Video games are quite fond of the work of M.C. Escher—you’ll see his influence in the mundane labyrinths of Control, the disorienting symmetry of the stealth game Echo, or in the clever puzzles of games like Monument Valley and echochrome. You can now add Manifold Garden to that list. And, like those other games, it’s pretty damn great.
Out today on Apple Arcade and the Epic Games Store, ManifoldGarden is a minimalist puzzle game played from a first-person perspective. You begin in a plain room, and after a spare tutorial teaches you the basics of movement, you’re set loose to wander through a mind-bending maze of stairs, corridors, and strange rooms full of machines made almost entirely of right angles.
Manifold Garden’s most disorienting trick is that you can flip gravity by hitting a button whenever you’re facing a flat surface. That surface is your floor now. It doesn’t take as long as you might think to wrap your head around, largely thanks to some clever design—while the rooms and corridors of Manifold Garden have a muted color palette approaching monochrome, they actually have a color assigned to them that you can’t see from afar but fades in as you get closer. So an off-white wall will move towards violet as you get closer and become full-on purple once you trigger your gravity flip and have its surface beneath you. It does a lot to keep you from losing your damn mind.
Like a lot of clever puzzle games, Manifold Garden teaches you how it world works through play. It’ll present you with colored cubes for opening doors, and then in a later room show you a keyhole that you need to flip gravity to get to. But once you do that, you learn another rule: You can only pick up cubes when standing on a surface that matches their color.
Manifold Garden’s simple, aesthetically pleasing design makes it soothing to play through, even if it is often dizzying. Its world is infinite; you are surrounded by countless copies of the structure you are navigating, suspended in an endless void. If you leap off the edge of a platform, you will fall forever, continually passing the ledge you jumped from until momentum carries you back to where you started. It’s a trip, man.
I like to think Escher was a game designer born too soon, fascinated with the strict rules of mathematics and how they can be followed into a maze of the nonsensical. That’s what games are, sometimes—bewildering towers erected from rigid code, somehow folding together to form a thing that seems to defy simple logic.
You should play Manifold Garden, but perhaps not on a smartphone. You can’t get a good look at infinity on a screen that small.
Grindstone is probably the best mobile game I’ve ever played. I’ve spent much of my downtime over the last few days fighting through its monster-slaying puzzles. There’s just one thing: I would prefer to simply buy it rather than playing it through my Apple Arcade subscription.
Apple Arcade is a fairly new subscription service that charges users $5 a month for access to an avalanche of excellent mobile games. I decided to dive into its offerings after a recent update made the service accessible on my iPhone. The first trial month is free, and during that time, I’ve been going down the list of Stephen and Mike’s favorite games to try and decide whether my subscription is worth keeping. Some of the games that others have loved, like Card of Darkness and Mini Motorways, were frustrating to me (maybe I’m just not very smart), but I immediately fell in love with Grindstone.
Developed by Sword & Sworcery and Below creators Capy Games, Grindstone puts you in the shoes of a hulking barbarian who is tasked with traveling up a mountain and slaying hordes of cute but deadly monsters. You rack up combos by defeating as many of the color-coded enemies as possible with a single, unbroken line. Deducing clever ways to string together hits and gathering resources has proven to be mighty compelling to my lizard brain. The only problem is that the end of my free month of Apple Arcade is still looming overhead, and this is the only game I want to keep playing. It’s made me realize that I’d rather just purchase the game from the developers outright instead of chaining myself to a service that removes all sense of ownership from the equation.
Digital media is inherently tricky. While you technically own the movies, albums, and video games that you purchase, they’re still susceptible to the whims of copyright protection methods. Oftentimes, this means that the pieces of media you “own” are still intrinsically tied to whichever digital storefront or proprietary media player that you used to make your purchase. Subscription services like Apple Arcade only exacerbate this problem because they become the only place to watch, listen to, or play this digital media. My hard copy of the Kevin Smith movie Dogma, for instance, is precious to me because you can’t watch it online anywhere—at least, not legally. Lions Gate Films’ unfathomable decision to not make it available on streaming services doesn’t affect my VHS copy. It’s easy to understand why this might not sit well with the major corporations of the world: they’re no longer making any money from it while it’s sitting on my shelf.
