Eye on iOS: Volume 9
It's been a long time since our last iOS round-up, but we haven't forgotten about the point-and-tap crowd. Rather, with so many ports and exclusive new adventure-like releases every month, it's simply hard to keep up with them all! But at long last we've sifted through the App Store quagmire and pulled out a new batch of mobile games for your consideration.
If you haven’t played Botanicula and you have an iPad, this newly released port of the charmingly surreal nature adventure is a strong investment. As with most Amanita Design ports, Botanicula seems as if it was made for touch devices, its minimalistic point-and-click mechanics transitioning seamlessly to touching, tapping and dragging with a finger. Furthermore, if you own a retina display device, Botanicula’s vibrant art style, spectacular environments, and fluid animations shine through crystal clear and flawlessly at a beautiful framerate, making great use of all of your iPad’s display. The game also sounds as good as it looks, with quality reproductions of the lifelike natural sounds and engaging musical score, though of course you’ll need decent headphones to get the best audio impact.
For the most part the game is entirely unchanged, but then why mess with such a good thing? The interactivity feels a bit more involved in certain places, but this is likely just the sensation of actually using your finger instead of relying on a detached cursor on a screen. Either way, this is definitely a must-play for those who have yet to experience Botanicula. In fact, with its more tangible interactive experience, it is arguably the definitive version of this wonderful game across any platform. Even if you’ve already played Botanicula, this iPad exclusive port doesn’t offer any new content, but it is still a thoroughly rewarding mobile adventure if you’re looking to replay a memorable classic.
Doggins is a delightful lite adventure about a conflict between a dog and a monomaniacal squirrel. It contains colorful stylized graphics, lively music, and a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor that is appropriate for all ages. It’s also quite short, clocking in at only about an hour’s worth of gameplay.
Having just settled down for a good night’s sleep, the canine Doggins awakens to find his house morphed into a rocket ship that has blasted off from Earth and landed on the Moon. A squirrel with a monocle – Fitzwilliam Sciuridae – then invites him to a celebration to be held at the “diabolical party tree.” The only problem: the invitation specifically excludes any guests who resemble Doggins. Naturally, this provokes intense curiosity about the party, and our hero sets out to gate crash if he can, with no thought for the possibility that this contradictory summons might be part of a trap.
The Moon is unexpectedly occupied by a small forest, a new American flag, and a tree elevator. Access to the party is blocked by a security guard in formal attire. You’ll soon realize that the dis-invitation was perfectly serious, and that you’ll need to find a way to slip Doggins past this guard and gain entrance to the party. Tapping to navigate and swiping to access and use inventory items, you must maneuver him through rooms in his rocket/house and across the Moon’s surface, searching for items to create a sufficiently convincing disguise.
The game environments are minimalist 2D with simple lines, solid shapes, and contrasting colors. The locations and characters are reminiscent of stencil art or paper cutouts, with blocks of sheer color and repeated shapes, such as the closet’s identical boxes and scarves. The house interior consists of white walls framing modernist furniture – for example, an angular sofa, a sleek record player, and a beige and brown bureau. Outside the house, the Moon’s surface is light grey, the sky is intense blue, and trees are made of green circles attached to skinny white poles. I admired these whimsical, uncluttered locales, which set the right tone for what was to follow.
Doggins himself is a charmingly animated, perky-looking, orange-gold pooch (no spots) with a tiny nose. He is poised and neat, and clearly considers himself master of his universe. Always alert, he takes everything in stride – even the downright astonishing developments that soon occur. Disappointment may cause his tail to briefly droop, but otherwise he remains imperturbable. Fitzwilliam Sciuridae is solid grey except for his large white teeth. His mouth is wide and his tail is about as fat as his head. His monocle completely covers his eye, giving him a slightly sinister appearance.
Although played from a third-person perspective, this game contains no dialog. The plot unfolds strictly through gameplay as Doggins sneaks into the party to uncover the secret goings-on. The backstory is glimpsed in a film reel presentation and also via a set of instructions in the illustrated Squirrel Guide. The Guide is a delicate send-up of official-speak manuals, emphasizing inspirational mottos that, upon close consideration, are nonsensical or even dangerous. Beware the inspirational motto!
