Chaos Rings: an iPhone game review

I’m not a super hardcore gamer. I don’t spend any time in MMORPGs, I’m not on any XBOX Live leaderboards, and I’m able to balance my interest in playing video games with other things like work and family. (When something’s gotta give, that something is, invariably and rightly, playing video games.)

And yet, I guess I’m a pretty serious gamer. I’ve been into video games since I first got an Atari 2600 in 1982. I’ve been collecting both vintage and modern games since I had a resurgence of interest in 2002, and I now count among the game systems I own: Panasonic Tournament 2000 (a mid-’70s Pong-style console), Atari 2600, Atari 5200, Atari 7800, Intellivision, NES, GameCube, XBOX, Wii, XBOX 360, Sega Game Gear, Game Boy Advance and Nintendo DS. And all told, across those systems I own a total of around 500 games. And, oh yeah, there’s the iPhone. But… is the iPhone a game system or not?

I’ve explored this issue before, and come to the conclusion that not only is it a game system, but it’s arguably superior to the Nintendo DS, at least in two key ways: 1) its technical capabilities, and 2) its portability. To paraphrase Chase Jarvis, the best game system is the one you have with you.

The iPhone’s technical capabilities far outshine those of the Nintendo DS (the main strength the DS has working in its favor is its physical controls), and it also has the big advantage of the fact that I’m far more likely to have it with me at any given time than my DS, even considering how much more often I carried the DS with me before I had an iPhone.

Since I got the iPhone, I’ve spent far more time playing games on the iPhone than on all other systems put together. And yet I’ve mostly played casual games like solitaire, Scrabble, or, when I’m feeling particularly… erm… risky, Strategery. But the deeper, more engaging adventure style games I really like, especially games like the ones in Nintendo’s Metroid and Zelda franchises, or Konami’s recent Metroid-esque entries in the Castlevania series, just aren’t there.

Why not?

It’s pretty clear that we’ll never see a Metroid or Zelda game on the iPhone. Frankly I’m a bit surprised Konami hasn’t released a Castlevania game for the iPhone yet — they’ve made a few other iPhone games — although one may be in development and I just don’t know about it.

For the most part the iPhone seems to have become a magnet for casual games. It’s easy to understand why, to some extent. The iPhone is owned by a lot of “non-gamers” and casual games are most appealing to them. I think the iPhone as a gaming platform shares a lot of its audience with the Wii. But the Wii does have Metroid and Zelda and other “hardcore” titles.

To be fair, the types of adventure and action RPG games I enjoy on other systems do exist on the iPhone, but in my experience so far… well… they all kinda suck. I’ve been lured in many times by the promise of “Zelda-like gameplay” and impressive-looking graphics, but although I’ve found a few to be of passable quality, almost all of them are so buggy, or so riddled with grammatical or spelling errors, or just so ill-conceived and sloppily-executed, that I play them once and then delete them off my iPhone, consoling myself in the fact that I only wasted $3 instead of $30 (the going price on new Nintendo DS titles).

As for the big question — why this particular genre of games has never delivered a satisfying experience on the iPhone, that’s the big mystery. There are plenty of casual games on the iPhone that demonstrate a tremendous amount of polish and great execution: apart from the aforementioned Strategery, there’s quite possibly the best casual game ever — Plants vs. Zombies, and of course an assortment of popular card, board and word games.

Up to now, the best 3D adventure game for the iPhone was the Halo-meets-Metroid-Prime clone N.O.V.A. It’s pretty good, but there’s still something I just can’t pinpoint about it that just makes it seem a little rough and just not totally engaging. Still, it’s been the most promising game I’ve seen yet for the platform. Until…

And now, on to the review…

Chaos Rings is a new Japanese-style RPG from Square Enix, developed specifically for the iPhone. It’s not the first Square Enix game for the iPhone — a few of the early Final Fantasy games have been ported, for instance — but it’s their first full-blown, brand new all-out effort on the platform.

It’s the most expensive game I’ve ever bought for the iPhone. But at $12.99, it’s still less than half the price of a standard new Nintendo DS game. (Most Square Enix games for the DS retail for $39.99.) But there’s a reason for the extra price: the depth, quality and polish is unmatched by anything I’ve yet seen for the iPhone.

The game looks fantastic: the art is highly detailed and is consistent with the established and popular Square Enix style, and it’s technically impressive — the iPhone’s 3D graphics capabilities are stunning. The musical score and sound effects are great, too. Gameplay-wise, Chaos Rings is a traditional 3D RPG dungeon crawl: you explore a diverse variety of worlds, battling monsters with both attacks and magic, and there are also a number of puzzle rooms. The puzzle rooms feel a bit tacked on, although they’re a fun diversion from the level grinding characteristic of the game style.

Something that cannot be underestimated in terms of what makes the gameplay in Chaos Rings engaging in a way that so many other, otherwise good iPhone games (Hero of Sparta and Dungeon Hunter come to mind) lack is the control mechanism. It’s become standard practice for iPhone games that require “traditional” movement schemes to employ a “virtual” (on-screen) direction pad and buttons. Typically, mimicking the controls on traditional handhelds, the D-pad is placed in the lower left corner of the screen, and the buttons in the lower right. The big problem with this approach is that you don’t want to have to look at where you’re placing your fingers: when the D-pad and buttons are physical objects, there’s a tactile experience. You don’t have to look, because you can feel that your thumbs are in the right place. Not so with virtual controls on a glass screen.

But somewhere along the way — N.O.V.A. is the first game I encountered with it — an important advance was made: the D-pad only appears when you touch your finger to the screen, and it appears wherever you touch. So you no longer have to worry about putting your thumb in the right place — just put it down, and it’s always centered on the D-pad. Likewise, there may be “buttons” on screen, but usually just one, and a tap anywhere counts as a button press. This change makes a huge difference in playability and delivering a satisfying experience. As I said, N.O.V.A. uses this kind of control scheme, but that game had other problems that have kept me from really getting into it. But Chaos Rings offers a near-perfect execution of this evolved virtual control scheme, and it may be the single most important factor in my enjoyment of the game.

Chaos Rings is not a masterpiece — it’s not the kind of seamless, immersive world I loved so much in Metroid Prime (my favorite video game of all time), but it’s so far beyond every other iPhone game I’ve seen, in every imaginable way, that it seems to be an introduction to a new era in iPhone gaming… real iPhone gaming. It’s the first adventure/RPG game I’ve seen on the iPhone that I genuinely can’t put down. I’m sure there will be better iPhone games in the future — especially as the platform evolves with the iPad — but I truly believe this game will stand as a milestone in that evolution.