Among my favorite movies is Mel Brooks’ History of the World Part I for its pushing the envelope humor that spoofs key periods of world history. One scene set during the French Revolution involves King Louis XVI using human beings as game pieces on a giant chess board. You can only imagine what happens when a knight takes out a pawn or the King captures the Queen. In any case, the scene came to mind as I played Creative Assembly’s Total War Battles, a beautifully designed strategy game that in some instances could’ve been even better.

For those who don’t know, Total War Battles is based on the popular PC-based Total War series. The iOS version is different from that series so my review is based on TWB as a standalone game. The underlying theme in TWB is all about revenge and redemption as the son of a slain warlord seeks to save his clan while in search of vengeance. The rather epic tale is told through a number of dialogue scenes and narrated letters that provide good background and purpose to the different battles. The voice acting involved with reading the letters has a strong emotional tone which helps to establish the mood.

TWB incorporates various elements with a bit of RTS and turn-based strategy (TBS) with a pinch of role playing all thrown into essentially a lane-based tower defense game. Visually, the backgrounds are stunning on the iPad, and the actual battles that take place on screen come alive. The battlefield itself consists of a hexagonal grid that is nicely incorporated into some lush environments. Everything from the details on structures to the character animations are a joy to watch. Accompanied by an epic soundtrack and equally impressive sound effects, you do feel the intensity as the battles play out in front of you. From soldiers getting hacked to death to shrines and headquarters gradually being consumed by fire, your soldiers react as you would expect them to react.

The game consists of a 23-stage campaign mode each with specific objectives typically involving the defeat of certain enemies or specific units. Included are a number of experience or EXP stages which are side missions and tend to be more puzzle focused (e.g. building and placing structures within limited amount of space). EXP can also be purchased through IAP, but it isn’t needed to complete the game. What’s disappointing is the absence of a skirmish mode and an online multiplayer capability which hinders replay value.

Core to a game of this type is the ability to build structures and establish a specialized army, and TWB provides a good variety. You’ll have the opportunity to build and maintain headquarters and shrines as well as set up lumber and miningl operations. All of this leads to supporting the various soldiers, which run the gamut from archers and riflemen to spearmen and cavalry troops.

The somewhat unconventional controls consist of arrow buttons located at the bottom of the screen. Requiring a slight learning curve, the buttons do feel awkward initially because most players inherently will want to tap to select the unit and then tap on the appropriate location. As units are spawned and become available, they appear as tiles which can then be dragged onto any appropriate hexagon.

Depending on your expectations, the gameplay in TWB is both engaging and challenging, requiring a good degree strategic planning. Each level begins with your base located on the left-hand side facing your enemies on the right. Initially, the objective is to build structures that take advantage of the local natural resources such as wood, iron ore and water. Once these operations are in full force, these resources can then be used to generate gold. Gold is then used to spawn different units depending on what’s available.

One of the strengths of TWB is the planning that players are required to do. Each structure type takes up a certain amount of space on the battlefield’s hex grid which can be challenging because of the limited real estate. But another nuance is that certain structures cannot be located near each other or are link dependent. For example, a trading post which generates gold has to be near headquarters, but not near a shrine. On the other hand, a shrine must be linked to a lumber yard, while a lumber yard must be near trees. This adds a layer of intricacy that is simultaneously welcoming and irritating depending on personal preferences. While you rotate structures before placing them, the process can be somewhat tedious and even frustrating since it can be tough to find the right spot even though space is available.

Earlier I mentioned the side missions aimed at building up EXP. I found those missions particularly irksome because most of the time, they were just very difficult to solve. Another reason is that those side missions don’t involve battles, and I found they took away from the overall gaming experience with the main campaign. I’m not a big fan of IAP, but fortunately, you can bypass it by completing these side missions, which can be like choosing between a rock and hard place.

The campaign is where most players will spend their time and as with the placement of structures, there are certain rules to keep in mind. Since TWB is a lane-based tower defense at heart, one important point is that troops cannot move backwards once you’ve set them forward. I actually found this aspect adds to the strategic planning since you really have to plan attacks while defending your own buildings. Once they’ve moved to a hexagon adjacent to an enemy, the soldier units automatically attack so there isn’t much else to do but watch. What would be helpful which the units are missing is a health indicator similar to what you would find in other castle and tower defense games.

The real-time element comes into play in the deployment of additional soldiers and selecting the right ones based on the enemy at hand. For instance, archers have a longer range of attack, while swordsmen are little more up close and personal. And you have to spawn strategically to replace soldiers who are killed because once an enemy moves to a hexagon, they own that grid until they move or are killed.

Another part of TWB that should resonate nicely is the ability to react quickly and making decisive strikes. Once an attack is set in motion, it can have a profound impact on the path of supporting soldiers. And, there’s a limit on how many units you can have on the field at any time, which takes away randomly spawning a huge army and turning the battle into a numbers game. For players who enjoy strategy, this adds an element of balance forcing you to choose the most appropriate soldiers and units.

