Eye on iOS: Volume 4
Last time I checked, none of the top games in the App Store’s adventure section were actually adventure games. (The Talking Justin Bieber Game? Really?) Believe it or not, a healthy selection of adventure games do continue to release for iOS on a regular basis—you just have to know what to look for. So here’s another Eye on iOS to give you a head start! In this installment we’re bringing you the scoop on a few high-nostalgia ports along with some newer indie offerings, so get those tapping fingers ready…
The 7th Guest
Trilobyte’s The 7th Guest, which originally released in 1993, was one of the first games to ship on CD and feature FMV sequences. It was also a precursor to what we’d now consider a “puzzle game,” with standalone puzzles ever so loosely integrated into the framing story. This format makes it especially suited to a handheld gaming system, since it should appeal not only to adventure gamers, but also to fans of modern puzzle games like Professor Layton.
The 7th Guest has an And Then There Were None-like premise: six strangers have been invited to the mansion of Henry Stauf, an eccentric toymaker whose one-of-a-kind creations were linked to a series of suspicious deaths several years before. The guests have been promised a reward if they stay the night. You—the seventh guest—can’t remember who you are or how you got there, but by the end of the night your own identity and the fate of all involved will become clear.
The fact that Stauf is a toymaker is really just an excuse to have puzzles scattered around his creepy house. When you first arrive at the mansion, only a few rooms are accessible, each containing a puzzle. As you solve these, additional rooms open up and live-action cutscenes illuminate the plot. The environments and puzzles are presented with prerendered 3D graphics that look pretty slick considering the vintage, and FMV characters are superimposed on top of the rendered backgrounds during cinematics. The technology was jaw-dropping in the game’s heyday and still gets the job done, with both the 3D and the FMV sequences holding up well in the iOS version.
The game’s menu, set up like a Ouija board, is navigated by dragging a cursor and releasing to “click.” As in many PC-to-mobile ports, getting the cursor in just the right place can be tricky. There are ten save slots but using them is a chore. You’re required to first select a number for your saved game and then enter a name. But you can only load saves by number, with the name never displaying and the interface providing no clues as to which slots even contain a saved game.
Luckily the mansion itself is simpler to navigate. Travel is node-based; tap at the edge of the screen to turn left or right and in the middle of the screen to move forward. A skeletal hand beckons in directions you can travel and wags a finger when you try to go somewhere you can’t. If you’re not sure what to do in a room, you can sweep your finger across the screen to look for hotspots—a skull with a bulging brain signifies a puzzle, a drama mask signals a cutscene, and chattering teeth represent other interactions such as entering a hidden passage. By stretching two fingers on the touch screen, you can fast-forward a video or voice line spoken by the main character or Stauf (who is watching you, invisibly, at all times).
The puzzles’ controls vary depending on what you need to do, and in several cases the hotspots are very small and precise. A few puzzles involve letters that are hard to read; fortunately you can magnify an area by double tapping. Tapping off to the side of the puzzle sometimes causes it to reset, which annoyed me in a few cases where the required hotspots were near the edge of the screen. All in all, though, the puzzles are playable and the developers have done an admirable job making the game work on a smaller platform. They removed a couple of puzzles out of necessity, which may cause confusion for the seasoned 7th Guest player but shouldn’t be noticeable to a newbie.
Though the puzzles are fairly easy, if you need help a book in the library provides hints to the puzzle you most recently tried to solve. After you’ve consulted the book you’re magically transported to the location of the most recent puzzle—helpful during the puzzle-solving process, not so much when the puzzle has already been completed. You can get two hints per puzzle; the third time you consult the book on a given puzzle, it’s solved for you automatically.
The live actors, who are obviously working against a green screen, give universally cheesy performances. This overacting injects The 7th Guest with an amusingly campy B-movie feel that feeds into the nostalgia of replaying a 1990s classic. The soundtrack—also somewhat campy, with catchy samba beats mixed into the spooky mood music—sounds just like I remember it. Screams, shrieks, and guttural growls are among the sound effects contributing to the mansion’s creepy atmosphere.
As far as ports of old computer games go, this one is pretty darn good. It both stays true to the original and plays well on the new technology. Whether or not you visited Stauf’s mansion back in the day, if you like puzzle games then The 7th Guest is a worthy addition to your iOS library. It sells for $2.99 for iPhone/iPod Touch or $5.99 on iPad, and a comprehensive solution guide entitled The 7th Guest: Book of Secrets can be downloaded for free.
