Ever since iOS first rolled onto the scene in 2007, the mobile gaming scene has exploded. While Nintendo had cornered the market on portable video games, smartphones opened up on-the-go gaming to a much larger crowd. It’s not hard to see why. The platforms are, comparatively, cheap to develop on and can easily access a huge audience. While the presence of cashgrab shovelware was inevitable, the best games always cut through the noise. Tiny Bubbles has that kind of staying power.
Developed by Pine Street Codeworks, Tiny Bubbles is a supremely satisfying puzzle game about popping bubbles in a frisson-inducing cascade of chain-reactions. It carries many of the hallmarks of mobile gaming, most notably its touch-friendly UI, but still provides strong enough gameplay to stand on a different platform.
Tide pods, Boba tea, Dippin’ Dots, and bathtime as a kid. Bubbles are everywhere, and with good reason. Humans have an innate fascination with the curious structures. They’re enticing on an almost primal level. The second I see a roll of bubble-wrap, my first instinct is to grab it gleefully and pop every single air-filled sphere.
Tiny Bubbles offers that kind of experience and revels in it. It plays upon that natural affinity towards all things bright, colorful, and round. The game speaks to you comfortingly and says “Hey friend, take a load off. Start up this game. Pop some bubbles. Let these melodic aqua-synth tones lull you into a wonderful nirvana of puzzle-popping fun.” Or something like that.
There’s little more to the game than popping bubbles. Tiny Bubbles covers a large array of dozens of puzzles, similar to mobile titles like Cut the Rope and Angry Birds. The game features seven different “zones”, each with twenty-five puzzles of varying difficulties. As you progress through more puzzles, different goals and mechanics layer onto the existing framework and create some interesting diversity in challenges.
Through it all, you’re treated to a synaesthetic symphony of swirling watercolors and soft pips and pops. Both the sound and visual design play subtle, yet effective roles in conveying a profoundly relaxed environment for the player. The simple act of popping bubbles and mixing colors is nothing short of delightful, enough that you actually enjoy the trial and error of puzzle-solving. The best puzzle games leave you pondering in enjoyment, rather than frustration. Tiny Bubbles does just that.
Once You Pop You Just Can’t Stop
Tiny Bubbles‘ core gameplay revolves around the central idea of popping bubbles. Each stage involves a pre-determined cluster of bubbles of varying colors. You, the player, have a given set of two moves to carry out: fill in a color or cut an edge. Match four colors, you start a chain reaction and get bubbles popping. Simple, right?
As with all good puzzle games, here’s where things start to get tricky. The game wastes no time in getting you familiarized with its many small intricacies, from shadow bubbles to color combos and more. The genius behind Tiny Bubbles is how it utilizes its different mechanics to reinforce the core gameplay loop of gleeful bubble-popping.
This extends beyond the explicit actions you can perform as a player. The bubbles’ behaviors play a large role in how some puzzles are built. Bubbles grow, shrink, and move in different ways depending on how you interact with them. As you progress, you quickly realize that there’s a method to the madness, and that you can consistently replicate said behaviors.
Some puzzles are easily more challenging (and frustrating) than others. Thankfully, gentle freedom forms Tiny Bubbles’ MO, from the presentation to the gameplay itself. Thanks to the unique physics and freeform design, winging your own solution isn’t entirely uncommon. Branching paths to different puzzles let you shop around and take a break if any one puzzle is giving you trouble. Even then, the game features a hint system that nudges you in the right direction should you need the help.
But that help doesn’t come for free! The developers have implemented a system that is both generous and challenging. At any time, players can go into “Infinity Mode”, where they can earn tickets by popping bubbles that contain them. With a limited set of moves that resets every three hours, Tiny Bubbles‘ hint system continues to teach players even when they’re seeking help.
Tiny Game, Big Heart
The unavoidable truth about the game is that it functions far better on a mobile platform. Everything about how Tiny Bubbles presents itself speaks towards that handheld design. Large, button-based UI, heavy use of symbols, and, most telling of all, a point-and-click-based control scheme. By no means does this detract from any enjoyment you may get from the game. The puzzles function perfectly fine with standard mouse controls. That said, chances are it would feel far more natural and satisfying to use your fingers to fill and pop bubbles.
Tiny Bubbles is unabashedly simple and straightforward. It doesn’t do a whole lot, but what it does it does superbly well. The game has been polished to a fine sheen with love and care, and it shows. Much like Splatoon or Katamari, Tiny Bubbles is a game where the act of playing it is fun in its own right. Though a simple puzzle game at first glance, once you start popping it’s easy to get lost in a colorful cascade of bubbles.
