Welcome back to a semi-regular feature here at GameCritics.com: TouchTalk.

While this series was inspired by one of my old features, the Bargain Basement, I've got an all-new focus for an all-new phase in gaming. Rather than highlighting discounted gems in the used section of a retail shop, I'll be reviewing downloadable mobile games and apps that you might want to check out… and maybe some that you'll want to avoid.

By the way, the app store contains a virtually limitless amount of stuff to sift through, and no one person can play it all. If you've got a favorite that you'd like to see reviewed here in TouchTalk, drop me a line via email or Twitter. If I use your suggestion, I'll give you credit for the discovery, and my thanks!

Fantasy Conflict Screenshot

Fantasy Conflict

Developer: Gaijin Entertainment
Platforms Available: iOS
In-App Purchases: In-game currency.
Rating: 4.0 out of 10

The last few TouchTalks have been generally positive, but I'm going to switch gears a little bit this time around and start off with some not-so-positive.

Fantasy Conflict is a bit of an odd duck. Initially, it seems like another Tower Defense game, but it's got a healthy dose of real-time strategy (RTS) and the focus is different. Rather than defeating wave after wave of enemies, the player must capture every castle on a map in combat that feels a lot like a tug-of-war. Push forward to grab more territory, but enemies can push right back and reclaim what they've lost.

It's an interesting idea and not one that I've seen very often, but the title is held back by a number of issues. First, it doesn't seem optimized to run on the iPhone at all. Text between missions is incredibly small, and everything on the battlefield is just as tiny. The visual representations of the different types of castles are impossible to differentiate between, and in general, it's not very appealing to the eye. I also found that the touch controls weren't responsive. In a real-time environment, it's quite frustrating to give orders to a castle and then watch it be taken because the game hasn't registered that an order has been given.

Perhaps it's a better fit on the iPad, but it wasn't attractive or engaging enough to keep my interest for more than an hour or two on the iPhone. On a mobile platform like this one, a title has to look good, feel good, and be comfortable to play. This one strikes out in all three areas.

Reviewed on the iPhone.

Nano Ninjas Screenshot

Nano Ninjas

Developer: Bad Chunk
Platforms Available: iOS
In-App Purchases: Game advantage items.
Rating: 3.0 out of 10

Continuing the negative trend in this installment is Nano Ninjas. It's a rough approximation of Plants vs Zombies, although it doesn't have the same amount of polish or depth. The player arranges ninjas, monks, barriers and bombs on the left side of the play field while oncoming robot drones pour in from the right.

While it gets off to a decent start, warning bells started going off for me almost immediately. The first sign that things weren't quite right was that one of the units (the rocket launcher) costs four or five times more than the average unit. It makes sense that more power should require more resources, but with the slow refresh rate of "money" and the quick ramp-up of enemy forces, the balance just didn't feel correct. With how quickly enemies swarm the player, the game almost felt like a race to deploy rocket launchers rather than offering a variety of potential winning strategies with the small number of units to choose from.

On the other hand, the developers have included a unique mechanism where players can use idle units to "charge" up large sums of money if they aren't busy holding back the robots. It's actually a great idea, but this one twist wasn't enough to keep my attention thanks to a lack of variety in the units and the low-rent graphics.

The final nail in the coffin was that the in-app store offers instant level-ups and level skips to help you "speed up" the game. I frown on this kind of stuff, and between this and the low production values, it was hard to shake the feeling that this title is perilously close to being just a money-sink in disguise.

Reviewed on the iPhone.

Puzzle & Dragons Screenshot Puzzle & Dragons Screenshot

Puzzle & Dragons

Developer: GungHo Online
Platforms Available: iOS, Android
In-App Purchases: In-game currency to continue or buy monsters.
Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Although I'm a relatively new iPhone user, I've already seen a ton of games that offer monster collecting, card collecting, social puzzling (or all three) built on barely-there mechanics and a whole lot of "pay as you go." Apparently the template must be successful somewhere, since they keep getting churned out. Despite how appealing they look in screenshots, they're horrible cash leeches. I thought I was in for another one of those with Puzzle & Dragons, but I'm happy to say that I was quite wrong.

