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Google Play App Roundup: Circa, Kingdom Rush Frontiers, and Shadowrun Returns

By Ryan Whitwam

News, towers, and cyberpunk.

The days are growing shorter as winter approaches, but you don't need to be bummed. That's just more time you get to justifiably spend curled up with a smartphone or tablet. Although, you want the best apps and games to keep you company, so the Google Play App Roundup is a good place to start. This is where we go over the best new stuff on Android every week. Just click the links to head right to Google Play.

This week news gets more mobile, the kingdom is again under attack, and the future gets magical.

Circa

There are already RSS readers, web browsers, and untold mountains of apps for single news sources like newspapers and blogs. So why do we need another one? Well, none of those news sources are created with mobile in mind. Circa is an app that gathers information from multiple sources, then builds a timeline for each story that you can scroll through and get the relevant details complete with citations.

Circa uses the Holo guidelines when it makes sense, and tweaks things to improve the design. It has the Android hamburger navigation panel on the left, but doesn't use an exposed tab bar at the top to list the different news categories. You can still slide left and right to get between the different news categories, but the animation is a sort of fading slide-in -- it looks really neat.

Each story is brought up in a new screen (on phones) with a vertically scrolling list of tidbits. Each entry is a different aspect of the story with a link to the source. This allows you to figure out what's going on in general, but also dig into certain aspects of an event. If you're particularly into a story, it can be added to your favorites and the app will notify you in the background when new info is available.

Circa is optimized for tablets with a two-column UI that let's you see a timeline while still scrolling through the list of stories. There's also a cool home screen widget that can list stories from whatever category you want.

This isn't an automated process, but a human-powered editorial endeavor. As such, you won't see the same information rewritten from five different sites and the longer articles on a topic will be distilled down in an intelligent way. Circa seems very useful and its free.

Kingdom Rush Frontiers

The original Kingdom Rush has been one of the top games in Google Play ever since it arrived early this summer. Now the sequel, Kingdom Rush Frontiers has hit Android, and there is really nothing to dislike here. This title brings more of the killer tower defense action from the original, but with new heroes and towers to play with.

Some Android users automatically ignore tower defense games, and you almost can't blame them -- there are a ton of very similar games out there. Kingdom Rush Frontiers sets itself apart by offering very well-balanced gameplay with various additional tasks, and even some almost RPG elements.

The core tower defense elements are all there, so you can get up to speed quickly in Kingdom Rush Frontiers. Each level has one or more entry and exit points for the creeps. You just have to stop them from getting to the exit by throwing up towers along the predefined path. There are ranged towers like the archers, artillery, and mages. Then you also have ground infantry barracks. You have to combine all these for an effective strategy. Additionally, each tower has two different upgrade paths with a few special powers that can be added. Basically, there's a lot of variation in the gameplay.

There is also the hero system to play around with in Kingdom Rush Frontiers. You get three heroes for free in this title, but the game also offers you the option of buying more with real money. You don't have to do thi, but it's a way to get a little more out of the game. Whichever hero you use, he/she/it will gain experience and level up, allowing you to add new skills. While you can move the hero around the map as you like, the attacks are automatic.

Kingdom Rush Frontiers does an impeccable job of keeping you interested -- it's never a lazy TD game. Sometimes new paths will appear mid-game, or an enemy will disable or destroy some towers. It's a really engrossing experience from beginning to end. This is also a fully updated version of the game, including the new tropical-themed campaign that was just added to the iOS version.

The graphics are essentially identical to the first game, which is totally fine. Kingdom Rush Frontiers has a strong cartoon vibe with strong lines and simple textures. The visuals are quirky and fun with a sprinkling of nerd references. The game also runs flawlessly on any modern Android device.

Kingdom Rush Frontiers is absolutely worth the $2.99 price. I'd pay even more because it's just that great.

Shadowrun Returns

The classic tabletop role playing universe Shadowrun is back, and this time the original creator is working behind the scenes to make sure everything fits within the Shadowrun cannon. Shadowrun Returns is a turn-based RPG that pulled in almost $2 million on Kickstarter last year. After debuting on PC earlier this year, the game is now on Android. It's pricey at $9.99, but it has the potential to scratch your RPG itch like few mobile games can.

Just like a regular non-mobile RPG, you get to choose your character's race, gender, and class at the start of the game. Shadowrun is set in a future where magic has returned to Earth. So you can be a human, elf, orc, troll, or dwarf. The classes include tech-focused options and magical ones. Shadowrun Returns is an interesting mix of gritty cyberpunk technology and spells, and you don't have to restrict yourself to one or the other. Nothing is stopping you from starting as a Rigger with a group of combat drones, then leveling your spellcasting skills.

The story and dialog in this title are very well done. The characters are believable and there is a remarkable lack of cringy one-liners. This isn't an entirely open world game -- Shadowrun Returns sends you from one location to the next, but you can usually wander around in these areas.

Getting around and interacting with objects is as easy as tapping anywhere on the screen. When combat starts, it's all turn-based, which means strategy and planning are essential. Each member of your party gets a chance to do some damage, then the enemies get their turn. Each mission will probably have one larger skirmish and possibly a smaller one at the beginning. The balance seems good overall, but you need to properly develop your character's strengths and play to them.

The graphics in Shadowrun Returns remind me quite a lot of the old Fallout games. The textures have been pumped up a bit, but it still has that static look indicative of isometric top-down games. The lines are clean and the lighting effects look good. Shadowrun does what it needs to visually without wasting resources.

Shadowrun Returns is not without its issues, though. The game still has some bugs that will stymie your progress on occasion. In fact, I couldn't get the Rigger skills to work half the time. The spaced-out autosaves are also an issue -- you have to play for at least 20-30 minutes to make any real progress. If you jump into another app for any reason, Shadowrun Returns will probably be killed by the system because it uses a lot of RAM.

Despite the issues, Shadowrun Returns is fun. The RPG elements are solid, and the story is engaging. It's also a really cool world with advanced technology existing alongside magic. Casual gamers might want to hold out for some improvements, but RPG fans can probably justify $9.99 for 12 hours of cyberpunk questing.