TWB does have its share of issues. Not helped by any means from clunky control arrows, the gameplay is slow and deliberate. The units move at a snail’s pace, and the lack of a fast forward option will easily drag out a level to at least 10 minutes. In addition, the game does not include any directions beyond the basic information about each unit and structure. If you’re not familiar with the Total War series, you can feel a little lost in the beginning.

The game has Game Center support and achievements which does lessen the blow from the lack of a skirmish mode. But again, online play is sorely missing here.

Total War Battles offers an engaging visual gameplay even with its shortcomings. With a focus on the animated battles which really are distinctive and entertaining, this lane-based strategy game delivers an atmospheric experience that most will find worthwhile.

Albie Meter: 4 Stars (terrific visuals for a strategy game; campaign mode only and lacks skirmish and online gameplay; good deal of nuances adds to an otherwise strategy-laden game; slow paced with no fast forward option complemented by clunky arrow control buttons; GameCenter support and achievements)

One of the great things about the iTunes store is the seemingly endless game releases each week. Of course, there are only so many hours in the day so finding the better games came be a chore. Fortunately, a mostly terrific game by GameLab launched this week that goes by the name of Lock ‘n’ Load, a content-rich twin-stick shooter that looks and plays as its name suggests. Aside from a questionable in-game currency system, LnL is an engaging experience driven by some really great visuals and humorous voice overs.

First off, if you’re a fan of classic horror movies, LnL doesn’t disappoint. The devs obviously love their flesh eating zombies, homicidal maniacs, freaky clowns and murderous temperamental females. These enemies if you can call them that are a tour de force when it comes to scaring people until they wet their pants. Speaking of murderous females, the storyline centers around an evil girl who dreams of conquering the world by creating her own equally evil and super bad army. While not completely original, the storyline progressively unfolds throughout which I think provides that intangible known as personality to the game.

The hero is equally as maniacal complete with goalie mask but in a good way. If it weren’t for the other hockey mask-wearing psychopaths, our hero would probably qualify since he has that distinct Jason Voorhees trademark look down pat. Along with a spunky wheelchair bound Grandma, the hero is a retiree whose anger is set off by these maniacs stomping through his garden. Already sounds like your typical Charles Bronson movie, right?

Visually, LnL is a great looking game presented with high-resolution 3D animation and equaled only by its awesomely cheesy voice acting. The various rooms and environments are beautifully rendered and pop off the iPad screen. The shadowing and texturing are well done and provide a good feeling of depth. The colors are vibrant and the characters come off looking polished and unpolygon-like which is all you can ask for when talking monsters.

For a game of this type, LnL has a pretty decent amount of content consisting of a 16-level campaign in the main storyline, and an additional nine-level Call of the Minions campaign and six challenge maps. Offered with Normal and Hard modes, there are about 32 enemy types and a good arsenal of weapons that would make Soldier of Fortune proud.

The game has a questionable currency system where money is accumulated by killing enemies (which I’ll explain later), and challenge maps are unlocked through a combination of cash and picking up Gifts. These Gifts are hidden throughout the levels in the main campaign, and you need to pick up 3 Gifts to unlock the challenge maps. LnL has some upgrades in terms of weapons and health that can be acquired through normal gameplay as well as IAP. I found the IAP relatively non-intrusive if you’re willing to grind through the main campaign and challenge maps, but you’ll see later there are problems. Also, the Call of Minions campaign is unlocked once you have enough cash, but you can also acquire the cash reserves through the IAP.

If you’re into dressing up Jason, I mean your hero, there are different skins or outfits that can be purchased with the cash you’ve accumulated. Again, these can also be purchased via IAP (gotta love enterprising devs!).

The gameplay in LnL is what you would expect with a dual-stick shooter, although it’s still very entertaining. The enemies aren’t easy to kill and they are relentless. From the crow unleashing Scarecrow to the pumpkin grenade tossing Mr. Pumpkin Head, there’s a certain respect you develop for the devs in what they throw at you. The boss fights are pretty challenging as well. There’s even one in particular involving a giant octopus aptly named Octo who you try to kill in a swimming pool. Don’t get me started with the mini-gauntlet where your hero attempts to pick up some LnL cash and goodies while being chased by a giant pumpkin head.

Besides that, you’ll face a good amount of other challenges. One for instance is the Ring of Fire where your hero is encircled by fire that moves along with him even as he kills enemies. The catch of course is to keep your hero from touching the fire while dodging and lodging attacks. Otherwise, it’s an instant end for all that’s concerned.

The controls work well and consist of a d-pad for moving and another for shooting which allows for simultaneous moving and shooting. Weapons that are available appear as buttons around the weapons control d-pad which are easily accessed on screen. A slight hitch is that it can be easy to accidentally switch weapons since the buttons are located close to the d-pad. A health gauge tracks the battle worthiness of your hero and handy button shows how much health potion is available in case your hero needs a boost.

