As little as we prefer to look at a game not as what it is but rather what it could or should have been, Lifeboat ($1) by Fuel Games is a title that almost immediately inspires such a reaction. Fire it up and you’re presented with a cartoony 3-D boat in the middle of the ocean, doomed to sink and loaded with passengers who need to escape — a great concept for any game, let alone a bargain-priced one. Your goal is to tilt the boat left, right, up, or down to direct its passengers from the boat’s cabin to the lifeboats that appear on its sides, filling the lifeboats with rescued people. It’s simple, casual fun, and it’s made even better by a secondary issue: sharks and crocodiles circle the boat, so if you tip the boat too much, you knock people into the water where they can be eaten or drown. Tap on them to bring them back on the boat, then try to get them into the lifeboats.
Though it feels as if it was designed mostly as a quick pick-up-and-play title, centered on its quick play mode, Fuel sets Lifeboat up with a smart campaign mode that takes you through missions that challenge you to rescue certain numbers of people, and lets you earn coins to upgrade the ship and passengers between missions. The upgrades improve the ship’s handling, the amount of time you have to rescue people before it sinks, the passengers’ ability to swim, and the radius from which they can be saved by a nearby lifeboat. A simple map shows the remaining missions with a pirate-like overhead old-fashioned theme, and the ship in the center of the screen changes along with the color of the water in the levels. Most of the in-game art is nice, cartoony 3-D; it could be more detailed and more fluidly animated, but it’s pretty good. Similarly, Fuel actually includes a full soundtrack that switches tracks from introductory and menu screens to map and in-game ones.
Somewhere along the way, however, what could have been a really great game got derailed by some design choices that take away from the experience. Passenger voice overs that are intended to be funny are quickly grating and far too frequent. The passengers seem to be little more than chess pieces, tumbling to the lifeboats rather than walking to them. And your guidance—tipping the boat—often feels more like you’re pitching as many people overboard as you are rescuing others.
These two issues come together to create a certain lack of control precision that makes Lifeboat feel more like a “do the best you can” exercise than a “try and rescue them all” sort of game, treating the people like drops of rain to be collected in a bucket, and removing the sense of dread a shark attack, crocodile, or drowning could cause. Call this a natural consequence of light, casual entertainment, but it feels like Lifeboat could just be more satisfying and potentially even more challenging with the same basic gameplay. There was also another little issue that bugged us—the game hung on our most successful attempt ever, leaving us to stare at a really high rescue total without any ability to move on or use the cash we’d racked up.
Overall, as a $1 game, Lifeboat is worth checking out if the cartoony artwork or the concept appeal to you; its hang bug will surely be fixed in an update, and the core gameplay is fun. Still, Fuel left us hungering for a more polished experience, which hopefully will come to rescue this otherwise cute little title in an update.
Company and Price
Company: Fuel Games
Compatible: All iPod touch, iPhone models