Essentially, the game presents a whole host of monsters with different elemental types. The player must win them in battle or buy them outright, and it's important to have a variety on hand so that the proper creatures can be selected to counter the elemental types of enemies. The twist here is that combat happens through matching orbs on a puzzle field. At first glance, it looks like any other match-three, but the game lets orbs move anywhere across the board, with no restriction. After just a few moments, it becomes second nature to rack up combos which multiply damage done to wipe out the opposition.

The balance in Puzzle & Dragons is great—it's clear the developers want to sell monsters, but there's quite a bit of content that can be played without ever putting a cent into it. However, the game is so enjoyable and smooth that it's quite tempting to pony up for some super-rare creatures which can easily turn the tide of battle to the player's favor. Sweetening the deal, the artwork of is super-attractive, the UI is easy to navigate, there's a basic "friends" feature that lets monsters be borrowed monsters from others, and the game gives rewards for daily check-ins. I played this one obsessively for two weeks straight, and I still get a session or two in each day. That's the best recommendation for an iOS game possible, I'd say.

Reviewed on the iPhone.

Coco Loco Screenshot

Coco Loco

Developer: Twiitch
Platforms Available: iOS
In-App Purchases: A one-time unlock for a dog character.
Rating: 7.5 out of 10

Yet another entry in the small level/three-star Angry Birds genre, Coco Loco will be quite familiar to players who enjoy this style. While it's easy enough to jump in and get the gist right away, the developers have crafted puzzles which often rely on liquid and gelatinous physics. It seems like a fairly straightforward twist, but the result makes the game feel quite different than the competition.

The "story" of the game is that a group of sentient marshmallows go into the land of hot cocoa, but they are repelled by evil cocoa beans… or something like that. In any event, it's just a pretext for including the liquid physics I mentioned. Players will launch little squishy dudes into levels to both free captive comrades and eliminate evil beans, but rather than simply being a good shot, Coco Loco will often require that holes be plugged, liquid be shifted, and things be knocked off balance before victory is reached.

Over the course of the available levels, I found quite a few clever implementations of physics, including a few things that were quite unexpected—creating steam to make a structure rise, among them.

On the other hand, there were two or three puzzles which required far too much accuracy on the part of the player. These instances usually involves something that was rotating, and had a very tiny margin for error. Frustrating. If not for these occurrences (and an online store which was disabled during the time I played) the score would be bumped up a bit higher. Even so, it's well worth checking out for players who would be interested in a different spin on the Angry Birds formula.

Reviewed on the iPhone.

Tentacles: Enter the Dolphin Screenshot

Tentacles: Enter the Dolphin

Developer: Press Play
Platforms Available: iOS, Windows Phone
In-App Purchases: One additional campaign.
Rating: 8.0 out of 10

One thing that I find endlessly fascinating about the app store is that there is so much variety. For example, it's been quite a while since I found something as bizarre as a microscopic tentacle beast being unleashed inside the body of a man with a Dolphin's head, but hey, here it is.

The player controls a small, black, despicable-looking thing which finds itself inside the scientist who created it. It navigates by shooting out four clawed tentacles and pulling itself along the walls of whatever structure it finds itself in—intestines, arteries, various internal organs, and so on. Touch controls are a perfect fit for this title since all that's required is to poke where the creature needs to attach, and the physics engine that powers it makes it all happen.

The tone of the game is light, the artwork is attractively creepy, and the creature itself looks like a small morsel of pure evil when crawling along… when the player hits a certain rhythm with the locomotion, it almost looks as though the thing is genuinely alive. There are, perhaps, a few too many levels that occur before each new spin on gameplay is introduced, but when taken in small chunks, it satisfies.

(Side note: This game was originally brought to my attention by a friend of mine who works for Microsoft. As we were discussing the state of mobile gaming, he was lamenting the lack of killer apps for Windows phones, and pointed to this one as something that Microsoft needed more of. Ironic, since I finally got to play it on my iPhone…)

Reviewed on the iPhone.

Flight Screenshot


Developer: Armor Games
Platforms Available: iOS, PC
In-App Purchases: In-game currency for upgrades/single-use items.
Rating: 7.5 out of 10

On paper, this should be the most boring, simplistic game ever: The player tosses a paper airplane, the end. However, the reality is surprisingly more engaging than it sounds.

