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Spirit Review: The spirit of gaming is alive and well here

Marco Mazzoli‘s Spirit is a game that truly embodies the spirit of the app store. Tightly woven, elegantly presented, thoroughly engrossing, incredibly fluid, easy to pick-up and play, difficult to put down, Spirit is a paradigm example of independent game development for the iPhone.

The concept is simple: using touch controls to direct your spirit, you must quickly encircle opponents to create a void in space. Opponents caught within the void — either because you’ve encircled them, or because they fly into the void before it closes — are whisked away into oblivion. Clearing the board advances you to the next stage, and difficulty gradually ramps up as you go, pitting you against a greater variety of foes, in greater numbers. You can net more points by linking voids, creating multiple voids on-screen at once, or by ensnaring multiple foes in a single void.

Control is pretty intuitive, though takes some getting used to. Touching anywhere on the screen and moving your finger will cause your spirit to follow a coinciding course from its current position. Whipping your spirit around the screen can easily result in unintentional collision, but there’s no better control scheme I can imagine. It just takes some practice to get the hang of moving.

Likes:

Visual Presentation: Similar in appearance to the geoDefense and Geometry Wars, Spirit is drawn in neon shapes, and the playing field is grid in space. It’s nothing we’ve not seen before, and looks pretty standard in still shots. In motion, however, the game really shines. The field warps and distorts, like ripples disturbing the surface of a pond, when enemies come into existence, when your spirit moves at high speeds, or when one of your voids begins to tear at the fabric of space. The overall effect is that of a game played on water, rather than in space and it is quite beautiful to behold. The colors are vibrant and attractive, enemies are easy to discern from the playing field and there are several nice, little touches adding visual flare: the explosion and explosive distortions across the field when you die, the streaking of light as it’s consumed by void or when stages advance, the way the grid flashes into existence at the start of a stage, and the constant and random shifting of colors as the game progresses.

Audio: The sound effects and music create less of a soundtrack and more of a soundscape, adding to the fluidity and zen-like nature of the game. If the visuals and play are the game’s body, then the audio is its breath.

Gameplay: Spirit plays out through stages of progressing difficulty, though advancing feels more like evolution than stage progression. The core component of gameplay is essentially trailing circles around your opponents, reconnecting with your own wake before it dissipates to complete the circle. Enclosing enemies thus draws them into the void. Throughout the game, the concept remains unchanged, but ramps up in difficulty such that it never becomes boring. There’s a certain amount of unpredictability in the evolution of stages; while difficulty seems to increase on a steady curve, the opponents you face in each stage will change on each play, and so you never know quite what to expect as you move from one stage to the next. This goes a long way in keeping the game interesting to replay.

Extra Lives: Extra lives occasionally become available as you play, but are handled in a unique way that really ties them into gameplay and adds to the strategy of the game. They show up randomly during levels, tethered by a chord to an enemy. To liberate the extra life, you have to draw the enemy into a void. The trick, however, lies in doing so without the extra life also being consumed. By cutting between the enemy and the tethered 1-UP with a void, you can severe the connection, freeing the 1-UP for collect. If you’re not careful, however, the 1-UP will also be consumed by the void and lost to you. It makes them challenging to collect, especially in crowded stages; creating such a precise void puts you dangerously close to collision. But when you do manage to rescue one of them, you will really have accomplished something. There’s risk in the rescue, but great satisfaction to be had as reward.

Enemies: There’s a great deal more variety in the opponents you will face than you might expect from a game like this. Some enemies meander aimlessly through the field and some will pursue you relentlessly. Others will avoid you, making capture difficult. Then there are stationary cannons which can temporarily wall you into a small space with lasers, the snakes, which can only be defeated by catching their heads in a void, and ships which patrol in a fixed path. Even amongst those enemies which move seemingly at random, movement and behavioral characteristics vary.

No Loading: Spirit contains no loading screens, contributing greatly to the feeling of fluidity in the game. Menus are easy to navigate, fast, responsive and lead you directly into play without any breaks. If you want to break off play and restart your game, you can do so almost as quickly as you can tap the screen.

Bonus Stages: Bonus stages come at set intervals during play, providing a welcome repose from the main game and a chance to really wrack up points. You cannot die in bonus stages. Instead, the screen becomes flooded with yellow and red opponents. Consuming yellows in your void increases your score, while consuming red decreases it. The object is therefore to collect at many yellow opponents as possible within a limited time, while trying not to consume the red.

Dislikes:

One Mode: There’s only one gameplay mode in Spirit, and it would be great to see a few more such as a survival mode, time trial mode, and a mode that extends the ideas already presented in the main game as bonus stages.

Being of solid concept and immaculate presentation, Spirit is an easy recommendation. The coming 1.1 update promises Open Feint integration, which will allow players to compete globally for highscores. My high is currently a hard won 232,840. Honestly, I can’t think of any reason not to buy this one. Still shots do the game no justice at all; it’s beautiful and loads of good.

Spirit is developed by Marco Mazzoli, and available for $0.99 (limited time, normally $1.99). Reviewed on an iPhone 3G.




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