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Beautifully Dark Design Makes Up for 'Crow's' Gameplay Shortcomings

By Chris Maxcer MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
May 21, 2012 5:00 AM PT

Beautifully Dark Design Makes Up for 'Crow's' Gameplay Shortcomings

"Crow," a game from Sunside, is available for US$1.99 at the App Store.


Every two or three months, an iOS game manages to snag more than a brief glance and actually inspires me to buy and download it. "Crow" is one of those games.

The icon for the game implies a lot -- it's got a wicked darkness to it, is slickly designed, and it evokes the idea that there's trouble somewhere. Since you, the player, is a crow, well, there's flying, too.

At first, I wondered, why a crow? Why not a hawk or an eagle or even a kestrel? After you start the game, a bit of clarity emerges. You're in a magical yet familiar world, populated with ancient beings. There are trinkets here and there -- jewels you need to collect to gain skills. Of course, hawks don't collect shiny objects, but crows do. They have a reputation for snagging trinkets out and about in the real world. And then, as the story line emerges, you begin to realize that some dark being wants you to do its bidding, which is to defeat several "bad" monster bosses and then put a curse on them, while you're at it.

A black crow, it seems, might be more likely to consort with such dark beings.

Gorgeous Scenes

The landscapes in "Crow" are visually haunting, lavish with detail -- or sometimes, I think, are just well-architected with implied detail. On my iPad 2, the game play isn't crazy-sharp, but the sense is that you're playing in a big environment, even when you're not. It's hard to explain.

Maybe this will help: Bad guys like a scarecrow or trees that come alive are both familiar yet painted in unique ways, all of which feeds the imagination. If you look closely at a given landscape, individual elements, when you ignore the game play and focus, aren't always spectacular. But when you add up the swooping flying of the crow, the landscape, horizon, sky, bad guys, and soundtrack, the net effect is astoundingly better than the sum of the individual parts.

Oh, and the soundtrack and sound effects? Quite nice. It's all generally moody and evokes a mild unease or battle-worthy excitement depending on what you're busy doing in the game.

The Game Play

"Crow" is a story-driven adventure game. The whole delivery package seems unique to me, but the actual play is common. You fly around to explore your world, and along the way you find treasure, which gives you points and abilities in various ways. I generally find the need to randomly hunt and peck to find things irritating, but "Crow" manages to skirt this danger fairly well by offering up story plot points along the way.

Some story sections give background, some give hints, and some urge future action, such as to curse or spare a creature. The plot of each section is to beat an ancient guardian "boss," but in order to be successful, you have to level up in skill along the way. Plus, each main section has some sort of side-track challenge play that lets you get more points, dodge, weave, and use a couple of magic spells. I'm not a kid, and I have a low threshold for losing my patience, and these side games weren't terrible -- just not fantastic. If you're the kind of person who must get through a section perfectly to get all the points available, you'll probably enjoy yourself more than me.

Meanwhile, what about the boss fights? As a crow, you have two magic weapons: the ability to attack, which I guess is like a magical claw slash, and the ability to create a force-field like shield. The key caveat of the attack is that you can't launch an attack from afar. More to the point, in order for the attack to be effective, you have to see the eyes of your foe. So there's a bit of timing involved, though not so much that you'll need any real skill in order to progress through the game.

As you fly, you'll eventually get the hang of how the crow handles in the air -- you'll be swooping around -- but if you were expecting hummingbird-like control, forget it. The iPad is reasonably responsive, but you're still moving by tapping and dragging a finger around the screen (no accelerometer flying, btw). Plus, all the battles are based on "rails," which means you're propelled along a preset general course that flies you in and out of danger. You can't stop and you can't cut corners.

So as you're battling some giant creature with fur and horns, for example, you'll slash your magic attack, dodge an arm, likely get hit and hurt, then fly out of the immediate battleground to heal up, restore your magic power, and then swoop back for another attack. After you do this twice, the time and distance and waiting involved pushed all of my irritation buttons. Then again, for me, when it comes to apps and games, I don't like to wait around.

Bottom Line

All in all, Crow is a visual and visceral joy to behold and play. Seriously, for $1.99, this level of quality is available to us at an insanely great price. Pretty amazing, really.

The gameplay itself, however, is average at best. Fortunately, the whole package comes together well, and I've got zero buyer's remorse. If you're looking for a little atmospheric adventure and don't want to wield a sword, "Crow" is easy to recommend.

MacNewsWorld columnist Chris Maxcer has been writing about the tech industry since the birth of the email newsletter, and he still remembers the clacking Mac keyboards from high school -- Apple's seed-planting strategy at work. While he enjoys elegant gear and sublime tech, there's something to be said for turning it all off -- or most of it -- to go outside. To catch him, take a "firstnamelastname" guess at Gmail.com.

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