitting square pegs into round holes and leaving you with a game that might actually be enjoyable if you could only control the damned thing properly.
For the most part, Total Mayhem gets away with it, with forgiving enemies providing suitable fodder for you to mash through. And you can haul yourself around the environment without any trouble with the half-decent web-slinging jump.
Where things tend to get irritating are in the boss encounters, such as the game's hateful second boss, Rhino. Although it's fairly obvious that you're supposed to get him to charge into a wall, the imprecise nature of the controls leave you battered, bruised and back to the checkpoint with depressing regularity.
As crisp and vibrant as the game looks, there's little to elevate this above far cheaper and more interesting games designed around the controls - rather than shoehorned into them.