Combo Crew brawler nails asynchronous co-op multiplayer with style

Multitouch swipes without taking itself too seriously

You know The Game Bakers from their previous work on iOS with Squids and Squids Wild West adapting traditional games mechanics to mobile touch devices slapping fantastic art and character design on top. The latest release from the indie French studio follow the same risky pattern; the one that pleases the hardcore gamer and takes the best of the platform.

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Combo Crew isn't your typical brawler. Realising virtual controls will spoil any attempt to port an arcade experience on touch devices, The Game Bakers plopped static levels, removed all movement controls to focus on the fighting itself.

Watching the trailer shows the spirit is there: a lot of action on the screen and input from a player that barely know what's happening on the screen. Going for gesture-based controls doesn't mean you're forgetting about the button mashing that made arcade fighting games so pleasing; the swiping in Combo Crew is like Fruit Ninja on crack.

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And perhaps because the the swipe controls might be a sin for gaming purists, the game doesn't take itself too seriously at any time. The storyline leaves you trapped on the tower of Mr.Boss, which happens to be the final boss. The four playable characters range from a Hollywood-esque action movie actor to a martial-arts trained girl with the thickest pony tail you've seen — she's my favourite. The enemies are equally amusing, although the action is so frenetic that you barely have the chance to think if you're fighting a ninja master, serial killer, a robot or a little boy without arms. You notice, though, that they get repetitive wave after wave.

A risky control scheme

Thrown in this unconventional setting, the tutorial shows you the basic moves slowly so you understand the combos aren't combos and the moves aren't moves. Attack an enemy swiping on its direction — your hero will move automatically and punch. Swiping with two fingers releases a series of punches, kicks and whatnot, unleashing the actual combo chains. Whenever an enemy shows a blurb with an exclamation mark, you need to tap anywhere to get ready to counter his attack, while swiping and holding releases a small Kamehameha-style attack.

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Not a gratuitous reference. Perhaps it's me, but I found Combo Crew had a generous amount of Dragon Ball love: the young male character Parker sports a monkey tail and has some attacks using one arm while hiding his other hand on this back. Classy.

What's to really love in Combo Crew is the fantastic character design and execution, with a cel-shaded art style that evokes more of that Akira Toriyama influence. While the game is snappy and responsive to the gestures, I found the black outlines not as crisp as they could be on a Retina device. This is not, however, as noticeable as other games with similar style like Samurai II: Vengeance.

A different asynchronous multiplayer

The single player mode in Combo Crew is a repetitive affair of completing levels increasing difficulty. This is put on the context of climbing to the office on the top floor of Mr. Boss, but doesn't change that you're just repeating the same thing over and over while unlocking new abilities and perks such as new characters.

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The multiplayer mode is much more interesting; playing against waves until you surrender, a moment when you can call for the help of your crew. If the invitation is accepted, a friend will jump in and revive you only after matching or improving your score. This isn't done over Game Center but Facebook and email. The reason, probably to allow players on iOS and Android to be in the same crew, which is neat.

Speaking about this type of multiplayer mode, creative director Emeric Thoa says: "with Combo Crew, we wanted to recreate the fun of playing a brawler co-op with a friend on the sofa, but adapt this to mobile gaming. So the Draw Something-style asynchronous multiplayer really made sense." I think this is a really good idea that adds a social dimension to the experience. After all, in a lot or arcade fighting games you would have a friend next to you with a quarter ready to jump in as second player to keep those continues going.

Combo Crew is an action-packed brawler that dodges with artistry the limitations of the platform. The same frenetic swiping on the screen you used to cut fruits and ropes replaces the Double Dragon button mashing that defines the genre. The top production values — palpable on the silly narrator, character design and art style in general — make Combo Crew a super entertaining and quick game on the go, with the topping of an ingenious co-op arena mode.