The level design is rather well thought out because a certain degree of exploration is involved. Outside of blasting away at enemies, a lot of nooks and crannies exist which make them fair game for hiding cash and Gifts. Your hero will venture through graveyards, mansions and towns each of which have just the right amount of eeriness. In the Campaign mode, certain entrances are locked, and you must clear out sections of all enemies before you gain access. Certain sections within levels involve capturing the necessary number of items while dodging and killing enemies. Others are almost mini-survival levels where the enemies relentlessly attack.

To add another layer of variety, your sidekick Grandma is sometimes thrown into the mix. Her old age and wheelchair may be deceiving, but she packs quite the wallop. In those sections, you’ll maneuver Grandma in her specially adapted apparatus to take out psychopathic swarms. In the special Call of Minions campaign, players are introduced to a new character, Lady Vill, a “heartless female killing machine.” As is typical with the hormone-driven video game industry, Lady Vill is heavy on cleavage and firepower, and still maintains a good degree of mobility. The Call of Minions campaign is on par if not slightly better than the main storyline campaign, and there are a number of hidden goodies if you can there…which brings me to the game’s currency system.

While the gameplay in the campaigns themselves are relatively well balanced, tying them to a questionable in-game currency has a way of impacting the entire package. This is undoubtedly the weak point of LnL because the majority of players will likely need to spend additional money on IAPs if they want to unlock other areas. Within each level, there is a finite number of enemies that can be killed, which makes earning enough cash to unlock Call of Minions near impossible considering all the other powerups (e.g. health, weapons upgrades) that you’ll need to purchase. I consider myself to be an above average player, and in Normal mode, it’s difficult to complete certain levels unscathed or without upgrades.

Even some of the typical upgrades are difficult to reach given the significant amount of in-game cash required. The challenge maps offer survival modes as well as timed sections and mini puzzles where cash can be earned, but those also require cash to unlock in the first place. Unlocking the entire game along with unlimited cash will cost you $15. Note that I ended up purchasing the necessary in-game cash to unlock Call of Minions.

LnL has Crystal game support and achievements which add to the replay value, but lack of GameCenter or OpenFeint support may be an issue for some.

All in all, Lock ‘n’ Load is a great game with terrific graphics and plenty of content if you can get over the currency system. The game’s strong qualities such as engaging storyline and levels make it worth checking out.

Albie Meter: 4 Stars (fantastic animation and fun gaming experience; plenty of variety in terms of content and enemy variation; engaging storyline and well thought out level designs; in-game currency system needs tweaking with prolonged grinding required in order to bypass IAPs which can be a turnoff; Crystal game support)

Bullet Time, pulp fiction, New York Minute…sounds like Max Payne’s back in the house.

Max Payne is in many ways an icon in the video game industry you just knew would eventually show up for the iOS party. Like the Mario Brothers and Sonic the Hedgehog, he’s the kind of guy you want on your side. In this latest reincarnation for our revenge seeking vigilante hero, Max Payne in his dated glory is still the man when it comes to a story-driven, intense third-person shooter.

Ported to the iOS by Rockstar Games, the story of Max Payne opens with gut-wrenching, emotionally-charged scenes that set the tone for the rest of the game. A tale that involves the demise of his family, the search for the truth and ultimately, the hunt for revenge, I would argue that the story in Max Payne remains as strong as it ever has been compared to many of today’s games where storytelling is so secondary. Even the voice acting from a decade ago helps to build the anger, desperation, and hatred that transform Max Payne into who he is.

As a third-person shooter, Max Payne has all the elements you want. From dodging and jumping to stealth and Bullet Time slow-motion, the game provides an involved and engaging experience. The adventure follows a nine-chapter storyline and offers a number of modes including Fugitive, Hard-Boiled, Dead on Arrival and New York Minute. Fugitive mode offers relatively easy gameplay where Max suffers less damage, finds ample supplies of painkillers to repair health, and has more ammo than you can shoot a mobster with. New York Minute is a great game mode where Max is challenged to clear out levels within a limited time period.

While the game has been around for more than a decade and I know most reviewers like to review based on nostalgia, it’s probably fair to look at Max Payne from the perspective of today’s gaming audience. Visually, Max Payne is a good looking game with detailed environments that draw the player in. The story is presented in comic book cut scenes accompanied by what I consider really excellent voiceover. The voiceovers are worth pointing out because there is a certain talent involved in coming off convincingly. Believe me, it’s night and day when listening to good and bad voice actors and Max Payne fortunately did them right.

The graphics and animation look terrific on the latest iPad, and they look fine on older generation iPads and the iPhone. Remarkably, while the graphics are from a 10+ year old game, they look comparable to many of today’s game. Don’t get me wrong, Max is showing some wrinkles. Besides some of the low resolution images which aren’t really bad, the other hitch is that the faces of people look pasted onto to square-like heads which can look awkward and even a little freaky. However, most importantly, Max Payne runs rather smoothly on the new iPad, although there is an occasional minor lag on the original iPad.

