Stellar Escape Almost Gets Away With It

Anyone who's played Canabalt has thought about screwing with its controls setup. How about a double-jump? Maybe a speed burst? Maybe these things would be good, but in the end, I like knowing that it has one, press-anywhere command, and when I tell the thing to jump, it by God jumps.

So here comes Orange Agenda's Stellar Escape for the iPhone 4, similar to Canabalt in that both are auto-propelled, side-scrolling escape-premised games. It's a risk taker, offering and requiring the use of four maneuvers in addition to jump to navigate a course of electrified hazards.

In addition to leaping, you may slide under hazards, dive through gaps in them, swing from overhead pipes, or jump through a chute to bypass portions of the track altogether. Scoring is on a simple three-star basis, depending on whether you make it to the end of the course having lost none, one or two of your available three lives. There are 15 courses and an endless mode you earn after beating half of them.

For starters, I don't prefer iPhone games with this many buttons (five) in play. I've tried taking the blame for it - oh, darn my fat fingers - but I just don't think games built with this many controls embody the best of the platform. If anything demands a simple design and simple controls, it's the iOS games.

Stellar Escape almost pulls it off. Your movement is automatic, and that's a plus. But this is not a game that can be played casually. You must really focus on when and where you are touching the screen. Otherwise, the unforgiving button areas, inscrutable timing for certain obstacles and occasional frameskip combine to deliver too many moments where you were damn certain you hit the jump button in time but ended up fried by the electrical field.

As to timing, you can begin a dive (in which you slip between a gap midway up a barrier) much closer to the obstacle than you can a jump, where your leg will hit the electricity. It becomes more worth it to dive over jumps (provided there isn't something immediately behind it) and you will mistakenly do so a few times, given the two buttons' proximity to each other.

Swinging, in which you grab onto a pipe over an electrified obstacle, likewise can't be done too early or your character will release and fall into the electricity one step from safety. Slides were about the only thing I executed flawlessly, until the obstacles started moving.

The good news is the obstacle path is the same, so you may memorize the sequence of events if you are that committed to gold-starring each of the 15 levels. At level 8, you unlock an endless-play mode which serves up a constant stream of randomized obstacles, with the goal being a Canabalt-style distance high score.

Stellar Escape is a good idea but one just a tinge too much for my taste on this platform. The difficulty was not so much in the sequence of challenges but in manipulating the buttons correctly. And if the buttons worked 100 percent of the time as intended, the memorizable nature of the course would make it a short lived challenge. It is a 99 cent game, but at that level, the platform calls for a simple experience that's leveraged into compulsive replayability, and I just didn't find that here.

Stellar Escape [iTunes]


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