What would you get if you combined the adventure and exploration of Zelda with the arcade antics of Mario Bros?  You’d likely get Touch Foo’s Swordigo, a wonderfully fun and surprisingly deep platformer that ranks as one of the best of the genre to date on the iOS.  Filled with puzzles, quests and of course battles, Swordigo is an impressive game incorporated in a vast world with a good dose of RPG elements.

Set in the village of Cairnwood, the main character in Swordigo is an apprentice who finds himself thrust into the role of hero after his master is killed by the Corruptors, an evil legion intent on conquest.  Throughout the adventure, quests and battles will take you through worlds where locating treasure is just the tip of the peasant iceberg.

An effective platformer is often able to create a world that not only engages the player, but also provides a lasting effect.  Presented in 2.5D, the world in Swordigo has a unique charm and allure that takes on a life of its own.  From lighting effects to textures, each of the environments is filled with details that help the game stand on its own.  Running this on an iPad, the animation is smooth with good sense of depth.  Whether it’s the isolation of an abandoned castle or simply the wind blowing through the trees, Swordigo is one of charm and allure.

Of course, the hack and slash nature of the battle scenes make Swordigo even better.  The control scheme is pretty straightforward with left and right buttons for movement and action buttons for such things as jumping, sword hacking and slashing, moving/holding items, and conjuring magic spells. The button placement is customizable, and you’ll likely want to move the hack and slash button away a bit from the jump button which can inadvertently be hit.

Swordigo has an intuitive inventory system to keep track of acquired items as well as RPG elements.  From this area, players can also keep track of quests which are presented as conversations.

Something that sets Swordigo apart from the typical platformer is how the game is presented.  Unlike other platformers which are broken into different levels, Swordigo is one giant world presented at your footsteps for discovery.  For the player, this firmly and effectively establishes that feeling of mystery and exploration.  As levels are completed, other areas and places are revealed.

The RPG elements are another area that not only provides another layer of complexity to the game, but helps balance out the flow of the gameplay.    These elements focus on Health, Sword, and Magic.  For Health, you can increase longevity which will come in handy as the levels become more complex and difficult.  Sword boosts the damage inflicted on enemies.  Magic, which is represented by a meter in the HUD and gradually recharges after each use, can be recharged faster with allocating more points to this element.  The elements are easily customizable and designed with the casual gamer in mind within a user-friendly screen.

In Swordigo’s world, adventure is core to the enjoyment of the game.  Players will find plenty to explore.  Crystal shards can be acquired along the way which can be used to purchase health potions and weapons from the village store.  In addition, health and magic potions can also be found on the journey by destroying enemies, but also on occasion from cutting down plants.

Speaking of enemies, there are more than enough dangers lurking.  The living and breathing ones include a variety of giant grass spiders, cave crawlers, man-eating snapper plants, boulder shooting tortoises, and spike-laden turtles among others.

The bosses themselves can be pretty ruthless, and given the way the “levels” are presented in Swordigo, can appear at the most surprising times.  With names such as Szan the Angry, Boulder the Golem, Zak the Bandit Leader, and Edogani the Deadly, these battles are intensely satisfying.

The world in Swordigo is begging for exploration with plenty of nooks and crannies for doing just that.  Treasure chests are located throughout, but most of the time, they’re well hidden, requiring a bit of digging.  In fact, you’ll find yourself at the end of a particular adventure quicker than expected and then turning around to locate your booty.  That’s the beauty of Swordigo—often, the simplest path isn’t the well chosen path.

While the game is designed so that it can be completed without the deeper exploration, most will find these hidden rewards worth the risk.  These treasures can range from more powerful swords and spells to tools and gadgets that make advancing much easier.  Players may even discover RPG elements within these areas so they’re definitely worth checking out.  For example, players will come across a chamber covered in purple slime that requires the dragon grasp spell.  Other times, more powerful spells such as missile and bomb spells supplement your arsenal.

As is typical with other platformers, there are side quests to be found.  Swordigo does a nice job of integrating other characters that provide advice and warnings along the way.  Other times, they can rather mundane and harmless.

The environments themselves are full of hidden doorways, switches, pressure plates, and moving platforms.  Often what you’ll find which players may find challenging and frustrating in the good sense is a locked door after making it through a dangerous set of obstacles.  Wouldn’t you know that the key happens to be located back on the other side of the obstacles?  Beyond the living and breathing enemies, the obstacles add to the character and enjoyment of Swordigo.  From swinging axes to randomly appearing spikes, getting through in one piece is a lot tougher than it looks.