As the quest unfolds, classical orchestral music plays in the background, ranging in type from sprightly, to meditative, to flamboyant. Sound effects include footsteps when Doggins walks and crickets chirping outside his window while he sleeps. Certain noises accentuate the game’s waggish tone – pages in the Guide emit a blooping noise, and a slurpy, sneezy sound occurs when Doggins noses an item.
Most puzzles are inventory-based, logical, and suited to the story. Some involve creative uses of the debris left by astronauts – for instance, toilet paper employed as a construction material (it makes perfect sense in context). Generally, inventory items are combined or used by swiping, and occasionally you’ll have to swipe in a specific pattern to get a device to work. Overall, puzzle difficulty is easy-to-medium until the final confrontation after about 45 minutes of gameplay, when Doggins and Fitzwilliam meet head-to-head (so to speak) in a tricky timed challenge that is potentially time-consuming if you don’t pay close attention to the clues provided.
Even with its protracted build-up, the ending seemed precipitous to me. It felt like the game was still in its early stages, and that I was just beginning to know Doggins and his adversaries. Then the lights went out in Doggins’ house and – except for a brief post-credit scene – it was lights out for the game too.
I hope this is an opening chapter in a series of Doggins adventures, as there is much to like about this game – especially the offbeat celestial setting, droll puzzle combinations, and appealing characters. Available exclusively for iPad, the game’s chief drawback is its extremely short play time. Dog lovers in particular will enjoy its jaunty protagonist, and the story and difficulty level make it perfect for playing with a young child as your gaming partner.
The Room is not the interactive adaptation of Tommy Wiseau’s unintentionally hilarious cinematic cult classic. Rather, it’s an addictive little puzzler by Fireproof Games that’s making waves amongst the mobile community for its incredibly immersive puzzling and engaging touch and slide mechanics. And indeed, while you play you’ll feel like a genius treasure hunter and code-decipherer as you slowly unravel some of the most intriguing puzzles ever realized on a touch interface. Unfortunately for hardcore adventure gamers, that’s about as far as The Room’s appeal reaches.
The game spends no time establishing its premise, but nor does it need to with its jump-in-and-see-what-happens ambiguity. It opens by presenting you with a strange box-like contraption set atop a desk within a room too poorly lit to identify. The swipe of a finger allows you to rotate your view a full 360 degrees around the table, as you observe the device’s endless switches, knobs, secret compartments, and countless other hidden intricacies. Simply double-tapping any of these components swings your viewpoint forward for closer inspection, where the always-dynamic and unpredictable interactive modules of the mysterious contraption lie within.
This description alone has basically detailed the entire story core of The Room. As you solve and decode each individual challenge, you come closer and closer to eventually opening and unveiling the device’s ultimate secret. Thankfully, the puzzles are engrossing and always diverse as you constantly find yourself tilting the device to rotate colored spheres into exact positions, sliding your finger across the supporting legs to unscrew secret compartments, or dragging metal balls across rotary maze surfaces to unlock hidden doors, to name just a few of the tasks that await you.
The intensive hands-on interactivity of these puzzles will make you feel happy to own a touch device. As you slide pieces together, find hidden codes scribbled on the corners, and pull open hidden drawers all at the touch of a finger, you’ll feel incredibly immersed in the experience of unlocking this elaborate treasure chest. Once you finally open the contraption – which will likely take about thirty minutes – you’ll be provided with yet another one to unlock on another table in another unidentifiable room, and then another two after that, which comprises the entire adventure.
As a straightforward series of complex puzzles, the game plays out almost like an aggregation of random fetch quests; you’ll frequently find yourself uncovering a missing tile, an arcane crystal or an ancient figurine that will stash into your inventory on the left, which then can be observed from every angle with the single swipe of a finger. All of these objects, however, in essence function as keys or passcodes and always behave as the missing link to the next available puzzle – which when dragged into place will occasionally provide an impressive animation involving unfolding and moving mechanisms.
Although its linear nature allows The Room to flow at a fairly smooth and leisurely pace, figuring out what goes where and how everything’s supposed to operate connectively can take quite a while. A flashing – and subsequently tempting – question mark inhabits the corner of the screen for any player looking for a few sly hints to quickly speed along the puzzle-solving process. Too much reliance on hints is counterproductive, however, as the game’s entire allure is based on the satisfaction that comes from solving puzzle after puzzle.
