Eye on iOS: Volume 7
The Eye on iOS feature returns once again, now bigger and better than ever. Or bigger, anyway. For the first time since we began this article series, we're no longer focused exclusively on the smaller iPhone and iPod touch platforms, but the iPad as well. (We'll get to the iPad mini someday, but one step at a time.) This time around, there's a few high profile ports to choose from, including Jordan Mechner's train classic and the latest Pendulo Studios offering with a new/old name, along with a few iOS exclusives and even a children's story by Jane Jensen.
The Last Express
The Last Express, the 1997 PC game designed by Prince of Persia creator Jordan Mechner, has become a cult classic among adventure gamers thanks to its enveloping narrative and innovative real-time gameplay. (To learn what makes it so unique, check out Adventure Gamers’ 4½ star review.) The game was recently ported to iOS by publisher DotEmu, and is currently available for $4.99 as a Universal App for iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad.
You play as Robert Cath, a stowaway on the Orient Express in 1914, days before the onset of World War I. Cath arrives on board to find his companion, Tyler Whitney, murdered in his sleeping car compartment. After disposing of the body, Cath assumes Whitney’s identity and mingles with the train’s other passengers in search of the culprit. The simmering political situation, secrets guarded by other passengers, and Cath’s own suspicious past come to a head as the renowned train travels across Europe on what would turn out to be its final voyage before the Great War. A faithful port, the iOS version maintains the original’s rotoscoped, art nouveau-inspired graphics, node-based movement, and most importantly, its innovative real-time structure. It also boasts a few minor additions, such a progressive hint system that can be engaged at any time by tapping the screen.
This first-person game uses the slideshow-style graphics popular at the time, with movement represented by incrementally-changing still frames as you move around the train. Arrows at the edges of the screen indicate which directions you can move, with curved arrows representing “turn around” and additional action icons depending on the context. You can choose for the icons to display at all times, or only when you hold down your finger on the screen. Navigation is straightforward: simply tap the icon that represents where you want to go or what you want to do. But tapping doesn’t always do what you’d expect. On screens with a lot of hotspots, the icons were too close together on my iPod touch’s small screen, so I might try to tap the left arrow and the game would register this as “turn around.” Other times, an icon just didn’t do what it was supposed to do; I’d tap the forward arrow and Cath would turn right, or I’d tap the back arrow and he’d sit down. Combine this with a generally poor sense of direction—that’s my own issue, but I can’t be the only one!—and much of The Last Express can be spent trying to figure out how to get where you want to go.
It doesn’t help that the game is set on a relatively small, visually homogenous train. This version of the Orient Express has two long corridors, each with eight look-alike rooms, and you need to traverse these corridors many, many times. It’s a tedious task that requires tapping the forward arrow to move, one slow step at a time, through almost-identical frames as the graphics transition from one position to the next. It takes 14 taps to get from Cath’s compartment at the front of the Green Sleeping Car to the conductor who’s sitting at the end of the car, even though you can plainly see him the whole time, and once you finally reach him with the plan of engaging in conversation, he simply stands up so you can pass into the next corridor to do it again. Because so much of the game is spent traveling up and down these hallways, the repetitive tapping gets old fast. The small sleeping compartments and closed-in dining cars also present problems. In the sleeping cars, I kept ducking into the bathroom when I meant to exit into the hallway, or turning in circles as I tried to get my bearings. In the dining cars, I’d try to approach characters who were sitting at a table and end up sitting down across the aisle or pacing back and forth in front of their table.
Fifteen years after its PC release, The Last Express remains an innovative game thanks to its real-time structure, but the very gameplay that sets it apart also makes it an iffy choice for those who like to play iOS games on the go. In this non-linear game, characters carry on conversations in different parts of the train at precise moments and it’s very possible to miss crucial information if you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time. A lot of the portion I played involved eavesdropping on the other passengers, and because I wasted so much time just trying to move around, I felt like I was missing out on details I needed to understand the story. In my sampling of the first four chapters, I didn’t get stuck to the point of being unable to progress, but I did feel lost much of the time—like I wasn’t grasping what makes this much-lauded game so special for so many people. And since I tend to play mobile games in small doses, every time I resumed this one it took a little while to get back into the swing of things.