Swordigo also incorporates a portal system so players can travel from one area to another relatively quickly.  This makes the treasure hunting process much more feasible for those of us who don’t have the patience of taking the long and treacherous way.

The gameplay in Swordigo is its core strength, and the fluid controls and the depth of the content are significant.  With plenty of areas to explore in its vast world, the hack and slash nature of the game give Swordigo the makings of an enduring classic.  As you level up your character, there’s a nice balance in the difficulty.  The sword wielding battles are both challenging and intense, but the game doesn’t insult your intelligence.  Players will face decisions in the path well chosen as well as logically solving puzzles and collecting the right pieces to do so.  Other times, success and failure comes to down to well-coordinated timing from jumping platforms to sword-blocking attacks.

Swordigo also has GameCenter and Openfeint scoreboards and if the depth of the game by itself isn’t enough, achievements.  Most players will likely forgo the achievements in the near term with the sole purpose of completing the game.

The game isn’t perfect, and these are more minor issues than game breaking ones.  For one, the checkpoint system seems a little awkward which is noticeable after your little apprentice hero is dispatched and then magically reappears.  There are times where it almost feels like you have to start the entire world over or simply dropped off at some random point.  On that note and not that I’m complaining, there isn’t a penalty for the apprentice hero’s demise which almost makes the game too easy for some because he regenerates with full health and collected crystal shards intact.  Visually speaking, during attacks on enemies, an oversized health and level-up status bars appears which can be distracting.  Finally, one potential annoyance is the ongoing beep when you’re running low on health which is similar to the tone found in some vehicles when you leave the keys in the ignition.

Swordigo is a deep and intense platformer combining strategic RPG elements within a charming adventure.  Effectively presented as a vast and mysterious world, Swordigo provides a graphically wonderful presentation with satisfying battles and exploration that should entice novices and advance players alike, keeping them engaged for hours.

Albie Meter: 5 Stars (one of the best platformers available on the iOS with hours of content and gameplay; plethora of nooks and crannies worth exploring; simple, yet customizable controls; user-friendly RPG elements should appeal to all skill levels; GameCenter and Openfeint support)

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Polish and elegance are terms often used when describing games.  From the interface and controls to the graphics and animation, those characteristics are typically the foundation for success.  In the case of Azkend 2: The World Beneath by 10tons, the match 3 adventure game’s issue is not lack of polish or elegance, but rather flawed substance and execution.  While looks may be everything in today’s world, the guts under the hood Azkend 2 needs some fine tuning.  Instead of a sequel that should have outshined the original, what you have is a mediocre game.

As a huge fan of the original, I expected a similar experience with this second installment.  On the visual front, Azkend is a beautiful game with deep backgrounds and vibrant screens.  The devs created semi-realistic environments using texture and shadowing techniques that make each scene vivid and deceptively charming.  The animated game screens are enticing which is a significant plus since you’ll spend most of the time staring at them.  All of this is complemented by a whimsical soundtrack that creates an aura of wonder.

Azkend’s storyline revolves around you being shipwrecked in a fantastic world with the overall goal of making it back to civilization.  The story is intriguing, but of course, is innocuous and shallow.  The game offers three modes of play: Adventure, Time Challenge and Medals Challenge.  Adventure is the story mode that takes you through 60 levels with the overall objective of collecting pieces to form power ups.  Time Challenge provides a random puzzle where the goal is to score as many points as possible within the allotted time.  Medals Challenge provides puzzles based on completed levels in Adventure mode with a gold medal awarded for completing the puzzle quickly.

The game boards in Azkend 2 are well designed and vary from level to level.  To clear tiles, you must make matches of 3 or more like tiles to clear them off and turn the board blue.  Along the way, special pieces are acquired to complete tools and gadgets that serve as power ups.  The challenge of course is these pieces don’t appear until the entire board is blue, and you have a limited amount of time.

What I enjoyed about the original are the power ups, and that remains the case in this installment.  You’ll come across a number of different items from binoculars and glasses to dynamite and even gears.  Obstacles are part of the game, and these can range from fires and ice to locks and bugs.  These obstacles must be cleared before a level can be completed, and that’s where the power ups come in.

For example, the Hammer when activated by making a match of 3 or more of its tiles will turn parts of the board blue and potentially even knock out obstacles.  In other puzzles involving bugs, power ups are ultimately used to kill them.  Dynamite on the other hand explodes and knocks out tiles in the area as well as turns the board blue.  By completing each level in Adventure mode, you acquire a piece to form a specific power up to be used in the next chapters.  And, the Inventory area is set up so that you can pick and choose which power ups to use so there is a degree of configurability.