Any experienced adventure gamer is by now wondering how the story links together these elaborate puzzle-solving entanglements. The Room employs the popular first-person puzzler strategy of unfolding the story loosely and vaguely through the player’s own interpretation of its small, obscure subtleties. In this case, the thin narrative is mostly revealed through stashed letters and random scribblings found throughout the devices as you slowly unveil more and more of their hidden compartments.
Because The Room is strongly rooted in mystification, the underlying story turns out to be equally enigmatic. The letters recount a tale of a Galileo-esque inventor researching some larger-than-life questions. Unfortunately, by the time your personal venture is finally over, none of these questions are actually answered and the backdrop never fully develops into anything more than elusive intrigue gently driving the gameplay. Although this certainly adds to the mysterious atmosphere, solving complex mechanisms and intricate head-scratchers one after another without any real sense of what’s going on leaves The Room’s story feeling entirely incidental. The game would have been much more aptly titled “The Table” or “A Series of Elaborate Boxes”, seeing as the room in which each contraption is based is entirely impervious and inaccessible. Even a glance around you would have made for a more captivating experience.
Apart from the puzzles themselves, atmosphere is The Room’s strongest quality, from the crisp, realistic antiquity of its aesthetic design to the eerie and ominous nature of its soundscape. Filled with distant creakiness and droning musical ambience, everything oozes with cryptic moodiness. Not knowing what’s going on actually connects well with the periodic whispering of unintelligible voices and the seemingly metaphysical eyeglass you equip early on. This is used heavily throughout the game as a method for unveiling intangible and esoteric images the human eye couldn’t otherwise perceive.
Introducing some clever and highly engaging touch mechanics through a constant stream of intricate puzzles, The Room is clearly made for puzzle enthusiasts. Through its heavy-handed puzzle-after-puzzle execution, the game sacrifices virtually all storytelling in the service of its puzzles. With no gameplay shifts or plot developments to break up the monotony, the average adventure gamer is likely to find The Room too far removed from the genre’s other elements to provide a complete experience. It’s an attractive exhibition of the interactive gameplay mechanics a touch device can provide, but it has little to offer beyond that when its singular appeal begins to waver.
The Room Two
A definite improvement over its predecessor, The Room Two expands the player’s perspective well beyond the surface of the table. The previously silhouetted backdrops have finally opened up, allowing for a more fully realized experience. Unfortunately, without full navigational control, the actual freedom to explore this space is still excessively limited. The controls remain exactly the same as before, as you can still only shift your perspective around at the tap of a finger, and while the environment has seemingly opened up, you’re really only able to tap across the sparsely illuminated segments of the larger shadowed-out environment.
While this limitation continues to prevent The Room Two from transforming into a fuller-fledged adventure game, as a puzzle game this sequel makes for a hugely engaging experience and a large step above the original. While the expectations are largely the same – solve a puzzle to unveil a piece to another puzzle and so forth – the expanded scope of the environment allows for more immersive payoffs. Instead of simply moving around dials to slide open hidden compartments on a box, you’ll find yourself reflecting lasers across corners of a room to unveil hidden areas or manipulating lever mechanisms to move a boat forward across a pitch-black cavern.
Unfortunately, while broader and more expansive than the original, these more “adventurous” moments are few and far between. For the most part you are still solving a succession of elaborate puzzle contraptions within dusty, antique-filled studies. The core gameplay remains the same and the story’s presentation retains its cryptic and somewhat interpretative nature, never moving the narrative forward enough to truly satisfy by the time this installment ends. Available as a universal app for iPad and iPhone, "more of the same but better" is the bottom line for The Room Two, so anyone who enjoyed The Room will certainly be satisfied by the improved expansion of its streamlined simplicities.
With their four-games-and-counting Cryptic series for the iPhone, 3D Methods certainly offer some variety in setting. Two of the games link together to form an overarching narrative. In Cryptic Keep you seek entrance to the magically locked keep of the ancient king Telvonus, hoping to find treasures inside. In the sequel, Cryptic Kingdoms, your discoveries in the keep have shed more light on the disappearance of Telvonus and set you on a quest to find the lost monarch. The other two games present standalone stories. In Cryptic Caverns, a shipwreck lands you on a remote island that seems to have had more than its fair share of such events. In Cryptic Cosmos, you take the role of an intergalactic bounty hunter in pursuit of a dangerous criminal.