The game has a tutorial which I suggest for new players that gets you familiar with the various controls. Speaking of the controls, the devs do a rather nice job converting a PC mouse-controlled game to touch screen. Moving and turning done by tapping and dragging on the screen are more than adequate, although they can feel a little loose at times. For more specific actions, buttons are provided for jumping and opening doors and moving while jumping will generate other actions such as rolling for example. A shooting button is also provided, and an Auto Aim function is included that you can turn on/off. In general, I suggest turning on the Auto Aim function because I found shooting lacked accuracy otherwise. A Bullet Time button activates slow motion and generally works well especially since you can see bullet trails galore (ala The Matrix).

Everything is neatly integrated into a simple HUD. The HUD displays everything from weapons and ammo levels to the amount of bullet time in the form of an hourglass. Switching between weapons is as simple as swiping the weapon icon to shuffle amongst your arsenal. There is a good degree of customization and button placement, although I found the default placement more than adequate. But, if you desire, you can move and place buttons where you like.

In terms of the gameplay, Max Payne benefits greatly from the atmospheric, mood-setting storyline. For new players, Max Payne starts off rather slowly, but the latter part of the game is really where things liven up. Whether you’re in a lonely subway or in a seedy brothel, the game does an effective job of establishing and building a good amount of tension and intensity. Even as you peak around a bathroom stall door, you feel a bit of paranoia creep up on you.

Also, there is a good mix of heavy action as well as stealth activities. The gun battles with the mafia are wild and persistent, and can be quite graphic (for an iTunes game). Humor is a big part of Max Payne so there are plenty of situations where you may actually enjoy eavesdropping on some of the funny conversations between mobsters before you blow them away.

While they work more than adequately, the touch controls can offer a fair share of annoyances keeping in mind that this game was originally PC mouse based. One general annoyance is the lack of precision. There are a number of platforming elements in the game (i.e. jumping between subway trains) that can be tedious. Other times, turning and moving can require more tweaking than you’d like.

Aside from the good, albeit temperamental controls, and the occasional lag, the game inconsistently implements Auto Save. For a game such as this, checkpoints and Auto Save are almost mandatory. Unfortunately, players will need to manually save progress. Otherwise, you’re looking at a lot of pain by Max Payne. Also, there is a slight load time of varying lengths in between chapters which can slow things down.

Instead of GameCenter support, Rockstar has implemented its Social Club which currently provides 41 achievements. I actually like the layout of the Social Club, and it’s a nice change of pace from GameCenter. Of course, this means achievements here aren’t tracked elsewhere.

Max Payne may be from another era, but he can still give today’s games a run for their money. This third-person shooter has something that other games still struggle for today—personality. The terrific voice acting, engaging storyline and atmospheric tone throughout is still one of Max Payne’s biggest differentiators. For old school gamers, Max Payne will bring back memories of sitting in front of your PC monitor with mouse and Cheetos in hand. Those new to Max Payne will enjoy the intensity and humor and just maybe have a better appreciation of what old school means.

Albie Meter: 4.5 Stars (excellent port of a classic with great storyline; atmospheric game with personality the delivers intense gameplay; touch controls are more than adequate but can temperamental and require tweaking; inconsistent auto save function means relying on manual saves; Rockstar Social Club achievements and tracking)


Gaming on Apple’s mobile devices has often been dissed for being too basic or gimmicky.  For the most part, that is a relatively accurate statement primarily because the target audience is the casual player.  Take for instance, Sunside’s Crow, a stunning visual extravaganza that attempts to deliver a story-driven action adventure.  A wonderfully beautiful game that takes full advantage of the processing power of the new iPad, the game focuses more on an immersive experience than on the actual gameplay.  Depending on your personal taste, that may just be enough to satisfy.

As the title suggests, it can be pretty much assumed that you’ll be playing a crow.  Crows may not be the bird of choice for many, but they are one of the smartest.  For the most part, let’s just say the intelligence of the crow in this game will rely heavily on your focus and intelligence.  Other times, your intelligence may have you questioning the gameplay.  Crow is a story-driven game where players maneuver your feathered friend through a number of obstacles, collect items, and learn and build skills all with the overall goal of defeating some strangely maniacal bosses.

Visually speaking, Crow is one of the most, if not the most, amazingly gorgeous games in the iTunes store.  The devs have created an engaging fantasy world that doesn’t disappoint.  From flying high above isolated fields and snowy mountaintops to swooping through dark caverns and ducking monsters, Crow is visually fantastic.  Running this on the latest iPad, the animations are crisp and smooth, and accompanied by a terrifically atmospheric soundtrack, the devs would seemingly have the makings of a great experience on their hands.  The 3D imagery, texturing and shadowing is simply top notch, providing a degree of realism that shows how far the iPad has come over the years.

The controls are relatively easy on paper and involve touching in the direction to move, drag to steer and tap to stop.  The reality is these types of controls tend to obscure the screen which isn’t ideal, but certainly work.

Along the way, you’ll come across a number of storypoints that provide a bit of narrative text that can be revisited at any time.  Don’t worry too much about the storyline because for the most part, it doesn’t make too much sense.  Part of the game involves collecting gems which can then be used to acquire and upgrade skills such as regeneration, efficiency and protection.  Later on during boss battles, the game provides gesture controls which involve swiping to attack and drawing a circle to block and shield.

