We're big fans of mobile gaming, so we get in a tizzy when something exciting comes along that promises real advances. Infinity Blade is one such game, being the first to bring the Unreal game engine to the iPhone. It looks face-meltingly beautiful, and costs £3.49 to download. That's cheaper than a London pint, but is it worth nearly 400 of your hard-earned pennies?
We've been following the development of Infinity Blade for some time -- it was demonstrated at an Apple event back in September, where its visuals impressed us. It also apparently impressed Steve Jobs at an early stage of development. But we remained sceptical -- it's very easy to whip up an impressive tech demo, but much more difficult to deliver an interesting, playable game.
Developer Epic Games was kind enough to put out a playable demo in the form of Epic Citadel, an app that allowed users to wander around a huge castle environment. There was no gameplay as such -- the point was to prove that a sophisticated 3D game engine like Unreal (the same game engine used to build games like Batman: Arkham Asylum and BioShock 2) could run on the iPhone. We found ourselves moseying around Epic Citadel's various environments with our jaws on the floor, because it was the most visually breathtaking thing we'd ever seen on Apple's phone.
Now, however, we have the full game. Infinity Blade is an action role-playing game for the iPhone 4, iPhone 3GS, iPad, and third- and fourth-generation iPod touch, developed by Epic Games' Chair Entertainment studio. It sees players battling a series of increasingly tough medieval monster types in a remote castle setting, until the time comes to defeat the brilliantly named God King. In classic RPG fashion, each battle gives you more experience, and getting enough experience will give you points that you can spend on upgrading your character's various attributes -- health, attack, shield and magic.
Swiping your finger across the touchscreen swings your sword in that direction. Defeating your enemies isn't as simple as merely wiggling your finger around, however, as you'll also have to defend yourself against oncoming attacks. You can dodge them by tapping either the bottom left or right corner of the screen at just the right moment. Alternatively, you can parry attacks or hide behind your shield.
Parrying and dodging require careful timing. If you make a mistake, you'll incur damage. The shield is more reliable, but it will take damage every time it's hit, eventually breaking, so you can't hide behind it forever. The trick to success is to parry or dodge an attack, and then unleash a flurry of furious hits on your enemy.
You also have access to stun attacks, which, once used, will let you carve up your foes at leisure, like a Christmas ham. You have magic spells too. These deal out real damage and are used by first tapping an on-screen icon and then drawing a particular shape on the screen. This feels especially cool, and works really well.
All in all, Infinity Blade offers a surprisingly engaging combat system, although it's not perfect. Sometimes it's hard to see where an attack is coming from because the camera is zoomed in too closely on the action, and some enemies' more potent attacks feel underpowered.
The learning curve is also slightly uneven. Several attempts are required to defeat some enemies, while subsequent foes give up the ghost if you so much as rattle your virtual sabre.
But those are minor gripes. Infinity Blade's combat made our heart race. The close-quarters combat feels fantastically claustrophobic at times, and your enemies are suitably massive and varied, meaning you'll really feel the pressure to survive, even though you're playing on a screen that's only slightly bigger than a custard cream.
The game's structure is pretty simple -- defeat an enemy, move to the next area and repeat. Along the way there are plenty of mouth-wateringly gorgeous cut scenes. They can get repetitive, but they do give you the option to collect gold and health potions by tapping on them if you spot them hiding among the scenery.
You never get to run around freely, like you did in Epic Citadel. That's a shame, because the surrounding hills and paths look so good that we fancied just legging it off into the distance. But we understand the constraints involved in making a game like this, and what you sacrifice in freedom you gain in simplicity. From our screenshots, you'll be able to see that Infinity Blade looks great. In fact, it looks really, really great.
As you develop your attributes and grab more gold, you'll want to gather mightier weapons and armour. You can trade in your pennies for increasingly powerful kit, and there are plenty of aspirational weapons in the game's shop that will give you something to aim for, and keep you battling onward.
The music and sound effects deserve a mention -- there's plenty of noisy male grunting, but there's also some truly thumping background music to keep you in the sword-swinging mood.
More than meets the iPhone
Infinity Blade's narrative isn't as simplistic as it first appears. We don't want to give too much away, but there's a definite moment part way through the game when it will dawn on you that this isn't just a cool arcade slasher -- it's a cool arcade slasher with some really neat ideas.
We tested the game on an iPhone 4, but we'll update the review once we've had a chance to test it on the slower iPhone 3GS. The game won't run on the iPhone 3G, or earlier models, but its developers say it will run on the third- and fourth-generation iPod touch, along with the iPad. While we spotted a few instances of slowdown on our iPhone 4, for the most part everything breezed along at a stonking frame rate.
Infinity Blade is more costly than most iPhone games. But considering how entertaining it is, £3.50 is a bargain, and well below what you'd expect to pay for a game of equivalent flair and substance on platforms like the PSP or Nintendo DS.
Technically, Infinity Blade is a triumph, and it's worth shelling out £3.50 just to say you were there to see mobile-phone gaming make a really significant leap forward. As a game, it's plenty of fun and well designed, with a creative and carefully implemented control scheme.
Infinity Blade is by no means perfect, and it lacks the longevity or pure arcade bliss that you get from games like Angry Birds or Peggle. But the fact remains that Infinity Blade shows mobile gaming has huge potential in the future.
Edited by Charles Kloet