From a concept perspective, Azkend 2 sounds like a challenging game experience which for the most part it is.  Locating matching tiles, turning the board blue, and securing pieces of power ups is an engaging proposition that should appeal to many.  Plus, the time element adds a nice dynamic to the game, and watching the explosive animations on screen is a treat.  Where Azkend 2 suffers is in its execution with the puzzles themselves.

Too often, the randomly generated levels in Adventure mode are near impossible to clear and with the time element, you have a recipe for frustration.  Part of the strategy for players is that as more matches are made, electric coils gradually charge up which when fully charged can turn isolated tiles into blue ones.  Longer chains of 5+ tiles automatically generate a charge, which can be a significant strategic advantage.  However, what occurs frequently in Azkend 2 is the tiles given do not offer anything more than a match 3 so you find yourself unable to create longer chains.  Too many levels end unsuccessfully not because of poor strategy on the player’s part, but instead on the luck of the draw with the tiles.

What adds to the frustration is how frequent boards automatically reshuffle due to no more matches.  For example, the eyeglasses power up provides hints on matches.  More times than not, it will highlight a match 3 to be made, and that will turn out to be the only match available before the boards go into auto reshuffle.  I’ve had levels where reshuffling has happened at least four times in a single sitting.

Also parts of the story are provided through grand and vivid scenes, and as in the original, Azkend 2 inserts a scene match puzzle.  This is similar to hidden item games except the objective is to find randomly selected cut scenes in the overall picture.  Part of the problem is that this feels more like a tedious exercise than a fun game because most of the scenes can appear so generic you’d rather just skip it altogether.

Aside from the Time Challenge mode, there is no high score tracking although there is GameCenter achievements providing some albeit limited replay value.  Even in Time Challenge, a shortcoming is that none of the power ups acquired in Adventure mode can be used which for some, may take away from the experience.

When it comes to appearances, Azkend 2 is polished with an elegant design and in concept, a terrific game.  However, in gameplay, the execution may leave many wanting and frustrated.  While every game needs a degree of challenge, Azkend 2 takes it too far leaving gamers more discouraged than satisfied.

Albie Meter: 3 Stars (elegant and polished design with terrific animation and graphics; gameplay execution needs tweaking; luck of the draw with tiles makes it more a game of chance than player strategy; limited replay value in Adventure mode; Time Challenge does not allow the use of acquired power ups; GameCenter support and achievements)

The Apple iPad was designed for the casual consumer in mind with its minimalistic design and easy to use iTunes store.  So it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Sky Gamblers: Air Supremacy by Namco was featured in Apple’s keynote announcing the newest iPad.  From a marketing perspective, SGAS is a sleek, eye grabbing flight sim/arcade combat game that shows off the HD quality of the device while tapping into the casual gamer’s primal need for intensity and excitement.  From an actual gaming perspective, SGAS is a top-notch experience that should grab iPad and iPhone gamers across the board.  The game doesn’t offer anything that gamers haven’t seen before on the platform, but retina-supported graphics, varied content, and hybrid arcade/sim gameplay should incite the gaming masses with a highly immersive experience.

At its core, SGAS has a 10-mission campaign mode complemented by a variety of different game modes: Dogfight, Survival, Free for All, Team Deathmatch, Capture the Flag, Defend the Base.  There’s also a multiplayer mode allowing for local wifi and online gameplay which allows you to play the following:

Survival—tests skills against waves of enemies

Free for All—battle against up to 7 others

Team Deathmatch—4 on 4 air battle

Capture the Flag—battle for the enemy flag while protecting your own

Defend the Base—destroy enemy facilities while protecting your own

If you’re a novice or really haven’t played flight sims, SGAS has a good tutorial section that covers everything from basic controls and maneuvers to takeoff/landing and squadron commands.

SGAS has a storyline, but honestly, it’s almost non-existent and certainly non-essential for a game of this type.  The game has a good set of controls and customization options—simulator, casual accelerometer, casual control pad, and fixed control pad.  From the option, the simulator control option gives you full control of the aircraft by using roll, pitch and yaw controls.  In general, all the control options with exception of casual control pad are tilt-based meaning steering relies on the device accelerometer.  The tilt controls work fairly well, and you’ll want to adjust your accelerometer sensitivity to suit your preference.  For iPhone gamers, some of the buttons may be a little on the smallish side.