In all four games the graphical presentation uses a slideshow format. The semi-realistic images range from the worn and irregular stones of the ancient castle to the high-tech metallic corridors of a beleaguered spaceship. The various scenes have limited animation, usually triggered by the player when they occur, such as doors opening or the operation of various puzzle-related mechanisms. The lack of any general background animations does leave the environments feeling a bit sterile at times, but this is usually in keeping with their abandoned nature. On the relatively small iPhone screen, the detail is crisp and clear, the vital mechanisms and objects easily spotted amongst the background detail.
Each game comes with some simple but effective tunes fitting the respective settings, and there are also various sound effects, mainly related to the player interacting with items, such as the ring of a blacksmith’s anvil. There is very little interaction with other characters, most areas being devoid of any other people. Even Caverns, the game with the most secondary NPCs, only has simple unvoiced dialogues without extensive dialogue trees.
Play mechanics mimic a point-and-click interface, with directed finger taps taking the place of a cursor. Navigation can prove somewhat confusing at times, as you advance by tapping on-screen exits, but often backtrack using a button that takes you to a previously visited scene. This varied approach to movement, coupled with camera angles changing from location to location, can make it easy to get lost, though the relatively small areas minimise the confusion. To assist you in this, Cosmos and Kingdoms come with reference maps, though the other games do not include this feature. Cosmos also comes with a freely accessible hint system. The only other game with this feature is Caverns, though it requires you to exit to the main menu to access hints.
The puzzles include a variety of styles throughout the series, including inventory, dialogue, and the operation of a wide variety of mechanisms. Their degree of integration into the story varies, though there are usually in-game clues that will help you solve most of the puzzles. The less-than-seamless integration can sometimes make it harder than necessary to work out what to do, but diligent exploration should overcome any uncertainty. The puzzles on offer should not prove too hard for experienced adventurers, though some of the mechanisms do provide more complex challenges.
In many ways, the Cryptic series gameplay feels like a sequence of escape-the-room scenes, which should appeal to those who prefer a little more linearity in their adventures. Those who enjoy more story with their gaming may find the narrative a bit on the thin side, especially when coupled with the limited integration of puzzles. They do look nice, however, and it's possible to finish each game in under an hour, making these games reasonable options for anyone looking for an adventure fix on the go.
Available as universal apps for both iPhone and iPad, there are no free trial versions for these games, but you can download Cryptic Keep, Cryptic Caverns, Cryptic Kingdoms, and CrypticCosmos from the App Store for under a dollar each.
Tiny Space Adventure
An astronaut has some engine trouble and crash-lands after being trapped in the gravitational field of an unknown planet. Luckily he is not hurt, but his spaceship doesn't look so good. Its window is broken and it's buried deep in the soil, with thick clouds of black smoke billowing from the main engine. It's a total write-off. Undeterred by his misfortune, the astronaut starts exploring his whereabouts. Soon he discovers a mighty rocket in the distance and its tip is pointing at the sky, ready for launch. This is his ticket off the planet! But first he’ll need to traverse the rocky terrain to reach it, which proves to be far more dangerous than he imagined. The planet inhabitants have secured the launch area with lasers, deadly robots that roam corridors, lots of doors leading to uncertain destinations, and other creative ways to impede unwanted visitors. Our hero has to hit buttons, press switches, and solve puzzles, and will probably even die sometimes before he’s able to reach his ultimate goal.
At first glance, Tiny Space Adventure by A&R Entertainment looks like a standard platform game. There are several horizontal planes visible on the screen on which the astronaut, whose helmeted head looks uncannily like a fried egg, can walk. However, the running and jumping usually necessary in platformers is not required here. It is not even possible to make the protagonist walk faster than his default leisurely pace. Actually, he hops more than he walks, conceivably because the gravity on this unknown planet is less than he is used to. Though if that is the case, he should be able to jump quite high and far, but he never jumps at all. In fact, no dexterity of any kind is needed.
