The mobile phone platform for games is something of a surprise.
It comes as no surprise that these devices are havens for casual games: puzzlers, word and number games, and their ilk abound. After all, the platform speaks to people in need of bite-sized distraction and entertainment. It can alleviate boredom during a waiting room stay, or provide a relief from the tedium of a bus ride home in the afternoon.
The advent of the smartphone means that these games can become more complex. The novel functionality of phones like modern Blackberries and iPhones, which combine touch interfaces with chips capable of 3D graphics means that we are, for the first time, seeing a portable gaming device that combines productivity, mass communications, and gaming into an integrated platform. Gone are the days when a block-breaking game and Tetris were the sum and substance of mobile gaming.
Companies like Gameloft have rushed to fill the market with high-quality mobile titles capable of delivering a console-like experience that can be played, digested and enjoyed in small enough bites to be practical on the phone platform.
If one significant criticism can be leveled at the Gameloft developers, it is that they are not terribly original. All of the major iPhone titles bear more than a little resemblance to major console and PC favorites. “Rise of Lost Empires,” with its steel-clad humans doing battle against axe-wielding orcs in a fun RTS setting is an obvious homage/nod/rip-off of the Warcraft series. “Blades of Fury,” a sword-swinging, swashbuckling fighter is Soul Calibur for the iPhone. “Modern Combat: Sandstorm” and “Hero of Sparta” also look, sound and play like major console titles.
For all their lack of novelty, however, Gameloft’s games are well-made, featuring excellent graphics, engaging gameplay, and high production values. And on a platform that was not designed primarily to be a gaming device, that is a wonder and something to be respected.
Gameloft’s latest release, “Dungeon Hunter,” is a Diablo clone. The dark fantasy art style, the loot system, the click-to-kill manic style of gameplay are all lifted from the pages of Blizzard’s action RPG. However, if one must imitate someone, it is best to imitate the best. “Dungeon Hunter” is a slick, engaging, and fun game.
Graphically, “Dungeon Hunter” is one of the best-looking games on the iPhone. The art style is cartoony, with rich, eye-popping colors, which may turn off some players. But unlike the other dungeon-crawling hack and slash title available, PixelMine’s “Underworlds,” there is never a moment when the view is occluded by the “atmosphere” being purposefully dim and dark. Changing equipment changes the look of the character, which is essential to keeping people chasing the loot piñatas.
The background music and sound effects are likable, and do not distract from the gameplay. The control scheme leaves something to be desired. The virtual on-screen joystick is not exact enough, nor sensitive enough, for this reviewer. The tap-to-move interface is easier and requires less micromanagement, but can be tedious when navigating around traps in a dungeon.
The loot system and stat comparisons are deep enough to keep any nerd engrossed for hours on end. Like most games, “Dungeon Hunter” uses a color-coded system for determining how many bonus stats exist on an item, with the rare purple and white-gold items containing four and five stat boosts, respectively.
The story, while lacking the epic scope of a modern console game, far extends beyond the basic, “I’m sorry, but the princess is in another castle.” The progression of the game unfolds with a quest system, which provides both rewards and advancement in terms of the game’s central narrative.
Replay value is expected to be moderately high: with three classes and unique playstyles, the possibility for replay with a new experience exceeds that of other dungeon crawls like “Underworlds,” which features only a single class.
The difficulty is somewhat on the low side; so far, this reviewer has yet to encounter a challenge that required more than popping a potion to survive. This will likely serve to prevent hours of work being undone by a single moment of distraction, quite common when the primary venue for game playing comes in short sessions.
That in mind, a few of the game’s save mechanics are frustrating to players and make little sense on a mobile title. If a call or text message is received during game play, and the game is paused, players reset to the beginning of the level, albeit with all items and experience gained intact. There is no option to save and pause mid-level, and some of the levels are long enough that one must decide to sit down and play for a prolonged period of time to clear them.
Another strength of the iPhone distribution platform, however, is that developers can hear and respond to complaints like these by releasing updates to address these niggling complaints. Gameloft already has a winner in “Dungeon Hunter,” but continued improvements could set the standard by which iPhone games are judged.