Weapons are displayed as their own set of icons on screen with a count of what’s available, and tapping on them will fire as needed.  A set of flares is also included which can used to divert enemy fire.  In addition, a camera option allows you to choose from a number of views including an inside-the-cockpit view.  Last but not least is the Auto-pilot button which ensures the plane stays level, allows for evasive maneuvers and avoids crashes into objects.  The only hitch is that you won’t be able to fire weapons in this mode.

Graphically speaking, SGAS looks fantastic on both the iPad and the iPad 2, and one can only assume that the HD screen of the iPad HD will only further enhance the visuals.  Currently, the marketing term “console quality” probably isn’t the most accurate for SGAS, but that’s not intended to disparage the great animation that is there.  From the reflection over water to the shadows of aircraft on mountainsides, this is a high-quality production for the platform.  On the other hand, graphics can appear jagged and rough around the edges especially when it comes to buildings and other structures.

The game runs smoothly on early generation devices, although there can be some stuttering and lag when flying through clouds or smoke.  I noticed this on both generations of iPad, but overall, a minor issue in the scheme of things.

The soundtrack has a decidedly Kenny Loggins without-the-lyrics feel to it from the movie Top Gun.  It certainly helps get you pumped for action, but I found it annoying after a few missions.  Fortunately, an option exists to turn off the soundtrack which I recommend.

SGAS’ is what you would expect—intense with a good mix of variety and chaos.  The missions take you through different environments from the desert to the sea with adequate supply of battles taking place over metropolises.  One of things with the game is that it requires a bit of practice and ultimately selecting the right set of controls.  Personally, I use the casual control pad with the accelerometer sensitivity set below the halfway mark.  Accelerometer-based controls tend to come down to personal preference, but I couldn’t imagine a better approach for SGAS.

The battles can be hectic, and SGAS does a good job of creating that immersive experience that can make or break this type of game.  There is a good feeling of speed as you perform maneuvers, and accounting for the high quality graphics and animation, SGAS is a good example of what is possible on the iPad.

Early missions focus on dogfights where you command a squadron that gradually evolves into base defense and the destruction of enemy convoys.  Commanding a squadron is accomplished by tapping a button located within the HUD.  It’s a simplistic approach, but one that allows you to choose from three commands: stay in formation, defend me, and attack.  Also, a radar tracks friendlies and enemies, while guide markers identify checkpoints and point in the direction of other aircraft.

Eventually, missions also involve locating and destroying secret bases and communication towers so there’s a bit of variety.  And, as you destroy enemy targets and complete missions, game points are awarded that will promote you through trainee, combatant and ace ranks.  In addition, additional aircraft (more than 40) are unlocked that you can also for online play.

While the game is marketed as a flight sim, one of things that you’ll notice with SGAS is the arcade-like feel.  Planes are overly flexible in their abilities, and some of the swipe gestures take away from the complete sim experience.  This is not intended to be a slight of SGAS at all, but you’ll notice it if you’ve played other flight sim games

As for the level of difficulty, the missions may be less than challenging for more experienced players.  Each mission has a number of objectives from something as landing at a designated site to destroying specific location sites.  Typically, enemy aircraft are not particularly good about defending sites.  Then there is the occasional occurrence where you can destroy enemy aircraft just as they spawn in view.  Of course, the great thing about SGAS are the chaotic air battles where there are swarms of planes in the air, and avoiding missiles is more reactive than planned.

Where most will get the biggest bang is in the multiplayer mode which I consider one of SGAS’ big strengths.  Playing either a quick game or entering an existing room and regardless of what mode you decide on—Survival, Free for All, Team Deathmatch, Capture the Flag, Defend the Base—each one offers a unique experience which I found extremely enjoyable.  Skill level is not a requisite so you’ll find gamers of all levels present, and you can choose to use any plane already unlocked.  Playing online, SGAS is terrific because it highlights the varying skill levels of others.  And the explosions help add to the overall feel as you destroy an online participant…yes, there’s no other way to put that.

Completing the missions of course doesn’t automatically guarantee you the highest rank so there is a good amount of replay value to score game points both in mission mode and online.  In addition, SGAS is GameCenter supported with numerous achievements for completing missions to enemy-related milestones.

Sky Gamblers: Air Supremacy is a fantastic flight/arcade sim that delivers a chaotic experience, one that novices and advanced gamers should enjoy.  The content is varied and plentiful and multiplayer online is a blast.  The high-production graphics and animation already pop off the screen on older generation iPads so it should be even better on the iPad HD, although it’s still a small notch below console quality.