There’s also the issue of devaluation, which was brought up by Maddy and Kirk on an episode of Kotaku Splitscreen last month. When hundreds of games are accessible for just $5 a month, why would anyone drop that much money on a single mobile game again? Hell, why pay $20? Or, god forbid, even $60? And unlike movies on Netflix or music on Spotify, there sometimes isn’t an option to purchase Apple Arcade games elsewhere. My worry is that this system won’t be sustainable for anyone but Apple, and developers will get fleeced by contracts and stipulations when they could have had an actual hit on their hands if they had decided to release their games traditionally and hadn’t tied it to a third-party subscription service. These are complicated, time- and labor-intensive projects, and the people who work on them deserve to be compensated fairly.
I want game developers to be fairly compensated, of course, but I admit, I don’t want to pay $5 a month for a ton of games that I’m not actually playing either. Grindstone is fantastic, so much so that it might even be worth renewing my Apple Arcade subscription for another month, but I don’t know where my $5 is going, exactly, and I’m not really interested in anything else the platform’s library has to offer. What I really want is to feel, no matter how fake the feeling might be in this new digital age, like I own the game on which I’m being asked to spend money, not to mention that the developers are getting their fair share for their labor. I’m willing to fork over at least $20 for this game, Capy. Just let me know where to send the check.
It’s been nearly a month since the official September 19 launch of Apple Arcade. With my free 30-day trial of the subscription gaming service on the verge of expiring, I ask myself if I’m getting enough out of it to give Apple five of my hard-earned dollars to keep playing. Having barely made a dent in the 71 launch games, let alone the nine that have been added since, I’d say I still have plenty of playing to do.
Stephen Totilo and I called Apple Arcade “mobile gaming without all the bullshit” in our initial impressions of the service, and that assessment holds true. Having instant access to a massive, curated selection of quality games with no annoying microtransactions, energy meters, life timers, or other annoyances of free-to-play mobile gaming has changed how I play games on my iPhone and iPad. Instead of immediately heading to the iTunes app store’s game section to check out “New Games We Love,” I go straight to the Arcade page to see if anything new has popped up.
The service has spoiled me for traditional free-to-play games, like the recently-released Mario Kart Tour. I don’t mind the microtransaction model as much as some, but I’ve started minding it more since Arcade went live. Why spend money on chances at winning random Mario karts and racers when there’s a full-featured Sonic Racing game with all the trimmings on Arcade?
Apple Arcade hasn’t reached the 100-game mark yet. Between the launch games and two subsequent mini-waves of releases (which included some surprises), the service has 80 titles to choose from. I’ve downloaded every single one to my iPad Pro. Now when I pick up my tablet, I spend a good minute perusing the menu, trying to figure out what sort of game I’m in the mood to play. The soothing picture puzzles of Patterns? The random multiplayer madness of Lego Brawls? The unique future racing of Super Impossible Road? The Zelda-riffic Oceanhorn 2? A “Play Random Apple Arcade Game” button would not be unwelcome at this point.
Is Apple Arcade’s approach the future of gaming? I don’t know, but I do know it’s my next five dollars’ worth of gaming. We’ll see how I feel next month.
I love old-school adventure games so damn much, but sometimes I just can’t manage to finish them. I get stuck on puzzles but I’m often too stubborn to consult a guide, or I lose patience with their pacing, or sometimes I’m just tired of looking at my laptop screen (most of the adventure games I want to play are on my work laptop). I feel bad about this, because at their best, adventure games are playgrounds of absurd logic, fun characters, and gorgeous art. A mobile game called Pilgrims has finally got me jazzed to play an adventure game again.
Part of this is due to the game’s presence on Apple Arcade—although it’s also available on PC—but another reason is the neat way it foregrounds the trial-and-error method for solving puzzles, a method that adventure games devolve into anyway. Here, it’s what you’re actually supposed to do.
As you’ll recall, getting stuck on a puzzle had been part of my problem with adventure games in the past, and often led to me disengaging entirely with the game. Usually, I’d get stumped because the logic of the game had become impossible for me to parse, so I’d just start trying things with no rhyme or reason, mindlessly matching items with interactable objects and seeing what would happen. That’s not very fun, so after a while, I’d quit.
