Portal 2D – like portal 3D, but runs right from your browser. Your only weapon is a gun that shoots portals, and your job is to get from entrance to exit. The first few levels are extremely easy as they just show you the ropes, but gets progressively harder as it require you to use gravity to your advantage. For example, if you fall from a great height into a portal, then come out of a portal that shoots you out horizontally from a wall, the gravity is transferred from your jump. Cool, eh?

If you like it, you might as well buy the 3D version from Valve. It’s short, but way worth it.

Play Portal 2D

There was quite a lot of hype surrounding the release of Puzzle City. I’ve heard that it’s a “new” style of play, and I’ve heard that it’s very “original” and I’ve also heard that it’s a whole lot of fun. After spending some time with it, I’d say that depends on how you spell fun. F-r-u-s-t-r-a-t-i-n-g? S-t-r-e-s-s-f-u-l? Wow, don’t we have the game for you.

The core of Puzzle City is exactly the same as Puzzle Express. A conveyor belt carrying puzzle pieces move along the bottom of your screen, and your job is to take those pieces and fit them onto the car – I mean city block – above. If your conveyor belt fills up, it breaks down and you’ll have to start the level over. Puzzle City builds upon this basic gameplay by adding lots of power-ups and glitz, but the game remains basically the same.

There are three basic power-ups – the recycling bin, the trash, and the bulldozer. Dropping a piece into the recycling bin will turn it into another piece of the same color, doing the same with it with the trash throws the piece out. The bulldozer will destroy a block on the map, and if you have a 2×2 block, it’d take the entire thing out. There are also room for 10 conveyor power-ups, ranging from ones that slows down and stop the belt to ones that destroys everything on the belt. Especially useful are the ones that changes every block on your belt to a 1×1 block.

In order to unlock these power-ups, you need to create 2×2 blocks of solid color on your map. Each time you do so, a power-up will float nicely upwards and is added to your conveyor belt power-up collection. This is all well and good, but added to the predefined color areas, the game can get downright impossible.

Ah, predefined color areas. They’re lovely things. Basically, parts of the map are colored in faintly, and you have to match the colors. Now, I’m not against them – they add a great layer of challenge. However, they can make the game frustratingly difficult towards the end of world 2 when you need to use lots of 1×1’s, there isn’t any room to MAKE power-ups, you need to make 2 2×2’s of blue, and you’re desperate for power-ups that you haven’t any room to make. A better approach might be to make them optional – 80% of predefined areas filled. Even better – 10x score for filling these areas.

Some games are pretty, some games are flashy. Puzzle City falls squarely into the flashy category. Everything is high-contrast and colorful. I mean everything. The world map is colorful, the map is colorful. UFOs fly all over the place, buildings are shooting up left right and center, cranes are going up all over the city. As you make a 3 block areas into a 2×2 by adding a single block, the entire area is tore down to make room for a big building. Puzzle City is very much alive – something is happening all the time.

On top of it all, each scenario has its own objectives – you could be asked to build special buildings, fill a certain percentage of the map, etc. It serves to both make the game a little easier and keep you on your toes. If you miss so much as a 1×1 block on a predefined area you could be left wondering where you went wrong as your belt piles up, but in other scenarios you could finish up the map by filling a measly requirement.

Flashy isn’t necessarily a good thing; it’s pretty easy to miss a 1×1 block right behind a stack of buildings. Thankfully, Puzzle Express highlights the colors on the map that corresponds to the color of the block in your hand. This is a very helpful feature – I for one couldn’t tell if a building is residential by looking at it. It’s still pretty easy to miss spots, however, in predefined areas. Afterall, I’m looking for a light colored hole in a similarly colored area.

Let’s move on to the city building aspect of the game. There isn’t any.

