Review: Chair Entertainment / Epic Games Infinity Blade
We have a suggestion for you: unless the idea of spending a fancy coffee's worth of dollars for one of the most impressively developed iOS games to date bothers you for some reason, stop reading this review and just click on the App Store link to purchase Epic Games' new fantasy fighting game Infinity Blade ($6, version 1.0) right now. Beyond to offer further praise, there's little we can say that those words and the screenshots below won't tell you: Epic and its development studio Chair Entertainment have come up with the first completely iOS-optimized game, a visual tour de force with intuitive touch-based controls, a balanced game design that is ideal for two-minute, thirty-minute, or two-hour sessions, and an overall experience that concisely captures the elements of progress, excitement, and reward. Infinity Blade is already so well-executed in all regards that further improvements will likely raise the bar for the entire iOS gaming market; we only hope that Epic's promised updates will build on rather than detract from the goodwill this title establishes. Updated March 3, 2011: We've added a discussion of version 1.2 of Infinity Blade, and preserved our high recommendation.
In short, Infinity Blade follows a family of nameless warriors as they embark for reasons unknown on a mission to slay an evil king. You start by taking control of a single character who confronts the king and then dies at his hands, creating a seemingly infinite loop of vengeance that will see his son, grandson, great-grandson, and future successors repeat the same fatal mistake. Or will they? Each fallen fighter leaves all of his possessions to the next warrior, enabling you to grow in power, weaponry, and defense as the game continues. At some point, one of the sons will have the right combination of sword, shield, armor, ring, magic, health bar, and experience points—plus your skills—to defeat the king and end the loop. This brilliant little concept makes it possible for you to adventure your way through similar backdrops again and again, with each loop requiring a half-hour or so of playtime, possibly less if you explore less and fight faster.
Chair has structured the game ideally to facilitate adventuring and fighting for whatever time you have. The king is protected by a series of boss-caliber opponents rather than an army of one-hit losers, with each fight taking two or so minutes. Between fights, you needn’t concern yourself with granular movement within the fully 3-D world; instead, you tap on glowing points to move from scene to scene, controlling only your head as you reach each new point. This, combined with deliberately skewed and obscuring camera angles, turns each area into a hiding spot for potions, bags of gold, and inventory items such as helmets, swords, armor, and rings, which can be tapped on when you see them. Some merely boost strength or defense, while others add various magical and related abilities. A poison sword will leech life; a ring will let you stun an opponent with electricity; a suit of armor will also multiply your experience points when worn.
Fights are much better than we had expected. Epic and Chair haven’t tried to replicate the joystick and button arrays of Street Fighter IV or other incredibly successful console games; instead, it gives you dodge buttons on the sides of the screen, magic and special attack buttons in the two top corners, a block button at bottom center, and plenty of space elsewhere to swipe your weapon to your heart’s content. Occasionally, a glowing point will appear on your opponent for a stabbing attack, but most of the action focuses on dodging, slashing, or parrying attacks by following the direction they come from. It feels entirely unlike great console fighters, but it works really well on these devices.
Again, the camera angles and dramatic interruptions at key stages of both sides’ lifebars aid the experience: fights are third-person behind your character but very close in, making great use of the screen, and your goal is to stagger or dodge your enemy’s attack to open him up for a flurry of slashes. A big stagger leads to a brief cinematic, and the final one offers you the chance to rack up extra experience points by swiping as many times as possible in a “finishing” sequence. Sometimes, your foe goes off a bridge or staircase at the end of a fight, and most often, your warrior get pierced by the king’s magical sword before the game awakens to a Groundhog Day-like view of the castle in the distance. In any case, there’s no dead time in these fights; they’re all action, and evolve to become smarter as you keep playing.