- Satisfyingly tactile gameplay (even without touch controls)
- Well polished visual and sound design
- Nice variety of mechanics and puzzles
- Easily accessible, but still offers a challenge
- Best played on a mobile platform
- The occasional obtuse puzzle
Kena: Bridge of Spirits Marks A Beautiful New Beginning For Ember Lab
Kena: Bridge of Spirits will mark a beautiful new age for Ember Lab as the company will hopefully continue to pursue the interactive medium.
Kena: Bridge of Spirits Review
Developer: Ember Lab | Publisher: Ember Lab | Genre: Action-Adventure | Platform: PlayStation 4/5, Microsoft Windows | Reviewed on: PlayStation 5
Kena: Bridge of Spirits is the culmination of everything Ember Lab has created thus far. After years of presenting masterful shorts, it is only natural that the post-production company’s first video game project would flourish in the same charm its commercials and fan films have boasted since their inception. Despite being their first leap into a different medium of entertainment, Kena: Bridge of Spirits shows that Ember Lab is still on top of its game. The company has intertwined its best efforts into a seamless world of light and darkness that may occasionally appear dated but is absolutely worth visiting.
A Long-Awaited Awakening
Taking place in a world shaped by the presence of forces beyond the living, Kena: Bridge of Spirits‘ narrative absorbs its style and grace from what Ember Lab already succeeded with. While the story may not always explore its loveable protagonist to a deep extent, saying that the storytelling lacks depth would be a disservice to its emotional moments. To keep the premise as simple as possible without going into detail, the titular Kena is a spirit guide who must help lost souls find their way to what lies beyond the land of the living by repelling their darknesses. Her world’s story initially may playoff as generic, yet it grows to be both moving and surprising. Where the game’s focus really lies is in its gameplay and visuals.
As the player explores a lush open world, they will solve puzzles, fight humanoid spirits, upgrade weapons, and go on a collectathon for a handful of rewarding items. For an independent game that lacks the budget of a triple-A experience, Kena: Bridge of Spirits puts its smaller and larger competitions to shame. From its action to its artistic composition, the title knocks it out of the park with so many of its core design aspects. There may be a handful of problems with the gameplay, but its stylization and animated wonderland make it a nearly perfect adventure. Everything intertwines in a fashionable matter that feels effective and never loses focus, but there is certainly a warranted coat of polish behind its many highs.
There is a lot to love about Kena: Bridge of Spirits’ gameplay, but it is unquestionably where all of its shortcomings come from — many of these issues actually tend to go hand-in-hand for the most part as they tie into the player’s growth. While platforming and puzzle-solving are always a blast no matter what point in the narrative the player is at there are some noticeably annoying flaws that could have been easily fixed with connected solutions. Fighting enemies is always exciting and the controls are buttery smooth, but early odd difficulty curves and shallow progression often seep through the grander aspects.
During the first third of the game, the combat can oftentimes feel as if the player has an overwhelming upper hand on their enemies. Most of the hostile forces can be mowed down in less than two or three hits with players’ beginner attacks. These generic enemies may lack any thoughtful weaknesses, but thankfully the later foes require much more attention to overcome. However, getting smarter does not necessarily mean that the player will get to employ more skills. Kena: Bridge of Spirits can quite literally be beaten with the unaltered moves and weapons the player receives at the start of the adventure.
Disappointingly, Kena: Bridge of Spirits has a promising arsenal of abilities that provides no real progression — not because they aren’t hard to earn but due to their lasting worth. With only one melee weapon, a long-ranged bow, bombs, and the ability to dash, the game leaves itself with a small number of upgrades for the player to unlock that do not contribute much. The vast majority of these moves feel rewarding to use, yet they come off as features that could have easily been implemented into the player’s base moveset. They never provide any true variety to the combat or even necessarily skills that are required to finish the game.
It’s not just the weapons that suffer from this problem. They may be fun to collect and utilize, but the Rot creatures present a large growing number that represents little progression in terms of combat and somehow puzzle-solving. Apart from droplets that allow the Rot to take a larger serpent-like form as the player recruits more of them, the number of these spirits to collect can feel a tad insignificant in the long term. Customizing their costumes and seeing how they interact with the world will always put a smile on the player’s face, but nonetheless, it is a shame how the gameplay underutilizes their long-term presence.