Yes. You heard me – there isn’t any. Aside from the fact that you’re technically building a city, you are not, in fact, managing any part of it. There’s no budget to keep track of, transportation to arrange, police officers to dispatch, or anything related to a real city sim. “City building” is limited to a graphical “skin” of the game. It can easily be called “Puzzle Forest” if we replaced the buildings with trees, or “Puzzle Garden” replacing those same trees with vegetables or flowers. If you’re looking for Sim City, it’s not here. Puzzle City’s successful city-building is calculated based on whether you fill predefined areas and how big your combined buildings are – the bigger the better. So having one megalohospital at one corner of the city is much better than having single small ones sprinkled throughout.

Another “feature” of the game is “build special buildings.” This involved plunking down single 1×1 brown blocks from your belt to a predefined brown field on your map. That’s it. It’s a little bonus that adds very little to actual gameplay.

That pretty much sums up Puzzle City – it’s Puzzle Express “improved.” In improving, it also bumps up the system requirements. On my medium range PC, it lags a little on medium quality, and high quality slows to a crawl. It does look great on high-quality, so if you can play it on high, do so. The music is canned elevator jazz style, but it’s really not all that bad. The “click” sound got on my nerves after a while, but the sound of the game from the bulldozer and the buildings going up are very snappy indeed.

If you liked Puzzle Express, you’d enjoy Puzzle City. Don’t expect any more than a great Puzzle Express, and you’d have quite a lot of fun. It does get very difficult and frustrating in later levels, but thankfully there is an option to play it on easy. Puzzle City saves after every level, and it’ll last quite a while, even if you’re good at this sort of thing.

To say that we have high expectations for Cake Mania 2 is an understatement. Cake Mania was the first of its genre – a shape matching, customer serving, color matching game with tycoon elements, it was an instant classic. It was my first casual game after having been a serious RPG / adventure player for years.

The premise of Cake Mania was a mad dash to make enough money to save Jill’s grandparents’ bakery. Cake Mania 2’s story is less serious, but takes Jill around the world; Jill is bored with running a bakery at home day in and day out, and she’s going to spend her time in Cake Mania 2 travelling from one location to another, helping her friends, baking at a TV station, serving secret agents, men penguin suits, and space aliens.

Your job is pretty simple: hand a customer the menu, bake the cake he orders according to shape, icing color, and topper, hand the cake back, and ring him in. Each level is a month long, and you spend one year in each bakery. There are Baker’s Goals and Superstar Goals, and you only need the Baker’s goal to finish the level. Unlike the first Cake Mania, Cake Mania 2 comes with a difficulty level – you’re given two choices at the end of the first bakery, and one of them are harder than the other. Only thing is, the game doesn’t tell you which one is more difficult – it just is.

To make the stages more manageable, each level is accompanied by a buying screen, where you can use the money you earned to buy upgrades for your bakery. If you have read my reviews for games that uses this system, you’d know that I don’t agree with it. In a serious computer game, this is a feature. In a casual game, it could very much cripple the game. The problem with a buying system is that it makes the games easier for better players and harder for novice players. It is a fun system to use to “upgrade” your bakery to suit your playing style, but as a feature to adjust difficulty, it isn’t.

Some changes, good and bad, have came to grace the new Cake Mania. First of all, customers no longer interact with one another. That’s a bad. Despite the fact that your “all new” customers have likes and dislikes of cakes as well as different patience levels, they all feel like the same customer. The penguin is really no different than the astronaut, and the granny is just the delivery man who wants a cake topped.

An “improvement” is the new double orders. Customers can now comes in twos, so instead of the old 4 orders at a time, you could now get 8 orders at a time. You can also get an upgrade for the topping machine to frost as well, but that’s a bit of a waste of time – you have to memorize what color frosting each one holds because it’s not visible until you plunk a cake on top of it. With a lot of other things to memorize, this isn’t a priority.

Cake Mania 2 switches the board around by putting the frosting tables, ovens, and the customers in different places in different bakeries, and this works. Sort of. There’s that adjustment period of one or two months in each bakery where you’re trying to get back into the groove of things, and then once you get used to the placement of things, it’s business as usual. Thankfully, the cake displays are back, and you can display up to 3 “wrong” cakes, and there’s a 20% chance of a customer coming in to ask for one.

