Phosphor Games create a beautiful, and equally unnerving, world on iOS. But is it a case of beauty is only skin deep?
We’re seeing a steady flow of Unreal Engine based games hit the AppStore. Ever since Infinity Blade (IB) showed what was possible with the engine on the system, many devs have jumped in headfirst.
The Dark Meadow is one such example, but not only does it utilise the Unreal tech from Infinity Blade, but also the core gameplay too.
The game drops you into a strange and deserted Hospital. Unable to escape and egged on by a strange wheelchair bound old man, you must travel the corridors in search of clues to learn more of your predicament. It’s not long of course before you realise you are not alone, and that the hospital is in fact a hotbed of supernatural activity.
Luckily for you, you are armed with a trusty sword and crossbow. (I’m not entirely sure why there are no guns, as it seems like the game is set circa 1930). Unleashing both of these weapons is where the familiar Infinity Blade-style gameplay comes into play.
As you wander your environment, enemies will spawn at random intervals and attack you. They typically fight in two stages. The first sees them walking towards you and, depending on the type of creature, may spit at you. At this stage you can do one of two things. You can dodge left or right by tapping on the corresponding on-screen arrows or, fire your crossbow at them. You can drag your crossbow around the screen to aim, and pulling back on the bow will activate a line of sight, which also represents your power with a visual curve. Letting go will fire at the beast, and if you get a successful hit (preferably a head shot) you will weaken it. This is a good thing too, because the next stage involves more of a close up/hand-to-hand battle.
When the creature is close enough, you will automatically switch to your sword. Dodge is still available, but now you can also block and pull-off melee attacks. The creature will begin to attack you with random patterns. Initially I thought it was very much a slash and hope affair, but in fact the key is to watch their movements, and dodge or block their attacks. Their attacks are quite slow, giving you just enough time to react to their angle of attack. Early on in the game it’s very much a case of block and slash, but as the creatures get more powerful your blocks will become less effective (until you yourself power-up your blocks, but more on that later). I found that, as long as you’re quick enough with your reaction times, you can get through most bouts relatively unscathed by using just dodge and the sword.
Unlike Infinity Blade, there is no parry system. It’s unfortunate that if you are going to copy a great game like Infinity Blade, then you’d think one of the best elements of that game would at least make the cut here. Sadly it didn’t, and it makes for rather lackluster and monotonous battles where it becomes a case of dodge, dodge, dodge, slash, slash and slash!
If you managed to slay the beast then you’ll be rewarded with XP and maybe even some gold and health. This info is given to you after every battle. Unfortunately it cannot be skipped, and I would have preferred if this stat screen was optional.
Moving around the hospital is also Infinity Blade-like. It’s simple point and click stuff (or in this case point and tap), meaning that you can’t freely roam the halls. Instead you must tap in front of you to incrementally move forward. You can freely look around while on the spot, as well as interact with objects such as draws and cupboards to hunt out items to collect. It’s a shame that Phosphor didn’t implement a more free control scheme. I understand that some iPhone or iPad users find it hard to get to grips with a virtual dual-analogue setup, but I think the game would be far more engaging if it at least gave you the option to freely walk around. It would not affect the combat either, because that could still be done in the same way, where as soon as an enemy appears you are locked on the spot in fright.
If you think that is all the similarity to Infinity Blade to be found in this game, you’d be wrong. The way the gameplay is structured is also pretty much the same. The aim of the game, as your wheel chair bound companion keeps reminding you, is to hunt down and slay a ghost-like figure, which he calls a witch. As you roam the halls you are guided by a light as to which path you should take to find her, white doors also help guide you into going in the right direction. As you fight you way through all the monsters, you are constantly leveling up, allowing you to take on bigger and higher-level enemies as you go. However, should you race to meet the witch too soon, you will simply not be strong enough to defeat her. Just like the God King in Infinity Blade, once you are killed you go right back to the beginning. Only, instead of being the next in the bloodline, you simply wake back up in that first room, with all your XP, Gold and collectables intact.
