Wonderbelly Games’ “Roundguard” is just about the perfect game for Apple Arcade. It’s inspired by “Peggle,” the addictive 2007 game from PopCap. “Peggle” included kooky, Don Bluth-style animal characters and the supreme gift of a spirited chorus singing Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” when you cleared a level.
“Roundguard” is perfect in the realm of gameplay. Often, when you can’t connect a game controller to an Arcade game, you have to deal with playing on your iPhone’s touch screen. Those controls aren’t always as responsive as you’d like. But “Roundguard” is based on pachinko, the Japanese arcade/gambling games. While there’s some control via ace aiming and power-ups used while your ball falls, there’s a distinct randomness to your play. From the screen’s top, you aim your ball toward its first destination. From there, where it goes, nobody knows, because most of the bouncing, pivoting and banking is up to the wondrous laws of physics.
If that’s not enough game, “Roundguard” adds the strategy and rules of a dungeon crawling role playing game to the mix. It’s a mash-up that doesn’t always work, but it does here. The keys to longevity here are to pick up the magic green scarab, which increases your points fivefold on every level. Plus, you have to keep your health high by bouncing into the red health orbs.
As you level up, you’ll meet cheeky monsters along the way, like a bad-poem spewing writer with a poison pen. Worse is The Alchemist, a devilish boss at the end of Act One, a red-horned jerk who trash talks and tosses shade at you. The whole affair became nerve-racking. I was down to 4 health before I cleared the level. Wounded, he didn’t die, claiming maniacally that he would return later.
If The Alchemist was my nemesis, the constantly engaging qualities of “Roundguard” were my friends. Seemingly forever, I went down the rabbithole in an effort to rise in the leader boards and tried to do well on the daily puzzle, which was terribly painful to win beyond the first level. When tackling the weekly puzzle, I used an ingenious feature that unleashes helpful frogs like a multiball bonus in pinball. That went better, and I rose to the leader board Top 30. These days, the first thing I do in the morning is feed my evil, scratching cat and gird my loins for “Roundguard’s” demented beings. Both will want to see me suffer … just one more time.
Creaks is innovative and terror-inspiring. This woodcut-like goth horror puzzle platformer with rickety ladders, electric lights and spindly wires had a familiar feel to it. The puzzles were stomach-turning hard. Clearly, someone wanted me to use my brain before receiving any sort of joy in completion. The instrumental score bore a searing rhythm combined with a melancholy vibe. And the characters were charming but somehow haunted. They, too, would suffer, and so would their enemies — for a lack of smarts.
“Creaks” had all the hallmarks of an Amanita Design production, and that’s precisely what it was. Anamita created the amazing “Samorost” series, which featured a determined, homely space gnome. Many writers ignored the series, but it still garnered loyal fans who would wonder when the studio would release more games. I, too, wondered. Now, Anamita seems to release games for the Arcade more frequently. It’s a fine home for them.
But “Creaks,” which is a horror story, is more up my alley than “Samorost.” It features a worried character who is first seen poring over a book before the lights in his wallpaper peeling hovel are extinguished. In the dark, things around the house change and behind that wallpaper is a tunnel, a portal to a wonderful doom in which you die again and again as you search for a path forward. All the while you flee robotic bulldogs, who, in cutscenes featuring only the shadows of your death, offer me the same kind of fear that I witnessed in “The Last of Us Part II.” Yes, they’re less bloody demises. But the tenacious fear and shock is similar to being attacked by a Clicker hiding behind a door. I died so many times, that I began singing Norma Tanega’s “You’re dead … and out of this world,” the theme to the hilarious “What We Do In The Shadows.”
There’s no speaking in “Creaks.” And there isn’t text to the narrative, either. Here, you simply avoid enemies who’ll devour you by ascending and descending ladders, and, an hour in, witness the tail of a being that appears to be as ginormous as Cronos in “God of War.” Even the tail is lovingly rendered.
Indulge in Creaks on an iPad so you can see the detailed, hand-drawn art in all its glory.
While there are game elements in Route 59′s “Necrobarista,” this story of a gloomy coffee bar found down a creepy Melbourne alley is more of a movie-like visual novel with loads of pun-filled text to enjoy — and sometimes groan about. A little like “Coffee Talk” but more cinematic, you meet patrons, dead, dying and living, in a mysterious java-land called The Terminal. But there’s woe here as you learn some heartfelt, deep things about the essence of dying. It’s not as nuanced as, say, Lewis Hyde’s “A Primer for Forgetting” tome, but it does quite well with the essence of endings in an anime setting full of potent camera angles and cutting retorts.
Generally, the written dialogue moves things along quickly, especially when spewed by the well-rounded Maddy barista character. Yes, when the writers take an ageist shot at baby boomers (who are not all rich, by the way), it sputters. And yes, some of the backstories (called memories) you find slow things down. But overall, if you’re going to check out just one visual novel this year, “Necrobarista” is the one in which to indulge.