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Speed Dating at the Apple Arcade: Final Round

by John Reeves

The stakes have never been higher (or lower)


It’s the third and final round of Speed Dating in the Apple Arcade, where I rush through as many games from the catalogue as I can before my month trial period finally sputters to an end. Just like last time, I severely underestimated the amount of time I had to do all of this… and I saved all the slower story-heavy games for last.

If you missed the first two rounds, you can read them here and here if you like.


Guildlings by Sirvo Studios, Inc.

Guildlings

Guildlings is a point-and-click adventure where the central device is a magic smartphone. The rest of the world and story reflect this curious fusion: a genuine fantasy world that is as reliant on contemporary technology and the bliss of first-world malaise as our own world is (especially right now). Story-wise, it’s a nonchalant teen coming-of-age adventure where you use your smartphone to control/follow/puppet your older sister and presumably other characters, too (I didn’t play much).

As an adventure game, Guildlings’ gimmick is that it’s less about collecting items to solve puzzles than finding opportunities to change your character’s emotions, like a puppet that runs on hugs and side-eyes, which lets you access the story or world in certain ways. These can either be through Earthbound-style combat against robotic gems or just particular ways of interacting with the world, and you can also make yourself “stronger” by responding to your puppet in the way they prefer, like cheering on or agreeing with your older sister whenever there’s a chance to.

It’s very cute and charming but it’s slightly limited as a game. Since every way of tweaking your emotions needs to be repeatable for the sake of letting you eventually solve the puzzle ahead of you, it kind of breaks kayfabe and lets you see the strings. It hurts the illusion of it all and makes some situations more tedious than charming or adventurous, but that’s just a bump in the road. It’s less-than-compelling mechanically but, going off the opening, it’s neat and adorable and strikes a very specific, endearing mood – major Steven Universe vibes.

Total playtime: 50 minutes
TL;DR: charming lowkey teen coming-of-age fantasy adventure.


Mutazione by Die Gute Fabrik

Mutazione

Mutazione is a love letter to the naturalist commune lifestyle and the preconceptions that come along with it, heightened by magical-realist-adjacent sci-fi and genuinely charming dialogue and characters. Ten minutes in and I already love everything about it.

As much as I loved it, though, it was obvious that Mutazione is a time-consuming game that I would ruin for myself by rushing through it. It’s a game whose strengths lie in embracing its lackadaisical and relaxed nature, casually absorbing its atmosphere and indulging in its gorgeous world. I didn’t even get to all the farming stuff yet.

For the sake of ranking, I’ll just disqualify this one. I barely played it and it seems unfair to send it up the ranks based on my own assumptions of how good it is.

Hey, look at that: rules! Suddenly!

Total playtime: 45 minutes
TL;DR: naturalist-sci-fi point-and-click drama, time-consuming, relaxed.


Discolored by Shifty Eye

Discolored makes a strong first impression with its odd colourless world, tossing you into a stark motionless scene at a middle-of-nowhere roadside diner like you’re trapped in an episode of the Twilight Zone. It reminded me of that episode of Twin Peaks: The Return just enough to keep me on my toes for the first few minutes, waiting for those loud shrieks of noise-soaked electricity or close-ups of scurrying insects or whatever else Lynch feels like shoving in my innocent face.

Eventually I realised nothing like that would happen and that Discolored is just a slightly surreal but otherwise unremarkable first-person adventure game, one where you add different colours to the world to solve puzzles and open up more puzzles. It’s decent enough as a game but it struggles technically, its frame rate or frame-pacing chugging along uncomfortably. On top of the awkward controls (no matter whether it’s touch or controller; I checked), Discolored was uncomfortable enough to give me the first headache I’ve had from a non-VR game in years.

Total playtime: 30 minutes
TL;DR: unremarkable first-person adventure, also headaches.


Pilgrims by Amanita Design

Pilgrims

One of like three games total that I actually “finished” during my trial and that I’ll also have to return to on PC at some point, Pilgrims is a short-form point-and-click adventure game where characters and objects are collected as cards. At each location on the overworld map, you “play” characters and objects from your hand to interact with the scene. Each game apparently takes about 45 minutes with an in-game achievement system that logs the variety of routes and solutions you encountered in each very-short playthrough, which turns the whole thing into more of a scavenger hunt sort of experience (at least if you play it more than once, which I didn’t).

