Welcome to this week’s gaming edition of iPhone + iPad Gems! This roundup includes a top-down space shooter, a beautiful first-person action game, a side-scrolling helicopter rescue game, and a skydiving title.
Dark Meadow is truly the standout title in this collection. This rich and engrossing game looks beautiful, and actually has a plot, besides.
Backflip Studios’ latest release is Boss Battles (Free, version 1.0) for iPhone and iPod touch, also available in a free HD version designed for the iPad. We really liked the idea behind the game, which is advertised as getting you right to the “good part” of a top-down shooter: the end-of-level boss fights. Unfortunately, the description is not entirely accurate, as each of the eight levels still requires fighting through minions on the way to the different bosses.
The game’s controls are about as simple as it gets. Holding down with one finger fires your weapons, and moving that finger around the screen moves your ship. Because Boss Battles is a “bullet hell” style game in which you’re constantly dodging projectiles, there’s no reason to ever relent on your assault; your finger never needs to leave the screen. Defeating bad guys earns you diamonds, which are in turn used to upgrade your ship’s features including weapons and “pods,” which are add-ons such as shields and weapon-doublers. At the beginning of each level, you have the opportunity to customize those settings. You can beat each level multiple times, with a reward that increases for the first few run-throughs. This makes it easy to earn lots of diamonds and quickly trick out your ship. Naturally, Backflip Studios offers in-app purchases to speed this process up.
Boss Battles’ graphics are pretty well done. We liked the backgrounds, which are flat and seemingly hand-drawn images with parallax-scrolling layers. In terms of sound, there’s not a lot of variety: the menu has its own instrumental track, with all eight levels sharing a second one. There’s a typical blaster noise when firing your weapons—pretty much all the time—and you hear it when the bad guys blow up as well. The issue is really with the gameplay: while Boss Battles is somewhat fun at first, the game is rather brief and ultimately, pretty unfulfilling. None of the bosses are particularly hard to beat, even at higher difficulty levels, and there’s not much strategy; you simply hold down your finger and try to avoid getting shot. We wish that the game was better executed, as the concept has some real potential. For free, there’s no harm in downloading the game, so long as you don’t expect more than an hour’s worth of entertainment. It’s also odd that there are separate iPad and iPhone/iPod touch versions, especially since both are free. Overall, Boss Battles earns a limited recommendation. iLounge Rating: B-.
The most impressive game in this roundup—on several levels—is Phosphor Games’ Dark Meadow ($6, version 1.0.1), a title that works supports all of Apple’s current mobile devices. It got our attention right away when we saw that it’s based on Unreal Engine 3, the development package behind the awesome graphics of Infinity Blade, a game that we have loved since its release. Dark Meadow actually shares quite a few elements with Infinity Blade, so although we’d be hesitant to call this game a knockoff, it’s clear that the developers drew inspiration from the earlier and very successful title.
Dark Meadow has a rich plot, all of which is experienced from a first-person perspective. You awake in an abandoned hospital room, unaware of how you got there. A man in a wheelchair speaks to you before leaving you to your own devices. After his departure, the exploration begins, and his disembodied voice is a frequent companion. Notably, like Infinity Blade, the game doesn’t allow for free movement: you can turn in any direction, but to actually move, you must tap on a glowing green area of the floor. You can also touch sacks of gold and small gems that are spread throughout the game to pick them up. Branching pathways and items with stories behind them make the exploration a little more interesting than in Infinity Blade.
Battles quickly begin once you leave the room. As you tap your way down the hallway, enemies appear at seemingly random intervals. There are a multitude of different creatures, each with different attributes. Some are armored and capable of absorbing a lot of damage, while others are lithe, fast monsters who take fewer blows before succumbing. The origin of these beasts is unknown, although clues begin popping up as you play through the game.
Most battles are composed of two components. You begin by firing your crossbow at the attacking enemy, trying to do as much long-range damage as possible. Most bad guys will be defenseless during this period, but some will spit black slime that you must try to avoid. The firing mechanic is cool—you pull back to charge the bow, move your finger around to aim, and release to fire. Headshots do more damage than those to the body, and if your crossbow is upgraded enough, you can even take out some enemies at this point. A big portion of the game involves spending gold to update weapons and take on more difficult enemies.
Almost all of the battles will continue into close range sword combat, which is akin to Infinity Blade. You attack by swiping the screen, but it’s not haphazard; timing is very important, and so is defense. There will be times when the enemy is vulnerable—indicated by an “Attack Now!” message on the screen—as well as times when you have to actively dodge and block attacks. Once you do enough damage to your opponent, you’re rewarded with gold and experience points. If you lose the battle, you simply wind up back in the hospital room. While the combat is fun at first, it does get somewhat repetitive, and this is our biggest complaint about the gameplay. There’s only so much hacking and slashing you can do before it starts to feel somewhat tired.
