Welcome to iPhone Gems. This week, we look at four recent App Store releases spanning several different genres: strategy, puzzle, cards, and sports. Each of the titles is inexpensive, with a single $3 game—augmented by additional $2 In-App Purchasing levels—sitting at the top of the pricing pile.
The standout title of the week is Geo-Defense Swarm by Critical Thought Games, a strategy game with impressively implemented vector graphics; the disappointment of the week is Q Entertainment’s Lumines, a puzzle game that has been widely admired on other platforms, but is a mess on the iPhone and iPod touch. Read on for all the details.
Though two full-fledged football games appeared for the iPhone and iPod touch over the past couple of months, NaturalMotion decided to take a different angle in its representation of the sport with Backbreaker Tackle Alley ($1), also known as Backbreaker Football. Whereas Gameloft and Electronic Arts used the iPhone’s limited 3-D polygons to represent entire football teams and parts of stadiums simultaneously, Ideaworks instead focuses only on the art of dodging tackles, and created an engine that only a handful of player models at a time. This limitation allowed it to spend its limited polygons on fewer but more detailed and fluid character models, as well as a great-looking football stadium.
All you do in Backbreaker, over and over, is run the ball from the moment of receipt to try and score a touchdown, dodging however many defensemen the game places in your way. Your player can be customized in skin color, number, and jersey—no real teams or people here—and starts the game running forward. You just need to tilt the device to move left or right, hit left or right arrow buttons to dodge quickly to either side, use left or right twist buttons to spin, and hit boost and showboat buttons for a burst of speed or a slowed-down hotstep to the goal line. At first, the challenge is simple: avoid one defenseman. You continue through wave after wave, the number and quality of tackling attempts increases, and you score points for juking, comboing with the buttons, and extended showboating, obviously with the risk that someone comes from behind and knocks you down. Later levels add red “out of bounds” zones to the field, requiring you to run more towards the left or right at a given moment.
Is Backbreaker a great football game? No. But it is a fun title for brief challenge sessions, offering great-looking graphics, including completely smooth animations, stadium lighting lens flares, and slow-motion replays; crowd noise fills the gaps between player grunt and footstep sounds. To the extent that it has much less going on as you play than other football games, it’s hard to think of it as an ambitious title, but it is one of the best-looking sports releases yet for the iPod touch and iPhone. For the low price, it’s worth checking out if you’re a football fan. iLounge Rating: B+.
Though we don’t have a lot to say about Sniderware’s card game Eric Snider’s Solitaire: Klondike ($1), given that we’ve played dozens of different solitaire titles at this point on the iPhone and iPod touch, we can say this: it has an interesting pedigree. Snider wrote the iPod game iQuiz, as well as the Eric’s Solitaire and Eric’s Ultimate Solitaire games for Macs and PCs, so he’s hardly a novice at making such titles; the iPhone OS game is relatively simple, but easy to enjoy.
It’s played either in horizontal or vertical screen mode, with relatively few frills—everything’s in 2-D, with your choice of three tables, no different cards, and only a handful of rule options: Casino Klondike with dollar bonuses, standard Klondike, and Klondike Revealed with all cards dealt face up, each offering 1 or 3 card deals, and Casino also with a No Redeal feature. Rather than offering much in the way of music or sound effects, the game includes very soft tones or chimes, and eschews flashy graphics for relatively subtle ones—cards float above the table’s surface and wag when you drag them, casting shadows, and clues as to next moves are offered with gentle swaying or glowing effects. Eric’s version of the game also includes an Autoplay feature to pull cards automatically from your stacks as they become unnecessary, which makes the game a little bit more fun than the free Apple Klondike rendition that has been included with iPods for a while. We’d call this title a flat B release overall, good enough on the basis of its controls and clean presentation to consider for a buck, but not the best value in terms of rules, customization, or audiovisual frills that we’ve seen. iLounge Rating: B.
Due to what seemed like a fittingly never-ending stream of all but identical tower defense games, we all but tired of the genre a few months ago, and haven’t had the desire to keep trying all the permutations out there. That said, we loved GeoDefense Swarm ($1) from Critical Thought Games. Strictly speaking, it is “more of the same” given the genre—you are given various offensive weapons that need to be positioned on a grid to stop waves of enemies that emerge from point A and try to survive until they get to point B—but the execution, diversity, and challenge here are all great.
Thirty levels are all individually selectable from the start, and divided amongst easy, medium, and hard difficulty. All are “open field” in the sense that the waves of attackers have multiple paths that can be used to get to each stage’s exit(s), and your task is to add towers to try and limit their paths, destroying everything before they get to the exit. You’re limited in building towers only to the extent that you completely close off the exit; virtually anything shy of that is permissible.
The graphics engine continues the retro vector theme of games such as Geometry Wars, combining brightly-colored towers and enemies with line-based grids and cool visual effects—most notably line-warping wave-like pulses and linear particle motions for explosions, plus bright-line lasers and circular blips, all impressive in subtle ways. As with most such games in the genre, you can use cash from destroyed enemies to power up your towers through increasingly stronger levels of attack strength, and the visual effects they create become more striking. Semi-robotic voice samples and metallic sound effects are sparing—too sparing unless you provide your own music—one of only two issues with the game.
More important though certainly unobjectionable given the $1 price is its depth. The thirty stages aren’t pushovers, but they will leave serious players hungering for more, and though the developer changes up the levels enough to keep the towers and enemies interesting, they could stand to be even more diverse. Critical Thought would have no problem selling additional level packs for $1 each should it decide to do so. We’d also hope to see additional towers and other sorts of twists added to the title; as-is, it is a fantastic value for the price and impressive in all ways except sonics. iLounge Rating: A-.
Normally, we would devote a lengthy review—perhaps even a dedicated one—solely to the puzzle game Lumines – Touch Fusion ($3) from Q Entertainment. We love the work of Q Entertainment’s chief Tetsuya Mizuguchi, loved Lumines on Sony’s PSP, and seriously looked forward to playing the charmingly music- and rave-inspired puzzler on the iPhone and iPod touch. Unfortunately, a game that worked perfectly on the PSP was let down by almost idiotically broken controls and a less than completely fluid presentation; Lumines – Touch Fusion is at best a mobile phone-quality port of a fun little puzzler.
The premise is simple: drop square blocks into a wide well, matching four or more of the same-colored block into squares or rectangular boxes to remove them from the screen. A line runs from left to right through the well, queuing the elimination of matched blocks to help you accrue bonus points. Make lots of matches and the “skin”—the background, blocks, and even the sound effects—change dramatically; seeing the game’s skins change as the blocks speed up is a substantial part of Lumines’ appeal. Players who want to see even more skins can buy them in packs via In-App Purchasing for $2, a fact which has some fans up in arms; frankly the low initial price of this title doesn’t have us quite as angry.
But Lumines is ruined for other reasons, specifically by Q Entertainment’s decision to use a truly awful flick-based control scheme to position the blocks. Flick left or right to move the pieces left or right, and down to make them fall quickly downwards. Simple enough, right? Unfortunately, the block rotates almost every time you tap the screen, so all sense of precision is lost as you try to touch the display to move the block and instead turn it around. Worse yet, you can only rotate blocks in one direction, setting that direction in an options menu. Anything—dual control zones or an on-screen joypad and buttons—would have been smarter than this. We suspect that Q Entertainment will eventually fix the title and make the controls better; hopefully it will smooth out the game’s animation a little to bring it up to par with the PSP original. For now, this is a huge disappointment, and not even worth trying in its free Lite version. iLounge Ratings (Both): C-.
Hundreds of additional iPhone app and game reviews are available here.