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Game Day: Severed

Severed is a dungeon adventure game for iOS from DrinkBox Studios that originally debuted on the PS Vita and will be available later this Summer on the Wii U and 3DS. The game tells the story of a one-armed warrior named Sasha in search of her family in a strange world populated by monstrous creatures.

The move to bring Severed to iOS is a new beginning for DrinkBox Studios, which published its prior mobile titles on PS Vita. But with the Vita in decline, DrinkBox has moved on. In an interview with Engadget, the Toronto-based company announced that it is finished with the Vita. That's a shame because I love my PS Vita and DrinkBox's Guacamelee! was one of my favorite Vita games, but Sony's loss is Apple's gain.

Severed, described by its creators as an RPG-light adventure, is a visually arresting journey through a bizzare landscape. The unique artwork style will be immediately recognizable to anyone who has played Guacamelee!, while still creating an atmosphere and look of its own. Sasha, the main character, has just one weapon, a sword given to her by a mysterious figure at the outset of her quest. As you encounter enemies, you attack with slashing touch gestures reminiscent of Fruit Ninja and block counterattacks by swiping along the course of incoming blows. Early in the game you are confronted by single enemies. Things get more complicated as you advance and have to defeat multiple foes that are better at defending themselves.

But there's more to Severed than just frantic slashing. There's a strategic element too. During the course of a battle, Sasha's 'focus bar' slowly fills. Kill an opponent when Sasha's focus bar is full and you can sever its limbs. It sounds more gruesome than it actually is. Collect enough limbs and you can trade them for armor, equipment, and other upgrades. As a result, it doesn't pay to simply kill a monster as fast as possible, which adds depth to the battles.

There are two levels of play – 'casual' and 'standard.' Severed can be intense and absorbing in standard mode, which makes casual mode a nice option if you would rather play a more relaxed game, soaking in the visuals and soundtrack.

The touch-based gestures of Severed are outstanding on iOS. The game is a Universal app, so you can play it on an iPhone or iPad, but it really shines on the iPad, especially an iPad Pro with an Apple Pencil. Suddenly, that Apple Pencil that you may use to take notes or sketch becomes Sasha's sword. Using the Apple Pencil this way adds immeasurably to the fun.

I'll be playing Severed a lot more as I sit by the shore of Lake Michigan for a mini-vacation this weekend. Severed is expensive as iOS games go, but at less than half the price you'd pay for the PS Vita version, you get a game that fits with the iPhone and iPad hardware in a way that it can't on the Vita. Sure, the Vita has a touch surface, but it's still designed primarily for button-based games, while the large touch surfaces of iOS devices make it easier to get lost in Severed's action and story.

Severed is available on the App Store for $6.99.

Notebooks for iOS and Mac Organizes Your Research and Reference Materials

There’s a reason why there have been so many different notebook-style apps on iOS and the Mac over the years. Media-rich research projects and reference materials benefit from the familiar metaphor of a notebook as a way to organize everything in one place. The difficulty, though, is balancing organizational functionality with editing tools. Good organizational tools like search, sorting, and sync are a must, but apps that go too deep into editing features can quickly become a bloated mess. Go too light, and the editing features aren’t of much use.

Notebooks by Alfons Schmid is an iOS and Mac notebook app that has excellent organizational tools on iOS and the Mac. With solid search, sorting and sync options, your notebooks and documents are always readily available to you, which makes it a great research tool, especially on iOS. Notebooks' editing tools are a different story. Notebooks for iOS strikes a nice balance with excellent text and PDF editing tools. The more recently released Mac version of Notebooks, however, doesn’t go much beyond text editing, which is a little disappointing.

Whether Notebooks is right for you will depend on the extent to which you want to edit files stored in it and, if so, whether iOS or OS X is the dominant platform you use. People who work on iOS will love the power of Notebooks; on the Mac, Notebooks is closer to a viewer app and may not be sufficient to meet your needs.