When it comes to the gameplay in Crow, it will almost certainly be a mixed bag for many players.  The game is a combination of on and off rail elements that in general work well, but can also be repetitive.  Exploration is part of the allure of Crow, and as expected, the free roam aspect is core to “soaring in the sky”.  This aspect of the game is more passive in that you can take your time to look for gems, review storypoints and in general, fly around the various environments.  The on-rail component occurs in the battle scenes where for the most part, you’re automatically directed through the level.  Of course, there is a bit of decision-making and quick reflexes in these sections since they involve initiating and dodging attacks.

A gold orb gradually charges up and once fully charged, you tap the orb and use touch gestures to attack or defend.  The action is simple enough since you swipe across the boss or circle the screen, but over the course of the game, this can become tedious especially when you miss.  What happens is that the crow will repeat the same course along the same path to make another pass.  Again, this on-rails aspect felt flat because there didn’t seem to be much variety.  The boss fights which should’ve been much bigger became more of a missed opportunity for the game.

Along the way, you’ll also unlock Challenge levels which involve reflex-intense gameplay and leverage the skills learned along the way.  These levels are available to play outside of the story-driven campaign, and generally, they’re mini-games designed to keep your skills in check.

Honestly, the gameplay by itself can feel one-dimensional, and the imaginative world in Crow really does most of the work in keeping players engaged.  As mentioned, the ability to roam is Crow’s biggest gameplay strength, but keep in mind that the free roam areas aren’t particularly large.  What you have there is good and you’ll want to explore as much as you can.  Crow also offers GameCenter support and achievements which adds to the overall game.

Crow is an imaginative action adventure game presented in easily one of the best looking visual experiences you’ll come across.  For many, however, the gameplay while adequate is not on par with the visuals.  Combining on rails and free roam elements, Crow provides a decent game, but check your expectations at the door if you’re looking for more than a visual experience.

Albie Meter: 4 Stars (one of the best looking visual experiences in iTunes gaming; smooth animation and graphics with a good degree of realism; mixed bag when it comes to decent gameplay but also feels like a missed opportunity; on and off rail elements complement each other, but depth may be a turnoff; GameCenter support and achievements)

Over the years, various scientific studies have linked playing video games to better brain function.  This has to do with the coordination, focus and multitasking involved which stimulates key parts of the mind.  One good example is Amoebattle by Grab Games, a real-time strategy (RTS) game that not only provides an entertaining yet challenging experience, but does a terrific job incorporating multi-touch controls.  Bolstered by eye-catching artwork and animation and a microscopic storyline that plays bigger than it sounds, Amoebattle may be just what the doctor ordered.

The premise behind Amoebattle centers around waging war on a microscopic level with the overall goal of domination.  In this world, we’re talking about germs and bugs fighting over a primordial turf where players are tasked with stopping a spreading infection.  Not to worry if you’re not into germs because Amoebattle is more than appealing for the hypochondriacs in all of us.

Before you jump into the game itself, the artwork itself is worth checking out especially on a retina-display iPad or iPhone.  Unique in its presentation, the colors and animation by themselves bring the game to life. Each of the twelve missions takes players through 4 highly imaginative environments—Mushroom Forest, Primordial Sea, Lavalands, Final Battle—that successfully make fungus, algae and other microbes intriguing and lively.  The serene and melodic soundtrack provides a surprisingly good audio backdrop that subtly yet effectively builds up the intensity within each battle.

In the microscopic world, the name of the game is survival with nourishment and procreation core to success.  Fortunately, the controls in Amoebattle are intuitive and a pleasure to use.  The control options allow for variations on how to move amoeba troops from tapping to drawing lines.  Movement of amoebas in mass can be accomplished by tapping and holding a specific troop or by drawing a circle around a group.  Moving a single troop is done by tapping on the specific unit.  And, adjusting the camera angle can be done by dragging the screen using one or two fingers.

While directional pads and accelerometer controls have their place in games, line drawing gestures on touch mobile devices has always seemed innovative to me because they involve such a natural and carefree action.  In Amoebattle, I found the line drawing gestures extremely useful because again it ties into a person’s instinctive behavior to simply draw, circle and move.  While the devs could have installed a d-pad control scheme, I think that would have taken away from the overall experience.

Throughout the game, players are accompanied by an AI assistant named AMI who looks like something you’d find at Toys ‘r Us.  For the most part, AMI provides tutorial information, environmental and enemy backgrounds and warnings when warranted, but don’t expect him to wrestle muscle-bound amoebas for you.

The enemies in this tiny world come in three classes—herbivores, carnivores, and omnivores—each with unique attributes and abilities.  An added factor is the environmental setting which can provide a significant competitive advantage depending on the enemy.  For example, omnivores tend to love the undergrowth, while herbivores seem stronger in the grasslands.  Also, the damage inflicted by enemy types varies greatly with some having more long-range capabilities while others like to be up close and personal.

