If my Twitter stream and Xbox Live friends list is any indication of wider gaming trends, most everyone seems to be riding out the temporary lull in big name holiday releases before next week's launch of Spirit Tracks (the DS return of The Legend of Zelda) by occupying themselves with Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed II, or, in my own case, digging even further into Ubi's back catalog via the war-torn savanna of Far Cry 2.
But there's one game in particular out this week that's slipped under far, far too many radars and deserves your undivided attention.
Might and Magic: Clash of Heroes [Capy, DS]
There's obviously something magical being sprinkled in Toronto's water, as local indie Capybara Games has found themselves rapidly moving from hit to hit. Just over a month after the release of their previously featured and gorgeously remade PS3 puzzler Critter Crunch, the studio quietly teases Heartbeat, a sparse but stylish IGF-entered upcoming rhythm game for the Wii, and a collaboration with rustic-pixel illustrator Superbrothers and musician Jim Guthrie (half of would-be indie darling Human Highway, and probably best recognized as the man behind the nation's now infamous 'Hands in my Pocket' CapitalOne commercial) on Sword & Sworcery, a cryptic but already stunning iPhone audiovisual 'EP'.
And then this happened: the studio unleashes Clash of Heroes (top), a side-story spinoff of the Might & Magic RPG series that takes the very basic match-3 mindset of Critter Crunch and turns it into one of most satisfying and addictive strategy-puzzlers on the DS.
Like Puzzle Quest -- Infinite Interactive's similarly dangerously time-devouring puzzler -- before it, Clash overlays its fantasy RPG tale with battles that play out via color-matching vertical lines of troops to create, fuse and link attacks launched against your enemies, and doing the same horizontally to put together defensive lines to guard against theirs.
Its ruleset is so intricately devised and delicately balanced that it'd take an article in itself to explain them fully, but for all its richness and complexity, it's a system that takes only minutes of practice to mentally snap together, and all your remaining hours of the day to happily master. If you have any proclivity toward brainy puzzling, do not hesitate to pick this up: it's got all the trappings of being one of the handheld's underdog classics.
Continuity [Ragtime Games, web]
Elsewhere, the week's free web game gathering the most attention comes from Ragtime Games -- a Swedish team of students from Chalmers University of Technology and Gothenburg University -- with Continuity, their entry into the Student section of the Indie Games Fest.
The screenshot above tells you everything you need to know about the game, though maybe not at first glance. In essence, it's a lo-fi platformer that only asks that you pick up a single key to unlock each level's exit door, but split and laid out across a deck of cards that have to be shuffled like a classic slide-puzzle to match the entrance and exit out of each section. As smart as it is simple, it's a winning concept begging to be fleshed out further for a commercial release.
Hook Champ [Rocketcat, iPhone]
And finally, you might recognize Hook Champ from its initial recommendation over a month ago, but this week saw the release of a key update to the game that makes it worth noting all over again: a feature that lets you challenge your friends with your best cavern-crawling and -looting runs by racing against their ghost (a mechanic you might recall from games like Mario Kart).
The update also adds a number of new challenge levels, items, achievements and a new unlockable player character and comes at a new discounted price to celebrate the update launch -- don't miss this one now if you skipped past it the last time.