Forging Large Hearts and Lovely Souls
During Kena: Bridge of Spirits’ hands-on previews, a lot of users compared the game to titles such as Horizon Zero Dawn, Pikmin, and God Of War. However, the clear inspiration for the game comes from The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask and its iconic fan film that Ember Lab helmed. Majora’s Mask — Terrible Fate was a spectacle that further skyrocketed the company to fame. Everything that short succeeded on in terms of both visuals and narrative — along with Ember Lab’s other projects for that matter — was carried over magnificently to Kena: Bridge of Spirits artistic direction.
While the gameplay has its faults, it’s no shocker that Ember Lab’s title would thrive most from its breathtaking visuals, cinematic direction, and audio design. Kena: Bridge of Spirits stands as not only one of the best-looking and sounding PlayStation 4 and 5 titles ever released, but one of the finest in the gaming industry overall. The gameplay may be refined, but the lush world Kena: Bridge of Spirits holds is one of the digital realm’s most beautiful landscapes to ever release on any platform.
On top of gorgeous environments, clean character models, and atmospheric effects, Kena: Bridge of Spirits truthfully thrives in visuals because of its animations. Whether you are watching cutscenes or walking around the world, there are always movements to sit back and admire. The game’s cast and environments never remain still–everything is highly expressive and constantly moving. Not a single spec of Kena’s palpable land feels as if it were forgotten or designed to simply act as something for the player to pass by. This sentiment especially shows itself with the Rot species.
Whereas the Rot may be criticized for their overarching gameplay purpose, it is impossible to deny the fact that they are beautifully animated. The spirits never feel as if they are glued on to Kena or their surrounding environments. They are constantly expressive and characterized by their movements and interactions with the world itself. The Rot are regularly interacting with their surroundings as they jump between locations and engage with structures in unique ways. Kena’s world already feels organic and lively thanks to its therapeutic atmosphere, but the Rot adds another layer of spirit to the game.
Of course, having a visual spectacle in an Ember Lab project means that the audio design was bound to be a knockout too. Kena’s score composed by Jason Gallaty and Dewa Putu Berata is remedial to the soul. It is bursting through the seams with heart and proper articulation as it helps further enhance the player’s immersion with environments and cinematics. On top of fantastical orchestrations and well-pieced sound design, the game boasts an excellent voice cast breathing into its many characters. Berata’s daughter, Dewa Ayu Dewi Larassanti, ended up voicing Kena herself, and you would think she is a veteran of the industry, but this is her first gig. Larassanti does a spectacular job, as does the rest of her fellow actors. All the performances together are just another factor that helps keep players invested.
The only disappointing aspects coming from the look of the game comes from the transitions between gameplay and cinematics. The cutscenes were clearly designed with a moviemaking mindset and sadly do not accommodate for performance mode on PlayStation 5. Rather than adjusting to the smoother sixty-frames look, the pre-rendered cinematics stick to half that rate. They still look unbelievable, but it can feel weird instantly jumping between the two — however, this problem is only for those using performance mode. The brief loading screens that equate to literal seconds do not ruin the fluidity of the presentation either, but hopefully in the future Ember Labs will be able to iron out this nitpick in whatever they choose to pursue next.
A Bridge Between Works
In the coming days, Kena: Bridge of Spirits is going to be compared to the likes of Pixar and Dreamworks for its visuals. Its gameplay will be explained by critics and the public by corresponding it with numerous popular franchises. Ultimately, though, Kena: Bridge of Spirits is the culminated work of Ember Lab’s extraordinary history in the entertainment industry. With ten years in the visual effects department, hours of experience filming at real sets, and a whole lot of inspiration from video games at the core of their spirit, the success of Ember Lab’s first independent title was inevitable. Kena: Bridge of Spirits will mark a beautiful new age for Ember Lab as the company will hopefully continue to pursue its latest shining endeavors in gaming. Kena: Bridge of Spirits is a beautiful work of art, and Ember Lab has just gotten started.
Eastward: A Delightful If Flawed Gaming Buffet
Eastward is a video game that is bursting with ideas, some of which are great, some of which don’t work, but all of it is well worth a look.
Eastward Indie Snippet
Eastward is a great big video game buffet. It looks delicious from afar, but as you get a little closer, it becomes clear that a few of the dishes are suspect. How long has that shrimp been out? But that big weird meal is still enjoyable, and it’ll likely have you coming back for more.
Overplayed metaphors aside, Eastward is a video game that is bursting with ideas, some of which are great, some of which don’t work, but all of it is well worth a look if you admire the style and have a patient heart.
