Digital Life reviews the year's best locally made video games from up-and-coming home-grown studios.
Ghost Recon Phantoms
Developer: Ubisoft Singapore
Price: Free to play (PC via Steam)
Ghost Recon Phantoms is a tactical shooter which requires you to capture hard points on a map instead of running-and-gunning. To capture a hard point, your team needs to have more soldiers inside the capture zone than your opponent's.
Because the game works on a cover-based system, you cannot charge headlong into the enemy. They will take you out in seconds from behind cover. If the enemy team has already captured the zone, your team needs to devise a strategy to take them out.
Typically, it will take advanced technology to push into your rival's well-defended zone. The recon's cloak ability renders you invisible for short spells, making you ideal for flanking the enemy and taking out unsuspecting soldiers.
But it is the special abilities of the support class - creating a bubble shield that blocks bullets from penetrating, and the Blackout special attack, which unleashes a powerful electromagnetic pulse which temporarily disables all of the enemy's weapons - that make them an essential part of a successful penetration into enemy zone.
The assault class guys have the biggest guns and the heaviest armour. They have two special abilities: One is a special charge attack in which they use shields to knock down enemies; they can also fire powerful microwaves which temporarily disable their enemies.
The recon units are the most fragile but they have sniper rifles to take out enemies from a distance. They also have the ability to scan the surroundings and detect the presence of enemies around them, even those in hiding. This is the only way to detect cloaked soldiers.
The new weapon-modding system offers granular customisation for your favourite guns. Switching to a longer barrel gives your gun greater range but less power. With multiple parts of a gun to customise, you can custom mod your own favourite weapon to suit your distinct style of gameplay.
Ghost Recon Phantoms is a shooter for the thinking man.
Developer: Secret Base
Price: $13 (PC via Steam)
Inspired by side-scrolling classics such as Final Fight, Streets Of Rage and Golden Axe, this beat-em-up game transports a player back to the late 1980s and 1990s, when video game arcades ruled the roost.
Paying homage to its genre, the game does not take itself seriously and is packed with references to pop culture of that era.
You play as one of four heroes trapped in a game convention as zombies attack. Each has his own unique combat style, as well as special moves ripped out of games of the era.
Jackson, for example, with his speed and twin daggers, is inspired by Raphael from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, while Kingston wields a golden axe, just like the hero in the Golden Axe arcade game.
Devil's Dare offers four stages to hack and slash through. Each becomes longer as you progress.
Staying true to its arcade roots, the game ends when you run out of money to continue playing.
Money, an important in-game resource, drops from enemies you kill. As you progress through the game, you will find that you must carefully balance your funds between upgrading your abilities and saving for revives, which get pricier each time you die.
Although the game is short, it offers good replay value, as the levels play differently if you go through them in a different order.
You can also play cooperatively with up to three friends on the same computer, either by plugging in three extra controllers or squeezing together to share a keyboard.
However, not everyone will appreciate the deliberately muted art-style, and its unforgiving difficulty will put off casual players.
A retro hack-and-slash that brings the player back to the 1990s and, like the good old days of arcade games, you need skill to go the distance.
FOR PLAYSTATION 4
One Upon Light
Developer: SUTD Game Lab
Price: $8.10 (PlayStation 4 Network)
It may look like yet another hipster game with its melancholic music and black-and-white hand-drawn art but, surprisingly, One Upon Light has both substance and style.
Developed by the Singapore University of Technology and Design Game Lab, the game, which plays with light and shadows, looks deceptively simple.
There is not a single line of speech and the plot is almost non-existent. You wake up in a crumbling lab and need to find a way out.
You cannot punch, run, jump, slide or use weapons. And stepping into the lighted areas strewn around the dark lab will kill you. So, you have to find safety in the shadows. You move your character around to find the sources of light and snuff them out. Sometimes, simply by flipping a switch or by moving a crate to block out the light.
At first, the gameplay seems simple enough. But the puzzles get harder and harder. The beauty of the game is in its design. It forces you to think and to keep trying different ways to get out of tight spots. The impatient will hate this game. Those who hate to lose will love it.
If you are Albert Einstein, you will probably finish this game in two hours. For someone with average intelligence, such as myself, it took me that length of time to get to the eighth level.
I have been stuck at this level for an hour and it looks like things will only get tougher from here.
