Welcome to our latest gaming edition of iPhone + iPad Gems! Today, we’re taking extended looks at Electronic Arts’ noteworthy new third-person sci-fi horror title Dead Space—a game that’s purely for older audiences—and Mind Crew’s great iPad puzzler Mayan Puzzle HD, plus brief summaries of Gameprom’s new shooters Crimsonworld and Magnetar: Space Fighter.
The best overall title for the dollar here is Mayan Puzzle HD, but Dead Space offers a truly scary adventure if you’re willing to shell out for one or both separate versions of the title. Read on for all the details.
In a word, Dead Space ($7/$10) is horrifying—deliberately and amazingly so. Apart from the fact that Electronic Arts is once again needlessly selling two separate versions of the game for the iPad and iPod touch/iPhone, this new science-fiction horror game is a substantially satisfying and occasionally stunning 3-D action title, guaranteed to get your heart racing if you follow its recommendation to play with headphones on.
You take behind-the-shoulder control of Vandal, a deliberately anonymous operative who has been dropped into a seemingly quiet mining outpost in space, tasked with a religious mission to destroy the outpost’s power systems for reasons unknown. As you wander the halls, your helmet’s audio systems ring with vague promises of glory for completing your mission, explaining that you’re helping to unseat a government that is implicitly corrupt. But within seconds of success in disabling the power systems—perhaps 10 minutes into the roughly six-hour game—you realize that the saw and gun tools you’ve used to destroy passive wall targets are your only defense against hordes of murderous monsters you’ve unwittingly unleashed, and your church expects that you’ll sacrifice your life as the outpost’s infestation spreads. Your goal, it seems, is to escape from the mines alive; we’ll not spoil the plot beyond to say that the events are set after the console version of Dead Space and before the sequel, Dead Space 2.
It needs to be said that Dead Space’s graphics engine is the bedrock of the title’s appeal: the fully polygonal environments are highly detailed with occasionally eye-catching textures, and everything’s fluidly—if not always beautifully—animated, bringing both sci-fi backdrops and frighteningly alien enemies to life. More than any other factor, Dead Space’s frequent use of ambient effects—visual and sonic—is what pushes this game out of the me-too corridor-wandering action genre into tenser, more chilling fare. Dramatic moving shadows from dim overhead lighting and occasional illuminated dust particle effects set the stage early on, complemented soon thereafter by shocking sounds—nerve-rattling synthesizer chords, screams down dark hallways, and the limited vocalizations of semi-humanoid creatures called Necromorphs. They shift smoothly from ear to ear as you turn Vandal around, taking the place of music when you’re not receiving well-acted voice-over guidance of some sort. Full-screen color shifts between black halls, blue-lit rooms, and red slashing sequences provide visual clues that awful things are about to happen and be seen, or have largely cleared up so that you can move on.
Where Dead Space stumbles most is in the control department. Vandal is controlled primarily by an invisible virtual joystick accessed by moving up, down, left, and right behind his back, with camera/head movement handled by a second invisible stick on the right of the screen. These controls work pretty well when you’re just exploring the outpost, but become somewhat problematic when frequent combat sequences start up. EA has tried to make the weapons, mapping tools, and inventory pick-ups easy to use with virtual buttons without being visually intrusive, but everything from gunplay to slashing has a certain imprecision due to the virtual buttons’ overlap with the second virtual joystick. Blue “swipe here” arrows and tappable icons appear with frequency to guide your actions, looking great and generally working, but they shouldn’t be needed at all. Mapping, slashing, and shooting have been handled more intuitively in many first- and third-person App Store shooters, as have been weapon power-up systems and inventory management. Dead Space makes tasks that should be simple just a little too clunky.
Part of this is deliberate, and the other part due to the game’s ambitions. Vandal’s ability to use time-slowing, psionic energy, and twin-featured tools that need to be device-tilted or tapped into different firing positions adds elements of challenge to the game that simple walk-and-shoot titles typically lack. By the same token, these tricks and the acquisition of limited ammunition/power replenishments have too high of a failure rate, as your inventory is deliberately limited, and the game sometimes becomes confusing as it shifts to demand use of one power or another. Map guidance to your next destination is hidden behind two button clicks rather than automatically shown with a persistent rotating arrow. While EA was arguably in a no-win situation where either fewer features and simplicity or more controls and complexity would be needed, it could have done better after choosing the latter route.
Still, Dead Space is a really impressive game by App Store standards, and to the extent that its control and interface oddities can be written off as belonging in the same less than completely thrilling category as Capcom’s early Resident Evil games, players mightn’t get hung up on them. The ambience created by the graphics and sounds is so compelling that you’ll want to keep moving through the six environments until the story’s over. It’s just a shame that iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch owners will be forced to choose between two versions of the same game, at different prices, for no good reason; this further means that the iPad version’s in-app inventory purchase system can’t transfer benefits to the iPod touch or iPhone version. The device-splitting factor alone is enough to push Dead Space below the high recommendation it otherwise would have received—it’s really time for EA to jump on the universal app bandwagon, already. iLounge Rating: B+.