Like the first Cake Mania, this one is not without its quirks: the topping & frost tables don’t show the colors of the frosting until you plunk a cake down, and the top customer’s thought bubble often obscure some of your topping buttons. This proves frustrating, as you click on a string of actions only to find out that you missed a button because some guy’s cake bubble is on top of it.

One of the “biggest” improvements over Cake Mania is the multiple story lines. You can choose to help a friend out in the big city bakery or an underwater bakery, or go to Alaska to help the penguins. You can choose the moon or the future. It’s your choice. When you finish the game with these choices, you’ll be rewarded with a trophy that is shown in the start screen. There are six trophies to collect.

Jill, as well as the bakeries, looks amazing in Cake Mania 2. The edges are smooth, the colors are vibrant, and Jill has BIG hair. I mean, really big hair. Our career girl hasgrown up in Cake Mania 2, from her overworked yawning self in Cake Mania 1 to the Jill who checks herself in the mirror every chance she gets. The guest didn’t get the same treatment – compared to Jill they are barely improved over the original characters, and I really miss some of them. The music is upbeat and varied, changing with each location, and the sound, ambient and effects, are well suited to each bakery.

Cake Mania 2 is a bit of a disappointment. Mostly, it’s just more of the same. Bake cake, frost cake, stack cake, top cake. How you go about doing these things is up to you. Cake Mania will not save in the middle of a month, but each month shouldn’t take more than 10 minutes. If you enjoyed the first, you will enjoy this one, but don’t expect any wild innovations.

Cake Mania spawned many copies, but none are quite like the unofficial “sequels” of Cake Mania that its developer churns out. The graphics are unmistakable, as are the quirky characters and over sized play area. Among these are last year’s Believe in Santa, and of course, this year’s Believe in Sandy.

Holiday Story is simply an expanded (and slightly dumbed down) version of Believe In Santa, which in turn is a dumbed down version of Cake Mania that deals with presents instead of cakes. You take “blank” toys off a conveyor belt, drop it off at an elf so he can paint them, and decorate them with flags, balloons, snowflakes and whatnot, then deliver it to a customer and perhaps put it into a shaped box, and collect the money.

What makes the series stand out are its list of customers. For example, the clown will cheer up all the children if you make him happy – perhaps by serving him first, or by giving him some candy. The cowboy will break out in song and give all your customers extra hearts if you manage to pump him up to five hearts. This customer interaction gives the game an extra layer of strategy so you’re not just choosing to serve the least patient of customers.

Believe in Sandy took away a few toys and added a couple of holidays, but the core gameplay remains exactly the same as Believe in Santa. One of the biggest disappointments was the disappearance of the witch, which made for a good challenge – Believe in Sandy became much too easy as I breezed through every level without having to redo any.

One of the most promising additions was the “create a toy” screen that you can get before every level. Basically, you get to create a toy with premade parts. This works very well and the results are gorgeous, but doesn’t blend very well into the game; there is always a configuration that creates the most expensive doll, and of course you’d want to do that every single time instead of being creative. As you go farther into the game, you also get more toys to create, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they cost more. The whole system is flawed, but it’s fun to doll up Superman nevertheless.

Believe in Santa had its myriad mouse problems – everything felt a bit unresponsive, accuracy when it came to giving a candycane was suspect, the conveyor belt system generally sucks. None of this was fixed in Believe in Sandy. If you tried Believe in Santa and didn’t buy it, this might be to the time to change your mind and get Believe in Sandy instead. It is still the best Cake Mania clone out on the market so far – but you do know that Cake Mania 2 is in the making, right?

Aliasworlds have been really churning out the good looking time management games lately – The Apprentice Los Angeles (essentially 3 games in one) comes to mind. One thing that really stood out in Los Angeles was the massive production value – beautiful graphics, tons of animations, rich cell-shaded 3D graphics. Another thing that I remember was the length of the game, namely that it was short. Turbo Pizza is another one of these games – pretty, clickaholic, short.

