iPhone Gems: Drift Sumi-e, Riverleap + Space Trek
Welcome to this week’s second gaming edition of iPhone Gems. Today, we’re briefly looking at three titles that were interesting enough to share despite the fact that they’re all missing the sort of polish that transforms cool tech demos into full-fledged, satisfying games. Each one is completely different from the others, and has a spark of a good to great idea inside, but they all really could have used more time in development to reach their full potential.
None of these titles received our high, general, or limited recommendation, but they’re all worth seeing. Read on for the details, and see our separate full review of Flick Bowling 2 from Freeverse for another title of potential interest to bowling fans.
Though Capcom’s action game Okami wasn’t the first game to use ink and wash painting as an inspiration for its graphics, the title unquestionably spurred a lot of interest in this beautiful Asian artform, and inspired titles such as Street Fighter IV to adopt a new visual style relative to traditional cartoons or realistic graphics. Objectify’s app Drift Sumi-e ($2) is a demonstration of how ink and wash art could be applied to a driving game, presenting players with a greyscale 2-D overhead course with start, finish, and red drifting patch points that need to be connected with a single line. The game consists of nothing more than seeing the course roughly drawn, quickly drawing a curving line through it, and then watching as additional flat scenery and a car are added to the track, demonstrating how the car follows the line. You move on if you achieve a rank of “1,” reflecting a very fast and accurate line that touched all of the red drifting points, and have to repeat the course endlessly if you achieve lower ranks, or spin out and fail to complete the race.
The problem with Drift Sumi-e is very simple: it’s not fun. This is in part the result of a complete imbalance between the slow, deliberate beauty of ink and wash painting, which the game presents gradually with some admittedly nice, dreamy-looking inking, and the “rush, rush, rush to draw a line” pacing of the game, which provides you with fewer than 10 seconds of actual play time between failures—plus a complete, labored redrawing of the course every time. The other major issue is that being graded on your ability to draw a line isn’t exactly an inspired gameplay idea; an absence of music and plain sound effects doesn’t help matters, either. There’s nothing to say that high-speed racing and sumi-e ink and wash artwork couldn’t work together, but as Drift Sumi-e demonstrates, more than a demonstration of their potential is needed in order to justify the purchase of a full game. iLounge Rating: C-.
Last year’s release of the ultra simple run-and-jump game Canabalt for the iPhone and iPod touch was wildly overhyped, but illustrated the value of streamlining a gameplay experience: with the right pacing, music, and background art, a game involving little more than continually running and leaping can be compelling. Riverleap ($1) from Videogameo is Canabalt on absinthe—a shifting of the same “keep moving and jumping” concept into a 3-D tunnel perspective, hallucinogenically decorated to look like a swampy path littered with people, mutant fish, freaky bears, abandoned tires, and other bizarre obstacles to jump over and dodge. You’re given a jump button and a four-direction joystick, the latter enabling you to move faster, slower, left or right as you approach killer obstacles; temporary power-ups make you bigger or slow you down.
It’s obvious from moment one that Riverleap missed the key ingredient that made Canabalt work—the smoothness of motion that enabled simple jumping to feel responsive and importantly timely—as the 3-D engine here is ambitiously loaded with tons of shaded polygonal shapes, presented anything but fluidly as you move your fishy character through the narrow river, up its banks, and into the air with jumps. The river’s obstacles are randomly generated, which enhances the game’s replay value but bears all the marks of less than deliberate level designs. Videogameo tries to make up for the stuttery engine with a semi-trashy, Southern-fried style, using a moving bottlecap as your joystick, giving you the choice of blues or river songs to listen to, and alternating between weird post-level photos and artwork that fall short of disturbing but are clearly intended to jar the viewer. They succeed: Riverleap is so thoroughly off-putting visually that it wrecks a game with solid potential. It could be improved considerably by smoothing out the frame rate, the pacing of the action, and the post-level intermissions. iLounge Rating: C-.
Of the three titles discussed in iPhone Gems today, Space Trek ($3/$2) from Frost 3D is the one that had the most potential—it is in fact so close to a fully-developed game that we’ve spent two months trying to give it chances, hoping that something would click or that an update would appear to improve the quality of the experience. But nothing has changed, and we’ve found ourselves putting it down repeatedly without any satisfaction despite really liking what the developer came up with graphically.
In screenshots, Space Trek looks like a beautifully updated version of Nintendo’s classic space shooter Starfox, placing you in control of a spaceship that flies through large environments filled with floating enemy ships and power-ups that need to be destroyed and collected, respectively; in a Defender-like touch, people on the ground have to be rescued, as well. And 3D Frost’s graphics engine is impressively smooth, letting you not only see your own detailed ship and the world around you, but enabling you to fully rotate your view of the scenery by tilting and turning the iPhone. A story mode presents you with a series of six levels to explore, while a survival mode places you in a grid-like arena where enemies and power-ups are more numerous. Moreover, the cartoony pre-rendered cinematics are professional enough to appear in a premium-priced game, and Space Trek includes plenty of voice work, including in-game dialogue. Though the music cuts out as soon as the game starts, it’s certainly ambitious, otherwise.
But as with the titles above, the problem with Space Trek is that the experience of actually playing through the game isn’t really fun. There’s little joy in shooting or collecting things here, but it’s the flying part that feels the most “off.” As Nintendo discovered years ago when developing and abandoning the Super NES Starfox sequel Starfox 2, steering a spaceship through open environments just isn’t as enjoyable as being taken on a linear but slightly open tour through wisely assembled scenery, and Space Trek shows that using tilt controls only makes this worse. You need to steer with the iPhone or iPod touch’s accelerometer, use a sliding on-screen accelerator and reverse lever to control your speed, and shoot with another button, all of which just feels too complicated—even though all of the controls are necessary given the game’s fly-where-you-want level designs. Perhaps it’s too much freedom: 3D Frost gives you the ability to look up and down, plus too gradually adjust your speed, where more limited controls and perspectives might have worked better; your ability to fly around so openly at one point leads into a poorly lit cave that doesn’t provide guidance as to how to fly through to another area—something that wouldn’t have been a problem if the game took you on a clear path specified and playtested in advance by the developer. Apart from music, this developer has literally all of the assets in place to make a fantastic game out of Space Trek; here’s hoping that a version 2.0 makes the significant gameplay tweaks that could transform this somewhat mis-paced title into a star. iLounge Rating: C+.
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