Thanks to its comparative simplicity, the experience-building system is more addictive here than in games that radically overcomplicate the statistical exercise of leveling up. You have a handful of categories to bolster with points earned through battle, and you gain separate experience points for each inventory item you use, with the option to use gold currency to either purchase new items or more experience if you don’t want to adventure for them. We’re thrilled that Epic didn’t insert an in-app ATM system to turn these acquisitions into paid purchases, but we’d also like to see a little more ability to actually customize your family of fighters beyond just swapping their gear, and the per-item experience levels are arguably surplusage: even after boosting experience, you’re still knocking off modest numbers of hit points per slice or stab of your enemies, so keeping the focus on acquiring decidedly better weapons is important.
Epic’s 3-D graphics engine, based on Unreal Engine 3, is frankly 75% of the reason that Infinity Blade has received all of its buzz. The demonstration version called Epic Citadel provided a character-free tour through the game’s countryside and buildings, but offered only a minimal taste of what the action would be like, and no clue as to how the engine would hold up when both backgrounds and fighters were present. There’s mostly good news on this point: as discussed in our look at Epic Citadel, Infinity Blade’s environments are outstanding. Sometimes stunningly faceted with polygons. Incredibly textured on even the high-resolution iPad, iPhone 4, and iPod touch 4G, all of which are natively supported for the $6 asking price. The characters are, too. They don’t look real, but they look better than any combination of characters and backgrounds on any iOS game released thus far; the warriors are in most cases textured with distressed materials that look old, worn, and gothically beautiful—just like the castle and its surroundings. GPU-punishing details that could have been omitted, like circular-edged buildings and metalworks, spiraling staircases, and lifelike grass, all are present as if they were effortless to include within the Unreal Engine; special effects receive comparatively short shrift. That aside, only triple-A titles from triple-A developers have a prayer of approaching what has been accomplished here visually.
The compromise is in frame rate. On the iPad, iPhone 4, and iPod touch, the frame rate is consistently under 25 frames per second, and probably more in the sub-20 range if we had to guess. Infinity Blade is fluid enough to feel great, particularly with its ambient audio track and menacing sound effects, which include voice samples every time you return to do battle with the king. Turn off the audio, though, and it’s obvious that the game stutters a little here and there because the developers wanted to pack the game with so much detail. The trade-off’s acceptable this time, but a sequel is going to need to smooth its motion in order to evolve to the next level.
Will Infinity Blade evolve? The developers say yes. A section of the game’s menu system promises new items, enemies, and dungeons are going to be added “soon,” along with a Game Center-aided multiplayer mode. The latter feature will be extremely interesting to see implemented—will it be cooperative, competitive, or both?—but the first three could be great or nauseating. As impressive as this title is right now, we’re concerned that the developers may try to turn it into a cash machine with in-app purchases, such that the “red sword” will cost you 99 cents, and accessing the new dungeons might be a few dollars. The game doesn’t say whether the additions will be purchasable. Finding the right balance between free and paid upgrades is going to be tricky.
If anyone can pull that off, Epic and Chair seem like leading candidates. Releasing this game at a wholly reasonable $6 price point with full iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch compatibility was precisely the right move, rather than fragmenting purchasers into different platform-specific apps with different prices, and though the experience will differ somewhat from device to device because of hardware capabilities, Infinity Blade delivers a fully realized fighting adventure game in any case. It’s astonishing to consider how much better of an experience you get for the price here than with either the $5 Click Wheel iPod Games released years ago, or the split-version, higher-priced apps some developers are trying to sell today. Based on the quality of the game, the impressiveness of its technology, and the developers’ pricing thus far, Infinity Blade deserves to be the most successful game yet released for iOS devices. It receives our exceedingly rare flat A high recommendation, and is worthy of attention on literally any iOS device capable of playing it.
Updated March 3, 2011: Now that it has been updated to version 1.2—and dropped in price to $3—Infinity Blade is as close to meriting an A+ as any game that has ever been released in the App Store. Chair’s description of the update focuses mostly on the new items, achievements, and new enemies, making only brief reference to “the dreaded dungeons,” but what pushes this title over the edge into “unbelievable” territory is what’s mentioned in the update’s subtitle: The Deathless Kings.