Hamlet is also a puzzle game, but it’s very different from The 7th Guest… and most likely anything else you’ve ever played. Created by indie developer mif2000 and ported by Alawar, the game casts you as an explorer from the future who has arrived on the scene of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy, just as the bloodbath is about to start. Your goal: solve a series of logic puzzles in order to save Ophelia, vanquish King Claudius, and generally set things right again.
In most respects, this game translates well to iOS. The cartoon graphics look great and the audio enhances the ambience without becoming annoying (most screens simply have sound effects, as opposed to looping music). The story, which is pretty bare bones considering the source material, is told via on-screen text between levels and in the occasional character thought bubble during play; no voice acting is used (or necessary). The game’s menu is also nice and simple, offering only volume controls and the ability to switch between player profiles. Progress is saved automatically. If you quit mid-puzzle the conditions will reset upon your return, but since each puzzle has only a few steps this isn’t a major hardship.
Hamlet’s gameplay is generally a good fit for the touch screen. You progress through the game screen by screen, each one containing an obstacle that must be overcome before you can move on. Figuring out how to bypass this obstacle involves tapping around to find interactive areas, then working out how they can be used in concert to achieve your goal. Hotspots are not labeled, so you have to tap anything that seems like it might do something (luckily there are only a few obvious choices per screen, so this doesn’t become too tedious). If you’re stuck, a hint icon provides a pictogram of the puzzle solution, but this icon doesn’t become available until about two minutes into the level.
The game’s one-tap interface is quite intuitive—when it works. I had accuracy problems with small hotspots, such as closely spaced buttons on a control panel. Some sequences require timing a tap just right, which proved especially tricky when the hotspot I was going for was much smaller than my finger. At points the game seemed unresponsive to my taps, but without hotspot indicators it’s impossible to know if I was tapping in the wrong place, or tapping in the right place with no effect.
Hotspot issues aside, the iOS version of Hamlet is very similar to its PC counterpart and worth checking out if the outside-the-box puzzle gameplay intrigues you. A free lite version is available in the App Store, so you can test your patience with the controls before plunking down $2.99 for either the iPhone/iPod Touch edition or the iPad HD version.
Amerzone: The Explorer’s Legacy
Originally released for PC in 1999, Microïds' Amerzone: The Explorer’s Legacy was the adventure game debut for comic artist Benoît Sokal, who went on to create Syberia after that. It’s a first-person, Myst-style game that sends you, an anonymous journalist, to the mythical country of Amerzone to return a valuable (and rather large) egg to the people from whom explorer Alexandre Valembois stole it many years ago.
Amerzone’s navigation is node-based; you sweep your finger to pan around the environment and tap in the direction you want to move. The game was prepped for iOS by Anuman and Tetraedge Games, the same companies that ported the Kheops games we looked at in the last Eye on iPhone article, and as a result the controls and interface are very similar. In particular, I was grateful for the “permanent help” option that displays icons to indicate which way you can travel, what you can pick up, and what you can interact with. Since Amerzone’s locations are detailed and sometimes quite dark, I had trouble getting my bearings without the help icons turned on. The game saves automatically at certain checkpoints and when you quit. The music blends in nicely but can be turned off in the menu, though curiously there is no option for enabling subtitles.
Amerzone has impressive graphics that look great on the small screen when they’re bright enough to actually see. In general, outdoor locations are fine but indoor locations are much too dark. The environments are capably rendered and Sokal’s distinctive art style is present in the diagrams and sketches scattered throughout the world. Locations include the lighthouse where Valembois lives, a desert island, a Spanish-style mission, and of course the tropical Amerzone itself. The creepy puppet-like characters you occasionally encounter during your quest are the sole reminders that this game is more than a decade old. Cinematics involving these characters tend to have low framerates—voice lines play fine, but the video chugs. Luckily this is a sparsely populated world, and these sequences are few and far between. Cutscenes that show only the environment don’t seem to have this problem.
