Last week introduced the first of our new Download Games Roundups, in which erstwhile Eurogamer.net editor Kristan Reed hunts down a selection of games released across the various digital distribution platforms: Steam, Xbox Live Arcade, PSN (including PSP minis), WiiWare and DSiWare, the Xbox Indie Games Channel and Apple's App Store for the iPhone and iPod Touch (and, in the near future, the iPad).
The idea is that by running weekly multiformat roundups, rather than the single-format roundups we used to previously, we'll be able to bring you more timely reviews of a broader selection of titles from gaming's wild frontier. Let us know if you think it's working!
- Developer: Kydos Studio
- Format: Xbox Live Indie Games, iPhone / iPod Touch
- Price: 80 Microsoft Points (£0.64) on Xbox Live, £1.19 on the App Store
The stark finality of a flat-lining ECG machine makes a chilling introduction to this artful probe into the afterlife from Kydos Studio. Floating formlessly above your own lifeless cadaver, your death is just the beginning as you take control of your soul.
Represented as a glowing blob of light, your aim is to try and negotiate your soul through the cruel twists and turns of demon-filled hospital corridors on the way to eventually finding a safe passage to heaven itself. High concept or what?
Essentially an arty version of the old steady-hand buzz-wire game you might find at school fêtes, Soul sets you the principal aim of getting through each screen without touching any obstacles. On the iPhone this involves tilting your way through each environment, while the Xbox 360 version (found on the Indie Channel) relies on the more traditional control stick method.
Either way, success relies upon an unerringly steady hand and a modicum of trial and error as you avoid the chomping jaws of death as they leap mercilessly from the walls of your surroundings.
As you progress, the locations and hazards become increasingly unconventional and challenging. One room tasks you with outrunning a flood as it overtakes a room, while another sees you trapped inside the belly of the beast, winding through his pulsing intestines before eventually escaping out of his rectum. Pleasant.
But possibly the most savage test of all comes right at the end, as you traverse a lightning-strewn storm, dodging the precipitous clouds on the way to the eternal sunshine that streams through heaven's gates.
Soul is a deeply beautiful experience at times, not unlike Flower, although at the polar opposite end of the scale for relaxation. It's fiddly, taxing, and often hellishly frustrating in its demand for ultimate precision, but somehow also hugely engaging and addictive. For the price, it's well worth investigating, if only to show support for the spirit of adventure shown in these indie gaming experiments.
Rocket Racing (a.k.a Halfbrick Rocket Racing)
- Developer: Halfbrick
- Formats: PSP minis, Xbox Live Indie Games
- Price: £3.49 on PSN, 240 Microsoft Points (£2.04) on Xbox Live
Top-down racing is a sure-fire formula if you can get it right, but it's also tough to come up with something that hasn't been done to death. Rocket Racing's futuristic take on this oversubscribed sub-genre takes an interesting approach, with inertia-based mechanics that are simple enough to explain, but inordinately tricky to master.
The premise couldn't reasonably be any more straightforward: you guide a rocket ship around a series of tracks and circuits and try to complete the objective. The tricky part is coping with a steering system best described as exacting, and a ham-fisted approach is likely to send you careening into the nearest wall.
Light taps on the boost and deft adjustments to the steering are the order of the day, as you try to plot a course that hits all the boost zones while avoiding those which slow you down.
Rocket Racing offers further assistance by allowing you to zip gracefully around the track by 'grinding' off the sides. As you steer into a corner, if your rocket boost hits the side at just the right angle, you get a little extra lift, allowing you to get the jump on your opponents.
It's a perilously tricky mechanic to master, but once you get a feel for what's required you can start to plot the most effective routes. It takes time, though, because each course requires such a deft touch that only endless practice will win the day. Its exacting nature has the capacity to be more than a little frustrating, but patience is a virtue in Rocket Racing.
Fortunately, it's not all about racing. To add a much-needed layer of variety, campaign mode throws in challenges which mix up your ability to hit checkpoints with your grinding skill - all against the clock, of course. Eventually, progress through the six tiers hangs on a mini Grand Prix where you race against three other AI racers, just in case you were starting to get cocky. With pass-the-pad multiplayer, as well as standalone Grand Prix and Quick Race modes, Rocket Racing certainly isn't short on content.
If you're the kind of person who eats F-Zero for breakfast, Rocket Racing is a brutally enjoyable take on the top-down racer, but maybe a little too punishing for its own good on occasion.
- Developers: Acquire, Noisycroak
- Format: PSP
- Price: £6.29 on PSN
Just when you think developers might be scaling back their ambitions for the PSP, along comes something with such a fresh and unique visual signature that it's hard to even associate it with videogames.
Looking more like an abstract Middle Eastern animation project than anything to do with handheld gaming, Patchwork Heroes emerges, once your eyes have adjusted to the loveliness, as a giddy twist on Taito's timeless and brilliant 1981 arcade game, Qix.
For what it's worth, the predictably surreal premise is that your city is being attacked by massive unmanned warships, ready to rain bombs down upon you. But rather than, say, blast the ships into next year, the brave Titori and his pilot Totonel board a helicopter and take the fight to the source of the evil. Jumping onto the warship itself, their cunning plan is to essentially saw it into chunks until it eventually blows up.
On a basic level it works in a similar way to Qix in that your entire purpose is to draw lines (in this case, saw a line) from one point to another. Whereas in Qix the sections filled in, in Patchwork Heroes, they fall away, thus destabilising the ship.
But what starts off as a simplistic concept ramps up with all manner of embellishments that build on an already wonderfully fun premise. For example, you can opt to free prisoners held aboard the warship, while all manner of one-off collectibles can help stop time, or help you run faster, or allow you to strategically drop Mojo bombs to blast entire sections to smithereens.
As you progress, enemies become increasingly sophisticated in their attempts to sabotage your good work, blowing up when you get near them, firing rockets or repairing damage. Before long, levels become one giant hazard as you dash frantically from one section to the next.
With 30 levels and 10 quick-fire challenges, there's more than enough to warrant the price tag, and Patchwork Heroes' bite-sized design makes it perfect for handheld sessions. With a wonderfully deranged horn-laden soundtrack to accompany the chaos, this is the ideal game to drive your housemates doolally with.
- Developers: Chillingo, Traplight Games
- Format: iPhone
- Price: £1.19
It's all about heroes this week, but this one's more Mr Incredible than Sylar, as your chiselled caped crusader swoops around cityscapes catching babies, crushing giant bees and slaying zombies in the name of crime-fighting goodness.
Set in a rather lovely-looking side scrolling environment, you soar The Hero in all directions via the on-screen d-pad (or via tilt controls if you prefer eating your own hands in frustration), while a boost control in the right corner gives you a brief moment of extra pep when required.
Most of the game's levels play out roughly the same way, regardless of the threat that faces you. Whether you're defusing bombs, running after thieves or crushing spider eggs before they hatch, a prompt appears to let you know where the threat resides. If the threat's especially deadly, the arrow flashes and you have to get your lyrca-clad tush over there pronto, potentially leaving other threats to cause havoc.
With a fame meter to keep an eye on, you have to be sure to high-five the public as you speed past their windows, and ensure that you don't smash too many cars or let too many babies splatter on the pavement. That never goes down well. But with careful use of enemy-freezing power-ups, you can dampen the chaos and keep things under control.
It's frantic and stressful, but with superb cartoon visuals and a squelchy soundtrack to nod along to, it's yet another prime example of why iPhone gaming is proving so popular. Sure, the slightly inexact nature of the controls make it somewhat hard to be as effective as you might be, but The Hero is still well worth checking out.