Review: Phosphor Games/Zynga Horn
Before publishing the groundbreaking action game Infinity Blade, Epic Games released a free technology demo called Epic Citadel, showing how its Unreal Engine could generate stunningly realistic 3-D graphics on iOS devices. Surprisingly, the free demo wound up giving players far more freedom of movement than the final Infinity Blade game, which was initially pitched as a medieval-themed role playing game but wound up resembling a one-on-one fighter with a nearly linear level structure and upgradeable items. There was obviously room for Infinity Blade to grow, a process Epic began with expansion pack updates and a later sequel, but they largely added new levels, enemies, and items -- not enough for players looking for something closer to a Nintendo-developed, 3-D Legend of Zelda experience.
While it’s important to set expectations realistically at the onset of this review, Phosphor Games’ and Zynga’s just-released Horn ($7) is the App Store’s next big step towards a Zelda-quality 3-D action RPG, and let there be no doubt: judged as a proper 3-D action RPG, it is indeed a big step forward from the Infinity Blade titles in most regards. In addition to the key features Infinity Blade offered—Unreal Engine graphics that look console-quality on the latest iPads and iPhones, spoken dialogue, and relatively straightforward swipe-based one-on-one fighting—Horn delivers a legitimately engaging story, the opportunity to fully explore medieval-themed 3-D environments, and proper quests, plus most of the surrounding gameplay elements a player would need to enjoy them. While its art isn’t quite as detailed or devilishly malignant as Infinity Blade’s, it’s as smoothly rendered, and the textured polygonal environments are far more impressive than in any handheld Legend of Zelda game yet released. To be clear, Horn does not borrow enough elements from 3-D Zelda titles to qualify as equally ambitious in the gameplay department, but by $7 iOS game standards, what Phosphor has accomplished here is in fact pretty impressive.
After watching largely 2-D cinematics, you take control of the title character Horn, a modestly-equipped boy who finds his village in ruins following mysterious attacks by steampunk-styled robots. Horn quickly discovers that the robots are trapped animals and people, and it’s hinted early on that he might have been amongst them. Phosphor’s control scheme is the game’s most controversial design choice, entirely eliminating a virtual joystick in favor of a tap-the-floor-to-move-there system. Each of Horn’s movements is thus a here-to-there motion on a straight line, akin to controlling Link in a Nintendo DS Zelda game with a stylus, minus the need to sketch dotted paths. While the control scheme works almost without flaws throughout the game, and certainly allows for far greater exploration than in the Infinity Blade titles, players give up the pixel-level precision and walk-run-duck options that a proper virtual joystick could have delivered. On the other hand, an invisible swipe-based controller akin to a conventional right analog joystick gives you full freedom to rotate and tilt the camera around Horn, and once he begins to use a crossbow-like weapon, you shift to a first-person view where you can aim at targets. Later in the game, this camera movement becomes genuinely interesting, as it empowers you to solve puzzles by using elevation-switching grappling hooks and flaming arrows, each hinted at with small on-screen icons as appropriate.
Players expecting a fully Zelda-like experience might chafe a little at the interface, but it winds up distilling classic action RPG gameplay into a relatively clean formula, reducing the need to hunt around in corners of the beautifully rendered villages and rooms while preserving experiences players enjoy—carefully swiping to shuffle across narrow bridges, occasionally chopping down plants to find hidden passages, interacting with levers and gates, and of course opening treasure chests. Battles don’t require you to fight off more than one foe at a time, and are clearly patterned after Infinity Blade with swipe-based weapon slashing, left/right dodging, potion-gobbling and enemy dizzying options, but there are a few twists: the ability to run around your foe and attack from behind, the occasional opportunity to jump and slash, and discoverable weak points that can be exploited with correctly angled attacks at the right moment. It would be hard to call Horn’s battle system as polished as Infinity Blade II’s, as parries, locked swords, and vicious finishing moves are virtually MIA here, but Phosphor very nearly makes up for lost depth with added versatility.
