Just before the App Store froze over the holiday period, a huge amount of games were launched for the joy of gamers that would receive their new iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad for Christmas. In the middle of the heavyweight releases such as Infinity Blade or N.O.V.A. 2, the latest title from the creators of Ravensword, Crescent Moon Games, had to battle its way up to the top.
Aralon Sword and Shadow HD [iTunes Link] is a 3D fantasy RPG dressed with numerous customization options and hours of gameplay to explore an epic world. Unlike recent 3D games on rails (read Rage HD or Infinity Blade,) Aralon uses the free roaming experience players would expect in World of Warcraft or Oblivion with multiple outdoor and indoor scenarios, 3D modeled characters and enemies that populate the kingdom. The game uses dual-stick controls, which feel familiar and are easy to pick up since most players have used them on touch screen devices. You can pan around the protagonist playing as third person or choose a first person perspective. The few cut-in scenes are simply rendered with the same game engine and, without being spectacular at all, I can't put down the rich universe packed into this game.
The free sandbox experience is really accomplished for a mobile device, allowing you to go fishing, prepare potions, pickpocket and trade items wherever you go. The game uses a reputation system that will allow you to interact with certain characters in the game, otherwise blocked. Becoming an outlaw allows you to talk to thieves and ruffians, but be prosecuted by citizens and guards of the city of Callaheim, the capital of the Aralon kingdom.
You can chose your character from the main races in the game: human, elf and troll, and select four different classes from warrior to mage. A new update is expected to include paladins. The developers have understood that customisation is an important part of these games and unlike Ravensword, where everyone plays the same character, here you can customize yours, from gender to hair style and face. Different items equipped will vary the appearance of your hero during the game, which is a great addition. The battle system is probably not the biggest strength of the game, but after hours of playing, the simple mechanics of tapping for attack and defend have convinced me, as they are a fast and easy way to get around fights. Casting spells will change your stats, but they don't seem to vary the way you attack your opponent. I guess I cannot expect all the sword-swiping attacks and parries in Infinity Blade.
Different areas will have their own enemies around paths, corridors, caves and temples. I found that enemies tend to be really repetitive and that is almost impossible to see different types on the same screen. While in the city you can see trolls, humans and elves in different outfits and with different stats, the rest of the areas will have just the same character over and over again. The only change will be the amount of gold and weapon used, but if you see orcs on your way, expect to see only orcs for the next twenty minutes. I haven't played as a magician, so I can't really tell, but every time I face a mage, they always cast the same burning flames spell, regardless of their race.
Every big quest has its final boss, which might just be modeled just like any other enemy. If the game allows you to customize your character, why making standard final bosses? One of the most unique enemies I found was a gained wolf right at the beginning of the game and looked quite unique and was a real challenge to slay. The second shortcoming has to be the incredible amount of weapons and equipment you find along the way that you cannot use. Different classes can only use certain equipment, meaning that my rogue elf could never use heavy armor, big swords or bows. This is kind of frustrating, since I could only use light sword and sabers as primary weapon and rapiers as secondary.
Visually, the Aralon universe is not the most realistic you have seen but there is a great effort to avoid repeating textures and making low polygon counts too noticeable. Most of the house layouts and interiors are the same though. Playing on an iPad and iPhone 3GS you'll notice how elements in the background load up as you walk (this is what ruined the original Sega Rally for me) but this is a graphic limitation of the current generation of devices. You will also notice how characters actually drop from the sky in the most infantile fashion. See my video where the throne room is empty and suddenly the king falls on his throne when I get closer. I noticed some lag when battling against three enemies, but Aralon felt fluid anywhere else. Again, one of the best open world experiences on my iPad.
It is true that all the good feelings about this game collide with some odd crashes when entering certain areas, so my advice is that you save your game very often. The developers have included two updates fixing bugs already, so I'm quite pleased, but I am still waiting for full resolution on iPad menus. Otherwise, why do you call this game HD? The iPhone UI on the iPad feels like playing the beta of a game, not the final product. I also noticed that the hair in my character would not appear on the menu and that my head will not show up on stealth mode. Along with this, I would love to see enhanced maps, since the current ones are really simple and do not help much to the exploration element. When you collect secret maps, you can't read them in your inventory, they just update something on your generic map… I would like to see more information and detail in the map section as well as some sort of compass instead of that arrow.
I have to guess that the rush to release the game before Christmas is the reason for this, but don't get me wrong. Aralon is such an experience on a portable device that makes it worth it. If you enjoyed the genre and have already played Ravensword or other RPG games on your iPhone or iPad, the stakes are high that Aralon won't disappoint you. However, you must expect some sort of perfectly unfinished product, a bit glitchy here and there, but completely functional if you play on a supported device. All in all, Aralon is pretty good news for iOS gaming and good make a good addition to everyone's game collection.