Posts in reviews

Partly Sunny Review: Weather Reimagined

When Apple introduced the App Store in 2008, much of the excitement spanned from the opportunities and functionalities these new apps would bring to the iPhone. Many of the first apps were forays into markets untouched by the stock apps – games, social networks, and read-it-later services.

Eight years later, the trends are different; with millions of apps covering almost every genre imaginable, a lot of this year's best apps are refinements or new takes on the same functionalities some of Apple's stock apps offer.

That's where Partly Sunny comes in – it's a weather app that, at first glance of its icon, looks almost identical to Apple's Weather. But after tapping into it, Partly Sunny shakes the similarities and introduces a robust, beautiful new way to view weather information.

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Spark Arrives on macOS

Competition among email clients on the Mac and iOS has heated up over the past couple of years. With that comes innovation, making email clients one of the most interesting app categories.

Today, Readdle released Spark for Mac, bringing its popular iOS email client to the Mac for the first time. Spark excels at bringing order to the chaos of your inbox and providing tools to help you quickly triage common types of email individually, or in bulk. But perhaps the greatest benefit of Spark for Mac is that it’s a solid free solution for fans of the iOS version of the app who felt constrained by the lack of a macOS version.

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Game Day: Treasure Buster

Part 80s arcade game, part rogue-style dungeon crawler, and part pinball, Treasure Buster is a strange combination of game genres that work surprisingly well together. The result is an entertaining game that’s hard to put down.

You play as one of six heroes who must defeat a series of enemies. Each hero has different traits that affect their performance in battle. When you enter a room in a dungeon, you start a battle by pulling back with a swipe on the screen Angry Birds-style to launch yourself at your enemies. When you let go, you bounce around like a pinball slamming into enemies and obstacles, shaking loose treasure from your foes, and collecting the loot.

Periodically, the enemies will stage their own attack, which causes damage to your hero. Clear a room of enemies and you can move to the next part of the dungeon to face new challenges and the occasional boss. Treasure you collect can be traded for new abilities, helping you survive the more difficult later stages. The game ends when you run out of health.

Treasure Buster has two modes of play – Arcade and Endless. In Arcade
mode you move around a map exploring each room of the dungeon. Endless mode eliminates exploration of the map, moving you from one room to another automatically and setting the difficulty level based on a coin flip. Of the two modes, I prefer Arcade where I feel more in control of the part of the game I try next.

The art of Treasure Buster has a retro-pixel style reminiscent of old arcade games. There is a lot of attention to detail at each stage of the game, including a wide variety of enemies, treasure and other elements that keeps the game entertaining.

Treasure Buster is Universal and equally playable on an iPhone or iPad. The mechanics are simple enough to play one-handed on an iPhone and the game is enjoyable in short bursts, though I’ve found it hard to play just one round. If you play Treasure Buster long enough, it can start to feel a little repetitive given the simplicity of the mechanics, but as a way to kill time and take short breaks from something else, Treasure Buster is a good choice.

Treasure Buster is available on the App Store for $0.99.


Game Day Holiday Bonus: Don’t Grind

It's Thanksgiving Day in the US and there are games to play. Sure, those celebrating Thanksgiving should probably put their iPhones away and spend time with their families. But not everyone celebrates Thanksgiving, and even if you do, who doesn't need a break at some point over a long weekend?

Don't Grind by Laser Dog Games is the perfect game for just such a break. It's easy to get the hang of, playable in short bursts, and a whole lot of fun. The goal of Don’t Grind is to keep a character bouncing in the air above two rotating blades. You do that by tapping and swiping on the screen. How high you bounce with each tap depends on the length of the tap. Swiping sends your character in the direction of the swipe. Fail to stay aloft and you are ground up by the blades ending the game.

As you bounce around in the air above two blades, you collect stars, which are converted into medals when the round ends with your character’s inevitable death. While you collect the stars though, you also need to avoid lasers, rockets, blades, and other obstacles that can hasten your demise. After collecting a certain number of medals you unlock additional characters to use in the game. There are dozens to collect.

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A game where your character is inevitably ground up between saw blades sounds gruesome, but it isn't. Laser Dog has kept the tone light and fun. That's accomplished through a bouncy, pop soundtrack and using silly inanimate objects as characters like a donut, banana, and boot. Each character has googly eyes that do a remarkable job of conveying dread and fear as the characters approach the blades. There are other nice touches such as the background scenery that matches the time of day you are playing, haptic feedback on the iPhone 7, and the ability to record and share gameplay.

