Welcome to this week’s second catch-up edition of iPhone Gems. We’re continuing to work through a large number of recent game releases for the iPhone and iPod touch, and today have three new titles to share with you: the three-dimensional airplane shooter Ace Combat Xi, the ball-and-maze game Labyrinth 2, and the tank warfare game Project Phoenix.
The clear pick of this bunch is Labyrinth 2, but the other games are worth hearing about, as well. Read on for all the details.
Something is still very, very wrong at Namco. Most of its iPod and iPhone games have been clunkers—mediocre ports and updates of old games—and now, when it has finally released something truly awesome, it has managed to deliver so little value for the dollar that we can’t recommend it generally to our readers. That’s the story with Ace Combat Xi ($5), the latest in a series of airplane shooters that started in arcades and on the PlayStation console, quickly establishing themselves with solid action and beautiful, surprisingly realistic backdrops. Ace Combat Xi is the most impressive-looking flying game yet released into the App Store, but it’s also one of the shortest: any experienced player will blow through its five shallow missions in under an hour, only to discover that Namco has set up an in-app purchase system to sell additional planes and presumably more missions, as well.
The premise in Ace Combat Xi is simple: you take control of a plane from inside or outside its cockpit, steer with accelerometer-based tilting, and hit on-screen buttons to increase your thrust, fire barely useful machine guns, or launch missile attacks on air-, land-, and sea-based targets. Most of the game’s action involves pointing your plane in the direction of one of these targets, thrusting to a lock-on with your missiles, and then firing off a couple of shots while the target is still in your sights. Knock five or so targets out and you move on to the next backdrop and challenges; there are modest variations in the targets from level to level, and a razor-thin plot line, so apart from the speed at which a given adversary is moving, most of the action feels the same.
Namco can get away with some of this simplicity based on the incredible strength of its graphics engine, which produces background visuals that would be photorealistic but for the occasionally obvious polygon and the limited resolution of the iPhone and iPod touch screens. In addition to a pixel-sharp HUD system, mountain ranges, cities, bridges, and cloudy skies are rendered with subtle colors and curves that were honed by the company on more powerful PlayStation consoles and ported smoothly to Apple’s devices, with results that rival the look of Ace Combat games on the PlayStation 2—no easy feat. Music and copious voice samples are similarly impressive, with only a single annoyance: get too close to the ground, which happens sometimes thanks to the tilt-based controls, and you’ll hear a tone that sounds like a phone that’s off the hook. It’s loud enough to bother people a room away if you’re using speakers, which is a great idea to warn people flying real planes into the ground, but not so necessary in a video game.
Where Ace Combat Xi fails is in the length department. It offers only the aforementioned five missions, each with three difficulty levels, and starts you out with three planes, the rest unlockable or purchasable. Worse yet, the current $5 tag is offset by an ominous reference that the pricing is actually a “sale,” with higher pricing yet to come. Our advice would reluctantly be to skip this purchase even at the sale price: Namco has finally come up with a title that really demonstrates that it knows how to exploit the iPhone and iPod touch hardware, but unfortunately, it’s also exploiting users by putting out a game that doesn’t clearly state just how little content it offers. If the company populates this game with more missions, Ace Combat Xi might be worth reconsidering. iLounge Rating: C+.
When Codify released the original Labyrinth, we were impressed by everything but its $7 asking price: the company had managed to replicate the classic tilt-action wooden maze and metal ball games, then improve upon them with tons and tons of level variations. Now Illusion Labs has subsumed Codify’s Labyrinth team and published a sequel called Labyrinth 2 ($5), with even more impressive results: the company has taken everything that was good about the original game and enhanced it with just what was needed—different types of interactive elements, more special effects, and enhanced multiplayer functionality.