The Last Express auto-saves your progress, and if you choose to replay a segment (either because you encounter a “game over” scenario or simply to see what you might have missed in other areas of the train), you can rewind and resume the game from an earlier time block. There are multiple save slots, however each playthrough is contained within its own slot; rewinding overwrites any progress you’ve already made beyond that time block.
Sometimes characters speak in foreign languages that Cath understands, and these bits are subtitled for the rest of us, but the majority of dialogue is in English with no subtitle option. This makes playing in public really tough. Even wearing headphones, in louder environments it was too hard to follow without English subtitles (my attempt to play on an airplane failed miserably). Several language options are present for the spoken dialogue (French, Italian, German, and Spanish, in addition to English), so at least those non-native speakers who normally look to subtitles can play the game in their mother tongue.
In a tweak for iOS, a handful of action sequences are treated like Quick Time Events, with icons appearing on-screen to be tapped throughout the sequence. The port also has unlockable character bios that give a bit of background info about some of the people you meet on the train. I found these helpful for differentiating the various supporting characters, but they would have been even better if they’d included each passenger’s room number. (Keeping track of which character occupies which compartment is pretty much impossible without taking notes—not good for a mobile game!) In spite of some complaints about sound issues in the App Store reviews, I didn’t encounter any major technical issues in my playthrough. The game did crash on me three times, but thanks to its auto-saves I was easily able to restart and pick up right where I’d left off.
Even though I had some trouble getting my bearings with The Last Express on iOS, the fact that this game is almost universally praised makes it a pretty good bet for adventure game fans. If you tend to play your mobile games in public, in small doses, or on an iPod touch or iPhone (as opposed to the larger-screened iPad), you might be better off with the PC version. But if the issues I’ve described don’t sound like they’d bother you, or if you’re already a fan and are looking to relive the magic, The Last Express is waiting for you in the App Store.
First there was Hollywood Monsters, a Spanish-only 1997 release by Pendulo Studios. Then there was 2011's The Next BIG Thing, which was NOT Hollywood Monsters, but rather an international re-imagining of the original concept. And now there's Hollywood Monsters for iOS, which is really a port of The Next BIG Thing. Confused yet? I don't blame you. But don't let the name fiasco turn you off. Whatever the title, this game is a charming and often entertaining traditional comic adventure that looks great and works very well on the iPad.
If you missed it the first time around, The Next B... I mean, Hollywood Monsters follows a pair of squabbling journalists in a 1940s Hollywood where monsters are not only real, they're the stars of all the horror movies. The square-jawed Dan Murray is a grizzled former sportswriter, banished to the society pages for past indiscretions and resenting every minute spent with his partner, the bubbly, ambitious "Loony" Liz Allaire. Not that they're actually together very long. After witnessing a monster breaking into movie mogul William FitzRandolph's office, the two quickly become separated in an adventure that spirals off into increasingly bizarre directions, including the dark recesses of Liz's own mind.
Although grounded in a real-world mystery, the unusual premise really allowed the developers to have fun with the outrageous cast of characters, from a Frankenstein monster with an Einstein IQ to a pain-seeking, Igor-like wannabe poet to an anthropomorphic fly, among others. Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, and Jeff Goldblum they are not. The game revels in its absurdity, and while it isn't often laugh-out-loud funny, it's hard not to be amused by its whimsical atmosphere throughout. The wackiness extends to the puzzles, sometimes a little too far with off-the-wall solutions, but there's plenty of inventory and dialogue-based tasks to keep you entertained for many hours.
For the most part, both the iPad and iPhone versions are straight ports of the PC adventure we reviewed nearly two years ago, and it's an excellent conversion that keeps all the stellar production values intact. All original voice acting remains, the colourful cartoon graphics are crisp and clear, and the game remains as richly animated as its predecessor. Those who follow the advice to play with headphones on are also rewarded with abundant sound effects and a wonderfully diverse soundtrack. While the iPhone version will undoubtedly lose a little graphical fidelity, Hollywood Monsters looks and sounds just as good on an iPad as The Next BIG Thing does on PC.