New Adventure, Familiar Ingredients
Developed by Pixpil Games and notably published by Chucklefish, Eastward is a pixelated adventure that tells the tale of big silent lug John and the plucky and mysterious psychic girl, Sam, as they battle their way towards the truth behind their very existence. They swat bugs and baddies with frying pans and psychic blasts while exploring various post-apocalyptic catacombs and quests.
It’s a story about friendship and family set against elements of Earthbound and classic Zelda. Despite its monolithic influences casting a long shadow, it still manages to carve out its own identity, though it is not without its extremely clunky bits.
Eastward is doing one thing best of all: it looks exquisite. Pixpil’s greatest accomplishment is the marvelously well-executed pixelated art style, and in a land that is by now well-populated by pixel art, this is no small pile of pixels. The apocalyptic grime and overgrown grit shine in Pixpil’s detailed homage to games of yore. The character designs, in particular, are hard not to marvel at, with each inventive animation cycle bringing to mind greats like Metal Slug and Street Fighter 2.
The game is so beautiful, in fact, that it kind of makes up for a bevy of other flawed, if admirable, undercooked elements. Questionable ingredients emerge early, as even among the beautifully drawn subterranean landscapes it is sometimes unclear which way you can actually go. The problems pile up like bacon at the buffet.
Do you have a fever with a prescription for more cutscenes? Then you’re in luck, Eastward has got you covered. There’s a lot of dialogue in Eastward, and a lot of it amounts to very little. Its tone and world try to pull from the off-kilter playbook of the greatest of all, Earthbound, but it misses and meanders.
There’s even a game-within-a-game called Earth Born (which oddly enough plays more like Dragon Quest). Here and there Eastward hits the right flavor, but when you’re borrowing from the best recipes, you’d better be nailing it, and Eastward doesn’t. The lead protagonists are certainly worth caring about, but their journey wanders aimlessly like their conversations do, littered with jokes that don’t land and cutscenes that don’t quit.
If you’re hoping that that’s all broken up by fun battles and rewarding puzzles, I have some bad news on that front, too. With the exception of some rewarding boss encounters, the combat is pretty one-dimensional, even when players are finally allowed to switch between the two leads or when new elements are thrown in.
Ditto for the puzzles; they range from “somewhat satisfying” to “hitting switches,” and all of this is drawing from top-down Zelda games, which once again leaves a bad taste in comparison. The sum of it leads to an overall sense of bad pacing, and you’ll often wish that a dungeon or a conversation were shorter.
Still Worth A Look
And yet, if it looks like your cup of pixels, Eastward has a winning way. It’s clear that the developer’s best-used ingredient was love. And sure, they poured most of their love syrup into the stunning visuals, but the clunky aspects aren’t so bad that they make the game unplayable; I was always left wanting to see more.
Moreover, Eastward is sprinkled with a bounty of fun little extras. The aforementioned side game, Earth Born, is legitimately entertaining, and its story does a better job of not taking itself too seriously than that of the main quest. You can collect baubles for power-ups for that game, there’s a nifty little cooking mechanic that incorporated well, and much of the synth soundtrack is actually great. It all adds up to a really solid experience on the side.
A Worthy Buffet
It must be said that if you come to Eastward never having played any of its most dominant influences, remedy that first. But if you’re giving it a look as a lover of Earthbound and classic Zelda titles, and if your expectations are in check, you should go for it.
There’s much to complain about in Eastward, but this is largely because it’s inches from the greatness of its influences. If the gameplay and pacing had matched its visual style, we’d be looking at a classic fit for generations to come. As it is, it’s a fun and interesting homage by a company that is well worth keeping an eye on.
Lost in Random is Worth Getting Lost in
Lost in Random’s technical shortcomings keep it from fully realizing it’s vision, but what remains is still a one of the year’s best games.
Lost In Random Review
Developer: Zoink Games | Publisher: EA Originals | Genre: Action-Adventure, Strategy | Platforms: PS4, PS5, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, PC | Reviewed on: Nintendo Switch
Lost in Random seems generic at first glance, boldly wearing its influences on its skeletal sleeves. Not only does this new game from publisher EA Originals and developer Zoink Games take place in a themed world, but it is also inhabited by doll-like beings that are depicted in a style akin to stop-motion animation. Look at any preview or review of Lost In Random and the works of Henry Selick and Laika are sure to be brought up (just as they are here). But the aesthetic of Lost in Random is no jealous copy. It’s a confident homage. In story and world, Lost in Random rivals its inspirations.
