Welcome to this end-of-the-week, super-sized casual gaming edition of iPhone + iPad Gems! Coming on the heels of our look at Edge Extended, Peggle HD and Sparkle earlier today, this roundup features five smaller, casual games.
Our top pick of the bunch is Fractal, a truly beautiful puzzle game. Two other titles merit general recommendations, namely Draw Slasher: The Quest, and Spy Mouse. Read on for all the details.
Strapped to a Meteor’s non-universal iPhone/iPod touch game Deo ($1, version 1.00) is a game that seems to get by more on its good looks than anything else. You control a red blob with large black eyes. On each of the 90-plus levels, the goal is to get that blob to a safe platform and capture the level. The level rotates, so to move you must jump in time with enough momentum to land on the safe spots. This gameplay, while challenging, just isn’t that much fun; it gets old pretty quickly. The jumping mechanic is imprecise, and it is literally the only thing that you do. As you complete levels, you get to watch planets being assembled from smaller pieces as a modest reward.
There’s no denying that Deo is truly a gorgeous game; it has a dark tone reminiscent of a Tim Burton movie. The backgrounds, platforms, even the red blob are very well drawn. Clearly, the design team on this game has serious talent and vision—everything, even the credits screen, looks great, and the music matches the visuals; a somewhat haunting electronic tune is pervasive throughout the levels. Style just oozes out of the game. We only wish it was as fun to play as it is to look at. For $1, it’s worthy of a limited recommendation. You may find it to be worth picking up simply to appreciate the art. iLounge Rating: B-.
The second game in this roundup, Draw Slasher: The Quest ($3, version 1.0) is an iPhone and iPad universal release from Mass Creation that combines a traditional platform game with hack-and-slash elements from titles such as Fruit Ninja. As ninjas, pirates, monkeys, and zombies are all pretty much App Store gold, the developer worked them into its game as well: the enemy here is a horde of Pirate Monkey Zombies, and you control a ninja who must defeat them. The only App Store meme that seems to be missing are birds and pigs with attitude problems.
As Hanzo the ninja, you must move across the side-scrolling village, destroying the invading armies of undead simians. Rather than virtual buttons, all of the movement and attacks are controlled with swiping. To move left or right, you simply tap in that direction, and to attack enemies you rapidly swipe at them. There are a number of different kinds of enemies; some take more hits than others to die, while some have special defenses that require you to, for example, attack from the back. Along the way they drop XP, which can be used to level up. Special powers can be used by entering Jujitsu mode once an energy meter has been filled. To get into this mode, you pinch in on the screen and then swipe the power you want to use; it’s a pretty cool idea. In addition to the story mode, there are task-based challenges, endless modes, and even an online multiplayer feature.
While we found the gameplay to be fun, there’s something missing. In games such as Fruit Ninja, there is a very immediate and direct response when you swipe: something gets cut in pieces, and there’s an accompanying sound. Because the enemies in Draw Slasher usually require at least a few swipes to destroy, the immediate feedback isn’t there. While the game’s still enjoyable, adding falling limbs or new wounds and sounds with each swipe would drastically improve it.
We appreciate that the game is universal, and although we like the cartoony graphics, they leave something to be desired. On the iPhone 4, they are pixelated—it looks like there’s no Retina Display support. Meanwhile, on the iPad 2, they’re somewhat fuzzy. The style is neat though. There are several layers of background art, some of which move with Hanzo, while some don’t. We also found the ninja-inspired music to match the game well, and the sound effects are good too. Overall, we liked Draw Slasher; it’s a nice combination of action with stylish aesthetics and a funny story. For the $3 asking price, we recommend it. iLounge Rating: B+.
Fractal ($2, version 1.0.0, aka Fractal: Make Blooms Not War) is certainly the most ethereal of the bunch of games reviewed here. While it was released under the name of a different developer—indiePub—it was developed by Cipher Prime Studios, the same people who made Pulse : Volume One. Like that title, the visual appeal is undeniable here. Luckily this iPad-only puzzler is a bit better than its predecessor.
Each level is a honeycomb-like grid of hexagons. The controls are simple: all you have to do is tap next to one of the hexagons, on a side that isn’t touching another of the shapes. This then adds one block, and pushes the other forward. If the blank space is touching multiple shapes, it’ll push them all out. The idea is to create blooms—seven blocks touching each other. Doing so eliminates those blocks, and adds more in; this often results in chain reactions of blocks popping up and exploding away. Each level has a quota of blocks to eliminate, and a limited number of pushes with which to do so. Wrenches are thrown in along the way, such as different colored blocks which only work with their own kind.
While the graphics are deliberately somewhat minimalist, what’s there looks very nice: the developer focused on detailing the relatively few visual elements instead of crowding the screen with unnecessary junk. Colorful gradients, clean animations, camera shifts, and little explosions look great on the iPad’s screen. The soundtrack was obviously a big focus as well; it’s very clearly labeled as being 130 BPM, using a catchy drum beat with electronic sounds layered on top. When you get towards the last five pushes of a level, it slows down and parts of the screen actually pulse along with it. With 30 levels in the campaign, plus arcade and puzzle modes, Fractal should keep players occupied for a good long time. It’s beautiful and it’s fun; we highly recommend it. (Note that the current version works only with the latest iPad firmware, and may crash otherwise.) iLounge Rating: A-.