Casual games that can be played one-handed are great for short breaks that can easily become long breaks as you try to beat your high score and climb the Game Center leaderboard. Don’t Grind succeeds with a challenging game that immediately endears itself to you with its quirky sensibilities and cute characters that have kept me coming back try to collect them all.

Don’t Grind is available as a free download on the App Store. A $1.99 In-App Purchase removes advertisements from between rounds of the game.


Game Day: RunGunJumpGun

RunGunJumpGun, by Canadian indie studio ThirtyThree Games, may be the hardest game I've played so far this year. The game requires precise timing and quick reflexes, which is something I'm not great at, but it balances the difficulty and gameplay so well, it's more fun than frustrating. Instead of quitting the game exasperated, I found myself trying segments again and again each time my character died.

RunGunJumpGun has a crazy, colorful pixel art style straight out of a 90s platformer. You can tell that a lot of care has gone into every detail of each of the 120 levels. Everything around you is in constant, colorful motion, which adds to RunGunJumpGun's complexity.

The game is an interesting synthesis of genres. Like an endless runner, your character moves to the right automatically. Get hung up on a wall and the scene overtakes you and you die. But RunGunJumpGun is more involved than a typical endless runner, adding elements of classic platformer games. Instead of just avoiding obstacles, you have to collect items to advance through the three worlds, fly to avoid things, and shoot your way through others.

You tap the left side of the screen to fly and the right side to shoot. It's simple, but the fact that you can't fly and shoot at the same time makes it hard to master the controls. Fly up avoid spikes and you can't shoot. Start shooting at a barrier while you're flying and you begin to fall. It requires a careful balance of both controls to make it through each level.

If you do hit a barrier, you die immediately. There is no concept of health, but dying doesn't take you back to the beginning, just the last checkpoint you reached. That happens with a cool rewind animation that is so fast that it hardly feels like you died at all. You're immediately thrown back into the game to try to advance further. The process is so seamless that I found I wasn't bothered by having to repeat segments over and over until I made it to the next checkpoint or the end of the level.

RunGunJumpGun started life as a PC and Mac game on Steam. Developer Logan Gilmour told Engadget:

"We weren't out to just make an infinite runner mobile game that's run-of-the-mill," said programmer Logan Gilmour. "We were hoping it would stand more among PC games than mobile games, but then play equally well on mobile."

I haven't played RunGunJumpGun on my Mac, but having played on my iPhone and iPad, ThirtyThree Games has definitely succeeded on mobile. I particularly liked playing on my iPad where I could tap on the far lower edges of the screen making it easier to see what was happening in the game.

RunGunJumpGun stands out among recent iOS game releases for its attention to detail and frantic pace. The game is undeniably hard, but also easy to get lost in for long periods. Even if twitchy, fast-paced games are not your thing, RunGunJumpGun is worth trying because it's an example of one of the best games of its genre.

RunGunJumpGun is available on the App Store for $2.99. The Mac App Store version is $7.99.


Game Day: F1 2016

From time to time, a game comes along that is designed to test iOS hardware and see just how far it can be pushed. In the past, we’ve seen that with games like the Infinity Blade series. In September, the torch was passed to F1 2016 by Codemasters, a racing game that got stage time during Apple’s iPhone 7 event.

F1 wasn’t demoed on stage in September, but Phil Schiller’s comments about the game caught my attention. He specifically called out F1’s use of wide color gamut, haptic feedback, and the iPhone 7’s new stereo speakers, claiming that with the iPhone 7’s new A10 chip and GPU, F1 would bring console-level gaming to iOS. He was right.

F1 was released this week and it’s impressive on every level. I played F1 on my iPhone 7 Plus, iPad Pro, and Apple TV and it was great on each, but it was fantastic on the iPhone 7. The combination of hardware-stretching performance and integration of iPhone 7-only features sets F1 as a benchmark against which other triple-A iOS games will be measured.

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Game Day: Alone

Every week thousands of new games are released on the App Store. As I set up my new iPhone 7 Plus recently and scrolled through the Purchased tab in the App Store, I realized that there's another 'new' category - new to me. I download a lot of apps, including games, and sometimes they get lost in the shuffle. That's exactly what happened to Alone, a fantastic endless runner by Laser Dog released about two years ago. Alone may not be new to you, but even if you've played it before, Alone is worth rediscovering.