Lost in Random follows a little girl named Even who lives in the world of Random where the roll of a single die, the die of the queen, governs society. The die decides every rule of state, much like Two-Face’s coin, and it is in this that Lost in Random initiates the core conflict. When a child turns twelve, the die is rolled to determine where the child will live with each side of the die representing one of the six districts that make up the kingdom. Even lives in the poorest district, Onetown, and when her sister, Odd, turns 12, she is sent to live in the wealthiest district, Sixtopia. And so begins a journey of rescue, with Even setting off to save her sister from a luxurious, but possibly cruel existence. It’s a fascinating tale that only deepens the more you play.
In many ways, Lost in Random is reminiscent of Inside Out, doing for randomness what that movie does for sadness. The game sees chaos not simply as a means for destruction, but as an impetus for the freedom of expression that is the backbone of love and connection. Lost Random, in its playful wisdom, feels like the creation of an astute, wistful child who sees reality’s harshness and playfulness in equal measure. It’s enchanting.
This sense of wonderment and creativity carries over into Lost in Random’s fantastic gameplay, combining real-time action with the strategy of a deck-building card game. Even finds the power to pulverize the Queen’s mechanical horde thanks to magical cards whose power is brought to life by a sentient die named Dicey, who Even meets at the beginning of her journey. Over the course of the game, Even collects cards of various types, ranging from attack cards that provide weapons to hazard guards that create deadly traps. To active the cards, Even needs to roll Dicey whose magical powers then activate the cards. But there are some cavities.
True to its card-battling heritage, Lost in Random puts limits on Even and the player. Even can only take 15 cards into a battle and she can only play the cards in her hand, randomly determined when the dice rolls. Furthermore, each card requires a certain amount of power to be activated and the power released, called card points, is dependent on the roll of the die. Adding to the complexity is how the power is obtained, since Dicey must be powered up before each roll.
Every enemy produces energy crystals on their bodies, which Even can shoot off and collect to energize Dicey. Doing this can feel occasionally tedious, chopping combat up into fits and start, but it quickly becomes another motivation to properly plan since it’s possible to decimate enemies in quick succession with proper preparation. All that is to say, deck-building matters. From beginning to end, it is important to properly assess the environment and the enemies you’ve fought. You have to actively anticipate encounters and plan ahead. Add to this strategizing, the devilish element of chance inherent in every dice roll, and you have a combat system that is thrilling, unique, and wonderfully suited to Lost in Random’s world and themes.
Of course, not everything is combat, and Lost in Random generally succeeds outside this area, despite its bland level design. When not engaged in robot genocide, players explore one of the six towns, engage in side quests, and talk to the citizenry. The towns’ layout bores, never feeling organic or adequately alive, but the dialogue and atmosphere are phenomenal, picking up the slack.
From the carnival-like town of Fourberg to the dual-sided Two Town, every interaction feels true to the eccentric districts. For instance, in Two Town, where everyone has a split personality, there is a side-quest involving a mad scientist who wishes to rid himself of his other personality using a potion. Even is enlisted by both personalities to get the ingredients and must decide to whom to give them. The end result is surprisingly poignant and a thoughtful companion to the main story, complicating how you understand what transpires.
Unfortunately, despite all the wonder, Lost in Random falters in a few areas. Along with the aforementioned level design, the game’s combat starts to become stale with little variation in the way of cards and enemies during the final acts. Together, these issues make the game feel occasionally monotonous to play and dampen the experience.
Aside from the gameplay and design annoyances, Lost in Random also suffers from technical issues, including a poor frame rate during hectic fights, and drab graphics, especially on the Nintendo Switch. The game’s macabre atmosphere and toy-like character design are certainly excellent, but there are many times when textures, characters, and environments look muddy, making the game feel like a lesser imitation of its inspirations from a visual standpoint. Frequent loading and awkward transitions in and out of cutscenes compound these problems. Lost in Random tells a marvelous tale and is superbly acted, so it’s a shame that the graphics and tech fall so short of the incredible world.
Despite an unfulfilled graphical vision, Lost in Random is still compelling entertainment and a true piece of art. There’s something special about a video game that is a genuine labor of love where everything in it, even the unpolished bits, exudes passion. Lost in Random is one such game. It’s by no means flawless, oftentimes extending its vision far beyond its technical capabilities, but it is still wonderful, brimming with creativity, insight, and joy.
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