Its watercolour art is lovely, its pictograph dialogue is adorable and charming, and it takes almost no time at all to have a satisfying time with it. Like all of Amanita Design’s games, it’s wonderful.

Total playtime: 45 minutes
TL;DR: gorgeous good-natured replayable point-and-click.


Sayonara: Wild Hearts by Simogo

Sayonara: Wild Hearts was the poster child for Apple Arcade back at launch and it’s obvious why: it’s a playable music album with extremely slick production values. It’s a sleek fusion of the endless runner and rhythm genres – though it isn’t particularly good at either.

It coasts on tidal waves of neon electro-pop and Bayonetta-esque style. As someone who thinks about Bayonetta and Platinum Games a lot in general, Sayonara almost seems explicitly inspired by the studio on some level, like a pop album based on the mandatory gimmick levels that Hideki Kamiya shoves into every game he’s involved in.

I had a couple of issues with it – like having free movement instead of a lane-based system, and having to restart level sections after you’re hurt instead of just docking points to maintain momentum and song flow – but overall, it’s a worthwhile play for the aesthetic and music alone.

Total playtime: 45 minutes
TL;DR: playable pop album with flashes of Platinum.


Over The Alps by Stave Studios

Over The Alps

Yet another game I’m saving to play in full somewhere else, though a full playthrough should only take an hour and a half or so; I was just impatient and running out of time.

I’m not sure I’ve played any video games that compare with Over The Alps, at least not directly. At its core it’s a visual novel, a choose-your-own-adventure espionage-adventure set during the rise of World War II. Played from postcards, a notebook and a map, every direction and spoken line defines and adjusts your character and your game’s overall plot like you’re writing a spy-themed potboiler in real time. Your protagonist – a spy with an important secret mission (of course) – is sewn together by the choices you make.

It blends together interactivity and more typical game mechanics into its choose-your-own-adventure setup incredibly well; it combines the tactile feel of card and tabletop games with the more opaque flow and player focus that’s only really possible within the confined and isolated video game medium.

I can’t tell just how railroaded or open-ended the game is from just one unfinished playthrough but it’s a fantastic and unique experience that’s rare to see with this level of quality, polish and even genre. Another strong entry in the Arcade catalogue and another decidedly not-funny “review” in the final round.

Total playtime: 1 hour
TL;DR: Historical spy choose-your-own-adventure.


The Get Out Kids by Frosty Pop

The Get Out Kids is a straight-forward adventure game with some simple mini-games, but it’s far too compromised and handhold-y to be all that charming or fun.

Every individual action you take shifts the game into “cutscene mode” and forces you to hammer through slow-loading text boxes. It’s a dialogue-heavy game too, so there’s a lot of this. Characters are only ever floating heads, and while this isn’t the worst thing, it comes off as a bug at first since you see the heads as more traditional profile images for the first part of the game, floating at the side like Messenger bubbles as they chat and chat (and chat…), and most of the story occurs through text instead of visible action — since the characters don’t have any bodies to interact with anything — so  theanimation as a whole is quite limited and jarring in what it can and cannot depict.

I think it’s going for more of a relaxed chill-out feel as a game – which doesn’t really jive with my “disdainfully rushing” mentality throughout this series – but I found it more frustrating and grating. It probably get better with time­ (something I didn’t give the game much of) and I guess the two main characters are charming enough. Like a lot of these Apple Arcade games, though, the rough edges are distracting and the game doesn’t make a strong first impression.

Total playtime: 30 minutes
TL;DR: frustratingly slow and handhold-y, budget isn’t well-hidden.


Where Cards Fall by Snowman

A relaxing puzzle game where you guide your character to the end of each level using stacked houses of cards – platforms that you freely decide the size of, as long as you’re not standing on it and you have the space for the platform to fit inside.

It’s solid enough and well-made, with a light story between levels where characters speak Simlish. Otherwise, Where Cards Fall just isn’t that exciting and I’m running out of tiiiiime…

Total playtime: 10 minutes
TL;DR: decent chill-out puzzler, unexciting.


Rayman Mini by Ubisoft Montpellier, Pastagames

Rayman Mini

Rayman Mini takes the basic idea behind Super Mario Run – a polished auto-running platformer – and does it far better. It looks great, it doesn’t sacrifice the core gameplay and it plays really well with a controller (and considering it’s a one-button game, I’m sure it plays well on touch as well).

