An honest Android game is hard to find. Most are “free,” except with in-app purchases. It’s like buying an apple “for free” at a supermarket and then paying $0.85 to eat it – what’s “free” about that? Free-to-play, free-to-eat, whatever – the mobile gaming world is full of cutthroat pirates obsessed with the word candy and unconcerned with your experience. Every now and then you get lucky with something like Plants vs. Zombies 2, only to see its makers experiment with pay-to-win lawn mowers.
What a weird feeling it is then when you find a game that doesn’t have any IAP – especially when it so easily could have implemented them to squeeze for you $50 here or there. The cross-platform Out There is at once a throwback to a different type of gaming business model and one hopes a foreshadowing of what’s possible for high-quality mobile games. It only costs $3.99, and despite its labeling in Google Play, there aren’t any IAP.
Out There is exquisitely made. The graphics resemble a comic book, with lushly colored sci-fi landscapes. The soundtrack is creepy and beautiful, or basically what you would expect for a deep-space survival adventure. It’s the 22nd century and your character has awoken from cryogenic slumber (having fared better than Ted Williams, apparently) and has to make his way from one galaxy to the next.
Right from the start, Out There has that feeling of there being a long quest ahead, which I don’t always get from mobile games that seem not to look beyond what you’re going to do 5 minutes from now when you run out of rubies/coins/donuts. There’s a dot way across the galaxy and you’ve got to get there, overcoming all sorts of hazards and misfortune along the way.
Your ship has several main resources – hull strength, fuel, and oxygen. Each one of these depletes as you travel from star system to star system. See what I mean about there being a golden opportunity for IAP here? But Out Here splendidly doesn’t take it. Instead, you can only acquire each element (H/He for fuel; O for oxygen; and Fe for hull and equipment repair) by harvesting them from stars and planets. How novel.
There’s a lot of risk/reward calculus in Out There. For example, you can drill into a planet’s surface to get iron and other metals, but doing so uses some fuel and carries the risk of breaking your drill, in which case you’ll have to use iron (what you were likely trying to acquire in the first place) to repair it. Your cargo hold is limited, with only a few slots and a cap of 20 units on each of the essential elements. It’s possible to dismantle equipment to make room and harvest elements, but doing so could leave you missing a module you’ll wish you had later on.
Traveling through the lonely cosmos of Out There is dangerous. In other words, prepare for a lot of game over’s. You might spin off course and take a bunch of hull damage, or your light speed warp between worlds may fail, leaving you short 20+ fuel and no further along in your quest. The game also has a choose-your-own-adventure element to it, in which you pick one branch on a path and never really know if a choice will net you a nice resource bonus or end your game prematurely.
Out There is exceedingly difficult and unpredictable, and you’ll need a lot of luck to get through it safely. But this isn’t Candy Crush luck – you won’t make it all the way to your destination without putting in some dedicated planning.
It reminds me of all the hours I logged as a kid playing Space Quest V: The Next Mutation, another tough trek (heh) that owed a lot to classic sci-fi and burnished its loopy puzzles with gorgeous artwork. Out There isn’t an adventure game per se, but its long-form, challenging characteristics make it feel like an adventurer gamer’s take on Faster Than Light or Mass Effect.
From the mid 1980s to the late 1990s, point-and-click adventure games, or just adventure games in most vernaculars, were mainstays on Macs and PCs. Publishers like Sierra On-Line and LucasArts made their bones on artistically sophisticated, often voice-acted games that used a task bar UI to investigate and interact with a fantasy world.
Examples included Gabriel Knight, Space Quest, and Leisure Suit Larry, all from Sierra, and Sam and Max Hit the Road and Full Throttle from LucasArts. After peaking with the blockbuster King Quest’s V: Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder (which sold a then-astonishing 500,000 copies), the genre entered a gentle decline perhaps attributable to its slower pace and low action quotient. Sierra’s main development office closed in 1999.
Since reaching that nadir, adventure games have made a befittingly (for the genre) low-key and incremental comeback. Kickstarter has helped. French developer Quantic Dream unleashed progressively bigger hits like Farenheit (Indigo Prophecy) and Heavy Rain, while the Nintendo (3)DS became a sanctuary for visual novels like Cing’s Hotel Dusk and its scarce, brilliant sequel, Last Window. More specifically, the (3)DS’s stylus made the old school UI logic of point-and-click feasible on a mobile device, albeit a dedicated gaming machine. So how have they fared on consumer smartphones and tablets (some of them with their own styli, of course)?
Increasingly well, it appears. I’ll focus on three Android games that have elevated and updated the genre: Yesterday by BulkyPix, Broken Sword: The Smoking Mirror (BSII from hereon; its predecessor is subtitled Shadows of the Templars) by Revolution Software, and The Silent Age by House on Fire. Yesterday is a mobile-first game of atypically high quality, while BSII is a remastered version of a 1997 game originally released for Windows (on 2 CD-ROMs: a sign of the times, during an era of growing ambition on the cusp of mainstream DVD usage. The second Gabriel Knight installment came on 6 CDs) and the original PlayStation. The Silent Age is new episodic adventure game. Despite the differences in their origins, they all achieve a unique high point on Android (they’re available on iOS, too) perhaps do the larger screen real estate, sharp displays, and the availability of a dedicated stylus for the popular Galaxy Note series, too.
BSII successfully migrates its classic desktop UI onto mobile. With your Galaxy S4 or Nexus 4 in landscape mode, you have easy access to your frequently-used inventory and journal in the lower corners, and you can get to settings or (gasp!) hints in the less-easily used upper corners. It works because it was simple and intuitive in the first place and didn’t need any heavy modification.
The widescreen aspect is perfect: the game has never looked better, with real pop in its comic book art and characters portraits. In terms of story, you control American tourist George Stobbart as he investigates a mystery related to Mayan archaeology (however, the term “smoking mirror” is a reference to the Aztec god, Tezcatlipoca). Unlike the other installments in the Broken Sword series, BSII is mercifully free of Knights Templar story lines, which are almost required at the door in the realm of dark, self-serious games (Deus Ex and Assassin’s Creed 3 are but two of many possible examples here).
Yesterday is an original mobile game. It shares with BSII an affinity for comics: its cut-scenes have comic frames and labels. Despite its novelty, its interface is old school, with an item tray at the top and interface options at the bottom.
Its learning curve is steeper than BSII, likely because of its more complicated UI. But its animations are smooth, and you can see its latter-day innovations in terms of the different options and sub-menus it offers for interacting with small objects and touch-points, which can sometimes be a problem with the vintage BSII.
The Silent Age is an adventure game set predominantly in the 1970s. It has a minimalist interface that has no sign of the legacy point and click UIs of Yesterday and especially BSII. Its muted graphics are a great fit for its straightforward (though hardly unchallenging) gameplay, and to top it all off, it’s free (although the developer allows for donations, too).
Yesterday has been featured on Google Play and BSII is an Editor’s Choice there. Both are worth your time for a few dollars. The Silent Age is worth a try, too.