Nothing huge has changed in the gameplay from the last two versions of Infinity Blade. You still move in largely linear fashion from countryside to castle, fighting a collection of outrageously evil-looking knights and monsters along the way. Gameplay remains heavily inspired by Nintendo’s classic Punch-Out!!, rewarding you for successfully dodging and parrying by opening your opponent up to multiple consecutive attacks that will more quickly deplete his life bar. The new cast of enemies is even more compelling than before, thanks to the addition of more than 10 warriors, some of whom randomly take the place of others along the road to the king. They look at least as impressive as their predecessors, and add new attacks, besides. Though you’re still dodging and striking in much the same manner as before, new enemy animations—including one who backflips into the air with Hong Kong stunt wire cinema-quality grace—make the action even more fun to watch.
The changes start with the aforementioned dungeon, which can optionally be accessed via a newly opened hatch as you approach the castle. While the dungeon is deliberately dark, obscuring some of the texture details that were so impressive in the game’s other areas, the first enemies down there are guaranteed to catch your attention with their looks and moves. And then you discover an odd little stone with a hole in the shape of the Infinity Blade sword, located just outside the dungeon in the lower reaches of the castle—accessible via two different routes. If you don’t have the Infinity Blade sword, you have two choices: continue on your way and fight for more money, or use the post-release In-App Purchasing system to buy the gold to purchase the Blade, or anything else you want. For those keeping count, the Infinity Blade requires a bit over 500,000 gold, or a $20 In-App Purchase to have enough cash for the sword and a bunch of gold left over.
On one hand, we’re sort of repelled by the idea of coughing up anything—let alone $20—to open more of the game. On the other hand, having actually played Infinity Blade for a long time, we’ll note that it’s possible, albeit very challenging, to earn enough cash to buy it on your own. With the post-release updates, the Infinity Blade isn’t even the most expensive sword in the title, nor is the $20 purchase the most one can spend buying gold. Chair isn’t forcing anyone to buy the sword, and the extent to which you need assistance to get it depends upon your own tolerance for repeatedly fighting the game’s cast of bad guys, strategizing which items to equip to maximize your cash flow, and so on. The In-App prices are a bit steep, but not terrible.
We say that for one major reason: what the Infinity Blade unlocks is really extremely cool. When watched to its conclusion, past the credits, the game’s prior “regular” ending hinted that there was something truly crazy going on with the story, adding a dose of sci-fi to the game’s fantasy elements. Once you unite the Blade and the stone, this theme continues. A collection of doors in the castle’s basement are all unlocked, revealing several boss-caliber characters who make the king look weak, laying down brutally punishing blows that will challenge all but the most well-equipped warriors. Each new enemy is in an environment with a different, never-before-seen theme, and they’re collectively an extremely compelling addition to a title that already felt like it was worth a $6 asking price. Should you beat everyone and everything, you now have the option to restart the looping game with experience but without your items for an added challenge, one of a few new options nestled in the update.
By lowering Infinity Blade to $3, adding all of this content for free, and then using the Infinity Blade as an unlocking key for some but not all of the new battles, Chair has effectively created a fantastic system to encourage players to either hone their skills or pay episodically for some of the new features—a fair balance that would be a little easier to swallow if the In-App purchase prices were a little lower. The only issue we had with this new 1.2 update was its comparative instability; crashes have become common due to what seems like a memory leak, and the game benefits considerably from a fresh restart of the device. One of our crashes took place after confirming an In-App Purchase, and it’s unclear whether we were double-charged for it, or not; the gold was not added to our inventory after the crash. It’s obvious that Chair could have used a little extra time to finish bugtesting before releasing this, but its track record with the prior versions makes us confident that the very small issues will be fixed—and that gamers will be so thrilled with the new content that they’ll willingly suffer a few bugs to enjoy it. All Infinity Blade needs at this point is the long-awaited multiplayer feature, Arena, and it will most likely have a permanent place on every iOS device we own. It’s an outstanding value for the initial price, and only gets better with additional play.
