When the cats at Apple first unleashed the floodgates on the touch-and-tilt game apps for the iPhone and iPod Touch, it was hard not to chuckle at the claims that a revolution was afoot. Sure, there were plenty of entertaining and worthy bus-ride diversions (from De Blob and Edge to Plants vs. Zombies and, of course, Angry Birds) but very little with a wow factor.
A game-changer packing a big ol' sword just slashed all that to ribbons. That'd be Infinity Blade, Epic Game's first attempt to port its legendary Unreal engine to the touch-screen gaming arena. Mission accomplished. Environments and graphics that look they belong on a next-gen console are the first thing to greet your goggled eyes.
You play as various knights in a long bloodline savaged and ravaged by the God King, an arrogant knight who lives to gut the world's best swordsmen, all the better to magically siphon away their skills to fuel his glowing Infinity Blade. Through generation after generation, your squire storms the castle, slashes through increasingly tougher enemies, and ends up on the business end of the God King's sword, only to have a descendant soldier forward to try again. RPG elements (a wide array of skills, weapons, magical attacks and armor) keep the proceedings from feeling like a mindless hack and slash loop.
The graphics carry the punch, but it's also fascinating to note the ways Epic's clever design choices sidestep and solve control issues that plague touch-screen games. Movement isn't governed by a screen-clogging D-pad or by dragging and tilting, but by touching hot-spots on the screen that move you to new locales and sword duels. You can also drag the camera view around to find objects and bags of gold.
Combat's also more complicated than it appears. It's easy to think that a simple blocking strategy -- push down on the touch screen until your opponent's attacks leave him open for a block break and a flurry of finger-slashes -- is going to carry you to vengeance and victory. At least until a level 25 knight or the God King himself hacks your shield into splinters even Dustin Hoffman's Rain Man would have trouble tallying, leaving you to a brutal beatdown. Better hope you've mastered the art of parrying and dodging or you'll soon be another silver-plated shish kebab.
Mastering those sword skills reveals the game's only real misstep, one that's also shared by countless other touch-screen games -- imprecise controls. Attempts to dodge sometimes register as attempts to slash, leaving you wide open to devastating counterattacks from powerful foes; sometimes drawing the sigils that unleash your magic attacks doesn't register at all. Here's hoping Epic addresses these dings in one of several likely updates.
The inevitable journey of mobile gaming toward respectability was always going to be a journey of small steps. A year from now, we'll look back at Infinity Blade as one of those giant leaps forward.