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Google Play App Roundup: Swype, Planets Defense, and Shiny the Firefly

By Ryan Whitwam

Text input, space warfare, and friendly bugs.

The Play Store grows by the day, overflowing with apps and games of varying degrees of quality. Once a week here on Tested, we like to dive in and see what's new and cool on Android, hence the Google Play App Roundup. Just click on the app name to head right to the Play Store on your device.

This week we have a classic alternative keyboard that has finally reached the big leagues, a game with neat space ships, and a casual side-scroller with a ton of cute.

Swype

For the last few years, the Swype beta program has been the least exclusive private club in the Android world. You could (usually) sign up on the Swype website to get access to a sideloaded version of this granddaddy of swiping keyboards. Updates were a pain, and Swype seemed less interested in updating the beta than focusing on its main business model -- licensing to OEMs. Last week, all that had changed. Swype is now in Google Play.

There is a trial version, as well as a paid edition. This time installation is much easier -- no logging in, no downloading APKs, just hit up the Play Store. The last time I was heavily into Swype, there were a ton of options. In this new version, some of that customization is gone, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. The keyboard seems more autonomous than it once was.

The whole idea behind Swype is that you can just draw the words you with your finger. Other contenders have implemented this feature, not least among them SwiftKey and Google itself in Android 4.2. With some of the improvements Swype has made, I think it might actually be the best at swiping input.

I would say that Swype got words correct more than nine times out of ten. No more do you have to hover over double letters, or land exactly on each key. Swype seems a little better at getting what I'm after than stock Android, and much better than SwiftKey. The tracing seems a bit more responsive in Swype than the other options, and it makes fewer common errors. However, you’ll quickly find some tricky key combinations, like the difference between ‘our and ‘or.’ Tapping input used to be very bad in Swype, but in this version it’s actually quite good.

I like the shortcut gestures Swype implements. For example, swipe from period to space to finish off a sentence, or drag up above the keyboard at any time to capitalize the previous letter. I’m not really crazy about the decision to integrate Nuance’s own Dragon voice input engine in place of Google’s, but I can understand the decision from a branding perspective. Dragon works well, but seems a bit slower than Google voice input.

The new Swype has several themes to choose from, including a very nice Holo look. There will reportedly be more themes later, but the ones we have now look far better than the old default Swype theme.

Swype is only $0.99 right now in celebration of the Google Play launch. This keyboard works on phones and tablets, with the latter allowing various layout options. If you’re in need of a good alternative keyboard for your device, check out Swype.

Planets Defense

Here we have a serious strategy game that spans the stars. Planets Defense has fairly simple mechanics, but the gameplay is challenging. In each of the 25 levels, you have to build up a fleet and eliminate the enemy presence in the solar system. At your disposal are various ships, upgradeable defenses, and planetary resources.

Planets Defense is a top-down game that doesn’t get bogged down with three-dimensional movement in space. You start out with a single planet with a few suitable plots to build structures. You set up various mining facilities to gather resources, and use them to construct ships at your hangar. It’s important to get this process up and running quick, because the enemy does not mess around.

Orbiting somewhere out there in the system is the massive enemy base. It has shielding, weapon emplacements, and can pump out ships like no one’s business. Your only hope is to get more craft in space and beat back the enemy’s advances. You can’t select just any location for your ships to go. Instead, they hop to different planets and asteroids in the system. Your forces will automatically attack any enemy ship that gets close, so it’s all about placing your ships correctly.

To move from one area to the next, just tap on the celestial body where your units are stationed. Choose the units you want to move, then tap on the destination. This simple setup is a good approach, but I feel like the touch detection for selecting planets is a little off. I sometimes have to tap several times to get it to register correctly.

As you complete stages, you unlock more ships and buildings types. Eventually you can expand to more planets, which increases the game’s complexity quite a bit. Planets Defense is at times frustratingly hard, but the difficulty is adjustable.

This is an OpenGL game with 3D models, and it looks reasonably good. I wouldn’t say the graphics are the centerpiece by any means, but it’s not an eyesore either. The lighting effects are good, but there’s some noticeable aliasing on ships. Everything is perfectly smooth on the Nexus 7, though.

Planets Defense is about $2 in Google Play, and it’s worth looking into if you like strategy games. There is also a demo version you can try out.

Shiny the Firefly

I hope you haven’t had too much adorable today, because Shiny the Firefly has an absolute overdose of cute in it. In case you couldn’t ascertain the premise from the title, Shiny is a firefly, and your task is to gather up all the baby fireflies in each level with your glowing rear end. Well, there’s more to it, but that the gist.

You have to maneuver Shiny through four different areas of the garden in search of all his baby fireflies while avoiding obstacles and various dangerous creatures. The game’s controls are extremely simple and effective. Just tap on the screen where you want Shiny to fly to, and it’s done.

Now, Shiny doesn’t move terribly fast, so there are times you need to pick up the pace to avoid a raindrop or nasty insect crossing your path. You can double-tap to accelerate for a short distance, but this can only be done every few seconds. A single tap on Shiny will activate his glowing abdomen. This will draw nearby fireflies to you allowing you to lead them to safety, but it also attracts enemies.

You can take a few hits before succuming, but the babies are not as hearty. One hit, and they’re lost. Each stage has a set number of baby fireflies that must be rescued, so you have to take it slow. The game thus encourages you to herd your brood to various areas for safekeeping before engaging in dangerous activities. You can just shut off your light, then come back later and reactivate to pick them up. This is what makes this casual game work, in my opinion. Without this gameplay mechanic, it would be too simple.

You can also pick up seeds to hurl at enemies, and knock rocks off ledges to seal up water pipes, or crush other bugs. Although, you crush them in the most adorable way possible -- really. It’s a cute game.

Graphically, Shiny the Firefly is very colorful, with big 3D toadstools and flowers blooming up into the foreground. It gives this 2D side-scroller a little bit of depth. The cartoon vibe is done well, and the animations are great. There is a little aliasing visible on the character models. The backgrounds better, though.

Shiny the Firefly will run you $1.99 in Google Play. I feel like this would have made more sense at $0.99, but there’s no use quibbling over $1 -- it’s a fun casual game.

That's all for this week, but be sure to check back next time for more apps for your Android devices.