Similarly, rather than populating villages with dozens of characters and resulting non-linear dialogue, Phosphor tends to drop Horn into explorable areas that use gem-like currency to lead you towards fights and puzzles. Exposition takes place either before you enter each area, or in the background while you’re moving around and accomplishing things. Action RPG fans—including us—will really appreciate how this keeps the game moving, though deep story buffs may wish for “tap on villager to talk” opportunities that aren’t there. Akin to Nintendo’s Metroid Prime franchise, nuggets of additional explanatory text can be found scattered around as collectible objects, and perused within the menu system if you want to take a break from questing.
Minus the need to stop and chat, Horn becomes a game of nearly free-world exploration and fighting: a ruined village becomes an obstructed hub of possible avenues, where most quests you complete remove obstructions from additional paths, and other mini-missions help you earn currency, then in turn, inventory items. At any point, you can use currency you’ve gathered to create or upgrade your weapon, pendant, and clothing, each with the expected RPG-style characteristics, though you’ll receive a discount if you visit a blacksmith’s forge—the abandoned world’s alternative to a store—to make purchases. Particularly given that Zynga’s the publisher, it’s worth mentioning that you can actually earn enough in-game currency through battles that you needn’t pay real-world dollars for items, though that’s an option for those who want to spend extra money on the game.
Implicit in the discussion above is the premise that Horn looks and sounds as great as one would expect from an Unreal Engine title, but we’ll make it concrete: Phosphor has done an excellent job with the aesthetics here. On the two latest iPads and iPhones—notably not the iPod touch, which is presently unsupported—everything from the textures to the polygonal models and their animation have a console-quality level of polish, with fireflies, wind-swept plants, and beams of direction-hinting light all standing out as elements that make the levels interesting to look at from top to bottom. The foes you confront in combat are nowhere near as menacing as Infinity Blade’s, but that appears to be by design, particularly when you see them collapse into piles of armor and release woodland animals—like a Sonic the Hedgehog game. Voice acting is consistently clean and respectably acted, and there are even bits of pleasant, upliftingly epic, orchestral music throughout the adventure.
Certain Horn moments are clearly borrowed from Zelda, if lightened for easier iOS enjoyment. Throughout the roughly 10-hour adventure, the main character gets to play an Ocarina-like musical instrument, and his grappling hook zips him between elevations in a manner that 3-D Zelda and Metroid Prime fans will instantly recognize. Given the improbability of an actual Zelda title showing up in the App Store, one wishes that Phosphor included even more Nintendo-style elements here, such as discoverable items that incentivize you to revisit past areas with new tools, and multi-foe combat, but even without them, Horn has a lot more to offer than most of its iOS action RPG rivals.
For all it does well, though, Horn isn’t perfect. Phosphor’s tap- and swipe-based controls generally work well, but may occasionally make you wish for a virtual joystick and button system, such as when you’re trying to get out of a corner, slash plants to open a passage, jump, or maneuver around an opponent. Some of these issues could be remedied with tweaks to the existing system, but one gets the sense that Phosphor grew Horn upwards from a more limited Infinity Blade-style gaming experience rather than stripping down a title that was originally intended to be as deep as a Zelda game. Water effects and waterfalls are merely passable. And there are a few annoyances, such as an automatic save feature that’s not precisely location- or mission-specific when you re-open the game, and a (brief) intro video that can’t be skipped even after you’ve watched it already. Some players will further fault the fighting and item forging/upgrade systems as shallow—arguably true in both cases—though they’ll be hard-pressed to point to a comparable iOS title with greater overall depth.
And that’s the upshot with Horn: this is a great action RPG by iOS standards, focusing more on the adventuring and RPG elements than the next closest titles to sport similar graphics and gameplay, Infinity Blade I and II. While it’s easy to pick apart various elements of the experience as falling short of some of the greatest console action RPGs of all time, the fact that Horn can be discussed in the same breath as vaunted Legend of Zelda titles is non-trivial, and between its graphics and audio, the game engine here is more impressive than anything Nintendo has put forward on any handheld console to date. Phosphor has come a long way since its first iOS title, and we have little doubt that it’s poised to move even closer to a Zelda-caliber experience with its future titles. As a $7 App Store release, it’s a great game with relatively modest issues, and we seriously look forward to seeing what this developer and franchise can deliver in the future.