Turbo Pizza is essentially a Cake Mania clone. Your character serve customers by baking pizza from raw ingredients, serve ice cream, dessert and pop. It’s all very standard. Actually, it’s not only standard, but like The Apprentice: Los Angeles, overly simplified. There are 3 types of ingredients to go into pizzas, and you can only use one at a time; you can’t stack them. There are two flavours of ice cream prepared the same way. Pop and dessert are basically the same thing, with different graphics. Customers all look different but act the same, with different patience levels. At the end of each level, you’ll be presented with a “buy” screen where you can get more ovens, faster move times, faster cook times, etc. On the surface, it feels like Cake Mania. After you dive in for a bit, you’ll see that it’s very much striped down.

There is ONE mini-game in Turbo Pizza that is actually quite a lot of fun. You have to make pizzas matching those in the recipes (represented graphically, not a list of ingredients) with ingredients coming down a conveyor. Unfortunately, you only get to play it twice. It’s also the same mini-game (same pizzas) both times that you get to play it.

There are aspects to the time management genre that must be addressed. Your character should move at a reasonable speed, and certain actions should take time to perform. Having these “times” to work around, we thus “manage” it. “Customer” types are also very important. In the classic time management games, what really made games like Cake Mania and Diner Dash stand out from the crowd was that the customers interacted with one another. It gave them personally and made them different. Also, the time limits a customer place on the player is variable – they can be appeased if we’re really pressed for time. These elements made the time management genre more than just a series of clicks. These elements made the player think about how best to approach the level.

Turbo Pizza, like the case of Los Angeles, threw all these ideas out the window. Gone are the slow waiting times, customer types (purely superficial and based upon a timer) and time bonuses. Gone too, with them, the strategic element that made time management games worth playing. All that’s left, really, is to click around the screen matching colors of ice creams and shapes of ingredients. Technically, each level presents a different sort of challenge, with different customer types. In reality, however, every level plays pretty much the same way – business men and women can wait, everyone else can’t. Stack your orders to chain bonuses. That’s it.

Graphically, Turbo Pizza is like the other cell-shaded 3D games. Snowy Lunch Rush and The Apprentic: Los Angeles. it’s very impressive looking cell-shaded 3D that should run smoothly on any mid-range computer. It’s downright gorgeous. The music isn’t bad either, though I wish for more variety since it all sound like one big midi tune.

There are technically 50 levels – 10 stages of 5 each. But it feels like two big stages of 25 each since there are only 2 different restaurants and they play exactly the same way with different main ingredients and decor. It does seem to go awful quickly – if you’re decent at color matching and fast-clicking, you can easily finish every stage on expert without repeating anything once. Is it worth it? That depends. Games that are fast-clicking involving little thinking also tend to be the additive ones. So if you find the graphics compelling enough and it’s challenging enough for you, it’s really not a bad game to play through. However, if you yearn for more strategic level design, just load up Cake Mania and play that again.

When Tradewinds came out for the PocketPC, I spent weeks playing it on the train going to and from work. It was a very simple game: you travel from port to port buying and selling, fighting pirates along the way. You can acquire more ships for more cargo, building a fleet of merchant ships. Along the way, you unlock the storyline for each character you choose to play. Simple, addictive. Very addictive.

Chocolatier is very much like Tradewinds. Not Legends or anything that came after the first, but it is very much like the original Tradewinds. You travel from port to port buying ingredients, making chocolates, and selling chocolates. Along the way you will meet characters in the storyline (a very typical one with minimal plot twists) who will give you more recipes or put in a request for boxes of chocolates. Fulfilling these requests might send you farther along in the storyline or reward you with either money or a new recipe.

The core of the game you’ll be going to port to port, buying ingredients and selling chocolates you’ve made. If you let an ingredient sit for too long in your inventory without using them up, they will start to deteriorate. One really good feature that should be there is the buying and selling of ingredients so you can off-load ingredients that you’re not using at a lower price instead of letting them rot. Although the game never gets too difficult even if you lose a lot of ingredients since the markup for chocolates is ridiculously high compared to the cost of the ingredients.