As I mentioned, nourishment and procreation are essential for success.  As your little guys attack and destroy enemies, they actually feed on them building up their energy levels.  Each microbe has energy and health bars that provides a status update, and there’s a handy procreate button that can instantly double your amoeba forces.  Of course, the energy levels gradually regenerate over time and by feeding on algae.  Speaking of which, one of the strengths of Amoebattle is the elegant HUD that provides a useful yet uncluttered display of everything you’ll need.  From maps and weapons to mission objectives and energy levels, this is one of the better displays I’ve seen.

Two words sum up Amoebattle’s gameplay: challengingly fun.  The game doesn’t insult players with trivial or monotonous exercises.  Every activity has direct impact to the overall success and failure of the mission.  Whether it’s feeding on algae or procreating at just the right time, efforts aren’t wasted.   And to keep things balanced, players can only have a maximum of 25 troops at any given time which is a nice touch.  So you can’t simply adopt an out-of-control reproduction strategy to advance.

The missions themselves are varied and can range from collecting items to destroying specific enemies.  One of the nice things about the HUD is that a running count is constantly in view so there’s no guessing or having to flip back and forth between windows.  As more enemies are destroyed, your amoeba armies analyze the DNA which can then be used to mutate your little guys…seriously.  This is really a well-developed part of Amoebattle because it becomes a key part of your strategic and tactical planning.

The combat is mostly automated so you simply select troops, point them in the right direction, and they go at it.  There is a good degree of micromanagement allowed so players can move and direct groups and individuals as needed.  While the line drawing works well, I think it’s probably even more appropriate for smaller screen devices where bigger fingers would otherwise have issues.

GameCenter support is offered as are a number of achievements of varying difficulty.  The achievements focus on milestones such as completing missions, minimizing damage to amoeba troops, and even keeping your procreation activities to a minimum.

A drawback with Amoebattle is the absence of a skirmish mode.  Currently, the game is limited to twelve-mission campaign, although the difficulty level in the later missions can make them pretty time consuming.  Most players regardless of the experience with the RTS genre should get more than enough play from the existing campaign mode.  However, for advanced players, the lack of a skirmish may be an issue, although developers have promised this in a future update.

Another minor issue worth noting is that Amoebattle could use a reference section providing backgrounds on the various enemies if not just a general Help section.  While the HUD is one of the best, the supporting materials such as a non-existent Help area and the overall menu are bare bones.

Amoebattle is an imaginative RTS that delivers a uniquely engaging and intense experience.  The variety of enemies and the level of strategy involved as well as the intuitive control scheme make this a welcome addition to fans of the genre.  Along with the impressive artwork and elegant interface, Amoebattle provides more than enough to keep your brain on its toes.

Albie Meter: 4 Stars (imaginative RTS with intuitive controls; line drawing controls tied to micromanaging units work well; elegant interface and beautiful graphics and animation; good depth in terms of content; well-balanced campaign-only mode although later missions can be difficult for new players; GameCenter support/achievements; lacks skirmish mode but promised in a future update)

Many casual gamers have a natural affection for Match 3 which is a good reason why the concept has succeeded on the platform.  The pick-up-and-play simplicity along with an engaging experience makes for an easy choice.  Of course, the concept can quickly become stale if there isn’t a “higher purpose” to it.  Kitten Sanctuary by Clockwork Pixels successfully uses a novel approach by combining a charming Match 3 with a personality-laden pet sim.  While the cutesy title may dissuade some, it would be an understatement to say that they would be missing out on a very complete and entertaining game.

As the name suggests, Kitten Sanctuary centers on the protection of felines, and in this case, the enemies are catnapping aliens.  Go figure how the devs came up with that storyline, but I guess zombies would’ve been too obvious.  Aliens have gone around Kitten Island capturing kittens, and the goal is not only to rescue them, but also keep them fed and happy.  The general objective of the game is Match 3 so the concept should be pretty inviting to those who enjoy this type of gameplay, but also to others who want a little more with their matching games.

Kitten Sanctuary has a lot of content providing 100 levels with three game modes—easy going, normal, and tricky.  Easy going mode is an untimed experience that provides a number of power ups.  Normal mode is timed and thus kittens face getting catnapped if levels aren’t cleared within the allotted time.  Tricky mode provides a longer time limit although tile clearance is much more difficult.

The way to look at Kitten Sanctuary is as two separate parts—Match 3 and pet sim—since they are both different in what they offer.  Yet, both parts impact each other over the course of the game, which is what makes Kitten Sanctuary such a rewarding experience.

The Match-3 part of Kitten Sanctuary offers some unique looking boards (aka Kitten Traps) each with their unique attributes that add to the overall difficulty.  Visually speaking, Kitten Sanctuary is much more elaborate than you’d expect.  Besides the colorful boards packed with items ready to be matched, the backgrounds are animated and entertainingly distracting.  Often, kittens roam across the forefront of the board with aliens flying around in their ships in the background.  Other times, it’s simply the carefree palm leaves motioning so there’s a good amount of detail included.  Accompanied by a cheery soundtrack that by itself should lift your spirits, the sound effects are well balanced since they’re not meant to overwhelm but only set the stage.

