Games 3/31/09: Henry Hatsworth in the Puzzling Adventure, Fallout 3: The Pitt, Pocket God

Henry Hatsworth in the Puzzling Adventure
For: Nintendo DS
From: EA
ESRB Rating: Everyone (cartoon violence)

At first sight and first play, “Henry Hatsworth in the Puzzling Adventure” is a game that dares you not to love it. It’s immensely pleasing on the eyes, and the storyline — fronted by the charming, monocle-clad title character whose life is in your hands — is adorably but sharply amusing.

Also, the game’s premise — a “Mega Man”-style sidescroller on the top screen working in tandem with a “Tetris Attack” clone on the bottom — is uniquely, expertly executed. Enemies you topple and power-ups you find as Henry become blocks on the puzzle game below, and clearing those blocks away both prevents those enemies from returning and activates those power-ups. The two games influence each other in other clever ways, and you can switch between them at will with one button press.

If it sounds rather unwieldy, a little acclimation proves otherwise. Henry’s adventures use the DS’ buttons, while the puzzle portion works multiple ways but plays best with the stylus. Once you develop a system for keeping the stylus handy while focusing on the top screen, switching becomes second nature.

Most importantly, “Adventure” doesn’t drop the ball in either area. Had the top game released on its own as a Super Nintendo or Game Boy Advance game, it would be one of the more accomplished sidescrollers on either system. And while the “Tetris Attack” clone pretty much is exactly that, it’s a fast, fun homage that puts many dedicated DS puzzle games to shame in the responsiveness department.

All of this holds true throughout the entirety of “Adventure,” but unless you’re a sidescrolling virtuoso who enjoys an absurd challenge, it grows increasingly difficult to admire once the game unleashes a serious spike in difficultly, which happens around the midpoint of the third world.

At no point is “Adventure” hopelessly unreasonable. But there exist multiple points going forward where you’ll find yourself under attack from all angles with nowhere to escape. Once Henry loses a certain portion of his health, it’s practically a death sentence: He gets knocked into other enemies, who can pile on attacks, and your ability to rebuild his health through the puzzle portion takes a crippling hit. Throw in some sparse checkpoints and the occasional cheap bottomless pit death, and “Adventure” gives gamers of average ability every reason in the world to shut it off and never go back.

It goes without saying, then, that casual gamers seduced by the vibrant artwork and promise of puzzle-solving are better off getting those fixes elsewhere. “Adventure” ultimately is one of the DS’ better games, but not every great game is for every player. Disappointing though it is to say it, only those with godly skills and saintly patience need apply here.

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Fallout 3: The Pitt
For: Xbox 360 and PC
Requires: Fallout 3
From: Bethesda Softworks
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, sexual themes, strong language, use of drugs)

Though fun on its own terms, “Operation Anchorage” was something of an awkward way for “Fallout 3” to kick off its run of downloadable $10 expansion packs. The episode took place almost entirely within a simulation inside the existing game, and because the story focused on past events in the “Fallout” timeline, little beyond a few new pieces of gear stuck with you once it ended and you were back in Washington, D.C.

“The Pitt,” on the other hand, feels a bit more traditional. The location has changed — to Pittsburgh, accessible now via underground rail — but the norms established in “Fallout 3” mostly translate verbatim. Everything plays out in the game’s real world and present day, and everything from the people you meet to the loot you find is as fair game here as it is in D.C.

Respect to “Anchorage’s” fresh ideas aside, this faithfulness makes for a much better episode. With the ground rules already established, “The Pitt” is free to focus entirely on the human fallout of post-nuclear Pittsburgh, where human slavery has returned and a makeshift monarchy — established by a new strain of the same raiders who run wild in D.C.’s landscape — inexplicably but unmistakably holds rule.

In true “Fallout” fashion, “The Pitt” gives you a starting point — disguised as a slave, with designs to help plot an overthrow — but takes the gloves off from there. A few central characters remain invincible per usual, but the vast majority can, depending on your preferred methods and intentions, be reasoned with, provoked or killed outright. “The Pitt” lets you play devil’s advocate far more than “Anchorage” did, and whether you negotiate with the overlords, play ball with them or pick them off without even introducing yourself, the presence of innocent bystanders means even a reckless gunslinger with good intentions might accidentally find a few casualties on his conscience.

Along with a better roster of characters comes a better storyline with a few fantastic detours and a truly disarming reveal near the end. As it’s presented, “The Pitt’s” storyline matches and arguably outclasses the main storyline from “Fallout 3” proper, though it also benefits from having to fill three to fours’ time instead of 30.

Like “Anchorage,” though, “The Pitt” ultimately feels like a standalone diversion. You can revisit Pittsburgh as you please upon completion of the episode, but your travails through D.C. don’t change much as result. The major exception, of course, is the gear you bring back. In “The Pitt’s” case, that means two truly vicious new weapons that, once found, likely will become staples of your inventory no matter where the game takes you next.

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Pocket God
For: iPhone/iPod Touch
From: Bolt Creative
iTunes Rating: 9+ (infrequent/mild cartoon or fantasy violence)
Price: 99 cents

With respect to processing power, 3D graphics, tilt sensitivity and Internet connectivity, one of the iPhone’s most understated assets is the wide availability of silly, guilt-free, 99 cent amusements. “Pocket God” aptly demonstrates why. “God” gives you a simple desert island and a single inhabitant. From there you can do whatever you please within the bounds of game, which includes adding additional islanders, tossing them into the ocean or a volcano, changing the weather with a flick of a finger or sending everybody clinging for their lives by turning the device on its side. That, and a few other surprises, is all “God” really does, but that’s the point: You pay a buck once, and the game pays you back by being a perennial source of easy giggles whenever a spare moment calls for them. To its credit, Bolt Creative is encouraging return visits via free updates which it dubs as episodes. Each adds a new trick to your godly arsenal, and the title of the episode offers a hint as to what the new power is and how to activate it. Bolt has released 11 episodes since “God” debuted in January, and all indications point to more ahead.