Video-game publishers seem to believe their audience would rather risk sunburn than have fun in air-conditioned comfort, so you won't find many major new games in stores during the summer. But that doesn't mean there's nothing new out there -- and you don't need to search any further than the online services Xbox Live Arcade and the PlayStation Store.
One studio that's made a big impression in the download-only market is Double Fine Productions, led by industry legend Tim Schafer. Its new release is called Trenched (Microsoft, for Xbox 360, $15), and it's a witty mash-up of the third-person shooter and tower defense genres.
You control a "trench," a giant, walking mech that you can deck out with machine guns, cannons, grenade launchers, and other weapons. You also can place a limited number of stationary turrets to help defend your territory. You'll need all that to save Western civilization from the Tubes, an electronic menace bent on enslaving humanity.
Trenched isn't as silly as Double Fine's previous downloadable titles, Costume Quest and Stacked, though it does have some laugh-out-loud gags. (From a menu describing an olive paint job you can apply to your trench: "This paint is not actually made of olives. Please do not eat it.") On the other hand, the game play is more expertly paced, smoothly ramping up the difficulty as it provides access to more powerful weapons. It's a relatively short campaign, but the ability to join forces with up to three friends online boosts its replay value. Three stars out of four.
In Half-Minute Hero: Super Mega Neo Climax (Marvelous Entertainment, for Xbox 360, $10), you have just 30 seconds to stop a madman from unleashing Armageddon. Fail, and you can reset and try again. Succeed, and the credits roll -- until you discover there's another madman waiting in the next town over.
Over the course of more than 60 quests, Half-Minute Hero deftly parodies all the cliches and conventions of Japanese role-playing games like Final Fantasy. As someone who has spent hundreds of hours saving the world, I really got a kick out of saving two or three during a TV commercial break. Three stars.
Red Johnson's Chronicles (Lexis Numerique, for PlayStation 3, $13) is less frenetic, but still absorbing. It's a detective story laced with brainteasers, much like Nintendo's Professor Layton games, but the mystery is more down-to-earth: Who killed a much-loathed street thug? It's not a particularly surprising or rewarding case, and the end game -- in which you have to answer about 50 multiple-choice questions to build an indictment -- is a drag.
However, during the investigation you have to solve a few dozen puzzles of observation and logic. These challenges are generally clever, and a few are downright diabolical (but fair). Red Johnson is an odd beast, mixing noir atmospherics, Soviet-style graphics, a jazzy soundtrack and a protagonist who looks more hipster than gumshoe. But it delivers a satisfying set of puzzles for a good price. Two-and-a-half stars.
Magic: The Gathering, Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012 (Wizards of the Coast, for Xbox 360 and PS3, $10) might be a mouthful, but it offers a slick introduction to the venerable collectible card game. The object is to wear down your opponent by flinging spells or monsters at him while blocking his counterattacks. There are dozens of card types, with 10 different 60-card decks, and this digital translation does a fine job of teaching you how to play them.
The core campaign pits you against a succession of increasingly tough computerized opponents. You also can invite two other humans to join you in epic three-on-one battles against extra-powerful Archenemies. Or you can just dive into online one-on-one matches. I haven't played Magic in years, but Planeswalkers 2012 got me hooked again. Three stars.