Albie Meter: 5 Stars (fantastic graphics/animation for the platform delivers an immersive experience; mission mode tends to easy, but most will get the biggest bang from multiplayer online play; controls work well but mostly tilt based; plenty of content, but turn off the soundtrack; GameCenter support)

Simplicity is a trait that many strive for, but most struggle to achieve.  This mantra is one that game developers should take heed when developing titles for the iTunes store.  To be precise, the reality is about balancing the notion of pick and play with the complexities of an engaging experience for the mass audience.  Fortunately, Sminis by Angry Rock Studios does a relatively fantastic job combining a surreal world based on the Unreal 3 Engine with a simple in concept, yet intense “test of your will” puzzler.  With an original storyline to spice up the fun if not unoriginal game, Sminis will have you saying “let me try that again” over and over.

The Sminis are robot beings who while not the smartest tools in the shed, have developed some free will.  Of course, the free will of these little mechanical creatures gives them the desire to escape the clutches of an evil scientist.  The objective is to help them navigate through various chambers of automated horrors, while preventing them from getting smashed (and I don’t mean drunk) to pieces.

Sminis comes with 30 levels broken into three zones each with three levels of difficulty.  In each level, players must save a minimum number of Sminis while allowing only pre-determined number of casualties.  In other words, too many mashed up Sminis means that the evil scientist will have a good day at your expense.  Depending skill level, you can choose to play at the one-, two-, or three-star level with three stars being the most difficult.  The higher three-star difficulty typically means you’re given less leeway in terms of Sminis destroyed, while the easier one- and two-star difficulty provides a greater number of Smini smashups.  Of course, the more stars earned will open up the other zones much sooner.

Regardless of whether you like enjoy reflex-based games, the artwork in Sminis is one to behold.  The cool, retro-industrial look built on the Unreal 3 Engine looks amazing, and doesn’t have that run-of-the-mill animation you’d expect.  Running the game on the iPad, the 3D animation is as good as you’d expect with a game of this kind.  The equally industrial soundtrack more than adequately complements the gameplay, although it can become somewhat annoying after playing and failing a few levels.

The game is all about reflex, skill and most importantly patience.  Sminis appear at timed intervals denoted by a timer that countdowns until the emergence of the next batch.  The complexities of the levels are what make Sminis a treat.  From rotating saws and chomping robots to moving platforms and speeding crates, Sminis face some death defying obstacles.

The one-button control is simple enough that it may deceive you into some complacency.  The button controls movement, but what will trip up most of you is the speed and frequency that the Sminis appear.  The aspect which adds a nice layer of complexity is that not all Sminis stop or move at the same time.  In fact, stopping one Smini will likely cause another to move which if not timed correctly mean pureed Smini.  And, Sminis running into each other is also a big no-no.

The creative level designs are one of the strong points and almost reminiscent of something you’d see in a James Bond movie.  There is a good feeling of depth and texturing within the levels which really add to the game and the obstacles featured.  For example, saws and razors come in a variety of forms from stationary and swinging to up and down among others, while crates and boxes speed along with abandon.  Later levels even offer electrical currents that not only short circuit but fry the little guys.

As for the degree of difficulty, even the early levels can be a bit trying until you get into a good pace of stopping and moving Sminis.  It’s easy to throw the entire level into oblivion with one wrong move.  A nice side attraction is collecting different helmets that can be used to outfit your Sminis.  For all the game’s simplicity, it would’ve been nice to include some power ups or other incentives that add to the gameplay.

Each zone culminates with a boss fight which is probably the weakest part of the game because they feel like they were simply added as an afterthought.  For example, the intimidating sounding Disposer simply controls parts of the platform tiles so that buzzsaws appear.  Mech Guard, on the other hand, is a ground shaking boss who’s more bark than bite.  They just weren’t as satisfying as the rest of the game, and hopefully, the devs experiment a bit more on this front.

Sminis has GameCenter support with a number of achievements which along with the star system adds to the replay value.

Sminis is a fun and challenging puzzler presented in an amazing 3D environment.  The different degrees of difficulty cater to players’ skill levels, and overall, there’s a solid addictive nature.  Aside from the lackluster boss fights, Sminis’ attraction is in its simplicity as much as its complexity.

Albie Meter: 4 Stars (fantastic 3D industrial world with equally challenging gameplay; simple one-button control offset by its complex test of rhythm, skill and patience; level design is creative and varied; boss fights can be lacking and menus are minimal; GameCenter support)

The word “sequel” tends to bring up mixed emotions for most of us.  Whether we’re talking about movies (e.g. Ghostbusters, Lethal Weapon, Harold and Kumar) or video games (Super Mario, Metal Gear Solid), tinkering with the original winning formula is a gamble.  On the other hand, mention Zuma and you likely have a groundswell of fans.  PopCap’s faithful port of Zuma’s Revenge won’t change that rabid fan base and delivers a solid if not overly ambitious offering.

