Pop quiz: which country is Vilnius the capital of?
If you answered ‘Don’t know’, well done, you’re as clever as me (not something to be proud of). If you answered ‘Lithuania’, you’re either a) studying geography or b) Lithuanian. In either of those cases, you’re probably smarter than me.
New arcade puzzler ‘The Howler’ accurately reflects the culture of Vilnius – it’s set in the city, many of the buildings in the game are true-to-life, and the central tenant of hot-air balloons floating over the roofs of the Old Town is something you can apparently see every day. I say ‘apparently’ because I’ve never been to Vilnius, so I can’t confirm this 100 per cent, but I have no reason to believe Lithuanian game developers would lie to me.
The game involves steering a hot air balloon across Vilnius using the on-screen wind directions to guide the balloon to the end of the level. The screen is divided into horizontal sections with each section being defined by a wind direction. Tap the screen to get your balloon moving, and the wind will either propel or curb your progress depending on it’s orientation. Levels are made up of puzzles and tasks which must be cleared; drop a parcel here, land over there, that kind of thing.
One thing that’s of interest is voice control. As well as using standard touch, your balloon can also be guided entirely by using the dulcet sounds of your gob. Ascend by making a noise, descend by staying quiet. A short, sharp sound such as one you would make when stubbing your toe will allow you to drop items from the balloon when necessary.
It’s an intriguing idea, and one you might think would’ve been included in more iOS games to date, but in practice it’s counter-intuitive and rarely works as advertised. I must’ve looked like a complete nutter as I repeatedly made guttural noises at my phone in a vain attempt to control my balloon. I was met with little success and a whole host of strange looks. I’m never reviewing another game on the train to work again.
So it’s a lot simpler to use traditional controls – faster, more accurate and stops you from sounding like you’ve got some sort of videogame related Tourette’s. A lot of the architecture in Vilnius appears to have been designed specifically to dissuade air ballooners from flying as every other building seems to include a sharp spire on its roof which instantly deflates (read: violently explodes) your balloon. One attempt to avoid them using voice controls and you’ll switch back in no time.
Where gameplay is concerned, one man’s frustration is another man’s methodical. It’s generally a slow, drawn-out affair to complete tasks and reach the end of levels, which is exacerbated by the eerie sound effects and general feeling of isolation above the city.
Visually though, ‘The Howler’ is an absolute treat. The artwork is a beautiful sfumato-esque, hand-drawn style which really pops off the screen. The detail on the Vilinian structures is both precise and intricate, calling to mind the works of DaVinci. Or some other really, really old, really, really good artist I’m too ignorant to know the name of.
So if you have enough patience to negotiate ‘The Howler’s’ ponderous styling, you might find this to your taste. One thing’s for sure, the Lithuanian Tourist Board just received a healthy shot in the arm.