Apart from the lack of difficulty options for iOS, the only real changes from the original version are unavoidable. To interact you simply tap relevant objects on-screen, calling up a selection of look and either use or talk icons to choose from. Without the mouse to highlight hotspots ahead of time there's a bit of guesswork involved, and it's a little annoying to have your character walk to the place you tapped if there's nothing for them to do, but there's always a handy hotspot highlighter just a click away. The context-sensitive hint narrator and chapter-based “checkpoint” system to remind you of your current objective(s) have both carried over as well, as does the unusual method of having the protagonists phase in and out of view when double-tapping to cover large distances. Inventory is still displayed at the top of the screen, and items can be clicked and dragged onto other items to combine them, either within the inventory or in the main environments.
Many developers laud the iPad as perhaps the ideal platform for adventure games, and it's titles like Hollywood Monsters that make you understand why. It's not superior to The Next BIG Thing, but its portability and convenience more than make up for a few interface compromises. It's not a small download at nearly 2 GB, and it requires double that in free space to install, but if you haven't yet played the game, you can't go wrong at only $3.99 as a univeral app for both iPad and iPhone/iPod touch. I can't vouch for the iPhone version, but iPad users will be getting a fully-featured adventure guaranteed to offer many hours of zany puzzle scenarios, offbeat humour, stunning production values, and of course a host of quirky monsters.
If you like what you see of Hollywood Monsters, but sure to check out Yesterday as well, the Spanish studio's first port based on the darker, edgier (but still oh-so-Pendulo-y) 2012 adventure of the same name.
While the name "Runaway" is sure to get Pendulo fans enthused, the addition of "Hidden" at the beginning should be the first hint that this isn't a new installment or even straight port of the popular adventure series. Instead, it's a thoroughly casualized version of the original 2003 road adventure filled with minigames and hidden object searches. Some will be against such a move on principle, but even players willing to embrace casual elements will be disappointed with those particular features in this game. It looks as gorgeous as ever and there are glimpses of the adventurey goodness that earned its predecessor an (admittedly controversial) 4½ star review, but much of the fun is now hidden amidst a clutter of poorly designed gameplay.
The game technically picks up nearly ten years after the original, with a now-updated-looking Brian and Gina resentfully bickering as a movie producer attempts to recreate their story. The flashback tale is true to the original, however, as young university student Brian Basco inadvertently hits exotic dancer Gina Timmins with his car, then escorts her (if continually losing and then chasing her can be called that) across the United States in an attempt to escape the mafia thugs out to end her life. Those who have played Runaway will take a nostalgic trip back to the likes of a hospital, anthropology museum, and midwestern desert, meeting a variety of oddball characters along the way, including the three drag queen divas. Voice acting is omitted, music is sporadic, and sound effects are minimal, but the cartoony graphics are crisp, clear, and colourful on the iPad, and the cutscenes are beautifully animated.
Unfortunately, what you spend your time looking for isn't nearly as compelling. Each major location has a handful of related environments to explore. The odd inventory item is scattered around like a normal adventure, but most are found in standard "junkpile" scavenger hunts. The problem is that the game takes its "hidden" moniker too literally. One of the biggest complaints about the original Runaway was its pixel hunting, and you can increase that criticism exponentially here. Instead of cleverly obscuring items in plain sight, items here are simply far too small and often largely concealed by other objects in front of them or even shadows that make them all but invisible. There's a list of 16 items to find per screen, but that doesn't count multiples; you can easily be looking for up to 30 objects at a time. It doesn't help that you won't always know what you're supposed to be seeking. I didn't know what a "butt stop" was, and even after randomly clicking its overly hazy image, I still don't know now. You can zoom in slightly, but this doesn't help much, as it blurs the visual presentation. If not for a reliance on the slowly-recharging hint feature, I'd have never made any real progress.
The inventory and minigame elements fare slightly better. There's not much thought involved in the former, however. Environmental hotspots that require inventory are highlighted, and an icon depiction of each needed object is displayed. Minigames include various forms of jigsaws and rotating puzzles, matching musical sequences (with visual clues), and a target shooting "baseball" game. The latter proved unnecessarily difficult (and I'm good at these sorts of games), but any minigame can be skipped. The interface itself is a snap, with a simple screen tap to interact or swipe to scroll. Unlike its predecessor, there is no protagonist to control, as the game is played entirely from a first-person perspective. The only real interface drawback is that hidden object taps don't always register. Finding items is hard enough; it shouldn't be even harder to select them.