Amerzone has a lot of backstory, but not much of a plot. In fact, the first half is spent simply trying to get there—a lengthy process that involves equipping the Hydrafloat (a multi-purpose invention capable of air and water travel) and making multiple stops to refuel. Gameplay mainly involves exploring, tinkering with machines, and picking up items that can be used in the immediate vicinity. The history regarding Valembois’ long-ago voyage to Amerzone is told through documents that you pick up during your journey. Unfortunately, these have small text that can’t be zoomed, and they’re full of sloppy typos that detract from the game’s otherwise high production values.
The iOS port breaks Amerzone into three installments, each of which takes a couple of hours to complete. The game is recommended for those who like solitary worlds and mechanical puzzles, but keep in mind that it’s on the easy side. Available for both iPhone/iPod Touch and iPad, Amerzone’s first chapter currently sells for $0.99—a low enough entry barrier to make it worth trying out. If you decide to complete the journey, the second and third parts sell for $2.99 each.
Father Frost HD
Father Frost HD is a port of the Eastern European game Fairy Tale About Father Frost, Ivan and Nastya, which I found flawed but charming when I reviewed the PC version years ago. With a fantasy storyline based on Russian folklore, the game alternates between two playable characters—meek and beautiful Nastienka (a.k.a. Nastya), and handsome, prideful Ivan—as they make their way through a number of fairy tale tropes to find one another and ultimately live happily ever after.
The iOS port offers new touch controls (simply tap a hotspot to engage it) along with the original cursor-driven controls (drag a cursor to the appropriate spot, then tap to engage). In either mode, sweeping your finger across the screen reveals exclamation point icons over the hotspots. This is helpful for identifying interactive areas but even so, when several hotspots are close together it can be tough to select the correct one. Semi-circular icons at the top and right side of the screen can be swiped to reveal the inventory and menu; unfortunately, these are very small, and about half of my attempts to use them resulted in the character walking in that direction instead. After you’ve opened the inventory bar, you can drag items onto each other or onto hotspots. This doesn’t work as well as it could. When tapping, it’s easier to be precise, but when dragging an item I found that my finger would get in the way of the hotspot identifier and I kept releasing in not quite the right place.
During play you can save your game manually, a quick process that simply requires tapping one of the six available save slots. The game also saves automatically when you quit so you can immediately pick up where you left off. Along with volume controls and options to save, load, and turn subtitles on and off, the menu also contains a Help button which oddly enough rolls the credits. Sometimes upon entering a room, all of the available hotspots display briefly, but this occurs randomly and seems to be unrelated to the mysterious Help button.
Father Frost’s traditional point-and-click gameplay puts a heavy emphasis on the collection and use of inventory items. Much of the gameplay involves acting out the events of the folk story on which the game is based, but some of these (such as gathering the items you need to knit a sock or carrying out household chores) make for uninteresting gameplay. The frequent fetch quests make sense in context, considering that Nastienka is a selfless girl who says “yes” to everyone, but often require tiresome backtracking across several screens.
The game has a pastoral setting, with much of the action taking place at Nastiekna’s family farm and in the nearby town and surrounding countryside. The 2D art reminds me of the Disney knockoffs I used to watch on weekend television as a child. The colors may be more muted and the characters more simply drawn than the animated fairy tales Western audiences are used to, but the style fits with the story’s setting and origins. During gameplay, the graphics are fairly static. Often characters say things that imply they’re performing a movement (such as pulling a sock off another character’s foot, or drawing a bucket up to the surface of a well), but they actually stand still, with most of the game’s animation reserved for the occasional cutscene. There is nice use of parallax scrolling in larger environments and a handful of standout locales, such as the pink-tinged hillside where day is breaking and Nastienka, in silhouette, must implore the sun not to rise.
Though the game is fully voice acted, this isn’t its strong suit. The actors alternate between sounding bored or as if they’re stumbling through their lines, not quite comfortable with the English language. The iffy translation doesn’t help—it has a lot of awkward moments that sort of contribute to the Eastern European charm, but mostly just sound out of place. Independent volume sliders allow you to turn voices off if desired, but not all cinematics are subtitled. On the plus side, the folk music that plays in the background is catchy and helps set the mood.
As I replayed Father Frost HD on iOS, I grew impatient with the plodding storyline and gameplay. A decade after its original release, this game’s flaws are more apparent and its charm harder to appreciate. At its current price of $4.99 for both iPhone and iPad, I would think twice before buying it for iOS unless you have a fondness for the source material.