In Infinity Blade, this grinding fitted the game well an felt more natural. You knew exactly which path to take and which battles you would encounter along each path, and roughly how long it would take to get back to the God King. In the Dark Meadow the environment is grander in size. Once you defeat the witch for the first time – who is guarding a staircase – you are sent right back the beginning again, where you must then make your way and battle through all the places you have no doubt already been through multiple times, to get back to the staircase and onwards. The further you get in this game, the further you must then travel once you die. I understand the need to level up through multiple play-throughs, but the game could at least let you start from where you died, allowing you to make up your own mind if you want to backtrack to level up. Especially when many of may unsuccessful attempts to defeat the witch later on the game were down to error in my dodging skill and not that I was not of sufficient power level. The sunlight rooms that you can access to get away from the monsters, for a little R&R, would be perfect as checkpoints to start from.
XP and leveling up isn’t the only thing you must build on to defeat the creatures within the hospital… You also need to improve your weapons. Both the crossbow and the sword can be replaced with bigger and more badass versions through your handy equipment menu. Here you can spend gold on more powerful weaponry that will help you slay the beasts with more ease. Some weapons not only boost your attack, but also have defensive and healing attributes. Amulets can also be purchased which boost many weapon and XP character stats, once more helping to power you up. You can of course grind heavily to acquire the majority of these items by collecting gold in the game. However, there are some top tier items where it would take years to accumulate the required bounty. As expected in an iOS game, you can purchase gold with real money, up to 6,000,000 gold for a whopping £35 (around $55) this would guarantee you the best equipment and powerups without much work, for which I cannot see the point in doing unless you are one lazy-ass son of a bitch with absolutely no patience or sense of adventure!
While you can swap between you purchased weapons on the fly (but not during battles), you cannot sell them. This is a strange omission, especially where IAP is involved, meaning that if you did buy an item with your own cash, you are stuck with it should you feel you wanted to buy another. It seems a bit like a money grabbing scheme from the developer. Occasionally you will be thrown a bone by the game and given a good item for free, however this is rare, so for most of us it’s a long grind to the top.
Keeping your interest up through all this grinding however, is one of the main highlights of the game, and that is the excellent dialogue. Spoken with quite possibly the best voice acting to grace iOS is your old friend in the wheel chair, who keeps in contact with you over a loud speaker when you visit the special sunlight rooms in the game. It’s this dialogue that really drives you forward and makes up for the monotony. What surprised me the most is that his ramblings rarely get repeated, if at all.
To begin with he genuinely sounds like he’s trying to help. But the next minute he’s getting all paranoid and spouting things to make you doubt yourself and your quest. He’s obviously insane, but not until the end do you know if he is truly on your side or not. Also adding to unravel the story are random clippings from newspapers and diaries. They are not essential but they do give more insight into the history of the Hospital and what may or may not have transpired. There are 59 of these clippings to collect, all randomly appearing as you retread your path on multiple play-throughs.
With this being an Unreal engine based game, it’s expected that the game should look pretty good. Graphics whores out there will not be disappointed in this regard, as The Dark Meadow looks great, particularly on the iPad 2’s bigger screen. The texture detail is fantastic, and while the shadows in the environments are not dynamic, the game does well to portray a dark and moody atmosphere in which to encounter the monstrous creatures. The creatures in question are not as intricate or detailed as Infinity Blade’s, but they are a pretty unnerving bunch of miscreants. The majority are bipedal creatures in various sizes, mutated with strange heads and appendages. The overall style is less of the fantasy of Infinity Blade, and more along the lines of the Silent Hill series.
The Dark Meadow is a hard game to rate. On the one hand it’s a success, building a rousing story through great voice work and creating a sense and moody atmosphere in which to get lost in. But, on the other hand, and as I mentioned in my intro, this is all very much skin-deep stuff. Beyond the presentation, the gameplay is only good at best, with some elements bringing it down to a mediocre level. The level grinding is more of a chore than fun, and if it wasn’t for the story and presentation pushing you forward, then I’d expect players to have given up a long time ago, let alone play it though again and again.
If you are looking for an intense thriller and have a lot of time (or money) on your hands then you may want to pick this up. For everyone else it’s certainly pretty to look at and listen too, but I doubt you’ll have the patience or enough encouragement to get to the end.