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American McGee’s Crooked House Review: Challenging puzzles in twisted rooms

American McGee has a strong background in game development. He is perhaps best known for 2000′s American McGee’s Alice, his dark twist on Lewis Carroll’s classic stories Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There. Following her adventures in Wonderland, Alice’s house burnt down, killing her family. Distraught, she attempted but failed to commit suicide, was rendered catatonic and institutionalized in an insane asylum for ten years before being summoned back to Wonderland by the White Rabbit. Wonderland, being a creation of Alice’s mind, has in the meantime become a macabre and twisted version of itself, tainted by Alice’s insanity. Creepy? Oh, yes. But not surprising, considering McGee’s background working on games in the Doom and Quake series. And in 2008, McGee’s Grimm began its episodic run, casting players as a dwarf so sickened by saccharine sweet fairy tales, than he endeavors to return the stories to their darker, original versions.

Through his China-based development studio Spicy Pony, McGee now continues his penchant for twisted tales on the iPhone with American McGee’s Crooked House, a game based on the nursery rhyme There was a Crooked Man.

There was a crooked man,
He went a crooked mile,
He found a crooked sixpence beside a crooked stile;
He bought a crooked cat,
Which caught a crooked mouse,
And they all lived together –
in a little crooked house.
But finally,
It was the crooked mouse,
First lost his crooked smile,
Weary of the crooked nonsense beside the crooked stile;
He shred the crooked cat,
He fled the crooked man,
And he might live forever –
If you help him in his plan.

In the game, the mouse’s plan is simple: Escape the crooked house. But as you might expect, this is easier said than done. Standing between the mouse and his freedom are an increasingly mischievous series of crooked puzzles.

Puzzling involves sliding blocks in order to make a path for your mouse to the exit of each level. This is accomplished using either tilt or swipe controls. All blocks move in the same direction, and so the difficulty comes in manipulating the blocks in such a way that they all fall into proper place. Environmental obstacles both help and hinder your progress. Throwing blocks into grinders destroys them, and striking your mouse with a block ends him in bloodiness. Each stage also has a time limit for completion; if not met, your mouse will be eviscerated by the house’s crooked cat.

It’s really no wonder the mouse is so keen on leaving the house, given the amount of death involved in residence. But we’ve not even begun to discuss the decor. Insects and eyeballs, fetuses and skulls, shrunken heads, jack’o'lanterns and other elements of the macabre adorn the halls, walls and rooms of the crooked house. That whole seriously twisted, demented fairy tale motif that American McGee has become known for is in full effect for Crooked House. So yeah, despite the game’s nursery rhyme roots, this is not a puzzler for the little kiddies.

Likes:

Dementia: If you’re at all familiar with the previous works of American McGee, you should already know whether or not Crooked House will appeal to you on an aesthetic level. While some people may be put off by the fetuses shoved into the walls, others will revel in the macabre, grotesqueness of the game. If this is your first encounter with the works of McGee, then you’re either in for a treat, or a rude awakening. If you dig Tim Burton’s general aesthetic, you’ll probably dig this too. Artistically, the game is twisted, gory and kind of freaky; I like it a lot.

Puzzling: Gore and shrunken heads aside, Crooked House offers up some good, logic-based puzzling. Some stages can be finished with ease, while others are insidiously tricky. And just when you’ve gotten comfortable, the game throws you curve balls, like reverse-sliding blocks that move opposite the direction you’d expect. Crooked House is more than just fetuses and good-looks; there’s enough substance to the game to please even the most discriminating of puzzle gamers.

Progression: Stages are unlocked in groups of three, with the next group unlocked when you’ve completed two of the previous groups three stages. This is a brilliant mechanic in that it allows you to progress, even if you get hung up on a particular level. You’ll never hit a wall playing Crooked House; you’ll never reach an insurmountable level that blocks access to the rest of the game. At certain points, you will also unlock new levels in other areas of the house; if you get stuck in or sick of the bookshelves, you can move on to the lab’s stages. The game also has a hint system accessible via the pause screen, to further prevent your getting stuck. No matter how difficult or unfair you think any particular level may be in Crooked House, you will never hit a point where the game prevents your moving forward.

All-in-all, it’s a very clever system that rewards players for successful puzzling, while keeping the game open and accessible to those who might struggle more than others. As someone who has completely given up on more linear “puzzle games” when they became just un-friggin’-fair — usually when stage completion depends more upon blind luck and chance, than on logic or puzzle solving (Angry Birds, I’m looking at you) — I really appreciate this kind of design.

Dislikes:

To be honest, there’s not much to dislike about American McGee’s Crooked House, unless you just don’t like logic puzzles. It’s a solid concept in a well-designed package. While the game’s grotesque aesthetic may put off some gamers, it will be a major selling point for others; it’s just a matter of personal taste, and I think it’s great.

I’ve never been much of a PC gamer, and have for the most part only seen American McGee’s work from a distance. I went hands-on with Alice once and enjoyed it, but as there was never a Mac version and the PS2 version was canceled, unfortunately was never able to dig into the game. I’m overjoyed then to see McGee branching out from the PC and into app store gaming, and hope to see more iPhone titles from the creative and twisted mind behind Alice and Grimm. While Crooked House is of much simpler concept and a less expansive game than its predecessors, it shares many thematic elements with McGee’s previous works and leaves me hopeful to see where the developer takes the platform next.

American McGee’s Crooked House may not be for everyone. But for those who can accept the perverse art-direction, it offers sound puzzling and a good challenge, and also supports the Plus+ social gaming platform. The game does a wonderful job of rewarding progress without sacrificing accessibility, challenges the player without resorting to cheap tactics or the whimsy of chance, and contains enough content to keep even the most avid puzzlers busy for some time to come.

American McGee’s Crooked House is developed by Spicy Pony and sells for $1.99. Reviewed on an iPhone 3G.



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