Pilgrims, however, is a game that strips everything back and makes being “wrong” part of the fun. It’s a game about a pilgrim-looking dude on a journey; it’s not very clear where to, there’s no text in the game and every character speaks in amusing gibberish. Mostly, this is a game about trying stuff and seeing what happens. Every item and character who joins you is available to play as a card. Play a card in a scene, and even if it doesn’t give you progress, something amusing might happen. A man in a tavern might pour your character beer and get them drunk. A bear might eat your stew and punch you out. A demon might twirl a lasso like a rodeo character. None of these things have advanced me in the game, but I’ve loved seeing all of them.
That’s why I think I’m going to finish Pilgrims. Because, like a pilgrim, I’m off to see what I can see.
Surprise! Last night, Apple added four new games to the Apple Arcade service, including the new game Pilgrims from Machinarium developerAmanita Designand the early release of The Bradwell Conspiracy.
It seems Pilgrimswas a complete surprise, being announced and released all at once. It’s described as a “playful adventure game” where players will have to explore and meet new characters, helping them and learning about their stories. The art style looks lovely. Pilgrims is also now available for PC.
The Bradwell Conspiracy is a first-person puzzle game with a big focus on telling a story. Following a large explosion at the Stonehedge Museum, you are trapped underground in a secret complex. You have to unravel the secrets of this complex and escape with the help of another survivor. This game was planned to release on Oct. 8 but was released a little early on Apple Arcade. It will still be released in a few days for PS4, Xbox One, PC, and Switch.
RedOut: Space Assaultis a dogfighting game featuring cool-looking spaceships. The game has a full career mode with ship upgrades and various ways to control your starfighter. You can kill the engines to slow your speed, making it easier to navigate a small opening. RedOut: Space Assault is also coming to PC, though no release date is listed on Steam.
Finally, Nightmare Farm is the new game from the developers behind Neko Atsume: Kitty Collector. Nightmare Farm is described as “The story of a painful nightmare spinning in a bright world.” Not entirely sure what that means, but players will have to grow and harvest crops while also preparing meals for visitors to keep them happy.
I’m happy to see Apple adding new games to their service so quickly, and these games look good. But I can’t help feeling like this is a terrible way to run a service. The news was buried late Saturday night with no big announcement post, teaser, or anything.
Checking out each game’s publishers and developers, only some of them have formally announced the new releases. I assume, over the next few hours and days, more formal announcements and trailers will launch for these games and their Apple Arcade debut. But hopefully, future additions to Apple Arcade will be handled a bit better and not feel so sloppy and poorly done.
Apple Arcade offers up a ton of cool mobile games for only 5 bucks a month. The price seems more than fair from the player side, and it helps that these games aren’t packed with microtransactions, since they’re already funded by the subscription fee. But is that subscription model actually sustainable? And do we want to see other game stores heading in this direction? On this week’s Kotaku Splitscreen, Kirk and I discuss.
First up, we talk about games we’re playing. Kirk and I are both living our best (horrible) goose lives in Untitled Goose Game, and Kirk’s also stuck on a hard boss in Gears 5. He then runs down his favorite offerings in Apple Arcade before we break for news (31:04) about the Oculus Quest, discuss the sustainability of Apple Arcade, and read a bunch of listener emails about weird gaming traditions. We close with off-topic discussion (59:54) about Dark Crystal, Hustlers, and Kirk’s music pick.
Kirk: Apple Arcade. The first thing that’s cool about this, I think, is that for the first time since I can’t remember when, it feels like mobile games are something that I have any interest in talking about. There’s a lot of people talking about this and writing about it. That, to me, feels remarkable. When was the last time anything related to mobile gaming felt vital or important?
Maddy: Or encroached upon the games journalism world of what we talk about. For better or worse, I feel like usually the mobile game conversation is people trying to convince the greater gamer audience: “No, this one’s really good!” Every now and then, one will rise above. Monument Valley is a good example. There have been a few other mobile games that encroach into that area.
This is such a huge amount of games that it’s undeniable in some way. I see people who I’ve never seen talk or write about mobile games, and their Twitters and articles are now full of, “But seriously though, this Apple Arcade stuff is really cool!” That is wild to see.