Aside from the inconsequential storyline that has a decidedly South Pacific theme, Zuma’s Revenge is a combination match-3 marble shooter with a number of power-ups and boss fights.  The objective is to match three or more of the same colored balls and prevent the chain of balls from reaching the skull at the end of the path.  The shooting mechanism involves a stone frog or toad (whatever reptile you prefer) that can be rotated 360 degrees and launches colored balls.

Zuma’s Revenge certainly doesn’t lack in content with 6 islands for a total of 60 levels with difficulty levels ranging from easy to seriously hard.  There are also two primary modes of play: Adventure and Challenge.  Adventure mode takes players through the levels in the 6 islands while Challenge mode offers timed gameplay with completed levels unlocked in Adventure with the overall objective of beating a pre-set challenge score or beating the higher ace score.

Like the original, Zuma’s Revenge offers the usual power-up balls.

Bomb—destroys balls in its path

Rewind—rolls balls backwards

Slowdown—temporarily slows ball speed

Lightning—destroys every ball of the target color

Tri-Shot—fires 3 balls at once

Laser—destroys balls with pinpoint accuracy

Unlike the original, there are 6 boss fights at the end of each island which add a fun if not challenging dynamic to gameplay.  The boss fights involve chains of balls that act as a barrier to the boss.  The goal here is to clear a path by matching balls and shooting balls at the boss in order to destroy him.  Of course, the boss and his assistant villains fire back, and you have the added caveat of preventing the balls from reaching the end of the path or it’s doomsday for your little amphibian friend.  Beyond the boss fights, you can also collect fruit the randomly appear that boost score totals.

PopCap’s games have high production values, and Zuma’s Revenge is no different.  The animation and the vibrant graphics look great and run smoothly on the iPad.  The soundtrack with its Polynesian theme is lively, but for some, it can become annoying after a while.  One area that may be disappointing for some is that the islands all look similar.  Beyond the variety in path and level design, they all feel and look the same so don’t expect too much on that front.

The gameplay is typical Zuma and delivers an engaging and fast-paced experience.  There’s a bit of skill and timing involved, and the control mechanism is relatively accurate.  Tapping the spot to where you want to launch a ball works well on the screen, while tapping on your frog allows you to cycle through different color balls.  The 360 degree rotating mechanism also works smoothly and fans and newbies alike should have no problems with them.  Later levels allow players to move the frog from one spot to another and this accomplished simply by tapping the spot.

The one hitch that I did come across involves paths where the frog slides back and forth.  Because the motions are similar within a limited space, it’s easy to accidentally cycle through balls when the intent is to move the frog or even shoot and vice versa.  In other words, switching among the different functions with the tap controls can be temperamental, but definitely not a deal breaker.

This part is intended for those new to Zuma (hey, not everyone’s on Facebook either)…having played a number of PopCap titles, Zuma’s Revenge does have those intangibles, aka charm that for example, Peggle does or the personality of a Plants vs. Zombies.  Beyond the frog and the occasional villains, there aren’t quirky characters or even much of a storyline.  As mentioned, the gameplay is terrific and but if you like a dose of ambiance with your puzzle, you may be disappointed.

Zuma’s Revenge is a fun marble shooting, match-3 puzzler with tons of content and fast-paced gameplay.  The variety of power-ups and boss fights add to a solid offering that fans of the original will love.  What the game lacks in personality is successfully offset by the challenging and replay value that works well on the iOS.

Albie Meter: 4 Stars (solid, challenging gameplay with lots of content and replay value; controls are intuitive but they can be temperamental; smooth animation though the islands look similar; lacks a bit of personality compared to other PopCap titles; no GameCenter support)

Physics-based games have become a staple of the iTunes store.  Testing our ability to think logically and plan ahead, they are a fun way to keep your mind sharp.  Angry Birds in its many iterations really helped the genre gain popularity with the masses.  It’s safe to say that a worthy competitor has arrived with Twiitch’s Coco Loco, a wacky and humorous game that in some ways leaves the flock behind.  Featuring a potpourri of chocolate villains and a crazy cast of eccentrically sweet heroes, Coco Loco is an addictive adventure not only satisfies the sweet tooth of fans of the genre, but should draw more in with its epic hilarity.