The worst part of my experience was a game-breaking bug that prevented me from finishing. The hint feature told me to complete a hidden object scene already done, and hitting the hint option within that screen locked up the game entirely, forcing a reboot. Hopefully this isn't a widespread occurrence, but I was unable to continue from that point, as the game auto-saved as I went along. I can't tell you how long the game is, therefore, just that the many hidden object searches will take far longer than they should (and probably feel longer than that). Hidden Runaway is available for $3.99 on both iPad and iPhone/iPod touch, but only iPad users should even consider it. Really, though, if you're looking for a handheld Pendulo fix, you're far better off with their traditional ports and leaving this one hidden in the App Store.
Lola and Lucy's Big Adventure
When one thinks of Jane Jensen, thoughts of playful puppy dogs and heartwarming family stories with bright, cheerful graphics probably don't leap to mind. But Jensen is a woman of many talents, and even as she continues work on more traditional adventure fare like Moebius and her "Mystery Game X", the legendary designer of the Gabriel Knight series has taken time out to co-author a charming little interactive children's story called Lola and Lucy's Big Adventure with her husband, Robert Holmes.
Lola and Lucy are actually Jensen's own English bulldogs, though in the story they're the treasured pets of the Baxter family in Vermont. The two four-year-old canines are perfectly content until they discover that some dogs have jobs. Thanks to a fortuitous web link on the household computer, they soon learn that their own breed was originally used to control bulls by grabbing their noses. And so the two set out for a quick jaunt across town to find the nearest bull. Naturally, their best-laid plans go awry, leading Lola and Lucy on an ever-expanding trip across America, farther and farther away from the family they hold so dear.
Rather than an adventure game, Lola and Lucy really is more of a 29-page interactive storybook. There are two modes to choose from – Picture Book and Chapter Book – depending on the age of the children reading, though even the "harder" of the two levels is easy enough for young children to follow. You can also choose to have the gam... sorry, book fully automated, narrated, or text-only. The narrator is Holmes's daughter Raleigh (singer with the Scarlet Furies and voice actor for Erica Reed in Cognition), who has a very pleasant voice and speaks clearly, and you can always select the text tab to read along as well.
Much like the old Humongous Entertainment adventures for kids, each page has a variety of interactive items to touch for an amusing reaction: Lucy (the "smart" one) shoots a basketball into a hoop with her head and Lola (the "crazy" one) makes faces in a mirror, while a perfume bottle sprays and a toy car races across the floor. These animations don't affect the story at all, serving merely as fun distractions. I'd have preferred to see more creative interactions, including some that actually related to the events on screen. In one scene Lucy gets her head trapped in a fence, but no matter how often I jabbed my finger at the latch, there was nothing I could do to free her. Of course, I didn't have to, as this isn't a "puzzle" and she somehow manages to free herself before the next page anyway. Still, it seems a missed opportunity to spur at least a little creative thinking.
For the most part, you'll simply click through the pages and touch things for kicks, but there are 14 different minigames hidden throughout. You can catch dog treats, herd sheep, solve a slider puzzle, find all flowers in a yard, and more. Or you can just open up a can of paint and track coloured doggie paw prints all over the screen. Everything is optional and none of the activities are at all difficult, but they do add a welcome bit of "player" involvement.
The pictures are displayed in lovely hand-painted art with vivid colours and near-photorealistic scenes, from a local dairy farm to the American midwest to Rodeo Drive in California. Lola and Lucy meet a variety of other animals in their travels, including cows, horses, rabbits, squirrels, and frogs. There is no music during the story, but most locations include gentle area-specific sound effects. The Baxters are understandably worried and begin searching for their runaway pets (apparently Jane couldn't resist a little emotional tension after all), but it's in the separation that Lola and Lucy learn the true lesson of their life's purpose, making the inevitable family reunion all the happier in the end. (Oh, spoiler alert!!)
