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Google Play App Roundup: Minuum Keyboard, Rochard, and Beyond Space

By Ryan Whitwam

Typing, gravity, and space.

A new week has dawned and that means it's time to check in on the Play Store. The best of Android is waiting, but first you have to find it. That's what the Google Play App Roundup is all about -- pointing out the best new and newly upgraded apps and games. Just click the links to head right to the Google Play Store.

This week we've got an unusual new keyboard, a console-quality platformer, and a space shooter with all the right moves.

Minuum Keyboard

Most third-party keyboard on Android follow a design that simply builds on a traditional keyboard. There are a few that eschew that idea, but the learning curve that comes with that makes it hard to take advantage of any features the keyboard might have. Minuum was crowd funded last year and hit Android as a beta shortly thereafter. Now it's out of beta and has a free one-month trial. This alternative doesn't completely abandon the traditional keyboard, but it does make a lot of interesting tweaks.

The goal of Minuum is to allow you to reclaim some of your screen real estate from the on-screen keyboard. Instead of a full multi-row layout, Minuum crunches QWERTY down to a single staggered row. You just have to get close to the right letters and Minuum uses aggressive spell check to figure out what you mean.

Because this is still technically QWERTY, the learning curve is not as steep. You just have to adjust to remembering where on the horizontal each key is. The autocorrect is make or break in Minuum, and it's actually pretty impressive. Nine times out of ten it selects the right word from whatever nonsense I've typed in. Other times the right term is in the suggestion bar and requires a tap to select it.

If you need to enter specific words, just drag up from a key and you can select any letter or special character from a certain area. Minuum includes a few layout settings, including an option to expand it to a full keyboard. I don't see the use of that unless you're typing a lot of non-dictionary words, though.

I feel like I'm about as fast with Minuum as I am with a regular keyboard, but my brain gets a little derailed when I need to type something that isn't recognized as a real word. This keyboard seems like it has real potential and doesn't require you relearn how to type. Check out the free trial and see if it works for you. The full version will run you $3.99.

Rochard

Nvidia promised console-quality games for Tegra 4 devices when the chip launched last year, now we're finally seeing some of them come out. Rochard was a big hit on Steam and the PlayStation 3 PSN. Now it's on Android, but will require a Tegra 4 device and a controller. The Shield is obviously an ideal device for Richard, but there are a few more tablets that get the job done.

Rochard is a puzzling-platformer that has place on a futuristic mining station. You play the role of John Rochard, mining boss and general badass. When his team uncovers a strange object, the station is suddenly overrun with heavily armed mercenaries. Using only modified mining equipment, you have to solve the mystery and save your crew.

In Rochard, gravity is both your best friend and worst enemy. The main tool you'll use to solve puzzles and defeat enemies is the G Lifter. It's basically a gravity gun that can pick up and fling objects. You can use it to stack boxes, open distant doors, and launch heavy things at the bad guys. The game is broken up into rooms, each one usually with some sort of puzzle to solve before you can move on. The game also has frequent checkpoints. You'll come across upgrades to your G Lifter and the ability to change gravity on the station, both of which figure into completing puzzles. Putting this all together results in very challenging, rewarding puzzles with just enough platforming to keep the game moving along.

Because this game requires a controller, Rochard makes no compromises on Android. You use the left stick to move and the right one to aim. The trigger fires the G Lifter and the shoulder buttons alter gravity. The Shield is preconfigured, but most controllers should be detected just fine.

The graphics backed by the Tegra 4 are almost unchanged from other platforms. Rochard looks excellent with smooth lines and cool lighting effects. The physics and particle effects affect the gameplay, so they have to be flawless -- luckily, they are. The only problem with the direct graphics port is that characters on the screen are sometimes a little small (at least on the Shield).

Rochard is a bit expensive at $6.99, but that's a few bucks less than it is on other platforms, and you get pretty much the same experience with the Android version.

Beyond Space

I have tried a lot of space shooters on Android, perhaps trying to reconnect with the glory days of X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter on the PC. The complexity of simulator-style flight combat games is hard to reproduce on a touchscreen, so most of what we get is very "arcade" and on-rails. Beyond Space strikes a good balance between usability and freedom, and you can try it free.

This is a third-person fly-behind space shooter with a typical story about aliens and space pirates. I found the plot mildly interesting, but it's nice the developers bothered to create one. The voice acting is actually rather good and it doesn't go on too long in between action sequences.

Most of the missions involve defending a ship, checking out suspicious activity, or clearing space of the enemy. To do this you have an assortment of ships, but you have to unlock them by completing missions. Each one has different stats and is compatible with a subset of weapons and equipment. You'll also unlock that stuff as you go, so check the hangar often to see if there's something you can swap out for better performance. I pleased that each ship and configuration in Beyond Space offers a distinct experience.

Controls are either on-screen or accelerometer-based, but weapons and special maneuvering gestures are always on-screen. The virtual thumbstick gets the job done, but I think the accelerometer is better. You don't get full roll or yaw control, but the game takes place in a fully 3D space. The left side of the screen has gesture areas that let you reverse direction or do a barrel roll to break missile locks. I feel like the location of the throttle control is a bit awkward, but otherwise its a solid layout.

The visuals in Beyond Space really surpassed my expectations. The star systems and backdrops are detailed and varied -- beautiful, actually. The game is mostly free of aliasing and the light effects are fabulous. Sometimes the lens flare gets a bit into Abrams-land, bit I can forgive that.

Beyond Space lets you play the first few missions for free, but it's $2.99 to unlock the full game. Yeah, it's worth that much.