Coco Loco’s publisher Chillingo seemingly has a propensity to release at least one physics-based game each week.  It would be a mistake to consider Coco Loco just another one of those games.  The amusing storyline takes place in the Land of Chocolate where some Marshmallows have gone in search of, you guessed it, hot chocolate.  They manage to find this chocolate dreamland but then become imprisoned by Coco Bean Guardians and are forced to dress as celebrities.  Yes, it’s quite the brutal punishment, but of course, all is not lost as a rag tag group of candy heroes comes to the rescue.

This little world is not only ridiculously funny, but it’s actually a neat one that allows players to experiment in many different ways.  Currently, Coco Loco has 4 chapters—Rolling Hills, Temple Morning, Temple Sunset, Cavern World—each with 15 progressively difficult levels.  Players can earn up to 3 stars per level based on the many of the “tools” are used to free your marshmallow comrades.

I’ve never played a game where it was just as enjoyable to fail as it was to succeed.  The scenarios the devs created are just plain fun to observe.  The Marshmallows in distress are typically housed in structures with explosives, cement, rocks, and of course, the Coco Bean Guardians.  But Coco Loco goes one step further in building a personality-laden world.  What you also come across are worlds full of jelly, hot chocolate, wind tunnels, and geysers.  While this all sounds crazy, it makes for a fun yet challenging experience.

The heroes in Coco Loco resemble a Swiss Miss version of the X-Men because they each have special and very unique powers.  Fortunately, there’s an almanac that keeps track of heroes as you unlock them through the levels.  These heroes have names such as Marty Marzipan, Billy Batter, Jelly Gumble, Neapolitan Dynamite, Sammy Sumo, Donutella, Corporal Clinker, and not to be forgotten Marsha Marsha Marsha.  That’s only a partial list, but the powers are all that matter.

Creatively speaking, the powers of some of these marshmallow gang members are wonderful.  Jelly Gumble can expand into a giant blob while Sammy Sumo can instantly slam into anything once activated.  Then there’s Neapolitan Dynamite with an explosive short fuse that packs quite the bang.  Donutella is the ninja of the group who has a sharp personality that cuts like butter.  If anything, this should give you an idea of what’s in store.

Get this…launching these heroes is done with a baseball bat of all things.  The controls involve simply dragging Billy Batter back, aiming with the arrow and then releasing.  And in most cases, tapping the hero, for example Jelly Gumble, will activate the special power which in Jelly’s case, transforms him into a giant goo.

Players can also pinch to zoom in and out and drag to pan the screen.  The graphics and animation are terrific and run smoothly on an iPad, and the whimsical soundtrack will have you humming long after you’re done destroying the chocolate villains.

Coco Loco offers plenty of challenges that will have you scratching your head and laughing at the same time.  Early on, you’ll need to plan for how to deal not only with wind currents and explosions, but also chocolate currents and jelly flow among other things.  The liquid physics are one of the biggest strengths, and you’ll spend part of the time dealing with hot chocolate breaches or managing jelly slides.

An additional challenge is collecting gold coins within each level which adds some replay value in terms of maximizing your high score.  Another weird, yet noteworthy addition is what I call Coco Loco’s nuclear option known happily as Fluffy, a rambunctious bull terrier. If you have trouble solving a puzzle, activating Fluffy will set him off on a playful rampage destroying everything in sight while setting the Marshmallow captives free.  Fortunately, this is the only part of Coco Loco that involves IAP.

GameCenter support currently provides 27 achievements from the basics such as high score and collecting coins to wacky milestones such as direct or awkward hits involving specific heroes.

The only shortcoming with Coco Loco is you may find yourself out of levels (even though there are 60 of them) and waiting for more in future updates.  It’s an addictive adventure that will leave you wanting for more.

Coco Loco is a fantastic physics-based game complete with a wacky storyline, quirky characters and wonderfully challenging scenarios.  If you’ve never been a fan of this genre, Coco Loco may just change your mind.  For the rest of us, this one is a keeper.

Albie Meter: 5 Stars (wacky world with equally quirky characters make this top notch; challenging levels should keep you engaged; great overall presentation, smooth controls with addictive gameplay; GameCenter support)

Out here in Silicon Valley, we’re often referred to as the wine drinking class because of our laid back culture.  Be that as it may, we do forget to smell the roses and enjoy what we have.  That could probably be said for Tiger Style Games’ Waking Mars, a sci-fi themed atmospheric, open world adventure where you’ll enjoy the journey more than the ultimate destination.  It’s an experience that provides hours of exploration, experimentation and finally exultation as you rediscover alien life on a once barren planet.