Once again, you are presented with single-screen wooden mazes where you need to move your metal ball from point A to point B, but unlike classic labyrinth games of this sort, holes in the maze are not the only obstacle you need to worry about. Illusion Labs has added switches and gates, laser walls, cannons, and all sorts of other little items to the mazes—at least, the many mazes that aren’t labelled as “classics,” denoting more traditional designs. Some of the mazes in here are downright brilliant and devilish, including little visual jokes such as starting you at a point literally right next to the exit, with switches that need to be triggered all over the rest of the board before you return to where you began. Different types of cannons can push you backwards or completely destroy your ball; laser walls and floor triggers can make gates appear to block the exit, forcing you to retrace your path back to the start. There are also ball-cloning devices, fans, magnets, and resizers, each creating challenges that can make levels take 20 seconds or 2 minutes to complete, depending on how precisely you tilt the maze and figure out the obstacles.
There is so much genius in the level designs, which span at least 100 integrated stages, that you’ll occasionally be blown away by what Illusion’s designers have come up with—flashing lights, ribbon-like pre- and post-stage transition graphics, and other little visual tricks really help, as well. And then you discover the downloadable additional stage packs, which as with the original Labyrinth are completely free rather than in-app purchases, plus a nifty level creator that can be accessed via a computer web browser, enabling levels to be shared and rated by an online community. The prior title’s $7 price tag seemed a bit steep, but with a lower price and all of the additional imaginative features in this one, $5 seems just about right. Those interested in multiplayer will also be pleased to find local Bluetooth and Wi-Fi support for up to four people
There are so many great things in Labyrinth 2 that it’s hard to even mention the one obvious omission: once again, there’s no music. Illusion Labs includes sound effects that are enhanced and more interesting than the last game’s, but still not enough to compensate totally for the lack of a driving beat to keep you going throughout the levels. You’re supposed to supply your own music, and if that’s to your liking, you’ll be totally fine here. That aside, Illusion Labs has done an incredible job with this title, and essentially redefined our expectations of how fun and versatile games of this type can be; if the premise appeals to you, our advice would be to jump on this one early and start getting your enjoyment out of it as soon as possible. iLounge Rating: A-.
Once upon a time, Namco released a dual-joystick arcade tank game called Assault, which we absolutely loved; it had trouble porting it to home consoles, however, and so the game was soon forgotten to history. But we think of it every time we see another dual-joystick game with tanks, and Project Phoenix ($1) from Sad Cat Software is the latest App Store example: a title that lets you pilot a tank and a dune buggy through seven overhead-perspective missions filled with numerous enemy vehicles.
There are a few things about Project Phoenix that feel unfinished—the developer even acknowledges that more levels and features are planned for future updates—but at its current price level, they’re sort of easy to forgive. With relatively modest skill, it’s possible to keep yourself alive from level to level despite being surrounded by literally hordes of enemy vehicles at once: the odds are positively Rambo-like that one tank, piloted by one guy, could survive such an onslaught of artillery. Moreover, it’s possible to accomplish this with little more than the weapons you’re initially given: a cash-based upgrade system is packed with missiles, lasers, and plasma weapons, plus defensive and healing items to purchase, but decent piloting and the occasional life bar replenishment are enough to keep you rolling. A more balanced combination of weapons, enemies, and challenges would be better, but as the Rambo analogy suggests, there’s something fun about surviving such odds, as well.
The fun comes in due to the dual controls, which work well to let you shoot in any direction as you steer your initial and soon upgraded vehicles around fairly large maps; Sad Cat’s levels aren’t exactly works of genius, and they’re actually pretty repetitive visually and in challenges, but they do have walls and different elevations as obstacles, and reward you for exploring all the way out to their edges by depositing both mission objectives and cash rewards in their nooks and crannies. Survival eventually comes down to your ability to resist numerous simultaneous laser and plasma attacks while firing back with your own—we easily had enough firepower to continue on.
Some players will find the game’s looping single music track, samey stages, and overlapping weaponry to be underwhelming, and they’d be right, at least, in the state Project Phoenix is in right now. But the basis for a legitimately very good game is here, and at the current asking price of $1, it’s tempting to recommend that users get it on the action now and enjoy whatever upgrades the developers muster up in the near future. We generally don’t suggest such a strategy, as there’s no way to know whether this game will actually improve over time, but something about the current level of ambition and progress suggests that it will—with a higher price tag once that’s accomplished. For now, it’s worthy of a limited recommendation, but we’ll keep our eyes out to see what happens next. iLounge Rating: B-.