The Adventures of Veronica Wright: Escape from the Present
by Evan Dickens
Startup Indian developer Playtinum has brought their first game, Adventures of Veronica Wright: Escape From the Present, to life on the iOS--and unfortunately it is a rather dreary debut. The game’s rushed introductory story finds our titular heroine being chased by mysterious beings across the yard and into her farmhouse, where she finds a note written long ago by her great great grandfather--dated with today’s date (2034, interestingly enough, and prepare to be disappointed in how much 23 years in the future looks like the present) with instructions to use an enclosed amulet to save the world.
If it sounds like I’m leaving out most of the necessary story elements, I felt the same way. After this sudden introduction with some implied urgency, the game halts and transforms into a rather typical first-person inventory combination festival, involving searching multiple rooms of the farmhouse for objects to pick up and using them to unlock succeeding links on the chain of puzzles. This is done with a very unfriendly interface, including the unforgivable sin of no hotspot detection, which guarantees lots and lots of useless tapping. The inventory usage is also very clumsy; clicking on a hotspot brings up the inventory, which only displays one item at a time, creating lots of unnecessary scrolling--and no text response at all to help understand why sensible combinations of items don't work.
Overall, the gameplay descends into too much guesswork, and the story feels slapped on and incomplete--plus the game is rather short once you find the hotspots obscured in large, blocky graphics that are not visually appealing. Along with a $1.99 standard edition of the game, there’s a more expensive $2.99 HD version available on both iPhone and iPad, which you can sample in the free trial demo, but it doesn’t provide much of an improvement. A cliffhanger ending (with some hilariously poor dialogue) means this likely won’t be the last adventure of Veronica Wright, but for now this first chapter is not a recommended iOS purchase.
Vera Blanc: Full Moon
Vera Blanc: Full Moon is an interactive novel starring Vera—a blonde bombshell with mind-reading abilities—and her partner, private eye Brandon Mackey. This is the first of two episodes originally released for PC, Mac, and Linux by indie developer Winter Wolves, then ported to iOS.
The game opens with the duo boarding a train to Germany, where they’ll be investigating a string of werewolf-related murders. (Reminds me of another crime-fighting team adventure gamers know and love!) As the story unfolds via on-screen text boxes, you’re periodically prompted to choose Vera’s next move, with the option to read someone’s mind often among the choices. In most instances your selections are finite—for example, you must choose between reading a character’s mind or asking him a question. So you’ll experience the story a bit differently depending on how much you exercise these mental powers compared to using more straightforward investigative tactics.
Many of your choices have little to no effect on the overall story, but sometimes you can get into boatloads of trouble by going down a path that leads to Vera’s death. It’s often not clear until it’s too late which choices will have this result, and the game doesn’t give you a chance to try again, so the “save early, save often” mantra absolutely applies. You must do so manually, and have five save slots at your disposal.
Vera Blanc has a graphic novel aesthetic that meshes well with the protagonist’s superhuman abilities. The hand-drawn graphics are frequently framed like comic book panels and the subtitle font is reminiscent of comic lettering. Progressing the story is as simple as tapping the screen to clear a message, or tapping your selection when you’re presented with a list of choices. At certain points you can travel between locations using a map, also with simple taps. Throughout the investigation, clues and key details are collected in a notebook that’s fairly easy to navigate, but the notebook’s text is rather small and zooming is not supported.
Interactive novels aren’t known for their gameplay to begin with, and sadly the iPhone version of Full Moon has been stripped down even more. In the game’s original release, Vera’s mind-reading is accompanied by a Wheel of Fortune-style minigame where you select letters to fill in the blanks and figure out what someone is thinking. In the iPhone/iPod Touch version, this activity has been removed entirely, with the game simply revealing the character’s thoughts to you. Other minigames have been cut as well, leaving iPhone gamers with a passive experience that stays squarely within the realm of an interactive novel. It’s hard to complain about the omissions, however, considering the iPhone version’s low price tag. (If you’re an iPad user you’ll be better off, as Vera Blanc HD reportedly does include this content.)
Normally the gameplay (or lack thereof) in interactive novels frustrates me, but Vera Blanc: Full Moon sucked me in. It tells an entertaining story in spite of the limited interaction, and Vera and Brandon have an engaging dynamic that made me want to stick with them. Fans of graphic novels or supernatural mysteries should at least give the free lite version a try. The full game sells for $1.99 as does a second episode, Vera Blanc: Ghost in the Castle.