As for the Match 3 gameplay, Kitten Sanctuary offers a well-balanced experience with the different modes and board designs.  In each level, item matches must be strategically made and in addition to horizontal and vertical matches, the games allows for diagonal matches.  Diagonal matching adds a nice element to the game and forces players to think differently.  In general, items fall into four categories—food, drink, firewood, and credits.  Food and drink provide nourishment for rescued kitties, while firewood keeps fires burning to keep them warm.  Credits are gold and silver coins which can be accumulated via matches and used to purchase toys to keep kitties happy.

Within each level are gauges that track food, drink and firewood supplies.  As matches of relevant items are made, the gauge gradually fills up.  This is important as these supplies determine the health and satisfaction of the kittens in the sanctuaries.  For players, this additional element makes every match as important as the next.

Each board contains a number of energized red squares, and in order to successfully clear a level, matches must be made within all of those squares.  Eventually, certain boards will contain locked tiles that require matching to unlock.  The degree of difficulty varies, but within a limited time limit and based on the design of the board, these can be quite challenging.

Kitten Sanctuary also incorporates a number of power ups which appear when match chains of four or more tiles are made.  These power ups are activated by tapping them.

Shuffle—shuffles surrounding tiles

Bomb—removes surrounding tiles

Fireball—removes entire lines of tiles

Time—temporarily freezes the level timer

Locations—highlights matching tiles

Lucky—temporarily allows matches of any tiles

As a Match 3 standalone, Kitten Sanctuary is full of content and has enough variety to make it a terrifically engaging game.  Because there are different modes, players should be able to find something that suits them.  But, what further differentiates Kitty Sanctuary is the pet sim element which is charming and cute.  As levels are cleared and kittens are rescued, they can be nurtured and cared for within one of four sanctuaries—Beach, Forest, Mountain and Lake—which are unlocked as players progress through the game.

The sanctuaries themselves are basically cat parks where the kittens can roam.  Within each sanctuary, players can purchase items such as toys and decorations to spruce up the surroundings.  Credits in the form of coins are earned both from completing levels as well as matches made during the Match 3 portion.  Also, if you don’t manage to make enough matches to fill up on food, drink and firewood supplies, these credits can be used to purchase the necessary supplies.

What’s really neat about the sanctuaries is the amount of interaction that players can have with their feline friends.  While I’m not a huge cat fan, Kitten Sanctuary really grows on you which is saying a lot.  Each adoring kitten has unique personality traits and moods which require attention.  Tapping on each kitten brings up short profile about their likes and dislikes, and the state of their mood.  Also, events windows appear highlighting certain kittens that may require additional attention, whether it’s a nightmare or wanting more toys among other things.

You are more or less forced to nurture your little kitties by playing with them and in general, paying attention to their mood swings.  Purchases within the shop such as balls of yarn, wind-up mice or bicycle horns can be used to boost their mood levels.  The consequence of ignoring them is the kittens will take off leaving the sanctuary which you really don’t want.  If enough kittens bail, you won’t be able to unlock other sanctuaries.

Kitten Sanctuary does have some minor issues worth noting.  Sometimes, taps to switch tiles fail to register and require multiple taps.  In addition, the game could use a zoom function not only during the Match 3 portion, but also for use with the rescued kittens in the sanctuaries.  Another involves items such as trampolines and food bowls which for whatever reason players cannot move.  While the game offers a trophy room for a number of in-game achievements, there isn’t currently any GameCenter support or achievements.

In general, Kitten Sanctuary is complete offering giving players the challenge of Match 3 play with the stickiness of a pet sim.  The engaging gameplay along with the cutesy, yet endearing qualities makes this a gem.  Every action within the Match 3 has a direct impact with the rescued kittens and vice versa which should appeal to gamers of all levels.  Regardless of whether you’re a dog or cat person, the devs have done a wonderful job creating an entertaining experience.

Albie Meter: 4.5 Stars (rewarding and engaging Match 3/pet sim that is as deep in content as it is in fun; game full of personality and charm with well-balanced difficulty; detailed graphics and animation with more than enough different twists and elements; in-game achievements but no GameCenter support; lite version also available)

Critics and supporters alike have long based their views of gaming on the iPhone and iPad on the production values of games in the form of graphics and animation.  Gameplay aside, many players do use the mantra of judging a book by its cover to make buying decisions.  With its first mobile release Fibble, Crytek obviously knew what it was doing delivering one of the most graphically amazing, near console-quality games to arrive on the platform.  While the simple, yet challenging puzzle game provides adequate fun, Fibble is one where looks is really the name of the game.

The game follows the adventures of Fibble, a cute orange alien who crash lands on Earth inside of all things a suburban home.  The goal is to help the chubby dude navigate through the home, find his friends, and return to his home planet.