Available exclusively for iPad at the moment (though PC and Mac versions are due soon), there is a lite version available to try first. If you're looking for the next big Jane Jensen adventure, you're (literally) barking up the wrong tree, but Lola and Lucy's Big Adventure is a lovely little interactive diversion for young children – or better yet, parents with young children to share together. Those without children to share it with will want to steer clear, but for some lighthearted family bedtime fare, this breezy little interactive storybook may just grab you by the nose and not let go.
Forever Lost: Episode 1
As a parent of young children, I suppose I'd be close to a psychotic episode if I spent my life designing games for kids. Thus it's hard to blame the developers at British studio Glitch Games, previously known for their child-friendly fare Wordoodle and My First Colouring Book among others, for taking a trip to the dark side for their first "adult" app, Forever Lost. The debut episode in a promised series, Forever Lost is a throwback to amnesia-based adventures that find you waking up in a psychiatric asylum with no memory of who you are. What are you doing here? Who has written all these creepy journals? Why does your fingerprint unlock the Staff Only door? And who builds a hospital with the kids' nursery next door to the patient treatment rooms?!
Forever Lost is a first-person slideshow exploration game, similar to many in the "room escape" genre. Prepare to find yourself tapping frequently all over environments to locate items you can pick up, and then finding places to open your briefcase and deploy the keys, tools, and other trinkets in order to open up more locations. The exploring comes with a healthy dose of diverse puzzling, most of which can be solved with reasonable attention to detail, and occasional help from the in-app hint system. There's also a great gimmick in the form of an in-game camera, a nice shortcut to taking external notes. This is particularly useful since a number of puzzles involve entering codes or using diagrams that are obtained from other locations, in addition to standard inventory puzzles as well as some light usage of the iOS touch functions. There’s even a nifty little Zelda-inspired minigame. Since there is no real story progression, only a continuing discovery of background story elements as you explore the hospital, the game generally feels more like a puzzle game than a true suspense/horror adventure.
The creepiness factor is ratcheted up significantly at times, however, amplified by the drab and dirty graphics, the unsettling and minimal background music, and the very well-written and lightly disturbing story elements and access to computer patient files, etc. If you're unlucky, you'll find yourself also creeped out by the game's occasional propensity to crash or lock up and force a full reset (the game uses a one-save auto-bookmark save system). The first episode of Forever Lost sells for $1.99 on both iPhone and iPad (a lite version demo is also available), and will take about 60 to 90 minutes to complete. The series debut is interesting enough while it lasts, despite the somewhat clichéd nature of the amnesia theme—but you'll probably need to really enjoy the nature of the puzzles and mechanics to get excited about future episodes.
I didn't know it was possible to hang a shingle and open an office as a "Treasure Hunter", but that's the premise of this new first-person puzzle game by rookie Spanish developer Square Valleys. As Joe Kozewski (a name that I find very amusing for a Spanish developer to have chosen), you've been without a case for quite some time before a luxurious car stops outside your dank office, and out steps an equally luxurious middle-aged woman with an assignment for you: find the treasure that her deceased uncle has hidden in his French manor. Armed with your trusty treasure huntin' tools (a metal detector and a shovel, of course), you begin your search in the manor's basement.
The hunting takes place in a first-person slideshow format, with a constant inventory on the right side of the screen that allows you to select an active item before tapping on the background. Turns out that Old Uncle Crazy was a bit of a puzzle fiend, and thus you'll barely be able to move a picture frame or dig up a loose brick without uncovering some type of puzzle—a number cipher, a chess puzzle, a menacing clock puzzle, and many others are found just in this chapter.
Following up on the free prologue, the $0.99 app currently available exclusively for the iPhone/iPod touch is just Chapter 1 of the story, so don't expect any major relevations or satisfying conclusions yet. Don't expect much in the way of technical excellence either, as the game boasts a decently suspenseful but repetitive soundtrack, and generally flat and colorless graphics that fail to provide enough detail to move forward without a lot of guess tapping, as well as no real animation in the gameplay.
Puzzling of a Layton-style is a genre that is alive and thriving on iOS devices and, at least for the first chapter, Treasure Trove and its total lack of narrative does not do a whole lot to set itself apart, other than set some high—almost unreasonable at times—difficulty standards for its puzzles. We'll see if future chapters improve the visuals and even out the challenge, but for now you can safely file this one under "puzzle lovers only."