The next game in this collection is the iPhone/iPod touch-specific Rogue Sky ($1*, version 1.0.1) from Pebble Bug Studios; a separate iPad version is available for a dollar more. Rogue Sky is an updated take on the classic game Lunar Lander. Your task is to control a hot air balloon through a maze of clouds and other obstacles, making it to the end of the level while collecting coins along the way. The task is easy enough, but unfortunately the controls greatly take away from the enjoyability.
Two virtual buttons control all of the movement and action in the game; there’s one at the bottom corner of either side. Pressing them at the same time makes the balloon rise, while pressing just one or the other moves it in that direction. While it may be realistic relative to the way one handles a hot air ballon, the pace at which you move and the actual amount of control you have is frustrating—there’s a lot of uncontrolled drifting. To make things even more difficult, the balloon’s weapons are controlled with those same buttons. Firing requires double-tapping on the side you’d like to shoot from. While we can understand that the developer was going for simplicity, it probably wasn’t the best idea to combine firing and movement into one button.
There are positive aspects to the game, however. First and foremost, it’s well-drawn. The rich, hand-drawn backgrounds, combined with a layer of cartoony clouds, really work. Surprisingly, the characters and enemies don’t look quite as good, as they’re polygonally rough and don’t quite match the softer environments’ style. We also liked the soundtrack, which is epic and wouldn’t be out of place in an adventure movie. The gameplay just didn’t rope us in though, and the controls kept us from wanting to continue much longer than we had to. Tack on to that the fact that you have to buy separate versions for the iPhone and iPad, and we’d advise skipping this one for now. iLounge Rating: C+.
As much as we’ve admired Firemint’s highly impressive Real Racing series, opinion was split within iLounge’s editorial ranks on Flight Control, a simple but beautiful game about drawing lines to create flight paths for planes. Flight Control was easy to pick up, play, put down, and—for some of us—to forget, but it sold over three million copies and spawned some thoughtful clones. So it’s not a huge surprise that the company has returned to similar territory with Spy Mouse ($1, version 1.0.1), a new line-drawing game with a kid-friendly theme. And given the track records of Firemint and new owner Electronic Arts, it’s also no surprise—and a continued disappointment—that although Spy Mouse has Retina Display graphics and a fittingly spy movie-like soundtrack, it lacks for universal iPad support, instead running at low resolution on Apple’s tablets.
Borrowing its theme from classic cat-and-mouse chasing cartoons, Spy Mouse presents you with 72 individual maze-like levels that are viewed from an overhead perspective, spread across six different environments. Most of the levels are non-scrolling single-screen challenges—guide Agent Squeak the mouse from an entrance to an exit, snatching cheese and evading cats—but boss encounters regularly scroll to stretch across multiple screens, and secret areas can occasionally be found in regular levels by following cheese bit trails or looking for cracks in the walls. If you’re using Flight Control as a benchmark, Spy Mouse comes across as a comparatively deep, thoughtful single-player game; notably, its only multiplayer feature is a Squeak Mode designed to create viral interest by giving you additional one-player Challenge stages if you link your game up with additional friends (or iOS devices) on the same Wi-Fi network.
The thing is that Flight Control really shouldn’t be a benchmark at this point. While the line drawing play mechanic was cute two years ago as a touchscreen substitute for direct joypad controls, in Spy Mouse, it serves to make what might otherwise feel like a Pac-Man clone feel different. Decently animated cartoony cat and mouse characters aside, Spy Mouse’s major variations on the Pac-Man theme come from buttons, gadgets, and stealth elements: cats see and chase you when you’re in their field of vision, but merely pace or even fall asleep when the path you’ve drawn avoids disturbing them. By the end of the first 12 stages, you actually need to deliberately lure and dodge cats, using holes in the wall as escape and entry tunnels, the point at which the action starts to become smart. Until then, Spy Mouse is mostly cute, and even then, on a sub-Tom and Jerry level. Past that point, the levels start to introduce lightweight but nice elements—buttons to open doors, TV sets to distract the cats, balloons, chairs, and safe doors to keep you alive—which keep the levels fun, and from feeling too much alike.
As with Flight Control, casual gamers will appreciate the straightforward gameplay found in Spy Mouse, and between the new kid-friendly theme and the large collection of mazes you get for the low $1 asking price, it’s sure to appeal to a large number of players in the App Store. But if you come in expecting a really deep or more engaging experience than a passively-controlled game of Pac-Man, you’ll need to play for a while before those sorts of levels appear, and even then, the intensity level is comparatively low. Moreover, the prospect of paying again for the inevitable iPad version is a turnoff. Like Flight Control, Spy Mouse is a good budget game that wouldn’t have been possible—or viable—on a dedicated game console; with universal iOS support, it would have rated higher. iLounge Rating: B.