Last August, we were absolutely enthralled by Mind Crew’s Mayan Puzzle, a brilliantly developed block-matching game with graphics that had to be seen to be believed—particularly for the $1 asking price. Months later, Mind Crew twice added additional levels to the game, bringing it up to 50 puzzles without changing the price, and now the company has returned with Mayan Puzzle HD ($3), an iPad-only version with the same puzzles and dramatically improved artwork. Because the prices of both of these titles are so low, and their content is so impressive, we’re not as bothered by the developer’s two separate versions; that said, a single universal version would have been a better idea.
Mayan Puzzle HD once again presents you with amazingly impressive pre-rendered Mayan backdrops and silky-smooth music as you try to figure out how to remove all of the colored blocks from a well with only a limited number of moves. Having literally spent hours and hours with both versions, we’ve continued to be impressed by not only the individual puzzles—some of which are easy before becoming hour-long exercises in trial and error—but the fact that the looping soundtrack and at most once-repeated backdrops never really get old as you’re playing. Combined with special elemental visual and sound effects as groups of three or more same-colored blocks are matched at a time—lightning bolts, explosions, smoke clouds—the art is downright exciting by puzzle game standards, and the music disarmingly charming. If this isn’t the best-looking puzzle game in the App Store, it’s only because it’s tied with a few of the genre’s best and different games: World of Goo and Osmos, to name just a couple.
There are only three things wrong with Mayan Puzzle HD, two related to our prior review of the iPhone/iPad title, and the other new. First, in order to assist players who were getting stuck on certain levels, Mind Crew used an update to add a hint system that offers free walkthroughs for two puzzles before charging $2 for eight level solutions or $1 for three levels. Players have rightfully complained that they didn’t realize how the hint system worked before using up their hints on early levels, and that the subsequent fees for answers seemed sort of sneaky. While we can’t blame Mind Crew for wanting to make a little extra money on a title that’s priced so aggressively, offering a free first move as guidance for each level or letting players skip one or two unsolved levels at a time would go a long way towards addressing complaints of unfairness. While the game’s extra three game modes offer other things to do when you’re stuck in the “classic” puzzle mode, they still haven’t been given the same upgrades or polish as the limited-move puzzles, an unaddressed issue we noted in the prior review.
The last issue is relatively minor. For whatever reason—seemingly unoptimized multitasking support to update Game Center achievements in the background—Mayan Puzzle HD is given to very brief pauses that interrupt the smoothness of its animations now and again, detracting just a little from the otherwise spectacular artwork. Post-release optimizations will hopefully make the graphics run as fluidly on the iPad as they did on iPhones and iPod touches before.
Overall, Mayan Puzzle HD remains one of the very best puzzle games we’ve seen in the App Store, relying on the strength and majesty of its classic puzzle mode to almost entirely justify its reasonable price tag. Now that Mind Crew has moved the title successfully from the iPhone and iPod touch to the iPad, we’ll be keeping our fingers crossed and eyes open for a proper—and hopefully universal—sequel. Few things would excite us more this year. iLounge Rating: A-.
Gameprom has made some of the most impressive 3-D pinball games we’ve seen on any device, iOS or otherwise, so we were genuinely interested to see what it could pull off with other genres. Unfortunately, its just-released iPhone/iPod touch shooters Crimsonworld ($1) and Magnetar: Space Fighter ($1) have little in common with its earlier titles, and are interesting solely in that their budget prices carry commensurately low expectations.
Crimsonworld is a 25-stage overhead walk-and-shoot title in the same vein as iDracula and its now untold legions of followers, placing you in the role of a sci-fi gunslinger who wanders through boring, flat backdrops shooting various types of aliens who appear while you’re grabbing and switching between 12 weapons. Control is handled through dual joysticks, one for movement and the other for firing, and you’re given a glowing targeting dot to let you know where your gun is pointed. Apart from the unusually sharp projectile lines that mark where your gun has been shooting, and the modest interest factor of seeing more powerful guns appear over time, there is literally nothing to distinguish this title from dozens we’ve seen before; the lack of in-game music, bland sound effects, and weak animations all contribute to a drab, unfinished experience. It’s hard to understand why Gameprom wouldn’t have employed its sophisticated 3-D graphics engines to give this game some real visual depth or interest. iLounge Rating: C-.
Magnetar: Space Fighter is a 20-stage vertically scrolling shooter, giving you control over an upgradeable spaceship that flies through space and above planets, shooting at targets that appear at its front and off to its sides. Unlike Crimsonworld, which is filled with dreary art and sonically all but empty, Magnetar has colorful parallaxing backdrops, semi-interesting waves of enemy attackers, and continuing background music to keep your eyes and ears interested as the title progresses. On the other hand, the gameplay is at least as derivative as Crimsonworld’s, feeling like a throwback to late 1980’s and early 1990’s overhead shooters, only with oddly proportioned spaceships and weapons that alternate—sometimes for better, sometimes for worse—between feeling too small or too big, occasionally making shots interestingly tricky and at other points requiring the use of limited-use missile and beam weapons. While we could potentially have gotten into the game with a different control scheme, Gameprom limits you to the imprecision of tilt controls for movement, which we’ve never liked in other shooters and find unnecessarily problematic here. Both of these titles could be fixed with post-release updates to improve their appeal; Magnetar’s the closer of the two to being ready to play when the control issues are addressed. iLounge Rating: C+.