I grew up watching Toy Story, and I have to say that Fibble borders on that level of animation and detail.  The 3D graphics are beautifully rendered crafted models, accompanied by perfect lighting and great textures that pop off the iPad screen.  Vibrant colors and the attention to details should garner Crytek an award just for the visuals.

The game takes place in four rooms: Kitchen, Kid’s Room, Bathroom and Basement with 30 levels.  The various rooms are highly detailed and the artwork really highlights what is possible for the platform.  From the coffee beans sitting on the kitchen counter and knick-knacks in the basement to the toy soldiers in the kid’s bedroom and shampoo bottle in the bathroom, you’ll see this is quite the accomplishment.

Within each room are stars and coins that can be collected to unlock rooms as well a key that unlocks bonus levels.  Fibble does offer IAP for players who want to unlock all rooms or bonus levels at once, and also a Flying Saucer to aid in collecting coins and stars.  Keep in mind that none of the IAP are needed to progress in the game which should silence the non-IAP fans in us.

Along for Fibble’s journey through suburban living are his friends—Byte, Docto, Vroom, Ragno, Klonk—each with his own special abilities. The creatures are as cute as Fibble, and the devs instill them with personality and humor.  For example, Byte is three-eyed cave digger who helps Fibble jump ledges, while Docto is a multi-legged octopus whose ability to redirect Fibble in new directions comes in handy.

Put simply, the gameplay is really physics-based hole in one.  Using touch gestures, players drag Fibble back to control the intensity and direction and then release to send him on his merry journey.  The level design is worth noting because of the great 3D animation and graphics.  Each level consists of paths become more elaborate deeper into the game.  The paths are illustrated with arrows pointing in the direction that Fibble travels so there’s a bit of planning and visualization required on the player’s part.  Coins and stars dot the path along with bumpers along key corners that can be used to project or continue Fibble’s momentum.  To succeed in the level, players must get Fibble to the end which is literally a hole.

The devs do a fairly good job of creating levels that are visually complex.  I say “visually complex” because the levels aren’t overly difficult to complete, but more on that later.  There are levels that involve a number of twists and turns, jumps and sliding obstacles, switches and platforms that are more than challenging.  And, the game’s drag and zoom functionality work well in scoping out the landscape.  Not that players haven’t seen this before in the iTunes store, the challenge is using what’s available to your advantage.  As mentioned with scoring, the neat part of the game which takes on a Rube Goldberg-esque feel is that from a technical standpoint, players should be able to complete each level with one flick.

An added dynamic involve Fibble’s friends and in later levels, players have the flexibility and challenge in placing these friends on specially marked areas.  The twist to the gameplay is that players can activate these special abilities through well-timed tapping on the screen.  Tap too late, and you may not get the speed boost needed from Vroom to get Fibble up an steep pathway.  Jumping ledges can also be just as difficult because tapping Byte a little too soon can send Fibble over the side.  It goes without saying that placing these friends at the wrong spot can result in dire consequences for Fibble so you’ll definitely want to experiment.

Because of Fibble’s rolling ability, another little twist to keep in mind is that players can use the device’s accelerometer to tilt and change Fibble’s direction.  Whenever Fibble begins losing momentum, tilting the device can provide just the right boost to keep him going.  This along with the other touches really does add some zing to the physics part of the game.

All this sounds like it should add up to great gameplay, but the execution teeters a bit along the way.  While experimenting makes the game challenging, Fibble is in many ways moderately easy for advanced players.  This is disappointing and ties into a drawback of the game: scoring.  In practice, each level provides an opportunity to win a gold, silver or bronze medal, and at the beginning of levels, milestones are provided that describe those parameters.  These can range from meeting scoring requirements to how often the special abilities of Fibble’s friends are used.  Scoring is also based on how quickly levels are completed as well as coins and stars collected.

The reality is that achieving a gold medal becomes a relatively easy and less than satisfying exercise.  Without even collecting all the coins and stars within levels can result in a gold medal which tends to defeat the purpose of the system in the first place.  The game does offer GameCenter support for high scores along with in-game achievements that range from completing levels and rooms and objectives to creative uses of Fibble’s friends.

Having said all this, while the game is generally fun, it is decidedly average when compared to the great 3D animation.  To some, the overwhelmingly great animation fairly or not will likely not overcome the actual gameplay.  Typically, an argument can be made that high-caliber gameplay matters more than visuals.  This is one of those instances where the visuals set a high bar and leaves the gameplay a few notches below.  So players will need to decide for themselves whether the actual game elements are of interest.

Overall, Fibble will receive a load of well-deserved praises for this 3D animation masterpiece.  Rightfully so, the game is arguably one of the best looking games for the platform.  While the adequate gameplay should appeal to many with quirky characters and terrific game mechanics, it may also leave some wondering if that beauty is just skin deep.

Albie Meter: 4.5 Stars (amazing 3D animation and artwork among the best on the platform; gameplay concept with some terrifically visual and complex level designs; puzzle difficulty borders on the easy side for advanced players; more ideal for novice and younger players; scoring more forgiving than it should be; GameCenter support and achievements)