Game Picks

Game Picks: 'Badland'

CorrespondentApril 11, 2013 


Weird, wonderful ‘Badland’

In the last 10 years or so, the market for independently developed video games – “indie games” – has expanded radically. Thanks to digital distribution models for PC, console and especially mobile devices, indie game designers can deliver their wares directly to their target audiences.

Indie games are usually produced by small teams or companies with no financial backing from mainstream game studios and distributors. They function like independent films in that regard. And like indie films, indie games tend to be a little artier – they’re more experimental and take more risks.

Such is the case with “Badland” (iOS; $3.99; rated 9+), a weird and wonderful side-scrolling adventure game from the Finnish indie company Frogmind. Well, company might be a misleading term. It’s basically two guys in Helsinki.

“Badland” drops you right into the thick of the action. You control a vaguely avian fuzzball who must navigate his way through the world’s most lethal forest. The game was designed specifically for iPhone and iPad and employs a one-touch system to keep the control mechanics as simple as possible.

As the forest obstacles scroll from right to left, you tap and hold on the touchscreen to move your fuzzball up. Release to have him float down. That’s it.

But as with all clever game design, the apparent simplicity hides a careful and complex gaming system. As you float through the forest, you’re confronted with a series of improbably deadly traps – spikes, syringes, spinning saw blades, giant scythes, lead pipes, falling slabs of granite. What kind of forest is this?

All the stuff in the foreground seems designed specifically to kill poor little fuzzballs. Meanwhile, the colorful background scenes display sylvan glades with the occasional disturbing detail, like a menacing rabbit with glowing eyes.

It’s funny and scary at the same time. The sound design underscores the game’s schizo spirit, with gentle ambient sounds regularly interrupted by apocalyptic klaxons.

As you progress through the games’ levels, the forest gets even more surreal. Certain power-up thingies – let’s call them acorns – will cause your fuzzball to shrink or swell in size. You’ll need to slim way down to get through some tight spots.

Other acorns trigger spontaneous cloning so that you’re suddenly controlling an entire flock of flapping fuzzballs. Some of those clones will need to be sacrificed so others can survive. For three fuzzballs to make it, seven more may be needed to clog the gears of that buzzsaw.

The game also has a local multiplayer mode for up to four players. Here, you can really get into the spirit of natural selection by deliberately bumping your opponent into merciless death traps.

Yes, it’s a grim, Darwinian world in the realm of “Badland.” The puzzles and traps get quite difficult in the later levels. Too difficult, probably.

After a dozen or so forced restarts, I started to feel a growing frustration. But then I’d narrowly escape a deadly arena of iron spikes and find my resolve once again.

And that, of course, is how game designers like to hook you. There’s both art and science in physics-based puzzlers like “Badland.” When the calibration is just right, you find that several hours have passed while you try to keep a little black fuzzball alive on your iPad.

Also New This Week: Sci-fi shooting with “Halo 4: Castle Map Pack” (X360), real-time strategy rebooting with “Age of Empires II HD” (PC) and cartoon platform brawling with “Guacamelee!” (PS3, Vita).

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