One of the most noticeable things about 2011's release schedule is the stunning decline in the number of boxed products to review. Outside of the obvious big name candidates like Portal 2, Brink, Virtua Tennis 4, Operation Flashpoint Red River, Mortal Kombat and Lego Pirates of the Caribbean, it's tumbleweed out there.
Out of the last 50 reviews on Eurogamer (at time of writing), more than half have focused on games and post-release content you can't even buy in shops, and it's a trend that's only going to continue.
Indeed, this week alone, three titles that might have otherwise been prime roundup contenders have been elevated to full review status - partly because Gatling Gears, Mount & Blade: With Fire & Sword and Hydrophobia Prophecy deserve our full attention, but also as a direct consequence of the lack of worthy boxed products being released. Last week it was the same story, with Bangai-O, Mythos and Cargo! all getting an extended focus.
How are you reacting to the changes in the market? Are you more selective of your boxed purchases now, and more willing to take a punt on several downloadable titles to fill the void? On that note, allow me to present this week's selection of downloadable goodness.
Is there a living soul who didn't think Machinarium was delightful puzzling genius? If there is, they're probably just being big old trolls.
Well, these contrary types are definitely not going to approve of the fact that this similarly adorable offering is also riding high in the Mac App Store Top 5. If, like me, you completely missed its original appearance back in 2005, don't worry. It hasn't aged a day - and is now cheaper to boot.
In typical Jakub Dvorskż style, this wordless point-and-clicker involves plenty of patient probing as you try to coax a sorrowful gnome into rescuing his kidnapped pooch.
Much like Machinarium, the appeal is a heady combination of the game's beautiful art style and sublime animation, and the warm humour that results from messing around with anything you can interact with.
Sometimes the solution is far from obvious, and maybe the game could do a slightly better job of helping you out of a dead end. But, hey, Google is your friend, and more often than not, you'll get there in the end anyway.
If you're in the mood for a bit of old fashioned cause-and-effect adventuring, you should definitely throw some loose change in Amanita's direction. You wouldn't want a kidnapped dog on your conscience.
- PC/Mac - Steam - £4.49
If we're going to applaud something old in the world of Flash-powered adventuring, then it's only fair to also unfurl the bunting in celebration of State Of Play's charming addition to the scene.
Via a process that almost certainly involves a liberal amount of voodoo and assorted witchcraft, London's State Of Play created a 'set' for the game out of a paper and cardboard model house, wired up miniature doll's house lighting, and then filmed the results to create what is undoubtedly one of the most unique-looking games around.
Set in and around the confines of the protagonist's granddad's house, you find yourself locked out, and faced with the not-inconsiderable challenge of restoring power to the home via various perplexing puzzles.
In the traditions of barmy adventuring, some are straightforward (such as identifying keys from their outlines), while others venture perilously close to the brain-breaking. Again, with solutions existing online, help is at hand, but the game itself should have perhaps negated the need to resort to external aid via some sort of in-game hint system. Maybe I was just having a thick day. It has been known.
As the first chapter in an ongoing series this is a promising start, but one that will sink or swim on the quality of its puzzles. If State Of Play can balance things up there, this quiet optimism could break out into something altogether noisier.
Ikibago: The Caribbean Jewel
- DSiWare - 500 DSiWare Points (£4.50)
- Also available on PC.
What is this Ikibago jewel, and why must we continually match like-coloured barrels in the name of piratical glory? Search me, but it makes for a mildly engaging way to spend an otherwise empty hour of your life.
A modicum of Googleduggery reveals that Neko Entertainment's latest DSiWare effort has, in fact, been skulking in darkened corners of the casual PC scene for a few years now, but try not to hold that against it. Indeed, on the luxurious dual screen, touch screen environs of the DSi, it's a belated homecoming of sorts - or at least it would be were it anything special.
For a long while, the game struggles to get out of first gear as you face a succession of perfunctory challenges, involving arranging identical coloured barrels in columns of three or more as they scroll from left to right. Yay, match three!
Fortunately there's more to it than that, but the game certainly takes its time introducing more spirited tasks. Once things get going, you'll face locked barrels, and be forced to collect keys, or meet a combo target involving, perhaps, arranging barrels in a specific shape, or creating certain types of combos.
If one of your columns doesn't meet the minimum 'match-three' requirements, you lose a life, and suffer unspecified pirate-based indignity, but it takes an irritatingly long time before such an eventuality bubbles to the surface.
When they do, you'll have various problems to overcome, such as monkeys changing your barrel colour, or inclement weather, or limited light, or a parrot pecking at your testicles. One of these might not actually be in the game.
- DSiWare - 500 DSiWare Points (£4.50)
One of the first titles to prompt me to take the iPhone seriously as a gaming platform was the mighty Galcon - probably the least complicated real-time strategy game ever made.
The idea was to take over the galaxy by rapidly pushing your units from planet to planet before your opponent(s) could do the same. But this cosmic tug o' war was rarely as simple as it looked, as you tried (usually in vain) to keep an eye on your weaknesses while also pushing for new territory.
Circle Entertainment has opted for the exact same arcade strategy formula in Castle Conqueror, except the planets have been swapped for buildings, and the spaceships for cute fellows with swords.
You still swipe your units to their various destinations, five men at a time, and still engage in a rather furious war of attrition as you repeatedly lose and regain buildings, before eventually overwhelming your opponent, and yes, it's still unfeasibly engaging.
To add a semblance of progression, there's a surprisingly deep upgrade system, as well as a shop where you can spend your winnings, and with 50 levels to conquer you get plenty of swiping for your 500 points.
The lack of multiplayer is a bit of an oversight, but if you can live with that, Castle Conqueror represents another persuasive reason to consider thumbing through Nintendo's virtual racks.
- Xbox Live Arcade - 800 Microsoft Points
- Coming soon to PC and PSN.
There's something admirable about Atari's dogged plan to revive every successful IP from its late seventies, early eighties pomp. The latest, Star Raiders, was once deemed to be one of the ten most important video games of all time. And in a list containing the likes of Tetris, Doom, Sensible World Of Soccer and Super Mario Bros. 3, that's some accolade.
But this attempt to bring the 1979 Atari 2600 space shooter up to date hobbles along just as badly as the recent Haunted House and Yar's Revenge reboots.
Incinerator Studios' plan to re-imagine the 32-year-old relic is on solid enough ground. We're promised "tense aerial assaults and dogfights, a compelling new storyline, striking visual style and exhilarating single- and multiplayer gameplay." The reality is somewhat less interesting.
Missions come thick and fast in what amounts to a mind-numbing game of 'chase the red arrow across the screen'. You blast, they die, you move onto the next target, and a few minutes later you move onto a similarly unchallenging aerial sortie, occasionally involving shooting bits on the side of a giant space station. It's not tense, and there's certainly nothing you could reasonably liken to dogfighting.
And a compelling storyline? Give me a break. If you enjoy squinting at tiny text and glumly staring at poorly illustrated static cut scenes then you'll be well serviced, but this is about as amateurish as it gets.
At some point, there was undoubtedly genuine intent to make something special here. Despite the hollow, unchallenging gameplay, the visuals are surprisingly swish, and the ability to strategically transform your ship into three types of craft suggests a broader ambition to put a new spin on the space shooter.
But the results feel neutered and unfinished, and whether you're old enough to remember why Star Raiders was important or not, the free trial should tell you all you need to know about this apologetic offering.