That doesn't mean you can't die, however, as there are many deadly traps to overcome. Some of them are timed, like lasers switching on and off at a certain frequency, but all timed 'actions' are so generously slow that you’ll practically have to make an effort to get yourself killed. If you do die, the level is simply restored for you to try again, and you’ll learn something that you can use to succeed the next time. There are unlimited lives so you can try as often as you need to finish a level. The designers paid a great deal of attention to all the ways you can die in this game: you can be eaten, shot at with laser beams, dissolved in acid, crushed... you name it. The astronaut's body always shows the proper cause of death, though in a somewhat funny (and certainly not gross) way.
The way to advance levels is by using your brain to solve puzzles. As a reward for each puzzle you solve, the environment is modified in some way, like a bridge extending or door opening. In one stage there is a sort of computer terminal that presents a series of standalone puzzles like a memory minigame, connecting all the same colored dots without any line crossing another one, and others. All puzzles are of moderate difficulty.
The iOS interface is very simple and neat. When the astronaut is next to an item that he can do something with, like a door or a lever, an icon appears above his head, indicating the possible action. Tapping the icon makes him perform it. You can carry one item with you, which the protagonist places on his helmeted head (the only place to store anything), and when you’re in the right place to use the item an appropriate icon appears.
The cartoony graphics of Tiny Space Adventure reflect the fact that A&R used to make games for kids. They are simple, clear, and drawn in subdued colours. Everything you need to know is made clearly visible; for instance, a pulsating ring is displayed around an object that changes when you move a handle or flip a switch. The environment is adorned with glowing crystals, and in the background you see big stars and an enormous moon. In every level there are little green aliens hiding behind rocks, and fluffy white alien bunnies hopping around. Tapping them with your finger doesn't do anything to help you progress, but it does increase your alien or bunny score.
These platforming adventures are accompanied by a short, gloomy and very repetitive tune that can't be switched off. You can turn the volume down on your iOS device, but doing so also impacts the sound effects. Then again, the few effects and other noises, although good, are not necessary for completing the game. You won’t be missing any voiceovers, at least, as there are no voices in the game. After every level there is a cutscene in which a new peril is discovered by the astronaut. What he says or thinks (it's impossible to see his face through his helmet) is shown as text on the screen.
Overall, Tiny Space Adventure is a fun little game that even clever children (maybe eight years old and above) can enjoy. The 13 levels took me around two hours to finish. The game’s total lack of story prevents it from being considered a real adventure, but nor is it a real platformer either, occupying that space where puzzle, action and adventure games overlap.
Tiny Space Adventure can be purchased for just $0.99 on either iPhone or iPad at the App Store.
The Minims is a very strange, very surreal adventure that takes place inside a vibrant cartoon world. The journey begins with a weird, misshapen, yellow blob named Mii, who’s highly evocative of The Book of Unwritten Tales’s Critter. The game presents itself as a third-person adventure with Mii fully present in every scene, but it actually works more like a first-person adventure: you swipe to pan the camera around, tap to move from scene to scene and interact with the environment so that Mii can successfully navigate through the environment at your command once the puzzles are solved.
Told through very cryptic, near-gibberish (although slightly discernible) dialogue, the plot unfolds as Mii sets out to find his missing friend U. Along the way, Mii meets a variety of characters, including a talking hedge bush and a bird who chooses to travel by air balloon. Given its fantastical, abstract nature, the puzzle logic tends to be equally bizarre. Often seemingly simple or menial tasks, such as obtaining a colored ball or restoring electricity to the vicinity, are only achieved through completely illogical fetch quests. In one particular instance, I found myself looking up into the sky and dragging around what I thought was mere background detail onto a completely unrelated object on the ground to reveal one of the necessary items. I only stumbled upon this solution by complete accident and even in hindsight it still makes no sense.
If you’ve been looking for a very odd, outlandish, very European adventure for your iOS device, The Minims surely delivers in its peculiar cartoonish style, somewhat reminiscent of The Neverhood. Unfortunately, unlike the 1996 claymation classic, here the music and sound effects are hardly present at all. This is clearly meant to be just the start of an ongoing series, but the story has barely gone anywhere by the time this opening installment is finished. On the plus side, while originally released for a small cost, the game has since become entirely free for both iPad and iPhone. There are glimmers of promise in this quirky debut, but hopefully any upcoming commercial sequels will refine the gameplay and offer more story substance moving forward.
(Note: Since time of writing, The Minims has been updated and re-released as a full commercial adventure.)