Updated May 20, 2011: Infinity Blade 1.3 was released yesterday, finally bringing the long-awaited Arena upgrade for multiplayer action—plus a variety of new equipment to purchase. While the Arena mode turns out not to be quite as exciting as it could have been, it’s a pretty good start; we discuss it and show pictures below.
There are two portions of Arena, which feels as if it was designed as a completely standalone module of Infinity Blade—your campaign mode progress is saved and left untouched when you enter Arena mode, for either a continuous run of single-player Survival matches, or Multiplayer combat through Game Center. In Survival, you start with the most basic equipment and continue to earn money as you fight attacker after attacker on the same backdrop, upgrading your sword, helmet, shield, and ring through a streamlined and deliberately limited version of the store. The goal is to get you fighting, upgraded, then fighting again as quickly as possible; the weakness of this mode is that it has no continuity with the rest of the game, stripping you down to nothing, and repeating the start over process every time you die in battle.
The multiplayer section is even simpler for the player, though Chair deserves credit for managing what must have been a challenging task of corralling the game’s now numerous enemies into a playable mode. Unlike, say, Street Fighter, the two players can’t choose their individual characters from the start: one is the default heroic knight, the other is a stock troll with stock weapons. The person controlling the knight proceeds through a best-of-seven-rounds match with controls that are virtually identical to the Campaign mode, minus magic, and earns money to use for helmet, shield, armor, and ring upgrades—an upgrade path of sometimes only one item, sometimes two choices. You top out at the Infinity Blade, which like all of the other items gets lost after the best-of-seven match has ended. Arena actually dispenses more money to the loser after each match, making upgrades easier as a friendly way of improving his or her competitiveness.
Whoever plays as the enemy characters gets a new control setup: magic is gone, and Supers are gone, replaced by a bar that lets you choose the power and type of attack your villain will launch—slow, medium, or fast vertical or horizontal—and you then swipe on the screen to activate the direction of the attack. Initially, the system’s confusing, but over time it becomes almost as intuitive as using the knight. A new “tap the skulls” system is added to give the enemy something to do when the knight is in the middle of a guard break flurry; the enemy taps floating skulls on the screen to power up a “fury” attack of several successive, powerful blows that increase in level if you collect more skulls.
The player on this side gets to upgrade to new enemy characters as often as once per round, eventually moving through some of the immortal gods and the Zero Mech; you also have limited ring upgrade abilities that slightly change the nature of your attacks. Again, you start over again with the basic character and equipment when the matches end, switching sides so that the other player can take a turn as the hero or villain.
While the ideal multiplayer mode would have added tons of depth to at least certain enemies in the roster, creating a Soul Caliber-like one-on-one experience, what’s here feels like a stripped-down version of the single player game. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and will keep players amused for a little while, but the inability to carry over any of your equipment or customizations from the Campaign mode to the multiplayer section is somewhat dissatisfying; the fact that both Arena modes keep starting you out with basic equipment is counterbalanced only by the speed with which you upgrade to new and better gear. So there’s room for Arena to improve, but it’s in good enough shape as it is to let players start to enjoy the action.
Only one serious issue popped up during our testing: a lost network connection on one side was handled gracefully by its local iPad, but caused a series of Game Center and Infinity Blade crashes on the other iPad that required not only a complete device restart, but subsequent quits and restarts of both of the applications. Most of the matches proceeded fluidly, albeit without voice chat or musical accompaniment that might have made them more exciting. It’ll be interesting to see where Chair goes from here—will it finish Infinity Blade up and improve the Arena mode further, or will it wait for a sequel? If it continues to make major changes to this game, we’ll update this review with the details. Until that happens, our flat A recommendation remains unchanged.