Alone, adds a sci-fi twist to the endless runner genre. You’re a spacecraft navigating thorough collapsing caves. Rocks fall as you maneuver your ship through the tunnels. The design of the game echoes its name. Your ship feels small and isolated in the harsh space environment. You can take a couple of small hits from debris, but more than that, or a collision with a wall, and it’s game over. Make it far enough in a world and you'll be rewarded by unlocking new environments to explore.

Navigate your tiny spaceship through an unforgivingly bleak environment.

Navigate your tiny spaceship through an unforgivingly bleak environment.

Alone requires concentration and fast reflexes. Even though I’m not great at twitchy arcade games, I’ve had a lot of fun playing Alone. The focus it requires makes it easy to get absorbed in the game.

As you progress, Alone’s pace increases and additional obstacles, like rockets, are introduced, making for an even more harrowing journey. The controls are sensitive, which requires focus and concentration to make it very far. By default, dragging your finger down on the screen makes your ship rise and dragging it up does the opposite. If this feels counterintuitive, you can reverse the controls in the settings. The sensitivity of the controls would be more frustrating, but by building in the ability to survive small collisions, Alone has struck a good balance that makes it fun without being discouraging.

The fast pace of Alone and the relentless electronic beat of the soundtrack are a great combination. Endless runner games are by their nature somewhat one-dimensional, but Alone sets itself apart with its design and unique gameplay. Whether you’ve played Alone before or not, take it for a spin this weekend. Some of the best iOS games are hidden beneath a mountain of new releases.

Alone is available on the App Store for $1.99.


Game Day: Eggggg

Eggggg, by Norwegian developer Hyper Games, bills itself appropriately enough as a platform puker. You play as Gilbert who jumps out a window and into a giant egg to escape his mean Aunt Doris who won't let him go to a birthday party. The trouble is, Gilbert is allergic to eggs. They make him vomit – a lot. Thrown into a world of eggs and cyborg chickens, Gilbert uses what he's got – his vomit – to propel him through each level. If Eggggg sounds odd, that's because it is, but it's also not as gross as you might expect, and it's a whole lot of fun.

Eggggg draws inspiration from many sources. The levels are reminiscent of Mario platformers. Each is full of secret items to collect and hard-to-reach areas to explore. Eggggg only has 20 levels, but they are more complex and varied in their look and feel than most mobile games, which makes them a joy to replay.

When I first tried Eggggg, I immediately thought of Adventure Time. Eggggg shares a certain visual absurdity and bizarreness with the popular Cartoon Network show thanks to the fantastic artwork of Brosmind, a design studio based in Barcelona, Spain. But the visual style of Eggggg also harkens back to 90s cartoons like Rugrats. It's an interesting mix of styles that feels fresh and works well in the game.

The sound design of Eggggg is just as fun and fits perfectly with the game's style. The sound effects all started with mouth sounds recorded by Bendik Høydahl who has a great post on Hyper Games' website that demonstrates how he recorded the sound effects. I also love that there's a compilation of the effects on SoundCloud.

Eggggg’s game mechanics are simple, but a little different than you might have seen in other games – not different in a bad way, but they take some getting used to. You can tap on either side of the screen to send Gilbert in that direction. A second tap makes Gilbert jump. So, if Gilbert is running left, tapping the right side of the screen changes his direction and tapping again makes him jump. If Gilbert is already running to the right tapping just makes him jump. Fortunately, the first two levels of the game have no obstacles and are enough practice to get the hang of the controls before you start battling enemies.

Each level includes unique obstacles like chicken-spiders, buzzsaws, chickens in flying saucers, and more. You are timed as you race through each level, which gives you some incentive to go back and try levels again to see if you can beat your time and move up the Game Center leaderboards, though the game is just as fun when you take it at your own pace.

Platformers are hard to get right on mobile devices without joysticks and dedicated buttons. Eggggg's controls took some getting used to, but I think Hyper Games made the right choice by avoiding dedicated buttons or simulated joystick controls on the screen. The blend of deep Mario-style levels, colorful artwork, and squishy sound effects come together to make Eggggg one of the best platform games I've seen on iOS. It's definitely one worth trying.

Eggggg is available on the App Store for $1.99.


PDF Viewer Delivers Free PDF Viewing and Editing Tools

PDF Viewer's name belies the power under its hood. This is more than just a viewer app. PDF Viewer includes powerful PDF editing tools on par with, and in some cases more extensive than, some of the best PDF apps I’ve tried. That's not to say that there aren't a few rough edges and limitations, but for a free app, PDF Viewer should suit the PDF viewing and editing needs of most people.

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