Brain-grinding good. The game's excellent design rewards the thinking gamer who does not give up until he finds a way out.
FOR ANDROID & IOS
Super Awesome Quest
Developer: Boomzap Fight Club
Price: Free to play (Android and iOS)
Boomzap is better known for its hidden-objects games which it makes for a niche PC gaming audience.
This game is one of its first forays into the mobile arena and it impresses. Essentially a role-playing game, Super Awesome Quest lets you control heroes, such as a paladin, valkyrie and mage, as you battle undead creatures, kobolds and other nasty monsters.
The battlefield consists of a 5 x 5 grid where each square is an ability that you can use by simply touching them, one at a time. These include weapon attacks, powerful spells, healing buffs and even tactics that bring forward a protected archer so you can attack it.
The paladin is well-armoured and can survive plenty of hits. He can also deal holy damage, which makes him the ideal character for the early part of the game where undead creatures roam.
But the valkyrie and mage are better later on for their improved damage-dealing abilities, including the ability to blast all enemies at the same time.
As you defeat monsters, your characters level up and become more powerful. You will also acquire many more different materials, which are required to craft more powerful weapons and armour for your heroes.
While the game appears simple at first, it is surprisingly deep and often requires you to think about how you should customise your characters for different fights.
The gameplay is deceptively simple, but this awesome role-playing game has managed to get me hooked.
Price: Free to play (Android and iOS)
Fans of fast-paced, three-player mahjong will be delighted with this game. The Malaysian style of mahjong is rare, as the bulk of mahjong games are the traditional four-player versions.
Instead of 144 tiles, it uses only 84, taking away the "bamboo" and "millions" suits. There are also four "joker" tiles which can represent any other tile.
Each match usually ends within five minutes, so this game is great for people who want to grab a quick game during their lunch break.
The game automatically matchmakes people of the same skill level so beginners will not feel demoralised after being "owned" by more seasoned players.
You can level up to challenge better players only when you win your matches.
A tournament mode is unlocked when you hit level six, letting you climb a leaderboard and pit your skills against the best players.
This game is tough for beginners as there is no tutorial mode and single-player campaigns where you can practise against the computer is non-existent.
When you start the game, you have only the first five levels to practise as the results of these games do not count towards your overall ranking.
Graphics are functional while connection speeds are excellent. You usually get matched up within 10 seconds.
Although it may be punishing for newbies, this game is great for mahjong veterans who want a quick game on the go.
Romans In My Carpet!
Developer: Witching Hour Studios
Price: $3.98 (Android and iOS)
Romans In My Carpet! sees two factions fighting a bloody war on a small battlefield: a bedroom.
In this turn-based strategy game, players control "Romites" - mite-sized Roman soldiers - and battle "Breetles", bedbug-sized barbarians.
This game feels like a lighthearted version of the developer's more serious Ravenmark strategy games and opts for a cute and colourful 16-bit pixel art style.
In battle, turns consist of two parts - a command phase in which a player gives orders to his units and a battle phase in which the units carry out the orders.
There is the typical rock-paper-scissors formula, with five unit types - infantry, polearm, cavalry, ranged and support, each with varying strengths and weaknesses.
The battlefield is pretty and varied, with skirmishes occurring on gaming tabletops, bookshelves and the carpet. Players do battle among nacho crumbs, gaming dice and blobs of Nutella, all blown up to gigantic proportions.
However, tactics change little, so all this amounts to not much more than pretty scenery.
The humour remains off-beat and tongue-in-cheek, keeping the single-player campaign entertaining and engaging throughout. Players can choose from various factions, but there is little difference in how the factions play.
Big Hero 6 - Bot Fight
Developer: Gumi Asia
Price: Free to play (Android and iOS)
Control characters from Disney's latest animated feature Big Hero 6 as you swipe your way through hundreds of match-three levels.
Bot Fight puts you in command of an army of bots. There is no limit to the number of bots you can own but you can take up to only five at any one time into battle. In addition, you can choose an allied bot which belongs to other players in the game as your sixth team member.
The gameboard consists of a 7 x 6 grid of coloured cells. Like other match-three games, you simply line up three to five cells of the same colour to activate an attack.
Your bots belong to one of the five colours - red, green, blue, yellow and purple - and automatically attack whenever cells corresponding to their colours are lined up.
