Release: Out now
Publisher: Epic Games
Developer: Chair Entertainment
Is this the end or the beginning? It’s tempting to see Epic’s arrival on iOS (so quick on the heels of long-term rival id) either calling time on the scrappy bedroom ingenuity of the iPhone marketplace, or heralding a strange new era in which big budget action games compete for space on the touch screen with treasure hunts, tile puzzles, and physics toys. It’s equally possible, of course, that it’s too late, even for the might of both the Unreal Engine and this heftiest of studios, to make too much of a dent in the App Store at all.
As far as the game itself is concerned, however, for Infinity Blade the end is the beginning, with a fleeting swordplay tutorial giving way, rather swiftly, to your hero’s brutal murder at the hands of the level 50 God King. What spills outwards from that point is a tale of bloodlines, destinies and loot shopping, as generations of descendants follow, quite literally, in the first swordsman’s footsteps, moving through the same locations and taking on the same ever-levelling bosses in order to avenge him – incrementally inching their own attributes higher as they go.
If it’s a brave choice to make the grind of a game so fiercely geographical, it’s enormously satisfying to find that this unlikely structure works. You’ll know, throughout the course of your first few tours of Infinity Blade’s castle, that you’re being set up for a fight you can’t win just yet, but chances are you won’t really mind. Why? Because on this flimsy structure, Chair Entertainment has hung combat of real weight and connection. It’s swordplay that’s both immediate and lightly tactical, more in the vein of Punch Out!! than any traditional action RPG.
Like the storyline, it’s basic stuff. Enemy hit chains must be broken by shield blocking, dodging, or parrying – as blocks are limited for each battle, the latter options are preferable, but they require learning each enemy’s tells first – while on the offensive side you have directional swipes, special moves, and gestural magic attacks. Throughout the action, the touch screen controls are generally simple, responsive and intelligent (the noted exception is a pause button that’s a bit too easy to accidentally nudge with overhead blows), but there are still pleasant nuances to perfect. Chaining strikes together is satisfyingly tricky due to the timing required, and opening enemies up for a rare stab takes quick reflexes.
Regardless of such gentle challenges, it’s a simple business to settle down into the game’s rhythm, at which point the levelling and equipment comes to the fore, as you experiment with new items and bolster your stats. In a smart twist, each piece of your inventory can be levelled and then traded in for a skill point when you’ve mastered it, adding a simple, but appealing, element of strategy that encourages you to play dangerously, sticking with outmoded kit as you rinse it for points.
Beyond the character sheet, however, you can put aside most thoughts of RPGs: in between the ceaseless chains of battles, you won’t be offered exploration so much as a smartly implemented hidden object game, that sees you prodding at the screen collecting money bags and health potions, and only occasionally choosing which path to take. Granted, it sounds dismal, but it plays very well, the streamlined concept built with an understanding not just of swipe controls and combos, but of bus journeys, boarding queues and coffee breaks. Infinity Blade is, above all else, a game in which you can achieve a lot in a few minutes, and it helps, of course, that the visuals fairly sing. The technology’s happy to pour on the detailing, but the art direction ultimately wins the day with a range of wonderfully brutal enemy and armour designs, all of which contrive to make each trip to the shop even more of a treat.
Like Rage, in other words, Infinity Blade’s a fearsome advert for a publisher’s middleware, but Epic’s offering is smart enough to go further than that, too. The maker of Shadow Complex has delivered a game that’s sufficiently humble to allow itself to be fundamentally shaped by serious study of the platform, yet possessed of enough self-assurance to offer weighty, bone-jarring thrills despite the thinnest of mechanics. As we wait for the first of the promised updates, then, there’s plenty of reason to hope that this is the beginning, after all –the beginning of something rather special.