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.

Games 3/10/09: Eat Lead: The Return of Matt Hazard, X-Blades, Word Fu

Eat Lead: The Return of Matt Hazard
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Vicious Cycle/D3Publisher
ESRB Rating: Teen (language, mild suggestive themes, violence)

At first glance, it’s hard not to love “Eat Lead: The Return of Matt Hazard.”

Unfortunately, once you dig in, trying not to hate it is similarly difficult.

“Lead’s” concept is ingenious: You star as washed-up action game star Matt Hazard, who is mounting a comeback after a torrent of (fictional) spin-offs and sequels destroyed his marketability. Your comeback meets resistance from inside the game, though, and from there, “Lead” (which employs the voice talents of Will Arnett and Neil Patrick Harris) takes the game-within-a-game idea to new heights in its bid to spoof 20 years of gaming norms and warts.

While “Lead” positions itself as a cover-based third-person shooter in the “Gears of War” vein, the setup allows it to stretch that concept however it likes. You might, for instance, fight cowboys and Russian soldiers simultaneously. Some of them might turn into zombies after you kill them. Fortunately, a bizarre range of weapons, from deadly water guns to plasma pistols, ensures you’ll be able to dispatch the undead in short order.

During these moments, “Lead” is harmless fun. The game’s controls lack a level of polish found in top-tier shooters, but they work, and the ability to bounce from cover to cover with a single button press is pretty clever (as Matt himself points out).

Problem is, many of these shootouts last entirely too long. “Lead” hides its repetition early on by introducing strange new enemy juxtapositions every so often, but by the end of the game, you’re seeing wave upon wave of the same crowd coming at you. Enemy A.I. isn’t particularly sharp, and blasting through these waves becomes an exercise in monotony after a while.

Unfortunately, “Lead” suffers more when it tries to get fancy. A pair of sequences in which you’re bouncing through cover to avoid sniper fire are surprisingly fun, but the fun stops cold during a few of the game’s boss fights, which are funny in concept but aggravating in practice. “Lead” commits a serious cover shooter cardinal sin by spawning enemies out of nowhere behind you, and this problem becomes a deal-breaking liability during boss fights in which one mistake can get you killed instantly. It’s hard to keep laughing when a game punishes you with cheap deaths, and “Lead” is home to some of the cheapest deaths you’ll see all year.

“Lead” goes out on a positive note with a cool final boss fight and a fun end twist, but the overall game outstays its welcome so profoundly that completing it brings relief more than satisfaction. That, along with the lack of any kind of multiplayer option, makes this a better rental than purchase if you’re curious about its finer points.

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X-Blades
For: Playstation 3, Xbox 360 and Windows PC
From: Gaijin Entertainment/TopWare Interactive/SouthPeak Games
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, suggestive themes, violence)

Children of the 1980s doubtlessly remember the wave of low-budget Nintendo Entertainment System games that didn’t exactly view user-friendliness as a virtue. Instructions and storytelling were minimal to non-existent, and completing the games demanded some mix of cruel trial and error and/or a strategy guide purchase.

“X-Blades” is, on multiple levels, the modern-day embodiment of those old games.

Take for instance, the Observation Site level, which finds you trapped in a room with spikes that pop out of the floor. “X-Blades” gives you no instruction on how to escape the room, nor does it really explain why the trap even exists. So you’re stuck with your contemporary instincts, which compel you to find a way to escape the room. But there exists no such trick: If you can dodge the spike patterns for an entirely indeterminate amount of time, a cutscene plays and you’re freed.

The same holds true for some of the boss fights.

“X-Blades'” mix of sword and pistol combat takes pages out of the “Devil May Cry” playbook, but as you progress through the game, the elemental spells you unlock take precedence.

For the most part, the system makes sense: Fire-based spells devastate ice-based enemies, light magic counters dark magic, and so on. Once in a while, though, the weakness isn’t really defined, and you’ll have to run down your spells to find something that works while the bad guys pound away at you. “X-Blades” gives no quarter in this regard: If you don’t use the right attack, you can’t damage certain enemies at all. Death isn’t devastatingly consequential — you start the fight over but keep any experience you’ve accrued — but that doesn’t make the guesswork any less obnoxious.

But that’s how “X-Blades” rolls. You enter a level, kill or dodge everything that moves, and repeat. The story is threadbare, the existence of various enemies mostly without explanation, and the motives of Ayumi, the main character, left mostly to your imagination. That never changes, and while the second half of the game presents new enemies and challenges, you’ll face them while running backwards through nighttime versions of the same areas you already saw.

Obviously, this isn’t a game for everyone, and the lack of modern frills (to say nothing of replayability once you beat it) makes it nearly impossible to justify the current $60 ($50 for Windows) price.

However, if the idea of completely archaic storytelling and level structure sounds strangely appealing, you’ll at least be pleased to know “X-Blades” gets the technical stuff mostly right. The action is fast and loose, and the spells only get cooler as the game unfolds. Ayumi’s gracefulness can’t match her speed, but outside of a few optional collectables, platforming isn’t even an issue here.

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Downloadable game

Word Fu
For: iPhone and iPod Touch
From: ngmoco
ESRB Rating: Not rated by ESRB
Price: $2

If you’ve ever played Boggle, you’ll understand “Word Fu,” which gives you 20 seconds to roll nine lettered dice to your satisfaction and 45 (and counting) additional seconds to spell as many words as you can using the letters you roll. Naturally, longer words merit larger scores, and “Fu” adds seconds to the timer every time you successfully submit a word. A few additional tricks help ward off the effects of countdown panic: You can use the same die ad infinitum to spell longer words with repeating letters, and submitting words triggers power-ups that let you slow time, reroll one die or play for double points. The Kung Fu motif is purely superficial, but the sounds provide an amusing and satisfying complement to submitting words. “Fu” includes a high score table, achievements (in the form of colored belts) and even local multiplayer over the same Wi-Fi network. The feature set, combined with ngmoco’s now-standard attention to quality, makes the $2 price tag all the more staggering. Unless you can’t read, your return on investment will be almost immediate.