Matching four and five same-coloured cells launches super attacks which can clear entire rows of cells at one go, complete with fancy animations.
Choosing the right bots is key. Red bots do more damage against green ones, green bots are stronger against blues, while blues will overpower the reds. The yellow and purple bots are vulnerable to each other's attacks but have no advantage or disadvantage over the three primary colours.
Your bots will level up and become more powerful when you win fights. You can also sacrifice weaker bots to upgrade your chosen bot's power. The concepts in the game are very similar to Puzzle Trooper, another Gumi game, except that it is easier to activate attacks using the popular match-three method in Bot Fight.
Bot Fight, however, also lets you unleash special attacks by the stars of Big Hero 6. Hiro, for instance, unleashes a powerful attack which damages all enemy bots.
A familiar match-three game made for Big Hero 6 fans.
Candy's Konbini Store
Price: Free to play (Android, iOS version soon)
This cutesy match-three game puts you in the shoes of a Japanese "konbini" convenience store owner.
The game board is a 6 x 6 grid filled with coffee, onigiri (rice cake), juice, cup ramen and other food and drinks you can find in a konbini store. Like other match-three games, you have a limited number of moves to meet the requirements of each level to move up to the next.
Matching four and five items of the same type unleashes specials which can clear entire rows at once.
Clearing items lets you earn coins, which you can use to upgrade your food items and buy spiffier-looking uniforms to dress up your cashier.
Upgraded food items drop more coins, while uniforms offer perks such as giving you more moves at every level and bonuses to your earnings.
To spice things up, you also have to look at your customers, who will have individual demands for specific items. Matching items that meet their needs nets you extra coins.
Having friends who are ahead in the game is a definite plus as you can use their characters to complete bonus levels to gain extra coins, but you can use each friend only once every 24 hours.
An interesting variant of the match-three genre where the coins you earn are not just points but can be used to upgrade your character.
Autumn Dynasty Warlords
Developer: Touch Dimensions
$8.98 (iOS only)
Fans of the Total War and Romance Of The Three Kingdoms (ROTK) PC strategy games will take to this game like a fish to water.
What makes it special is that it is the first of its genre to hit the touchscreen mobile platform, and that it comes from a Singapore studio.
The game feels a lot like the retro ROTK turn-based strategy games that require you to recruit the best generals to help you build your empire's economic and military might.
On the battlefield, you move your units simply by drawing with your fingers the path you wish them to take. This overcomes the limitation of touchscreen games in which complex controls over units are hard to execute in real time.
You start the game with only one warlord, Iron Zhao. As the game progresses, you will unlock eight others, each with his own strengths and weaknesses. Each warlord can produce only five of the 10 types of military units in the game. Iron Zhao, for instance, is master of the spear and his spearmen are tougher and more agile.
Other units include horsemen, elephants and catapults. The impatient gamer, who cannot wait to send troops to war, will quickly find himself overextended and underfunded.
Success requires players to first develop a strong economy. This means building marketplaces and farms first before archery ranges and stables.
If you attack another province, you risk weakening your primary province; making it vulnerable to attacks from other computer-controlled warlords.
Warlords is not for the trigger-happy. It is a deep strategy game which puts this Singapore studio on the world map of great mobile games.
Mighty Monsters: Rise Of The Minions
Price: Free to play (iOS)
The game may look cute but it is, at heart, an adaptation of the Stratego chessboard-style game where you control pieces in a head-to-head battle to kill your opponent's units and capture his hidden flag.
In the app, you control 12 cutesy minions, each of which carries either a rock, a roll of paper or a pair of scissors - but the minions' items will remain hidden until they engage in combat. Your aim is to use the right minion to kill the enemy's through rock-paper-scissors combinations.
If both are holding the same item, then each player has to choose between the three items to resolve the tie-breaker. This is where it gets interesting because your minion will end up holding the item which you selected during the tie-breaker. So you would choose rock if you know that nearby enemy minions are mostly scissors dudes.
But your opponent might guess that you would choose rock, in which case he would choose paper to beat you. So you have to either take a chance or choose scissors to beat your opponent's likely move.