Now if you’ve had the opportunity to enjoy Tiger Style Games’ previous iOS release Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor, then you know not to expect the typical type of gaming experience.  Waking Mars is all about discovering the unknown as players control and make decisions that affect the ecosystem on the Red Planet.  And is it ever the experience…

The story begins with OCTO, a robot lander that has gone missing during its mission.  Dr. Liang Qi is the astronaut who not only has gone in search of OCTO, but has the overarching objective to learn as much about the planet as possible.  He also has the help of fellow scientist Dr. Amani Ronga and AI sidekick Art.

Waking Mars is not your typical animation heavy, massive explosion, shoot’em type game.  In fact, many may be deceived into thinking that this is a low quality production.  Far from it.  Players will discover relatively quickly how expansive this alien world is and be glad they took the risk.

Visually, the underworld landscapes are beautiful, yet convey the sadness and isolation of a once thriving world.  The storyline is presented through text dialogue and a somewhat quirky series of headshots reminiscent of stills you’d see over a webcam.  The game has three levels of difficulty: casual, normal and hard.

Liang’s movements are controls relatively straightforward.  Tap and hold at the spot to move Liang across the landscape.  He does a jetpack to maneuver through the depths and this is activated by holding your finger on the screen.  In general, activating the jetpack can take some practice in terms of landing accuracy, but the learning curve is relatively minimal.

The fun begins in the caverns deep underground teaming with hidden life forms and beautiful, yet potentially hazardous formations.  But, Waking Mars wouldn’t be as engaging without the life forms and the environmental obstacles.  To be frank, it’s that sense of wonder that differentiates this game from others.  Going from cavern to cavern, decisions have a far reaching impact on the ecosystem.  As you discover new organisms, you soon realize that your power to alter and fundamentally change the ecosystem.

A digital lab book tracks the different species as they’re discovered covering everything from habitat and diet to reproduction and vulnerabilities.  Of course most of this information isn’t available until you discover it so experimentation is core to your survival.  The one annoying aspect of the lab book is the Twitter button, mostly because I kept on hitting hit it.   I don’t know if people would actually tweet about the different life forms, but it’s there if you decide to do so.  A map is also included that charts the explored caverns within the exploration sites.

The Martian landscape consists of different terrains as different as the many organisms that inhabit this world.  In order to progress and unlock (for lack of a better term) other areas, you’ll need to meet the biomass requirements that for example destroy the hardy life forms known as Cerebranes which block off entry to new caverns.  Meeting these biomass requirements is where experimentation comes into play.

A variety of life forms exist mostly in the form of zoa.  There are different types each with their own characteristics and attributes.  For example, the most basic and beneficial is the Halid Zoa which not only provides seeds for food to alien forms such as the Phyta, but also repair damage to Liang’s health.  You’ll find that most of the zoa are seed spitters while others secrete chemical nutrients.  Who said exploration wouldn’t be messy?

The Martian landscape is not without its risks as acid pools and drips litter the caverns as well as magma baths and fireballs.  Falling stalactites as well as eroded rocks are other obstacles that require attention.  While certain zoa are beneficial, there are also life forms that can harm Liang such as the Prax Zoa who have a vicious bit or the long tendril Larians, predators looking for their next snack.

Waking Mars forces players to experiment and determine solutions to puzzles based on the interactions of these organisms.  Whether it’s planting seeds or feeding one alien to another, these choices are what make the game that much more engaging.  As Liang travels the depths, different objectives are provided that start out rather easily but become more complex.  A nice option and excuse to explore are the optional objectives which allow further exploration.  Seed gathering is core to a lot of the dilemmas that players will face, and it can become a bit tedious in the later chapters.

During the game, it’s worth noting that the soundtrack plays an integral part in setting the mood.  As you wander through the caverns and go deeper into the origins of Mars, the storyline unfolds rather nicely, and beyond the periodic communications with Amani, the sense of isolation and discovery feels real.  I literally sat there for hours on this journey, and was still thinking about it well afterwards.

GameCenter achievements are also included which mostly consist of discovering new life forms and the game automatically saves your last activity.

Waking Mars is one of those rare games that will stick with you well after you’re done playing it.  A game full of depth figuratively and literally speaking, Waking Mars taps into our curiosity which ultimately provides a wonderful experience.  The drive to explore, experiment and build is all the satisfaction you’ll need.

Albie Meter: 5 Stars (deserves more than 5 stars based on the depth and long gameplay alone; atmospheric adventure where exploration and experimentation are the name of the game; open-ended world with unique puzzles; intuitive controls although the jetpack feature can be temperamental; soundtrack complements the sense of exploration and isolation)