Aces of Steam - Ode to the multiplayer minigame

Nobody likes to be left out of a multiplayer game. Having four people staring at an iPad could make some sense when the device was released, but these days, group games like Pictionary are a personal private experience with "social games" like Draw Something. So what's left for some kids around the table or a night with three friends, some beers and one iPad? 

Aces of Steam is nothing more than an experiment game from a group of very talented designers committed to show off their graphic design, usability and minimalist skills in a consumable iPad game on the App Store.

Everything in the packaging is beautiful and looks great. Developer Problem Bob has managed to convey the look and presence of what would have been a post World War I where fossil fuels didn't exist. It's like Red Baron steam punk edition. 

A minigame sequence that you'll find familiar

The mechanics of the game are as simple as four controllers on each corner of the iPad. You can turn left or right using just one finger — firing is automatic when an enemy is on target. You navigate a 360 degree top-down level with the goal of being the last remaining ace on the sky. Think of that multiplayer edition of Pac Man Party, just without the mazes.

As gameplay goes, the planes are powered by steam obtained from the clouds. Collecting those are key to keep going and avoiding running out of juice. The could steam indicator is the only visible piece of UI aside from the actual control buttons — even if you don't get any indication that you should get the clouds, you'll see the gauge moving and getting the eventual speed boost once the deposit is full. 

The different power-ups give some more variety to the game and add that competitiveness that you get in Mario Kart when you get random weapons. Aces of Steam tries to tickle that gaming satisfaction nerve that is familiar to every person who has played a multiplayer game before.

If another friend decides to join or leave during the game, the app will take care of that and will provide an artificial substitute. This makes you question why have things become so complex over the years?

The extreme minimalism of the app is, perhaps, it's greatest achievement but also biggest disappointment. At no point in the game you need to set up anything — this is a "launch-and-play" type of thing. Don't select amount of players because the computer IA will fill in the gaps.  

Simplicity at the cost of customisation

If you were thinking of plane upgrades, customisation, leader boards or victory counters, this is just too simple for you. This combined with the only level included makes it feel like an enormous trade off, since the map feels more like a mere background that has no active role during the game. And there's nothing wrong with it, in fact, it's pretty awesome if UI stop to look at it and see the hidden pause button in the crater of a volcano. For me this is an unfortunate decision that spoils the overall top-quality feel of the game. Having a different map to appear randomly after every game wouldn't have hurt. It's a bit like having to play the same level of Flight Control over and over again. 

And then Aces of Steam also has some hidden surprises for the single player. The kind of thing you want to see, explore and read on your own. Scrolling through the main menu, which is a cluttered desk with war memorabilia, some of the items are actionable and reveal the story in further depth. Content wise is good decision but the retro-loving part of the brain some of us has will get use staring at all the details for some time.

This is one of the best menus I've seen on a digital platform. I know the visual metaphors are quire old right now, but I still love exploring all the little things of this steampunk retro universe in all it's detail. Only seeing this as a portfolio allows you to understand the real complexity of the work that went into it. And as I suspected initially, the bearded pilots used as models are indeed the trio behind this game.

Overall, Aces of Steam is a great introduction to the platform for Problem Bob. In an App Store where casual games come with 200 levels and regular updates for free, the single scenario falls short. The value proposition isn't there and the whole thing becomes repetitive before the 30 minute mark. The game surprises with its lack of configuration — that could as well be really well hidden in that menu — being its biggest advantage the fact that there's nothing to set up other than gather your friends around the iPad. Don't take the criticisms in vain: every design decision here is spot on and the graphic quality and originality is incommensurable.