Secret Word is How Not to do a Censorship Game

Rating:

Truthfully, the vast majority of you are never going to see this game and probably would never have heard of it if you didn’t read this review. I’m really just writing this to express my frustration and annoyance with it. If you want to know whether you should give this game a chance, I’ll just tell you right now to turn around and walk away. It’s worthless.

At first glance, Secret Word seems like a call back to Blackbar which I reviewed very favorably a few months ago. The game presents you with text with certain words blanked out, and you advance by guessing the words to fill them in. The difference is Blackbar was a unique work of art which used the medium of mobile gaming to tell a story in a new way while Secret Word is just a cynical cash grab.

Ads are not a problem by themselves, but the unfortunately there are a lot of other attempts to extract money from the player
Ads are not a problem by themselves, but the unfortunately there are a lot of other attempts to extract money from the player

The game has ads running across the bottom of the screen. That in itself is not really a problem. The developer has to make money somehow, and it’s not that hard to ignore an ad. But in the screenshot above, you’ll also notice a coin counter. You use the coins to buy hints which either give you a single letter or an entire word, depending on how much you spend. The game gives you 100 coins to start, but when you run out, you have to buy more with real money. And Secret Word does everything it can to try to make sure you have to spend that money.

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Let me know if you can figure out what the other two words are. I’m out of coins.

Blackbar essentially played fair with its puzzles, setting things up so that you could figure out the missing words if you employed a little lateral thinking. In Secret Word, however, many of the puzzles are a complete guess. It’s clear that the developers are only interested in trying to get the player to spend coins and pay real money.

The core story behind the game isn’t even very interesting. And as a final straw, the game periodically sends annoying notifications to try to get you to keep playing if you haven’t opened the app in a while.

I’m not sure why I’m still wasting time on this review. I’ll just leave it here and tell you these developers don’t deserve your money.

Waking Mars Brings Biology to Puzzle/Platformers

Is there life on Mars? It’s probably not much of a spoiler to tell you that in this game, the answer is “yes” since it wouldn’t be terribly interesting otherwise. Now the question is what does that life look like? Waking Mars is about exploring a cave where life has been discovered and figuring out what it’s all for.

You play as Liang, a scientist/astronaut stationed on a base in Mars with his colleague Amani. Liang wears the space suit and actually goes exploring the Martian surface while Amani runs analysis and communicates with him from the home base. There’s also ART, an artificial intelligence who seems to have had some of his communication sub-routines disabled as a practical joke.

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Meet our hero, Liang

The game starts out as Liang is exploring Lethe cavern on Mars looking for new sights and also trying to find out what happened to a robot named 0ct0 who went in before him and has ceased communication. A few moments after answering, a cave collapse forces Liang further underground. Fortunately he is unharmed and still able to communicate with Amani. More importantly, there is water and life on Mars.

The rest of the game is an exploration into the mysteries of Lethe Cavern. How exactly do the plants and animals around here work, and why did they evolve this way? And what happens if Liang starts messing with their development to try to get more things to grow?

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Lots and lots of life

Waking Mars plays on two levels: as a Metroidvania-style multi-room exploration game and as a puzzle game about balancing ecosystems. At the first, Waking Mars is adequate but occasionally clunky. On iOS, Liang moves towards wherever you are touching on the screen whether that means walking, jumping, or using his jet pack to go up into the air. Most of the time this works quite well, and Liang even has context-specific animations for when he bumps into a wall or finds himself in a small space that he can’t stand upright in. However, he is subject to gravity and inertia which means he has to constantly fire small bursts whenever he needs to make precise maneuvers. This doesn’t work as well on a touch screen as I’d like. Liang will also occasionally get stuck on an obstacle, forcing you to move him backwards to try again. I suspect that on other platforms where you can use a keyboard or a controller, Liang controls much better. This wouldn’t be a huge deal except for the fact that some of the Martian life can hurt Liang and it is actually possible to die in this game.

On the other hand, the puzzle aspect of the game is brilliantly developed and engaging. The core mechanic is that Liang can pick up seeds and throw them at fertile pieces of terrain in order to grow them into plants. Each plant has its own life cycle and method for reproducing. Under the right conditions, a plant will spit out more seeds for Liang to plant and grow. There are also animals moving around which interact with the plants in various ways. The plants and animals form a complete ecosystem — some of them are mutually beneficial to each other while others are predators. Liang’s general goal is to grow as much biomass as possible because there are gates located throughout the caves which open when a certain level of biomass has been achieved. Most interestingly, the game does not lay out any of these relationships for you. Liang has to figure things out through trial and error and keeps a journal of his findings for you to refer to as you try to grow more biomass.

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The game features beautifully drawn environments

Production values are excellent throughout. As you can see in the screenshots, the art is beautiful and conveys a sense of alien life that is neither friendly nor hostile but simply indifferent. The animation is simple but smooth with every object made up of a bunch of individual moving parts, much like a flash animation. The voice acting is also well done for what it is. The game’s script is very functional without a lot of opportunity for dramatics or emoting. Nonetheless, the voice actors don’t embarrass themselves and even ART isn’t too annoying like most other overly cute robots.

Waking Mars is one of the most original new games I’ve ever played. It has a few control quirks, but the main puzzle design is very well thought out and put together. It also offers some replay value for completionists. Maximize the biomass in all of the rooms on Mars and you will unlock an alternate ending for the game. At $4.99, it offers excellent value for your money, too.

Score: 4 out of 5 stars

Blackbar Is a Creative Look at Censorship

Who would have thought that a text game could be one of the most creative and innovative games available on iOS? Blackbar is a game about censorship that functions partly as a puzzle game and partly as a commentary on oppressive oversight and freedom. It also uses the tools of gaming to tell its story in ways that can’t be done on other narrative platforms. It’s worth supporting for that reason alone.

The game is very bare bones — it has no title screen or sound, and the only interface is the letters exchanged between yourself and your friend working for the government.

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It’s immediately clear that something is wrong. Someone is censoring the letters from your friend, Kenty. Fortunately it’s pretty easy to guess what the missing words are, but it doesn’t take long for the government censors to introduce themselves.

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You progress through the game by filling in the blanks, each time receiving a new letter from Kenty. Things start out innocently enough as Kenty tells you about her day and how she’s adjusting to her new job. The exact nature of the world and even what time period the story takes place in is left up to your imagination. Soon the censorship starts becoming arbitrary and oppressive. And then you start to get hints that there is a rebellion afoot…

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What ties it all together and makes the game work is the brilliant writing which conveys the different personalities. Kenty is developed effectively and economically, starting out as a naive and eager young woman and slowly growing disillusioned with the government that imprisons her. Meanwhile, the censors work by very strict rules. The irony is that it becomes clear that the rules are also restricting the censors. Kenty and the various other characters you correspond with can work around the censorship using clever word play, and there’s only so much the censors can do to stop them. The missing words are almost always guessable with a little thinking and creativity. I only ran into one instance where the solution seemed impossibly arbitrary.

Blackbar is the creation of a two person team of whom one grew up in 1980s Yugoslavia experiencing government censorship firsthand. The game is a true artistic endeavor, using the medium to tell a story in ways that can’t be done in either a book or a performance medium. To say much more would be to spoil the fun and discovery. At $2.99, it is less technical and probably a lot shorter than other mobile games of the same price. But this is a game that deserves to be played by as many people as possible because it reaffirms what videogames and independent developers can do.

Score: 4.5 out of 5 stars