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Google Play App Roundup: Bamboo Paper, Wayward Souls, and Madefire

By Ryan Whitwam

Paper, pixels, and comics

Get ready to fire up the Play Store and load up some new apps and games, because it's time once again for the Google Play App Roundup. This is where you can come each and every week to find out what's cool and new on Android. Just hit the links to open the Play Store on your device.

This week you can take notes and doodle in a new way, go on a quest that is sure to end in death, and experience comics in a whole new way.

Bamboo Paper

Wacom released the "memo" version of Bamboo paper for phones a few months ago, but now Android tablet users have access to the real deal. Bamboo Paper is a notebook app that lets you take notes, sketch, or just get your thoughts down on (virtual) paper quickly. The interface is designed for tablets, so it won't install on phones. If you check out Bamboo Paper now, you can get all the features for free too.

The home screen in Bamboo Paper is just a scrollable list of your notebooks. You can change the colors, paper types, and names of each one. The notebook theme is carrier through the rest of the app, but it's not overbearing. I suppose I'd say Paper uses skeuomorphism to an acceptable degree--it never gets too out of hand.

The notebooks work like, well... notebooks. You can swipe in from the edges to navigate between pages and choose if you want plain, lined, graph or dotted paper. A real notebook certainly doesn't have a menu bar at the top like the app does. This is where you choose the brush type, line thickness, and color. These are "brushes" in the technical sense, but they're mostly for writing and doodling. You won't find any advanced Photoshop-style brushes, but that's not really what Paper is all about.

The menu bar also has controls for undo/redo, sharing, eraser, and image importing. Images are actually quite cool in Paper. You can pull in pictures from any service that has registered itself correctly with the OS. That means all your gallery apps, file managers, and the camera app should be there as options. You can paste these images into a notebook however you like by resizing, moving, and tilting with a multitouch gesture.

You can use Bamboo Paper with a regular capacitive stylus or one of the ten capacitive styluses that are attached to your hand, but Wacom's Bamboo-branded styluses are the best way to do it. These devices connect to the tablet via Bluetooth and provide pressure-sensitive input and allows the app to ignore other inputs, like your palm resting on the screen. They're neat tools, but you'll pay $20-80 for the good ones. Anyone with a Galaxy Note tablet will be able to take advantage of some of that same functionality without buying a new stylus, though Wacom will sell special versions that offer an improved Paper experience on those devices as well.

If you download Bamboo Paper now, you'll get all the tools for free. The iOS version sells most of the brushes and features as in-app add-ons. These will be added to the Android app later, but you can keep all of them on your device permanently as long as you act quickly.

Wayward Souls

In an era when most games let you save whenever you like and almost every shooter uses that regenerating shield trick, Wayward Souls is incredibly, frustratingly, refreshingly hard. This is a game that make no allowances for weakness--it's punishingly difficult and death is permanent. If there was a Dark Souls for Android, this would be it.

Wayward Souls is a top-down action RPG with randomly generated dungeons full of baddies. There are no buttons to clutter the screen--you can get around in Wayward Souls simply by tapping and dragging on the left half of the screen. Tapping on the right half performs a regular attack, while swiping up and down uses your character's two special abilities.

The randomly generated levels will often have multiple paths you can take, but not all of them will lead to the exit. If you want to explore everything, you'll find more items that can be used when you're in a tough spot, but you're also putting yourself more at risk. If you happen upon a room full of powerful monsters, it could mean curtains. You can't make a run for it either--when you enter a room, the door closes behind you and won't open until all the monsters are dead. You might find a life potion on very rare occasions, but otherwise your only source of health is the small bump you get at the end of each level.

When you die, that's it. The character you've built up is gone and you have to start over at the last checkpoint. The checkpoints are at the beginning of each section of the game (every five levels). There's also a boss battle before the checkpoint, so have fun with that. The only thing that carries over is the money you collect throughout your journey, you can use this to improve the various heroes at your disposal, but that's cold comfort when a rock golem unexpectedly ends the best run you've had in ages.

You can play Wayward Souls as a warrior, mage, or rogue, but more are unlocked later. Each character has their own weapons and items, as well as story elements. Wayward Souls provides forges every few levels that allow you to enhance some part of your character's equipment. Maybe your warrior gets a more powerful sword or armor that grants a special power. The mage could be granted a new tome that makes one of her spells more powerful.

As a rule I tend to pass on games that milk the retro graphics thing, but Wayward Souls does something nice with the SNES-era visuals. It's obviously pixelated, but the animations are very smooth and there are some cool lighting effects. it's retro, but feels very modern.The game mixes up the various styles on each playthrough so it doesn't start to all look the same, even with different maps.

If it sounds like a hate Wayward Souls a little, that's probably because I do. I just LOVE to hate it. It's such a well-crafted game that's difficult not because it wants you to buy things via in-app purchases (there aren't any), but because the developers wanted it to be a challenge. You won't beat Wayward Souls by grinding or spending money, but by improving your skills. This might be the best and most frustrating $4.99 you'll spend on a game this year.

Madefire

There are a number of comic reader apps the open .cbz archives, as well as apps from most of the major publishers. Madefire is trying something a little different by making tools available for artists and writers to create so-called motion books that sit somewhere between static comic books and full animations. The result is something unique in the world of storytelling, and now the Madefire app is available on Android for you to check it all out.

A motion book takes advantage of all the technology we have at our disposal to tell stories in a way you couldn't on the printed page. Instead of showing the action in a series of panels, a motion book allows the artist to animate some of the action. It's not a fully animated image like a cartoon, but more like a series of static images drifting around the screen and changing positions. Not all the frames are animated, but a fair number of them are in most comics. The small arrow that advances the story slowly fills in as the animations plays out so you know when you can move on. That won't always mean a new image--it might just change the current one with an animation and new text.

In addition to the pre-determined animations, there are also some panels that let you tap and drag to change perspective. For example, maybe you can pull the camera to one side and see what's around a corner or lurking behind the hero. It also lets artists create panoramic scenes like a Google Photosphere in the middle of the comic. The final piece of the Madefire puzzle is sound, which can be used to introduce music and sound effects into the story, all timed to the animations of course. It seems like this isn't used for any speech (at least that I've heard). All that is still taking place in speech balloons.

The Madefire app includes standard comics that don't use the mobion book tools at all, and they work just fine in the app like any other comic reader. This means you'll have access to many of the top-tier publishers that aren't going to the trouble of changing their content to work with Madefire's specialized tools. There are still well over 100 current motion books available in the app featuring content with Hellboy, Star Trek, Batman, and Judge Dredd.

My only real concern with Madefire's app is that some of the motion books take a little too long to load when going from one full page to the next. It would be nice if it was doing some sort of pre-caching so there wouldn't be a 4-5 second delay on some of those page changes. Otherwise, this is definitely something to check out for comic fans, and those who are maybe casually into comics. The more immersive experience could appeal to a wider audience, and there are a fair number of free motion books to check out. The paid content (motion books and print comics) are available through in-app purchases.