At first glance Phosphor Games' The Dark Meadow looks like nothing more than a clone of award-winning iPhone eye-candy Infinity Blade with a ranged weapon twist, but delve deeper into its madness and you'll discover a character the sword and sorcery epic lacked.
Chair Entertainment's Infinity Blade showed the world the sort of graphics and gameplay the iPhone was capable of using Unreal Engine 3. Now it's time for developers not directly affiliated with engine creators Epic to take that technology and show us something fresh and new.
Phosphor Games' The Dark Meadow certainly fits the bill.
The main character awakens in the ruins of Montclair Hospital unsure of who they are or how they got there, his only companion an old man that may or may not be completely insane. Armed with sword and crossbow the character wanders the halls, hunting for an elusive and luminescent witch that could hold the key to escaping the facility, all the while battling grotesque creatures that might as well have stepped directly out of Pan's Labyrinth.
As far as original gameplay is concerned, however, The Dark Meadow is cutting it rather close.
Mixing on-rails exploration with an open map, navigating the haunted halls of Montclair Hospital is as easy as touching the next glowing circle or clicking on an unlocked door. At each navigation point the player can move the camera about in a full circle in order to pick up scattered bags of gold, search cabinets for hidden items, or collect documents that further develop the bizarre fiction surrounding the strange facility. That is unless a monster shows up.
Battles begin when one of The Dark Meadow's assortments of twisted creatures appears before you in a puff of black smoke. Unlike Infinity Blade, where battle isn't initiated until you're up close and personal, these creatures will keep their distance for a period of time, spitting vile poisons from afar while the player dodges and fires crossbow bolts.
The crossbow is fired by pulling back on a virtual lever, lining up your shot using on-screen guides, and letting fly. It's a responsive mechanic that, when coupled with vast quantities of level-supplied skill points going into the character's ranged stat, can drop a creature before they get close enough to touch you.
When they do get close enough, however, it's time to play a simplified version of Infinity Blade's melee combat. The player can dodge left, dodge right and block, swiping the screen like a madman when an opening in the enemy's defence appears. There are no spells to cast, and the monsters' attack patterns are easy enough to suss. Just dodge, wait for an opening, lay into them with your weapon, and repeat until the monster dies.
Once a foe is dispatched the player is awarded experience points, gold, and sometimes items. Gold can be spent on new weapons and accessories in the game's menu (again much like Infinity Blade), despite there being no vendors in sight. Hell, the character does wake up in a mental hospital; maybe he's selling these powerful items to himself. It's best not to think about it too much.
Even in death the similarities to Infinity Blade hold fast. The first time I met the ghostly witch that's apparently the cause of all my troubles she killed me in seconds. I woke up in the room I started in, experience points, equipment, and money intact, ready to give it another go. It's the same sort of death and rebirth mechanic from Chair's iOS title, only instead of skipping to a new generation I simply rise to fight again.
So what does The Dark Meadow offer that Infinity Blade doesn't? One hell of an entertaining old man, for starters.
Well-scripted and acted, the old man that accompanies the player through their twisted adventure in Montclair by means of the hospitals public address system would have been right at home in the halls of BioShock's Rapture. Sometimes he offers helpful advice. Other times he goads the player on. He surmises that the player must be someone special. "Perhaps you invented the internet? On behalf of all humanity, thank you for the internet." Sometimes he just wants to brag about finding some fudge with nuts in it. Is he friend? Foe? Random insane person? It doesn't matter; I love this guy.
Between the old man and the dozens of diary entries, news articles, and other random scribblings found throughout the game, The Dark Meadow raises itself from Infinity Blade clone with a twist to a disturbingly gorgeous experience all its own.
The Dark Meadow is available in iTunes for $6.49. Compatible with the iPhone 3GS and up.
The Dark Meadow [iTunes]