What do Azriel Odin, Sherlock Holmes, Erica Reed, and the original cast of Stargate SG-1 have in common? Simple: they've all arrived on Apple's iOS platforms. And they're not alone. Our latest round-up of adventures (and almost-adventures sure to be of interest) includes a wide variety of looks and game styles, from 19th century London to future worlds on distant planets; from retro-styled point-and-clickers to slick 3D arcade and action hybrids. So read on for the latest and greatest (or in some cases, not-so-greatest) App Store offerings.
Table of Contents
Page 1: Gemini Rue, Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller - Episode 1: The Hangman
Page 2: Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened
Page 3: The Silent Age
Page 5: Fetch
Page 6: Stargate SG-1: Unleashed
Page 7: Help Volty
Wadjet Eye Games has been gearing up to port its collection of impressive indie titles to iOS for some time now, and it's arguably put its best foot forward by starting with Gemini Rue. Designed by former UCLA Media Arts student Joshua Nuernberger, the game was picked up by Wadjet Eye late in development for voice acting and further refinement, releasing to both commercial and critical success in February 2011. If you missed it originally, our review of the PC original will tell you why this gritty sci-fi thriller deserves to be on your radar even now. As an early '90s retro-styled title, an extra couple years have done nothing to lessen its aesthetic appeal, and a rock-solid conversion makes Gemini Rue a sure thing on the iPad.
The game itself remains unchanged, which is a very good thing. The dark, at times disturbing dual tale of Azriel Odin, a former assassin in search of his missing brother on a drug-plagued planet controlled by the Boryokudan mafia, and Delta-Six, a recently mind-wiped citizen rehabilitation patient at the secretive Center 7, has lost none of its suspenseful emotional drama. The voice acting continues to skillfully bring these characters to life on both iPad and iPhone/iPod touch, while the pixel art graphics look even better on the smaller screen, where the lower resolution isn't forced to stretch nearly as far. The purple-tinged skies over the seedy, rain-drenched city of Pittsburg and the sterile blue walls of the prison-like Center 7 are anything but scenic, but they're artistically compelling in sucking you into these two diverse worlds on an inevitable collision course with each other. Some iPhone users with retina display have complained of slight blurriness, but on iPad and standard iPhones the graphics really pop. It's still decidedly retro, however, which won't be for everyone regardless of its quality.
The touchscreen interface is simple and works quite well. Tap a hotspot and a small action menu pops up, allowing you to look at, use, talk to or kick objects (hey, sometimes brute force is the best solution!), or you can select an inventory item to apply. Hotspots don't particularly stand out, and tapping anywhere else causes the current character to move to that spot, which can be a bit annoying. But tapping and holding the screen will reveal all interactive options currently in view. The camera does scroll both vertically and horizontally at times, so it pays to walk around a bit anyway. Azriel's personal communication device lets you contact his partner Kane for help, make phone calls, and look up key notes that serve as pseudo hints. When that's not enough, you can plug into the city's scattered info database terminals, which lets you drag and drop details (or type if you prefer) from one device into the other's search function. It's a bit too finicky to work as well as it sounds, but it's still a pretty slick idea.
Gemini Rue is a fairly puzzle-lite experience (the game rather self-referentially acknowledges that "logic tests are such a bore"), though there are certainly enough inventory- and environment-based tasks to keep you fully engaged without ever feeling like you're solving puzzles just for puzzles' sake. What some diehard adventure gamers will surely dread more are the gunfights. There are only a handful spread out over the course of the game, but they are still unavoidable. Just like in its PC predecessor, you must duck in and out of cover to fire at exposed enemies (who are naturally doing the same with you), with health bars depleting on both sides when bullets hit their mark. The setup is both simple and elegant. Icons at the bottom of the screen allow you to move into and out of safety, reload, switch targets, and of course shoot. Rather than requiring a steady hand, it's far more a matter of observant timing, particularly in using the "one-shot kill" headshot method, which works much better than trying to win a battle of attrition. An experienced action gamer myself, I had no problem at all, but for those who'd prefer to tone down the challenge, there's an easy difficulty option you can switch to at any time.