Kirk: There was this period of time, I think before your time, when we did Kotaku Mobile.
Maddy: [Laughs.] Definitely before my time.
Kirk: It was quite a ways back, I guess. Kotaku Mobile was always this interesting challenge. I think Kotaku Social also existed, and Mike Fahey was sort of shepherding both. He did a ton of work; he played all of these games and wrote about them. But it was really tricky to get people to care, because even then, there was always this feeling that mobile games are all kind of trash. They all have these built-in microtransactions.
There were so many headlines that were, “This one’s different!” Which, like you said, often that would be the case. There’d be really cool games that would be on mobile. Like Reigns, I remember when I first played Reigns. This game is so cool, works perfectly on a phone. It’s a really brilliant game. You want to say to people, “Ah, this one’s different,” but then they hear that so many times. The whole thing is a cesspool. As the years went on, I just stopped thinking about it or caring really. I have all these games on my phone; some of them are really good, and I can’t play them anywhere else. But I just don’t care.
It’s remarkable that Apple put all of this stuff together and dropped this meteor on everyone in order to make everybody pay attention again. And it really worked, because the games are all really good, and it gives you this alternate reality where mobile gaming didn’t just become this bummer cesspool of knockoffs and IP stealing and free-to-play psychology games. Instead it’s just a bunch of the best kinds of mobile games. I think that’s the remarkable thing about this. I don’t know who at Apple was in charge of this; Apple is super opaque.
Maddy: Yeah, we’ll probably never know.
Kirk: Maybe not. At least if they talk a little more about the process of this—because no one else is really positioned to do something like this. And it feels different. It feels like something I’ve never quite seen in video games before.
Maddy: The big “but” there is the fact that you still haven’t paid for any of the games that you’ve gotten on the service yet. And that is the question that everyone has about this, which is, how is this a sustainable model? And is it a sustainable model? It’s not why I haven’t gotten it, but it’s definitely a question that’s lurking in the back of my mind. We touched on it a little bit last week. I have guilt about these kinds of services and our new subscription-flavored future. I don’t think I can do anything about it, but I don’t love it.
Kirk: Your guilt is related to what exactly?
Maddy: I feel like I actually have started to devalue a lot of pieces of media in ways that I didn’t do when I was growing up in the ’90s. I used to go to Blockbuster and spend a couple of bucks on renting a movie. But nowadays, I don’t want to spend 5 dollars on “renting” a movie from iTunes. I just don’t. I’d rather watch a different movie on a subscription service that I pay for than pay not that much more money to rent a movie. Why is that? That’s interesting. That’s clearly a mental change in me that I’ve observed.
I feel similarly about games. Like Jason was saying before, mobile games in particular have just been framed as ephemeral and valueless for so long that it’s taking a lot for me to get over that mental hurdle and be like, they actually are a thing I should be paying for! And I actually probably always should have been paying five dollars for each of these games, if that were ever possible. But that wasn’t. It was not something that those games could do, because they knew I wouldn’t pay for them, so they structured themselves in such a way that I didn’t have to.
I’ve gotten hours of enjoyment out of the Harry Potter game [for mobile] and I’ve not spent a dime on it, so my enjoyment is basically something that I’m having at expense of the whales out there who are funding this game. That’s not a great feeling for me to have about the creation of that game, putting aside any other concerns I might have about that game and its location services. I have other ethical concerns about that game and how it’s funded. So then I’m like, OK, cool, in theory Apple Arcade is the answer to my problems. It’s a subscription service. Mentally, I’ve already accepted that subscription services are a thing I’m willing to pay for. But am I paying enough for them? That’s not a problem I can solve individually. It’s just something I’m thinking about.
For much more, listen to the entire episode. As always, you can subscribe to us on Apple Podcasts and Google Play to get every episode as it happens. Leave us a review if you like what you hear, and reach us at [email protected] with any and all questions, requests, and suggestions.
Pinball Wizard, a new pinball game for Apple Arcade starring an actual wizard, has all the elements of a great subway game: It’s easy to learn, challenging as you keep going, and it doesn’t always need all of your attention.