The 3-D graphics in this game are simply great, a testament to the power of the processors that Apple is using its devices and the hours that must have been poured into the game by the developer. We were impressed by the characters, the environments, and even the dust floating in the air. All of the animation is smooth—pretty much what we’ve come to expect from the Unreal Engine 3. The audio is equally impressive, with a haunting soundtrack and lots of great voice acting; in these regards it actually offers more than Infinity Blade.
Although the game performed impressively at most times, there were occasional hiccups of just about a second or so. To insure that it wasn’t an issue of background apps taking up too much memory, we killed everything else save for Dark Meadow itself. The problem persisted, however. It wasn’t terrible, and didn’t greatly affect overall gameplay, but it certainly could break up the pace when it happened during battle. Another issue we had is unrelated to performance, but rather the map: the hospital has a static two-floor layout, but there’s not a map in the game itself. Clicking on a menu option will open Safari and display it there; this is seriously weird, and probably not intentional. Hopefully the developers will make it show up as an overlay in an update.
Dark Meadow has almost everything going for it. From an immersive story to great graphics and sounds, it’s clear that the folks at Phosphor Games knew what they were doing. If Infinity Blade did not exist to compare it against, this could be a platform-defining game. As it stands, small faults do hold it back from being equally great, but it is certainly still in the upper echelon of iOS games and a clear answer to those who say the platform is not suitable for “real gaming.” We highly recommend checking this one out. iLounge Rating: A-.
Though we were going to spend more time discussing Cinemax’s universal iOS game Gyro13 – Steam Copter Arcade HD ($6), we really don’t have a lot to say about it. Despite the fact that it uses Epic’s Unreal Engine, complete with the smooth frame rates and detailed polygonal graphics one would expect from the powerful development kit behind Infinity Blade and Dark Meadow, it’s a very simple game that’s best understood as a steampunk mix of the classic games Choplifter and Lunar Lander.
You take control of a helicopter that’s deliberately designed to be challenging to fly; you need to learn how to use two separate touch-based controls to keep it in the air, then tilt it forwards or backwards to move. Each of the levels is a cave-like space in which miners have been trapped, and you need to fly through narrow passages, either land or hover immediately next to the miners, then escape from the mine. Obstacles such as poisonous gas clouds and floating explosives need to be destroyed by tapping on the screen to activate a pulse cannon, or else your helicopter will catch on fire and explode; you also need to avoid scraping the ceiling, walls, and ground or else you’ll tear your copter apart.
While there have been very few great flying games this year—one of only two reasons Gyro13 stands out from the pack—the gameplay here is relatively simple, and the title is elevated to a good overall rating solely because of the detailed animations of your copter, subtle lighting effects, and powerful audio. Good voice work and nice music keep the action and pre-level briefings interesting, despite the fact that the 24 levels definitely blur into one another relatively quickly. Consider this game worth checking out if you’re a helicopter buff or really love action puzzle games where mastery of a tricky control scheme is the major challenge; otherwise, you’ll find other flying games that do more with less powerful graphics engines than the one used here. iLounge Rating: B.
HighFlyer DeathDefyer (i4) ($5, version 1.0) is an iOS-universal game from Game Mechanic Studios. Strangely, a separate version is available under the slightly different title of High Flyer Death Defyer HD—the same game, only with modestly higher resolution graphics that are designed to be exclusive to the iPad 2, and sold for a dollar more. The game focuses on a pretty cool mechanic: you’re given a top-down view of your character as he skydives in 3-D, maneuvering through rings, collecting coins, and landing safely.
All of your character’s movements are controlled with a virtual joystick on the left side of the screen, at least by default. This can be changed to tilt controls in the settings, but we preferred the former as it is easier and more accurate. There are a total of 27 different levels, although they’re mostly without set goals. Instead, the idea is to make it from floating island to floating island, collecting the treasures inbetween. It feels somewhat unstructured; we would have preferred well-defined goals like those seen in the training levels of the game. The controls are responsive and do what we would expect them to, although there were times when our thumb slipped off of the joystick and we lost some control.
We can understand why an HD version of High Flyer would be appreciated: the game looks good on smaller-screened devices, but the graphics are only fair on the iPad’s larger display. The textures are lower in resolution than they could be, and it’s noticeable whenever you’re walking on top of something. Unfortunately, the textures are just about the same in the more expensive version: it seems that the extra dollar only buys you higher resolution UI elements such as action buttons and menus, rather than bigger improvements, all while locking you into iPad exclusivity. For that reason, we suggest that you stay away from High Flyer Death Defyer HD. The music’s quite good: it wouldn’t be out of place in an intense scene in an action movie, and combines nicely with sound effects such as air whooshing by. But even though the graphics and music are both solid, the gameplay could use some work—we didn’t have as much fun as we were expecting given the concept, and that’s ultimately the most important thing. The non-HD version of HighFlyer DeathDefyer is worthy of a limited recommendation given the asking price; the iPad-only HD version is definitely worth passing on. iLounge Rating: B-.