For the most part, Gemini Rue is as good a port as you could expect. It's not entirely flawless: using a door doesn't actually cause you to walk through (and there are a lot of doors in this game), a few hotpots are irritatingly small, and you can die even outside of the shootouts. Occasional timed sequences occur that leave you scrambling through trial-end-error to find the correct sequence of preventative actions, and you can expect to replay these several times. The game autosaves and restores if/when you fail, but not always conveniently. I was forced to repeat the same dull elevator-riding sequence AND a gunfight just to be offed a number of times in a "how was I supposed to know THAT?!" life-and-death puzzle solution. The game does let you save manually, however.
If you've already played the game, you can revisit it with the director's commentary turned on, but if that doesn't interest you (the same feature is offered in the PC version), there's nothing new here to add value to the original release. If you haven't yet experienced this moody sci-fi adventure, however, (or have recently been mind-wiped yourself), you're in for a portable treat. Available as a universal app for iPhone and iPad (no demo for either version, unfortunately), Gemini Rue instantly recalls the classic adventures of yesteryear like Blade Runner and Beneath a Steel Sky, and the smaller screen is ideally suited to its deliberately retro aesthetic. I won't say you'll rue the day if you pass it by a second time, but you'll certainly be kicking yourself.
Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller - Episode 1: The Hangman
Phoenix Online Studios wasted no time in porting its first commercial adventure to iOS. Mere months after Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller debuted on PC and Mac, already Episode 1: The Hangman is available on the App Store, exclusively for iPad. For the most part, the mobile version looks, sounds, and plays the same as the original, though not without some troublesome first impressions, as my game got off to a very rocky start.
Upon first launching the game, the opening cinematic froze just seconds after it began and didn't unstick until the game proper took over. Not having a clue what I'd missed, I restarted the game and watched it without a hitch. Whew. Moments later, with FBI agent Erica Reed readying her weapon outside a cemetery crime scene, all I saw was a close-up solid blue block suspending a disembodied gun in mid-air. Reload game again, and get the same result. Whoops. Meanwhile, the audio backdrop of a tense but repetitive musical refrain was literally washed out by a steady downpour that sounded more like perpetual static. The audio settings are all individually maxed out by default, so after a little tinkering I found a better balance, though the result still sounded like a cacophony of distorted, conflicting sounds. Then, just moments later, a vital hotspot wouldn't let me interact with it until I left the current screen and then returned. Argh!
Fortunately, after coming in out of the rain, the game settled down beautifully and put all those early issues behind it, behaving much more like the PC version we originally reviewed. The attractive graphic novel-style visuals have been reproduced nicely, the hand-painted backgrounds looking crisp and colourful, the cel-shaded characters a little shadow-heavy but nicely designed. The original release was prone to occasional graphic clipping, animation stutters and longer-than-desired pauses after interactions, and these have carried over to the port as well, but there's nothing so severe that it will interrupt your enjoyment for long. Once the music is allowed to come to the fore alone, it's easy to appreciate the Aggie Award-winning soundtrack by Austin Haynes, and the voice acting is clear and convincing.
As you'd hope from a good conversion, there's very little to distinguish the iOS interface from the original, other than the obvious lack of ever-present mouse cursor. You'll either have to guess at items that may be hotspots (inadvertently moving Erica if you guess wrong), or hold your finger down on the touch screen to reveal all hotspots onscreen. Everything else has been carried over intact, from the extrasensory "cognition" icon to the inventory sidebar (complete with user-friendly look, use, and combine highlights) to the mobile phone that lets you text Erica's dad for sometimes-useful-sometimes-not tips.
One notable omission is any kind of story recap option. That wasn't present in the original version either, but as iOS offerings are often played in shorter sessions, often on the go, this would have been a welcome addition to the portable version, particularly as The Hangman is fairly lengthy for an episodic game. Then again, once you get into the mystery of the serial killing hangman and the troubled FBI agent out to avenge her brother's murder, you'll probably want to keep playing anyway to find out where this dark and sometimes disturbing tale is going. If you've played the PC or Mac versions already, there's nothing new here to make you want to purchase it again. But if you're new to the series, the $3.99 price tag is excellent value for a compelling series debut with a very solid port. If you're still not convinced, there's a free lite version to sample, though since it starts you off at the beginning of the game, you won't be seeing and hearing the game at its best.Continued on the next page...