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Game Day: Bulb Boy

Bulb Boy is a bizarre point-and-tap puzzle adventure on iOS from Kraków, Poland-based Bulbware that draws inspiration from games like Machinarium. As the name suggests, the story centers around a boy who is a lightbulb. Bulb Boy appears to be going about his business, living a quiet life with his grandfather and bulb-dog in their bulb-house, until strange things suddenly start to happen. Bulb Boy's world is beset with monsters and it's up to you, as Bulb Boy, to defeat them by collecting a series of items that help you solve puzzles.

Everything in the game is black and green like an old CRT monitor. The animation has a distinctly retro feel too. When I started Bulb Boy I immediately felt like I had stepped into a demented version of an old cartoon from the 1930s.

The mechanics are straight-forward. You explore each scene by tapping the screen. Bulb Boy moves to where you tap and examines any items in the area. The items you collect help you solve the puzzles and move on to the next stage. In addition, Bulb Boy can take off his head to illuminate dark areas and help solve puzzles. As the game progresses it continually introduces new challenges that keep the game fresh.

Bulb Boy, which has won more awards than I can list here, is as creepy and weird as it sounds. Originally released for PCs on Steam, the game translates well to iOS's touch interface. I played on my iPhone 6s Plus and iPad Pro and greatly preferred the experience on the iPad, where the artwork and soundtrack could really shine.

Bulb Boy is as much about exploring and enjoying its strange world as it is about the puzzles. The lead character is so charming that I very quickly found myself wanting to help him out of all the tight spots he finds himself in, which makes for an absorbing game. For the most part, the puzzles are challenging without being too hard, but if you do get stuck, Bulb Boy provides hints in the form of pictographic thought-bubbles that appear above Bulb Boy's head. There are also walk-throughs online.

Bulb Boy is available on the App Store for $2.99 and, although I have not tried it, it's worth noting that Bulb Boy is also available on the Mac for $9.99.

Blyss Review: Dots, Combos, and Relaxation

Late at night, I'm listening to a soft, ambient piano tune while sitting in my bed. I'm not sleeping, though – in fact, I'm far from completely relaxed. I'm swiping feverishly on my iPad's screen, wiggling my fingers between every gesture as I try to find patterns in a group of tiles. Points rack up in the upper left corner of my screen and I anxiously look to get a set of combos so I can complete a challenge I'm stuck on.

I mess up and create a pattern I can't escape from. Amid music that could put a baby to sleep, I loudly criticize myself.

How could I fail on level 2?

The game I'm playing is Blyss, a title whose name is often representative – but not always. Created by Dropout Games, Blyss has the potential to be the next big puzzle game, like Two Dots or Flow Free before it.

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ecobee3 Smart Thermostat Review

I have had my eye on smart thermostats ever since the Nest was released in 2011. I came very close to purchasing one over the years, but something always held me back. Between the price, concerns that installation could be a hassle or require someone else to install it, the lack of simple integrated control systems, and not wanting to complicate something that was already simple, I never bought one. That changed about a month ago when I purchased two ecobee3 smart thermostats for my home. I couldn't be happier with the simplicity, level of control, and automation that the ecobee3 delivers.

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Teeter Review: A Beautiful, Challenging Momentum Puzzler

In the broadest sense, I feel like there are two categories of games: quick fixes and time sinks. The former, built on the foundation of quick-to-play casual hits like Paper Toss and Angry Birds, dominate the market. With the latter, including games like Infinity Blade or Bastion, the time it requires to complete the story lends itself to a more tradional gaming market. Both have their place, of course, but short, level-based games often translate into a more universal and better mobile experience.

A quick game of Teeter can be about as short as they come. If you play the game right, you'll get through a level in a couple of seconds. The problem, however, is that each of Teeter's levels is immensely challenging, which makes it really difficult to advance. Despite failing levels hundreds of times, I've stuck with Teeter for its whimsy, level design, and overall gameplay.

