Let players design and share their own levels
In the middle of busy weeks I download some of the apps that recommended via the contact form and try them when I have some time. There are some that don't even get to launch and others that I play with for a couple of minutes and delete — that's probably what most people do anyway. What I like about this very time-consuming process is finding cool little-known apps that go unnoticed.
This clearly the case of Gravitations, a very quick and simple puzzle game with a space theme from an unexpected developer. Michael Stratford has worked on Gravitations in his spare time and only got the assistance of his co-workers at JLOOP, a web and graphic design studio, for the finishing touches with the art once the mechanics were ready. This would be a forgettable anecdote is the game was mediocre, but it turns out that in its simplicity, it is really good.
The simple premise in Gravitations is to take your spaceship from point A to B. You are tasked with drawing the most efficient path with your finger, tapping and sliding in the same way you draw vectors in illustration software — this is a game from graphic designers, you know. The extensive tutorial works as easy missions where you learn different strategies to cope with obstacles, namely the gravitational pull from planets, limited supply of fuel and the need to collect astronauts floating in space.
The 2D top-down view and the gesture mechanics are clearly reminiscent of titles in the line drawing genre. Unlike staples like Flight Control, in Gravitations you draw the route with the game paused and then press play to see what happens. This is actually more fun than what it sounds like. By removing the real time thinking element, Gravitations allows really complex puzzle combinations that will get you scratching your head.
This chilled out approach of playing is forgiving. There’s no stress involved other than the complexity of the puzzle: most of the time will be spent devising a strategy, then drawing the path, to later let it play and see where it went wrong. The kind of thing you can do in line or communing without drawing much attention to yourself. So yes, you can play this at work too.
Purely user-generated content
Once you finish the mammoth tutorial you would expect the typical worlds with hundreds of levels to complete and gain three stars. There's nothing of that. Instead, Gravitations relies on user-generated content, this is, levels designed by players. There's a level editor bundled in, which can be fun on its own. The so-called Online Missions is where the game really gets hardcore.
Split in hard, medium and easy, the online levels are all quite challenging. The social element allows you to vote the ones you like and see the highscores of other players, which at least manage to convince you there's a way to complete the mission. What is more interesting, once you manage to complete a mission, you can see a replay of the people on the highscores, challenging the common thought that you learn more doing than watching. Checking some of the solutions will reveal how different players tackle situations in different ways, yet managing to compete for a highscore with very narrow results. There might be a predictable solution, but you can probably improve it.
There's an important learning curve in Gravitations, though. You never quite understand how gravity works, and once you enable the F.I.D.O., a system that highlights with red lines the stronger gravitational pulls, the game loses something. There are some obstacles and items that you don't learn that well if you fly through the tutorial and will later punish you in a more complex level. The minuscule astronauts and thin path lines also make it quite tricky to get right on the iPhone smaller display — often setting new nodes accidentally with a random tap. It’s also worth mentioning Gravitations is free without in-app-purchases. I wouldn't mind some paid level pack with other items just to say thank you.
Like any hard puzzle game, the satisfaction of success forces you to overlook these minor complaints. Gravitations is simple at core, getting extremely intricate with the mad level creations from dedicated users. The pacing is right, the mechanics just work and the short action sequences are the perfect draw for a 'one more time' style of gaming; exactly the kind of compulsive replay that makes sense on mobile.