As they say in Britain, 'pigs will fly' before Angry Birds loses the control of the App Store charts. Perhaps to avoid pig and bird references, London-based design studio ustwo has presented its candidacy to reach the top with a mainstream casual game with a cute flying... whale!
Although ustwo is not your usual gaming development, the name should be familiar to iOS users already. Almost two years ago they launched the dotTM series, simple yet aesthetically pleasing games perfect for mobile platforms. In the time of the novelty apps, MouthOff did well and got support from popular kids IPs, but the more recent Granimator, Nursery Rhymes and Papercut are the ones that really gained Apple’s and press recognition. Since freemium apps and 99c games rule the ecosystem at the moment, it seems it's the time to have a shot at it too.
Whale Trail [iTunes Link] is an endless cave flyer where you guide the cute main character Willow on a psychedelic journey above the clouds. Powered by a mysterious fuel in form of bubbles, your goal is to fly through different worlds avoiding the odd angry clouds without loosing your whale trail.
Even if the protagonist looks rather tiny, Willow is a hungry beast that needs constant supply of those magical rainbow pearls that populate the sky. The gameplay mechanics force the player to collect those fuel ’blubbles’ at any cost since Willow is a whale after all and will plummet when the reserves run out.
The game plays with a single high score mode where you are teased with power ups and multipliers to keep you trying over and over. Other than the scores and the natural curiosity to explore the more advanced levels, Whale Trail is also a delight for fans of speed runners, since the scenarios aren't randomly generated and can be learned with some practice. Seasoned players will find this and the transitions between world very similar to the huge jumps in Tiny Wings, but the mechanics are very different.
Flying the whale with one-tap controls is quite enjoyable on its own. The strange mechanics of a heavy animal powered by a magical pull is very well portrayed - if that even makes sense - and you always get the sensation of stalling like a place with a burning engine.
The real catch are the multipliers, since the game penalises you for touching the electrifying dark clouds. Every time you are zapped, your whale trail and multiplier decreases dramatically, giving you an extra reason to navigate the skies following the suggested tracks.
What really raised Whale Trail to the top tier are the production values that went in it. The superb graphics are a clear testimony of what this studio does best, and at least makes me think that if this is a flop, it will be a very expensive but very good portfolio app. The colour scheme, the level of detail and the art direction itself deserve more than that, though. In fact, I appreciate the tasteful mixture of cuteness, simplicity and atmosphere created - this should be quite obvious seeing at the blog’s AppFreak illustration. By the end of the day, this is the sort of game you want to play and enjoy your device, minus the tackiness you get in most freemium apps. For the price being asked, this sounds like a good deal to me.
Along with the psychedelic theme, Whale Trail has been paired with a lovely theme song - another requirement for a top 5 casual game. I particularly like the music change in the frenzy mode, when the tune sounds like something taken from a Japanese dance machine.
Overall, ustwo has done an awesome job with their first serious gaming release. It's clear these guys understand the market and have studied success stories in depth. Surely many developers are doing the same, but Whale Trail comes with its own personality and theme in a world of copycats.