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Google Play App Roundup: Sidebar Plus, Totem Runner, and Breach and Clear

By Ryan Whitwam

A place for your stuff, a place to run, and a place to shoot.

There are magnificent treasures in the Google Play Store, but they're not always easy to find. The weekly Google Play App Roundup is an effort to keep you abreast of the happenings in the world of Android apps. Just click on the app name to head right to the play store to check things out for yourself.

This week we go over a way to keep things more accessible, a game that make side-scrolling fun again, and a shooter with brains.

Sidebar Plus

This is an app designed to add expandable sidebars to your android device accessible via an edge gesture. It is far from the only app to try this, but it offers enough features and reliable operation that it might actually be usable in the long-term. Not only can you get apps and links in Sidebar Plus, but it can house widgets and Dashclock extensions.

The settings UI is a bit confusing at first, but you'll get things figured out after some tinkering. Oddly, changes you make to the sidebars aren't completely reflected until you exit the settings interface. Knowing that ahead of time will save you some head-scratching. The app comes with three sidebars pre-configured, but you can increase that number to the point the app becomes unusable -- don't do that.

There are a ton of templates to choose from if you don't want to tweak the bars already in the app. There's frequent contacts, bookmarks, settings, apps, and more. The headlining feature, in my opinion, is the Big Bar. This is the one that lets you add widgets and Dashclock extensions. If you find yourself referring to widgets on your home screen a lot, this app could be a lifesaver. The settings toggles are very handy, but be aware they will override system-level control on some devices. It can be a little confusing at first.

You call up the various sidebars by swiping onto the screen at the correct zone, which you can configure. With three or four sidebars, things are pretty usable on a smartphone, You can push it a little farther on a tablet, but careful you don't go overboard. If used correctly, Sidebar Plus could be the best friend of those who want to keep home screen interfaces minimalist. There are also a variety of themes including dark, light and Holo dark.

The app comes with a five day free trial, after which you are limited to two sidebars with only a few items in each. You can unlock the full version of the app, which costs a little over $3, or you can buy limited features for a bit less (but that doesn't seem worth it).

Totem Runner

I'm just as ambivalent about side-scrolling runner and platformers as the next guy, but Totem Runner does something different. In this game you control a noble warrior tasked with restoring life to the world, which apparently has been pretty thoroughly messed up by some amorphous, evil force. To win, you have to maneuver through perilous levels using your animal forms to contend with anything that might come up.

Your default mode in Totem Runner is human. As you run across the level, a bed of colorful plants springs up behind you. When the need arises (as it does often) you can flip over into one of two animal forms: a rhino or an eagle. The rhino is useful for smashing through obstacles or rushing through openings at increased speed. The eagle form gets you over gaps in the terrain and other ground-level difficulties. The two forms are activated by pressing and holding the buttons on the left or right.

There are enemies in Totem Runner, but you don't usually take them on directly. Instead, you have to dodge them or use the environment to your advantage to take them out. For example, one particularly creepy flying enemy sticks to your tail no matter what you do, getting closer and closer until it's in striking distance. The only way to get away is to use the eagle form to dive sharply up or down around an obstacle so that the floating baddie smacks into it trying to stay with you.

Along the way through each stage you can pick up gems that add up to grant you special powers. See, in addition to the eagle and the rhino, you can turn into a glowing, invincible dragon. Well, for a few seconds, which is better than nothing. This lets you blaze through a big chunk of the level, annihilating everything in your path.

This is a game of precision timing. You will often have to maneuver around dangerous spires as the eagle, then drop into rhino form in a split second to crash through a wall of razor-sharp bramble. Just when you think you've hit a clear stretch, the ground gives way, and you have to hit the eagle button stay alive.

The visuals are very good in Totem Runner, but not because they're extremely detailed or complicated. The foreground is mostly black, as is your character. The armor you're wearing is a vibrant green, though, and it changes shape with you. The backgrounds are colorful -- almost pastel. Most of the enemies are denoted by the red, glowing accents.

Totem Runner comes with the first set of levels for free so you can see how you like it. The rest of the game is unlocked for $0.99. That's totally worth it. There are optional in-app purchases for more gems/dragon attacks, but the game does not require that kind of investment.

Breach and Clear

You have to admire a shooter that's more than an exercise in running and gunning. Breach and Clear is a top-down tactical shooter that's just been released on Android with a bunch of new content. You take command of a group of elite special forces commandos to eliminate threats in a variety of locales. You can't run into battle without a plan, and that what makes Breach and Clear interesting.

Your team consists of four units, each of which you are able to customize at the start of the game. There are different classes that grant them special skills and tactics that can be deployed in battle. The level of customization is kind of crazy. You can buy different weapons, weapon attachments, items, and special tools for use in the game. You can even change the color of your weapons. Many of the guns are locked until you reach a certain point in the game, though.

You control the squad by selecting them on the right, then long-pressing to set a waypoint. You can also add additional waypoints and set the direction you want them facing. dragging around with one finger (without a long-press) pans around the level. Multitouch pinching and twisting changes your perspective and distance. It works well most of the time, but getting the spot selected for a waypoint is sometimes awkward.

Each level follows the same basic premise -- you have one or more entry points to the building, but the location of the baddies is a mystery. So you set up units at whichever doors you want, and breach. Your soldiers will shoot at enemies automatically, but you have to put them in a position to do so without getting hit at the same time. Staying in cover is essential, as is using your special abilities like drawing fire, grenades, and blocking doors.

You earn cash from each victory, which can be used to get new weapons and items. If you find yourself stuck on a level, you can buy a UAV. These consumable units will reveal the location of all enemies in a level before you enter. An explosive breach can also be used to catch the enemy off guard. You won't be able to afford to use these every time, but you do make a fair amount from each level.

The graphics in Breach and Clear are better than I was expecting. Zooming in reveals more detail than you can see from far above. It nice that you don't just get the same thing, but bigger. Textures are reasonable quality, but you rarely get close enough to worry about that. The game goes into third person mode when you breach and take out the last enemy, and it actually doesn't look bad. I don't know if the game is being rendered differently, but it's solid. The only weak spot for me is the animation, which is sometimes a little loose.

The game is currently $1.99 in Google Play, which is half off. If you like shooters, grab this one while you can.