With The Dark Meadow, Phosphor Games Studio proved it could make a game that looked as good as a console title, but the sinister shooter's limited on-rails gameplay was strictly mobile-grade.
This week, in conjunction with Zynga, Phosphor released its latest Unreal Engine 3 powered mobile game, Horn, and it's every bit as rich and satisfying as any console adventure game -- and better than many.
Named for both its hero and the magical instrument he carries, Horn tells the tale of a blacksmith's apprentice that awakens from a long sleep to find the countryside overrun by large stone creatures. His village is deserted; in fact the entire land seems devoid of human life. After encountering, beheading and semi-befriending one of the countryside's rock inhabitants (the cruel and witty Gourd), Horn discovers that these creatures are actually cursed animals and people, and only he has the power to change them back.
And then it's adventure time.
Free of rails, Horn can travel as he pleases through this fantasy world, fingers tapped on the screen guiding him through the stunning scenery. A salvaged wrist-mounted crossbow aids his exploration, acting as a weapon, a puzzle-solving mechanic, and a grappling hook all at once. In his travels he also uncovers ancient songs that affect powerful magics when played on his horn, shades of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.
Combat with Horn's unique collection of crystalized creatures is slightly more limited than exploration. Our hero is locked in a patch that circles his enemies, finger-slashing to expose weak spots and tapping left and right to dodge.
Being a blacksmith apprentice, Horn forges his own weapons and equipment, transmuting found (or purchased via the in-game store) materials into powerful swords, hammers, axes and pole arms capable of piercing the stony hides of his foes. This, as they say, is where they get you -- the lure of spending a few dollars on more powerful items is strong. I might have dropped a couple of bucks already.
The game's beautiful visuals and complex mechanics are bolstered by a story and characters more fully-formed than anything I've experienced on a mobile phone. Spoken snippets of witty dialog between Horn and his decapitated stone head companion, Gourd, reveal bits and pieces of the game's backstory, with voice work that's a cut above that normally found in a mobile title. Around every corner there are odd new creatures, communicating more with their strange silent behaviours than many game characters do with a Hollywood actor behind the mic.
Horn is delightful, charming and completely unpredictable. Every time I think I've got the game figured out, it throws me a curve. I reach my goal, expecting to be shunted on to the next, and then the victory music drops and a wrench is thrown into the mix.
Every time a new Unreal Engine 3 powered game comes to iOS and/or Android (the Tegra version of Horn should be out next week), developers go on and on about how they've made a console-quality title for a mobile platform. Horn's success in achieving that goal speaks for itself.
Horn [iTunes, $7.49]