It’s refreshingly kind, too, with seemingly no negative presence at all. Your character is never sad at the end of a level when you don’t reach 100% and all the loading screen hints are very supportive; it’s just so nice.

I have no idea of how big the game is overall but judged purely on a reaction to its first few levels (if all game reviews could be that easy…), Rayman Mini is kind of astonishing in how high quality it is.

Total playtime: 10 minutes
TL;DR: modern Rayman as an autorunner with no loss in quality.


No Way Home by SMG

No Way Home

I really wish I had more time to play some of these games because I really liked this one. No Way Home is like a less frustrating PixelJunk Shooter with solid story and dialogue, styled like a modern cartoon with hand-drawn art. Almost everything about No Way Home is my favourite thing and I really wish it was available on other platforms.

Oh, and it’s Australian! So that’s pretty rad, too.

Total playtime: 15 minutes
TL;DR: cosmic cartoon PixelJunk Shooter-ish action-RPG.


Dead End Job by Ant Workshop Ltd

Dead End Job is a very 90s Saturday Morning cartoon ­(some Toejam & Earl vibes) top-down shooter-roguelike take on Luigi’s Mansion or Ghostbusters. You take on contracts, you level up (get “promoted”) and choose perks, find consumable items, and bust some darn ghosts. When you “die” you get demoted down to zero but otherwise lose very little, so it’s not very punishing either.

It’s a straight-up time waster that doesn’t try to hide it. Want some barebones Enter the Gungeon action with a cool aesthetic and low difficulty and stakes? Dead End Job is a decent way to kill (exorcise?) some time.

Total playtime: 30 minutes
TL;DR: ’90s cartoon roguelike top-down shooter Luigi’s Mansion.


Manifold Garden by William Chyr Studio

Manifold Garden

There’s probably a better way to describe this game but here I go: Manifold Garden is a unique puzzle game about interacting with infinite recurring space that’s very reminiscent, at least on a purely aesthetic level, of 2013’s Antichamber.

I’ll try to play it in full when it releases on PS4 because it’s very good but this is my last day of Apple Arcade and I’m still rushing. I’m also disqualifying this game for the same reason as Mutazione: I think it’s excellent but that’s more of a presumption.

Total playtime: 15 minutes
TL;DR: first-person puzzles about changing physics and spatial rules.


Atone: Heart of the Elder Tree by Wildboy Studios

To be fair, I barely gave this one a chance since I was out of time. It’s a story-heavy adventure RPG where combat plays out as rhythm games. Its visuals reminded me of Hyper Light Drifter, just less neon and more Norse. Like Mutazione, it’s very front-loaded narratively and is the sort of game that you really need to give some time to and let yourself sink into it. Naturally, I dropped it right away.

Total playtime: 10 minutes
TL;DR: story-heavy rhythm Norse mythology RPG.


Final Results:

In Speed Dating, I don’t review games in the conventional sense. I’m barely reviewing them at all, really (especially this round). All I’m doing is highlighting which games I think are worth playing first during a limited trial period so you can spend your probably-limited bandwidth on games that I think are worth your time.

With that, there’s really only two metrics: the strength of a game’s first impression and its “fun-per-second” (or whatever the smarter version of that phrase is). Like most everything else in video games, I’m valuing immediacy and satisfaction over all else, the games that didn’t feel like they wasted my time. Being funny and/or cute helps too, if you’ve read the previous two rounds.

With that out of the way, here are my finalists. There are a ton of solid games worth playing and I’ve almost-reviewed many of them over these three rounds, but these are my favourites:

First Place: Over The Alps

Second Place: Pilgrims

Third Place: Cricket Through The Ages


This article was originally published on Doublejump. If you enjoyed what you’ve read, you can support the site further by following us on social media, becoming a Patron, and/or purchasing some merchandise!


Also published on Medium.

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1 comment

A Little Late, Episode 1: Sayonara Wild Hearts - Doublejump May 12, 2020 - 6:57 pm

[…] has been on my radar for a little while, and I was absolutely blown away. John covered the game in the last round of his Speed Dating at the Apple Arcade series last month, calling it “a sleek fusion of the endless runner and rhythm genres – though it isn’t […]

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