I’ve recently upgraded to an iPhone 4 so naturally I’ve been making the rounds, checking out games that I couldn’t play on my 3G that I got back in the olden days when Zen Bound and Rolando were the hot titles. I’ve picked up some great ones- Infinity Blade, Dead Space, Hunters, and Sword and Sworcery- but my go-to game has turned out to be the incredibly weird, awkward and strangely compelling Mission: Europa. Developed by one Ryan Mitchell operating as BansheeSoft, it’s practically a garage project with a homemade first-person 3D graphics engine and a shocking amount of content. I tried the recently released light version and wound up springing for the $10 collector’s edition- the most I’ve ever paid for an iOS game.
The setup is, for the most part, incomprehensible and reads something like a 14 year old’s idea for an “awesome” science fiction movie. All you need to know is that you’re on Europa orbiting Jupiter and an AI quest dispenser sends you off into a 50 level dungeon to do stuff for it and apparently there’s over 150 tasks. The subterranean areas of the moon are full of these bloody, biomechanical robot skeletons things that try to kill you. Essentially, it’s a surprisingly successful mix of elements from Bethesda’s playbook and light RPG looters like Diablo or Borderlands. I also don’t think it would be inappropriate to cite System Shock or Ultima: Underworld as influences.
There’s plenty of stats, levels, and keyword effects but there are no classes or weapons specializations. Implements of robot murder range from standard shotguns and swords to something called a “Coolaid Gun” that is described as shooting projectiles from another dimension. I think there’s an armor slot for every part of the body, and I’m trying to determine whether or not I’m disturbed by wearing “dead scientist flesh” as protective gear or not. There’s also item crafting with several different kinds of materials and schematics to be discovered.
Control is decent, but like most first-person iOS games, it’s got room for improvement wide enough to drive a truck through. As expected, left on-screen stick controls walking, right finger anywhere on the screen controls view. It’s mostly responsive, although oddly sluggish in some areas. There’s a button for each hand to attack or defend with a shield. Additionally, there a skill slots ringing the frame where you can quick-cast spells (for lack of a better term, since this is a science fiction game), drink potions, and use skills. There are passive skills in addition to recharging, single-shot ones.
Quests are pretty standard- flip a switch, find an item, kill X number of minions, or bring back the head of a boss. Nothing particularly novel, except when you get back to the “town” area and the robot you just decapitated is there demanding his noggin back. I’ve only played for about three hours, but already this is a game that I can see going on for a long, long time. It’s definitely repetitive, but it’s got that sort of routine that makes light RPGs addictive. There’s also a multiplayer arena, but when I’ve checked there’s been no one playing.
The game is definitely reminiscent of a 1990s PC game but with some modern trappings like achievements with notices that pop up and obscure the whole screen, and I think that’s a good thing. It’s complicated, fairly detailed, and with that appealing risk/reward curve that good looting games have. I’ve been surprised at how often I’ve wanted to get back into the game, even eschewing console time to plow through more quests and find more junk. Mr. Mitchell has a surprisingly firm grasp of what makes games like this fun to play, and his commitment to producing a quality- if no-budget- product shines through.
And now, the caveats.
The production is, to be charitable, idiosyncratic. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that most folks don’t make it through ten minutes of the free trial version due to its cumbersome interface or its awkward graphics. This isn’t a super-polished Gameloft title, it’s a game that some guy made by himself with his own graphics programming and design idiom. Visually, it’s kind of like a cross between a Nintendo 64 game and a sheet of blotter acid. I’m not quite sure why there’s blood everywhere, but it contrasts nicely with all the neon green. Documentation is practically non-existent and although there are video tutorials on YouTube, there’s no help in-game for sorting out the menus, what stats do, or what keywords mean. It’s unpolished and amateur, but it’s also spirited and unlike any other hardcore game for the iDevices.
The lack of big-budget production values makes Mission: Europa quite singular. There are quirky, homespun idiosyncrasies that I think are quite endearing, like the garbled, staticky robot voices provided by a female with the Mitchell surname- probably a wife or sister. Astonishingly, I really like the garishly over-the-top 1999 Photoshop look that some of the collateral like the icon and typography has because it conveys a homespun, go-for-broke tone that only one guy with a barrel full of unchecked ambition can generate. The game is just a teeny, tiny bit of batshit crazy and that it all works so well makes it something very unique in the sea of clones and slickly produced casual fare that litter the App Store.