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Game Day: Nanuleu

Nanuleu by Selva Interactive is an excellent new tower-defense strategy game reminiscent of Rymdkapsel. I’ve been a fan of tower-defense games since the original Fieldrunners game launched on iOS just a couple months after the App Store opened. Nanuleu is a less frenetic, more laid-back take on that classic style with many of its own distinctive elements.

Nanuleu is played from an isometric perspective on a procedurally generated map that makes each game you play unique. There are three modes, Apprentice, Warrior, and Sage, each of which is progressively more difficult to complete.

Each Nanuleu map is procedurally generated.

Each Nanuleu map is procedurally generated.

You start each game with a life tree at the center of the map and resources that you can spend to expand your territory across the map. Tapping on the squares on the map that are adjacent to territory you already control gives you the option to plant certain types of trees or simply expand your network of roots. Water, mineral, and life trees can only be planted on squares with corresponding colored symbols and require more resources than simply laying down roots.

Five types of trees are connected by a root system.

Five types of trees are connected by a root system.

After a while, enemies start attacking from different spots along the edges of the map. Planting protector, and later, war trees helps defend your trees against the enemy. As you expand your network of water, mineral, and life trees, resources accumulate faster, but you need to spend your resources carefully to defend your territory. If the enemies start taking out trees, especially those that produce resources, your territory begins to shrink. Vanquish all the enemies and you win the round. If the enemies get the upper hand and overtake your last life tree, you lose.

It’s easy to understand why Nanuleu won an award at the 2015 Indie Game Maker Contest and has already made a best of 2016 list just over a week since its release. The game combines great visuals and sound with simple, but challenging, gameplay. Nanuleu games are not short. Most of the games I’ve played have lasted 20-30 minutes, but time flies because it’s easy to get absorbed in the action. If you enjoy tower defense and real-time strategy games, Nanuleu is worth checking out.

Nanuleu is available on the App Store for $2.99.

Game Day: klocki

After last weekend’s fast-paced, stress-inducing racing game, Neon Drive, I wanted to play something a little more laid back and mellow this week. I found the perfect game in klocki, a new iOS puzzle game that launched earlier this week.

klocki is from Maciej Targoni, the maker of Hook, a well-regarded puzzler that came out early last year. The tile-based puzzle game is singularly focused on revealing itself through its puzzle mechanics and designed to be relaxing. There are no tutorials, instructions, or text. You play klocki at your own pace, discovering the rules organically as you play.

The goal of klocki, at least in the early stages, is to complete lines by swapping pairs of tiles. When you complete a puzzle, you only advance to the next one after you tap the screen. You are completely in control of the pace of klocki, which is backed by a soothing soundtrack by Wojciech Wasiak.

As you progress through klocki, things get trickier. The 2D puzzles gain a third dimension, the puzzles become larger, and the mechanics become more complex, making it harder to work out the solutions. No worries though, there are no timers or score. It’s just you against each puzzle.

klocki, which was featured on the App Store this week, is the kind of distraction I look for more often than not in an iOS game. It’s challenging without being frustrating and as easy to pick up for short periods of time as it is for an hour.

klocki is available on the App Store for $0.99.

Recapture Time with Moment

It’s easy to get lost in whatever you’re doing on your iPhone or iPad and become oblivious of your surroundings – just ask anyone who’s tried Pokémon GO. I don’t have a problem doing that occasionally to blow off steam, and the reality is that a lot of my work gets done on iOS, but there’s a time and a place for everything. What I don’t want is for my device use to take away from time I spend with friends and family.

If you feel the same way, but have a hard time putting your iPhone or iPad away, Kevin Holesh’s app Moment can help. By tracking your iPhone or iPad usage, you can get a handle on how much time you spend on each device, and even how much time you spend in individual apps. What’s more, if you purchase the Pro version of Moment, you can take advantage of its full Phone Bootcamp course and other tools that can help you find ways to reduce your device usage.

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