Infinity Blade is the first iOS game to make use of the Unreal Engine, and although this review might have unfolded less positively under different circumstances, the mere spectacle of the app’s visuals is enough to warrant a purchase.
Luckily, Chair Entertainment, responsible for XBLA’s Shadow Complex, has also created an intriguing story and gameplay blend that works perfectly on your device of choice. In Infinity Blade, players will take control of a nameless hero who journeys to a foreboding castle. This castle is where the game takes place in its entirety, and the hero must take on a number of foes before facing off against the God-King. The catch is, whether the player dies at the hands of the God-King or somehow manages to defeat him, that’s the end of his story, and a couple decades later his son will venture to the very same castle and start the adventure all over again in an effort to avenge his father.
Each playthrough is called a “Bloodline”, and any experience, money, and loot found in previous bloodlines is carried over. As you become more powerful, so do the enemies you’ll face, gaining more hit points as well as resistances to elemental spells and sword attacks. The God-King himself gains 50 levels each time you beat him (no small task), so expect many heroes to fall to his blade over the course of play. If you sense your defeat is imminent, you can quit out and restart the app (by loading up two other games first) to start from the checkpoint directly before him.
Combat is handled quite adeptly on the iPhone: You can parry and attack with your sword by swiping the touch screen. Attacking is done in any direction you desire, though to unleashed powerful combos you’ll need to stick to a set pattern such as left, left, right, right, or left, right, left. Parrying requires that you swipe in the direction of the enemy’s oncoming attack, and can render them vulnerable for a follow-up combo. Blocking is done with the push of a button, as is your special attack which stuns the opponent for a 2-3 combos’ worth of time, though you’ll need to build up enough power before you can use it. Likewise, spells need to be built up first too, and depending on the ring you’re wearing can unleash elemental attacks such as fire or lightning, or heal and shield you. After you press the spell button, you’ll need to recreate the symbol of the spell you want to use on the screen, so it’s best to do it when the enemy is not about to bitch-slap you.
There is a persistent shop screen where you can purchase weapons, rings, and armor at any time. All your acquired items are stored in your inventory, and Infinity Blade uses a unique system called “Mastery” for all of your equipment. You gain experience after each battle, with bonuses for using spells or special attacks, not taking damage, and swiftly killing your foe, but in order to receive that experience and level up, you need to channel it through your weapons and armor. Each item has its own experience bar, and once its maxed out (or “mastered”), it no longer gains experience, which also reduces the amount you’ll be receiving.
This system motivates–or more appropriately, forces–you to use as many different items as possible. Since you gain an extra skill point for each item you mastered, it makes sense to complete all the low level weapons first. Armor takes a bit longer to master, but even though this system is interesting, it’s also kind of annoying; you can have the most powerful weapon in the game, yet if it no longer grants you those valuable experience points needed to level up, it’s basically useless. Rings are particularly frustrating as you often have to give up your awesome, multi-spell ring for one you have no interest in using, all for the sake of XP. Still, the mastery system is a decent way to create replay value, but it’s not without its faults.
The castle is explored by touching where you want to go once, and then watching a short cutscene of the hero walking to it. Pretty much every five steps taken leads to another opponent, many of which tower above the hero but will fall all the same. Gold is often hidden off to the side of the screens and there are a few treasure chests (usually yielding more gold and rarely an item) here and there. There are a couple of alternate paths you can take throughout the castle as well, leading to an extra enemy and treasure of some kind, but considering how short each bloodline is, the castle does not have nearly enough variation.
Indeed, the primary complaint levied at Infinity Blade by the public is that it’s almost instantly repetitive. While running through the same castle over and over again can get redundant quickly (at least some sort of time of day/weather cycle would have mixed things up), the RPG elements and increasingly difficult opponents add plenty of depth; perhaps not enough to complete 40+ bloodlines, but as long as there are achievements to unlock and gear to master, I will keep playing. Chair has already released a free update with a new enemy and items, and more are planned for the near future.
Whether you’re playing on a Touch, iPhone, or iPad, Infinity Blade marks the unequivocal next generation of iOS games. I can see how some would describe it as a tech demo, but it’s a decidedly fleshed-out one that far surpasses its App Store competition and, most importantly, it’s just plain fun. We can undoubtedly expect much grander Unreal-powered games throughout 2011, but this is not at all a bad start.