Pinball Wizard is basically pinball, but with spells. Your wizard is the ball, and you tab the bottom corners of the screen to activate the bumpers and send them flying. By hitting enemies, you damage them, and you can also hit barrels that will give you more health, or coins, which you use to upgrade your skills, or energy, which you need to use your skills. There’s a bunch of passive skills, like ones that reduce the amount of damage you take when you fall off a level. There’s also two offensive skills—a dash attack that allows you to change the direction of your wizard mid-flight, and another than summons an extra ball.
The greatest boon to Pinball Wizard is that the levels go quickly, and there’s only so much you can do to control the wizard careening around them. A lot of the game is hovering your thumbs over the bumpers, waiting for the wizard to come around again. This is punctuated by using your skills, but they deplete your energy. You can’t just spam the dash attack until everything’s dead, and the glidey physics of the game make the ball harder to accurately control. Sometimes when I think I’m aiming my wizard dead at an enemy or an item I need, it’ll hit the wall right next to it and then shoot off in a random direction.
The ultimate lack of control makes this perfect for the subway. I can still have an ear out for when I’m hitting my stop because I don’t need to be fully engaged all the time. Still, when I pull off a tricky move or bump into some torches and trigger a secret in the level, the game has my full attention. It’s a pleasant ebb and flow for my admittedly short attention span.
What I especially like about Pinball Wizard is what the game does when I lock my phone. When I do reach my stop on the subway, getting off the train before the doors close on me really should have my full attention. Often I only have enough time to lock my phone and shove it in my pocket before disembarking. When I reopen Pinball Wizard, the game is already paused, with my wizard frozen in place until I need to kill another 20 minutes underground.
I was not aware that game developers were legally permitted to make action on mobile games that’s as good as the fighting in Bleak Sword. When it comes to games, touchscreen controls are a thing that we just kind of deal with in the hopes that someone comes up with an ingenious use for them, like with The Room series of games. Barring that, most just settle for fine—rare is the truly bad touchscreen control scheme these days, but few are exceptional. This is doubly true for precise, intense action games—touchscreens are just not the best input medium.
At least that’s what I used to think before Bleak Sword, an Apple Arcade game so good I’m furious I have waited so long to upgrade my old-ass iPhone, with its battery that lasts maybe three hours if I ask nicely. Developed by Spanish developer Luis Moreno Jimenez, also known as more8bit, with music by Jim Guthrie and sound design by Joonas Turner, Bleak Sword is a black-and-white (and a little red) action game that casts you as a little pixelated warrior in small isometric arena, assaulted by all manner of horrible monsters. Defeat them all, and you move on to the next level, earning experience, leveling up, and finding items to give you stat boosts. Lose, and you drop your items, lose any experience that hasn’t already been applied to your next level-up, with one chance to try again and win it back.
It’s got a killer pixel-art style, with an aesthetic that seems in step with Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP, only more grotesque and in monochrome. But again, what really elevates Bleak Sword are its tight, impressive controls. There are two schemes, a two-handed one and a one-handed one, both in portrait orientation. In the former, tapping the left side of the screen is devoted to attacking—you tap it to parry, or touch and release to swing your sword. A brief touch is a light attack, and a longer touch charges a heavy attack. On the right side, you swipe in any direction to roll and dodge.
In the one-handed control scheme, all of this is done regardless of what part of the screen you touch; you just have to make sure you’re making the right gesture. So you swipe to roll in one direction, tap to parry, and make short or long touches to make your desired attack. This is my preferred control scheme, not just for convenience, but because it makes Bleak Sword’s combat feel more rhythmic, like a dangerous dance with a zombie that also wants to eat you.
This, combined with stamina the game’s stamina meter, works to means every foe has to be taken seriously and the space of each stage navigated mindfully. And those stages are much more varied than their simple looks might make you think: Maybe you’ll find yourself staring down skeleton soldiers on a bridge, or dueling through a swamp full of tentacles that spring up out of nowhere. Dealing with map hazards as well as foes with their own attack patterns helps Bleak Sword keep things fresh, even though it’s got combat so rock-solid it could probably sustain less variety with no complaints from me.
And boss battles? They’re real good.