While it's true that tossing an airplane is the bulk of what happens here, it's got a couple things going for it. The first is that I am a sucker for interesting stories, and this one has just enough to hook me. Flight begins with a simple animation of a little girl writing a letter to Santa, asking for her mother to come home. Kiiiinda heartbreaking. She folds the letter up into an airplane and sends it flying out the window. This plane keeps traveling across the globe, and with each new country where it lands, we get a new cutscene of a person finding the plane and adding their own message to it. I hate to admit it, but I had to see this plane make it all away across the globe.

The other thing that kept me interested was that there are a number of upgrades that can be made to the plane which alter its performance. Putting aside for a moment the fact that "upgrading" a paper plane makes no sense at all (a fact which the developers make several nods to) this simple formula of working towards a goal, achieving it, and then getting a noticeable bump in flight ability was the right kind of carrot to keep me moving forward.

Flight isn't the sort of game that I'd ever sit down with and play for three hours at a stretch, but it had no problem getting me to come back for a quick toss here and there.

Reviewed on the iPhone.

Fighting Fantasy: Blood of the Zombies Screenshot Fighting Fantasy: Blood of the Zombies Screenshot

Fighting Fantasy: Blood of the Zombies

Developer: Tin Man Games
Platforms Available: iOS, Android
In-App Purchases: None.
Rating: 7.0 out of 10

Veteran "GameBook" developer Tin Man Games has partnered with Ian Livingstone's venerable Fighting Fantasy series of actual books in order to deliver this brand-new title.

For those not familiar with the other GameBooks available on the app store, they're very similar to a "Choose Your Own Adventure," except that they add role-playing game (RPG) elements, such as rolling dice to resolve combat, items to collect and use, and a stats page which summarizes all of the details which have an effect on whether a player survives each perilous situation. I'm a big fan of this type of content, Tin Man does it well, and this genre fits harmoniously with a touchscreen interface.

With Blood of the Zombies, I'm a bit torn. On the one hand, it's as smooth as silk, technically. The developers have added every touch imaginable to make it as playable as possible—things like an unlimited ability to "turn back a page" if a wrong choice is made, multiple difficulty levels for readers of any stripe, automatic note-taking, and a quick re-roll option if the dice come up badly during a fight. Speaking strictly on the production, it's top-notch. They don't come better.

In terms of the content… well, that's where the game is a bit weak. The story of the player waking up in a dungeon and making their way through a castle full of zombies is a little too straightforward and tame compared to the virtually unlimited amount of zombie-themed offerings in entertainment today. There's little drama, not much intrigue, and it seems as though every other page is about the player walking down a corridor. It's also a common thread in the Fighting Fantasies I've played that if the player misses a crucial item much earlier in the book, it often leads to a non-negotiable no-win situation. Not very enjoyable design, if you ask me.

Although this title is at the absolute top of the list for slick production values, it's going to take more than this generic tale to keep up with the undead Joneses. It gets the job done (and I do admit that finally finding the chainsaw was pretty choice) but in a style of game that lives and dies by the quality of the writing, it's not quite up to snuff.

Reviewed on the iPhone.

Elder Sign: Omens—Tsathoggua & Ithaqua Screenshot

Elder Sign: Omens—Tsathoggua & Ithaqua

Developer: Fantasy Flight Games
Platforms Available: iOS, Android, PC
In-App Purchases: Two additional campaigns.
Rating: 9.0 out of 10

Although it's not a whole game, I'd like to close out this installment of TouchTalk with a quick mention of the recent update and new add-on for Elder Signs: Omens. In case you missed my full review of the main game, it's one of my all-time favorites on iOS. It's challenging, it's often brutal, but it's also fantastic. Winning a rare victory against the darkest beings in the universe is a singularly sweet feeling.

The developers recently put out an update to the base game which includes a brand-new Old One names Tsathoggua. Considering that it originally shipped with only three creatures to battle, this is a notable increase in content. It makes a great app even better, and gives former players a reason to come back. For people who already own it, this new content is, of course, free.

There has previously only been one add-on campaign for the game, but it was a doozy—buying the Cthulhu adventure radically changed the mechanics of the game by taking players to an all-new playfield and introducing new rules. It was as hard as hell, but very worthwhile.

Now there's another add-on of similar scope. The new Ithaqua add-on is a two-part campaign that takes place in Alaska. New mechanics include the collection of provisions, dealing with random wind effects, and a new spin to some of the monsters. It's every bit as well-done and challenging as Cthulhu's campaign, and a no-brainer purchase for anyone who's a fan of this app.

Reviewed on the iPhone.

Brad Gallaway
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