Bluffing is a key strategy. Sending your hidden minion against a revealed minion holding paper indicates your minion is holding scissors but it could well be a pretence to fool your opponent. The game gets more interesting as you win games and level up, because you will then unlock single-use special attacks, such as bombs which instantly wipe out nearby enemy minions, as well as power-ups which imbue your selected minion with special abilities, including automatically winning tie-breakers and getting an extra move after winning a battle.
You can also earn permanent talents along the way and bonuses which last throughout entire battles.
A fantastic adaptation of the Stratego game where bluffs and brains will win the day.
SpellGrid+ A Game Of Many Words
Developer: Song San Hong
Price: Free to play or $2.58 for ad-free version (Android and iOS)
This is a word game which combines elements of Boggle and Scrabble.
The premise is simple: Create as many words as possible using letters from a single word.
The rules are also simple: The words cannot be repeated and they must connect to another word. This essentially means that players will end up creating their own crossword grid.
All this is done as a timer ticks down, forcing players to think fast. At the end, players are awarded points based on the words they have created.
The free version has ads and each time you undo and redo a word, it will cost you in-game credits, which you buy with real money.
The paid version comes without ads and has an unlimited undo and redo feature, so you can undo any mistake you make.
There are several modes to choose from. In Quick mode, players use a randomly generated word of seven, eight or nine letters, or choose their own words to play. Zen mode removes the tyranny of the timer, so players can think up words at their leisure.
There is no eye candy, slick animation or catchy tune in the game. The graphics consist of white letter tiles on a black background. There is no background music and the only sound effect is the placement of the letter tiles. On the whole, the game feels spartan.
At the end of a session, players can compare their crossword grids and results against those of other players. This is a nice touch, providing players with some incentive to beat high scores, but the lack of a multiplayer mode hurts the game.
This game should keep word-game fans interested when they are away from the Scrabble board.
Hide And Seek - Jewels Of The Seven Seas
Developer: Alexander Lee
Price: Free to play (Android and iOS)
Legendary pirate Blackbeard's seven precious jewels have been stolen from a museum and your job, as detective Jessica Ryders, is to find them.
Like other hidden-objects games, you are presented with a setting such as a room or a beach, which is filled with objects. To clear a level, you need to find three to six specified items within the time limit.
As you complete levels, the challenges get harder, requiring you to find more objects. Sometimes, there are special effects, such as rain, which obscures the player's vision.
The list of effects grows as you play through the game, with some proving to be a real challenge.
From the game's loading screen to its menu interface, you get the feeling of how much effort Lewenhart Studios put into this game.
Everything is well-polished and animated smoothly. Even the tutorial system, which you play through when the game is loaded for the first time, is cleverly implemented. It uses a series of menus instead of a convoluted manual.
As you solve puzzles, you will earn energy and gems. Energy is needed for the player to create his own puzzles. He can select a background, place his favourite objects and even insert an effect, such as rain or snow, and challenge a friend via Facebook to solve it.
Gems are the premium currency which a player needs in order to acquire hints for ridiculously difficult puzzles. Players who successfully solve other players' puzzles can earn gems or lose them if they fail to do so.
Hidden-objects fans will like this game, which adds a unique twist in letting players create their own hidden-objects puzzles.
Price: Free to play (Android and iOS)
EndGods puts a spin on the tower-defence formula - you not only defend your towers, you must also attack your opponent's tower at the same time.
Players can choose to fight for either Heaven or Hell, commanding a host of heroes and villains inspired by Eastern and Western mythologies.
As a result, you will see Thor, Dracula and Zhu Ba Jie all fighting on the same battlefield, silly as it may sound.
Players pit their characters against one another, sending them to fight across three lanes in order to destroy the opponent's throne, much like a super simplified version of Defence Of The Ancients 2.
EndGods' gameplay is indeed promising - it is pretty addictive, in fact.
But, like many other "freemium" games, it is brought down by its annoying attempts to extract time and money from the player.
Once you pass a certain point in the game, it becomes impossible to win, unless you grind endlessly for in-game currency or pay real money for stronger characters to add to your deck.
If that is not irritating enough, some levels even require you to play with friends in order to unlock.
Yes, the developers do not just want your money, they want to draw your friends in as well.
Sure, the developers are not alone in employing such tactics, but I could not help but feel like I was being manipulated as I played the game.
I wanted very much to like EndGods, but in the end, its "free-to-play, pay-to-win" model killed it for me.
This article was first published on Nov 12, 2014.
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