Once you’ve acquired enough ingredients, you can start cranking out chocolate bars. In order to do this, there is a chocolate making mini-game where you have to shoot ingredients into molds that are mounted on a Ferris wheel-like device. As you successfully make ingredient combinations, the wheel will spin faster. If you make mistakes and lose ingredients, the wheel will slow down. The amount of molds you are able to fill within a minute is your weekly output for that factory and that particular type of chocolate. There are 4 different kinds of chocolates: bar, squares, infusions, and truffles. Of those kinds, there are 16 of each. So there are a lot of recipes to acquire and make. But when it comes down to it it’s just the same mini-game with more ingredients.

There is also a certain amount of “banter” where random NPCs will interject with a hint, some facts about chocolate, and news of rising and falling prices for ingredients or chocolate. These are useful to a point; being interrupted in the middle of traveling from one port to another on a regular basis because an old man wanted to say “nobody knows the truffles I’ve seen” is pure annoyance. To see the same old man saying the same thing in every port regularly as well, is another one. The game doesn’t remember if you’ve already heard something before, and this feature would’ve been very useful to make traveling less mundane.

If you keep track of where everyone is, the game will only take you a few hours to complete. I almost always had a surplus of money to buy whatever needed to be bought, be it factories, machinery for the factories, ingredients, or recipes. If you don’t keep track, you could end up running around the map with your Airship (which you will acquire soon enough) searching for that name that they didn’t come with a location.

The graphics for the game is adequate, but nothing special. Character portraits are well-drawn enough, and buildings and backgrounds fit the locations that they’re supposed to be in. Sounds are appropriate and you don’t really notice it, which is the sign of well-done sound effects. My game ran at a steady clip for maybe an hour or so, then starts to slow down – restarting the game fixes the problem. I suspect a memory leak.

There is also a free-play mode where you can make ANY chocolate you want provided you have the machinery, without the storyline and recipe exchanges (you’d start with all of them at the beginning of the game) and it quickly gets dull. Replay value is minimal, since locations for all the characters as well as their likes and dislikes, the orders etc stays exactly the same through the second gameplay.

All in all, Chocolatier makes a good simulation game with very little replay value. It did the simulation part well, but a bit more randomization would’ve made this game even better. Worth the play through, but only if you’re buying it through the game club for $6.99. It’s hardly worth $20 since you’re likely to finish it in an afternoon.

VH1’s Downbeat is its debut into the land of casual games. Now, it’s not bad. Actually, it’s pretty good. What I have at home is a computer that is capable of running Half-Life 2 at a steady framerate, runs Photshop regularly, and really, a computer that isn’t all that out of date. For casual games, it’s a pretty standard web/work computer. This game lags on it.

Now, lagging may be a little bit of a way of life in some games. Sure, card games, match-3s, object hunting, time management games – these can all lag a little with no repercussions. A rhythm game? NOT A CHANCE. A rhythm game, if it even lags a little, makes the game anywhere from a little bit annoying to downright unplayable. On the side of annoying, there’s pretty much no way of getting a perfect score, or even get all the trophies. On the side of unplayable, it lags so much that none of the mouseclicks register properly and the levels would fail within a minute.

On the upside, Downbeat has some really good tunes: Straight Up, Material Girl, Our House, to name a few. Once a song is unlocked in story mode, you can go on to playing them in freeplay mode. As far as the rhythm part, it’s pretty accurate in making you click on certain beats that are representative of the game as well as throwing in a “match-3” aspect. Really though, most of the them you’d just be busy matching the colors.

The only really comparable game would be Elite Beat Agents on the Nintendo DS. It’s a whole lot of fun, but only when I only half look at the screen and half listen to my beats. Each one of clicks seem to register just fine, but the beat that comes from the game comes out just a little bit late. Sometimes the visual cues would lag a little and it would seem like all my beats are late but worked for the game. Downbeat does a great job of separating the bars so that you’d be clicking all over the screen before you know it.

If you have a good sense of rhythm and danced in the 80’s or just enjoy retro music, this game is for you. Download the trial and see how it runs on your computer. If it does better than mine, it’s definitely a keeper. Now to save myself enough to get a new computer…

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