Games 8/9/11: From Dust, Phineas & Ferb: Across the 2nd Dimension, Fruit Ninja Kinect

From Dust
Reviewed for: Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade)
Coming later for: Playstation 3 and Windows PC
From: Ubisoft
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (mild violence)
Price: $15

“From Dust” is impressive — visually, conceptually, and simply for the intuitive way it distills playing god down to tossing sand and water around like a kid building a sandcastle.

Arguably most impressive, though, is the bold way it combines a genre synonymous with free-spirited aimlessness and the one thing — a ticking clock — that unnerves gamers unlike any other.

Framed like a real-time strategy game, “Dust” tasks you with utilizing nature and some divine tricks to guide a primitive civilization across lands teeming with tidal waves, volcanoes and other deadly natural phenomena.

Though there’s some light guidance regarding how you instruct your tribe to move from A to B, the brunt of your influence comes via terraforming — literally grabbing a variable clump of sand, water or lava and dropping it elsewhere.

The results of your rearrangements are impressively organic. Drop a handful of water in an arid desert, and it will dampen the area but not necessarily create a pool. Pour it near a shore, though, and the land credibly recedes. You’re mixing paints more than simply replacing one element with another, and “Dust” very believably blends them. It looks terrific, but more importantly, makes the game immediately intuitive despite touting a gameplay concept that’s mostly unprecedented.

Of course, those elements believably blend for worse as well as better. A clump of sand provides limited help in curbing a downstream tide, and while a handful of lava can cool into rock and dam a raging river, getting even a drop of that lava near vegetation can start a fire that torches a village. (You can, naturally, douse it with water if you act quickly.)

“Dust’s” levels eventually complement these basic functions with a handful of totems that grant limited-use powers — turning water into jelly for a brief stemming of tides, for instance, or the ability to suck matter into a vacuum without having to place it elsewhere — and a crop of trees with aquatic, flammable and explosive tendencies.

But before you’re introduced to any of this, “Dust” introduces you to a couple things — objectives and time limits — that are even rarer in this genre than exploding trees.

Before you panic, it’s worth noting that “Dust” doesn’t stick a clock in the corner and ask you to fully inhabit an area before time expires. Rather, the time limits intermittently appear as warnings of pending disaster. You have all the time you need to finish a level, but when the game tells you, for instance, that a tidal wave will hit in six minutes, you’d best do what needs doing to keep your people from being washed away.

The tension infusion isn’t always welcome, because when your people are on the move, they don’t always find the best path from A to B. “Dust” controls sufficiently with a controller, but having to simultaneously babysit your tribe while terraforming on the other side of the map can
engender some righteous aggravation when neither man nor nature want to cooperate. (Fortunately, your people tend to cooperate far more than not.)

Those momentary slips, along with the lack of an open-ended sandbox mode, comprise the two biggest strikes against “Dust.” But the prioritization of tension and progression — through both a campaign and a great collection of unlockable, score-based challenge levels — makes for a better, fresher and more exciting game than if “Dust” simply adopted the same anything-goes approach as every other god game.

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Phineas & Ferb: Across the 2nd Dimension
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Wii
Also available for: Nintendo DS
From: High Impact Games/Disney Interactive
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (cartoon violence, comic mischief)
Price: $40

Games made with kids in mind have grown easier at a needlessly fast pace over the years. With “Phineas & Ferb: Across the 2nd Dimension,” we’ve finally broken through the bounds of “easy” and washed ashore on “insulting,” and it’s to the full detriment of what otherwise could have been a pretty cool platforming game.

“Dimension,” for those unfamiliar, is based on the movie of the same name, which itself spawns from the “Phineas & Ferb” cartoon. If you’re familiar with the cartoon, you’ll appreciate how well the game mimics its look and personality. If you’re not, the game does an adequate (and funny) job of bringing you up to speed with the cast and the story, which essentially is an elaborate excuse to send our heroes running and jumping through different dimensions.

“Dimension’s” gameplay somewhat resembles that of the Lego games — a lot of running, jumping and combating across levels that aren’t quite 2D but aren’t completely 3D either. Like those games, there are two playable characters on screen at once, and while playing cooperatively with a friend (offline only) is the ideal way to go, the A.I. does a nice job with the second character if another player isn’t available. (You also can swap freely between both characters when playing alone).

The different dimensions translate perfectly as a video game, allowing “Dimensions” to send players into levels constructed from gelatin, balloons, garden gnomes and even old-timey monochrome film. The core gameplay doesn’t deviate dramatically between these areas, but the themes provide the basis for each level to flaunt its own share of clever obstacles and puzzles.

Problem is, “Dimension’s” obstacles don’t really feel like obstacles, nor do its puzzles feel like puzzles or the fights like a fight, because the difficultly of all three is just absurdly low.

Between puzzles, “Dimension” frequently crowds the screen with a half-dozen or more enemies, but they’re so inadequate that you can fight sloppily and still regularly come away unscathed. Though combat looks chaotic, the only hard part about it is actually losing a fight without purposely doing so. Health packs are rampant despite no such need for them, and should you somehow manage to perish, shaking the controller pops you right back up.

Everything else gets the same padded-wall treatment. Fall off a platform? No problem: The game resets your position without penalty. Stumped on a puzzle? No, you’re not, because “Dimension’s” interface and dialogue, while often amusing, spells out everything you need to do. The game occasionally changes things up — most commonly in the form of rail-shooter sequences aboard a jetpack — but these are no more challenging than the main game.

“Dimensions” looks great, sounds great and moves fluidly despite the wealth of onscreen activity. Your weapons are satisfyingly upgradable, and you can even modify the sounds they make when deployed.

But the excitement wanes when the sense of peril flatlines this hard. Even kids, unless hopelessly inept and allergic to adversity of even the enjoyable kind, will be bored by how gently this one guides them.

If you remain interested, the PS3 version is the way to go: It looks crisper, obviously, and it includes four episodes of the cartoon on the disc. Just don’t make anything of “Dimension’s” Playstation Move support: Outside of pressing the Move button instead of X, the game plays exactly the same as it does with a standard controller.

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Fruit Ninja Kinect
For: Xbox 360 (via Xbox Live Arcade, Kinect required)
From: Halfbrick Studios
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Price: $10

It took nine months for Kinect to get Xbox Live Arcade representation, but the first game it gets is, while not overly adventurous, a perfect fit. “Fruit Ninja Kinect” migrates the massively popular mobile game (and somewhat obscure arcade port) to Kinect, and it’s exactly what you expect: Instead of swiping your finger across a tiny screen, you’re viciously chopping the air to slice fruit as it flies into view all around you. If that sounds mindless, bite your tongue: There’s a science to maximizing your score by slicing three or more fruits in one chop without hitting fatal bombs or letting stray fruit drop, and “FNK’s” multiple modes — Classic, a bombs-free Zen mode, an Arcade mode laden with powerups and score multipliers, a Challenge mode that shuffles all three — each utilize that science in maddeningly addictive ways. The short length per game — a minute to 90 seconds, typically — makes it easy to keep replaying for better scores, and all those replays add up to a much better workout than the mobile game can provide. As with all Kinect games, “FNK” occasionally misreads a motion, but the slip-ups are surprisingly infrequent considering how much chaos can ensue. “FNK’s” only online functionality comes via leaderboards, but its two-player local multiplayer options — a co-op arcade mode and a side-by-side battle for the best score — are a riot (and, again, surprisingly proficient with regard to motion detection).