I’m very sorry, but I’m going to compare Bleak Sword to Dark Souls—but only because Bleak Sword truly seems to be aiming for an experience best described as Dark Souls: Mobile. It’s got the fraught risk and reward of that game’s combat, but in bite-sized combat dioramas. It’s also incredibly responsive in a way that’s actually too fluid for the Dark Souls comparison, but necessary for imprecise nature of touchscreen controls. It’s extremely good, and I can’t get enough of it, at least until my battery dies. It’s probably time for me to get a new phone.
Mutazione, an indie game fromDie Gute Fabrik out tomorrow on Steam, Apple Arcade and PlayStation 4, does a lot of things well, but what really caught my attention was how it captured the magic of growing plants. To see a plant grow from a cutting into a fully formed plant, to see the sprouts of new leaves, to see flowers budding, and to know that it was all because of my tender care gives me a profound sense of calm. I keep buying new plants—slowly but surely, my apartment is being overtaken. Mutazione is about growing plants, and more importantly, it’s about finding that feeling of calm.
In the game, high school student Kai is sent to the island of Mutazione to meet her dying grandfather. Mutazione was hit with a meteor half a century prior to the events of the game, and the remaining inhabitants mutated into humanoid but inhuman creatures. It sounds scary, but really, they’re just trying to keep their little island community alive, despite the suspicion and fear from the mainland.
Kai’s grandfather wasn’t a mutant—he came to Mutazione as a scientist and then just stayed there. As Kai gets to know him, she learns a more and more about the strange island and her grandfather’s past. Specifically, she learns that her grandfather was more than just a healer there. He’s a Shaman, and he wants to teach her his skills, in particular the skill to create harmonious gardens, singing to them to make them grow faster.
Mutazione guides you through these mechanics slowly, meting out information about Kai and her family in casual dialogue and overheard conversations. The mystery is intriguing, and the island inhabitants are all engaging characters. I especially like Jell-A, the gelatinous mutant that lives in a cave. But I am 100% here for growing the plants.
All the plants in Mutazione have a preferred place in the garden plot on top of your grandfather’s house, and they also all have a preferred song and are associated with a type of instrument. My first garden was composed of plants that all sang the Pacific song, a sparse, warm melody no longer than something Link would play on his Ocarina. By looking at the seeds I’ve collected, I can tell there are plenty of songs I haven’t heard yet. Some are Ethereal, some are Spooky, some sing a song of Wanderlust. But when you sing these songs to the plants, they harmonize, playing the tones of the instrument they’re associated with. Sometimes I like to just listen to their tunes on the rooftop.
I’m interested in the mystery of Mutazione island and Kai’s family. More than that, I’m hoping that tending for plants can give Kai the peace I feel when I do it in real life. If only my own plants sang to me—I’d never leave them alone.
While the $5-a-month Apple Arcade subscription doesn’t officially launch until Thursday, iOS 13 beta testers can sign up right now and dive into new games from some of the best indie studios on the planet. With nearly 60 games on the service so far, it’s an overwhelming amount of entertainment, all at once.
Last week Apple dropped a short list of games coming to Apple Arcade for iPhone, iPad, Apple TV, and Macs. It contained 15 or so games, including new games in classic franchises like Rayman and Pac-Man, an RPG from the makers of Bravely Default, and a bunch of other cool-looking stuff. It was an impressive list, but it’s nothing compared to the tidal wave of titles washing over early Apple Arcade players right now.
I spent much of yesterday afternoon excitedly typing game names into our work Slack. Oceanhorn 2! The first part of the new Shantae game! Square Enix’s Various Daylife! Mini Motorways, a new game from the makers of Mini Metro! Assemble With Care, a new narrative puzzle adventure from UsTwo, makers of Monument Valley! Klei’s Hot Lava, an action game I’ve been waiting for since 2016! Earthnight, that cool dragon-running game from the Nintendo Switch indie direct! Many, many exclamation points were used.
When I loaded the iOS 13 beta yesterday afternoon, there were 53 games available to download and play. As of this writing, there are 59. Apple plans on having more than 100 available in the coming weeks. Thank goodness for my 512 GB iPad Pro. I have so many good things to play right now I don’t know where to start. I’m just going to play everything and see if I can’t come up with some sort of guide to help folks navigate the already crowded service once it launches wide later this week.