When Square-Enix announced they were developing a new IP - a totally new game developed solely for the iOS - a collective sigh rose up from the fans of RPGs. This kind of announcement is a double-sided sword: while non-iOS owners lamented their inability to play the hot new Squeenix title, the announcement of the game legitimized the iOS as a role-playing gaming platform. This game, Chaos Rings, led the way for more RPGs on iOS devices. And surely enough, with the release of the iPad, Square-Enix built a version of this groundbreaking RPG optimized for this particular iOS device, making use of the larger screen space while leaving the overall experience unchanged. And that experience is a very good one.
In Chaos Rings, the player takes the role of one of five couples, one male partner and one female. These pairs are taken from their worlds and placed in a mysterious location dubbed the "Ark Arena." Each of the couples comes from a different land and has a different relationship: sometimes adversarial, sometimes romantically involved. Both partners are capable fighters, one being a warrior and the other a mage. They are pitted against each other in the Arena by The Agent, a wicked-appearing creature that seems to pull the strings behind all of the actions that take place in the Arena. Much like Connor McLeod might recognize, there can be only one (couple) at the end, the winners granted eternal life and youth. Needless to say, the competition is fierce, even as the partners work together to bond and to defeat their opponents. During multiple playthroughs the player can play as four of the five couples, each with their own story, giving the game some strong replay value. The individual stories are engaging, but a bit easy to see how they will play out. There's a sense of inevitability, I guess, to the character arcs. While crafted well, there is no groundbreaking narrative here, and none of the characters seem to stand out too much. Escher, one of the initial playable characters, probably is the most unlikable (and therefore, most interesting) of the character options, but again, no one stands out particularly. I would be surprised to see gamers list this as one of the best RPG stories of the year, but it is certainly serviceable and well-crafted.
While the main narrative thrust is to battle the other couples in the Arena, there are also several dungeons to delve and monsters to battle as the characters try to figure out the mystery of the Ark and each other. Battle is traditional Square-Enix turn-based combat, with one added wrinkle. The two characters can either fight solo, or as a pair. Pair attacks are more effective, doing a fair bit more damage than combined solo attacks, but they also cause both characters to be targeted by enemy attacks at the same time. Characters do more damage, but burn out faster as a result. If nothing else, this brings an element of strategy to the vanilla turn-based combat found in many traditional RPGs, but most players will find a combat style that works for them and stick with it. Personally, I found the combat engaging enough through the first playthrough, and gradually got more and more tired of it as the game wore on. While combat stays fresh through the first playthrough, subsequent playthroughs start to drag if you engage every enemy. Fortunately, as I'll explain later, that's not something you have to do.
Chaos Rings features a variety of enemies based on different animal types, and they serve an important role in the customization system for the game: Genes. Each warrior can equip up to three monster genes, and each of the genes gives the character a set of abilities, such as magic, passive skills, and buffing abilities. Defeating more difficult enemies of a given species is more likely to unlock more abilities of the given gene. One of the carrots set in front of the gamer is the drive to acquire and master his genes, thus giving his characters more and more powerful abilities to choose from. The system works well; limiting to three monster gene sets makes the player judicious in their choices and keeps characters from being too overpowered too soon. And I really appreciate the opportunity presented to give the player all the options in the world to choose from in terms of customization, but enough restriction to keep any character from having ALL the powers in the game. It seems like a hallmark of good, careful game design.
Another fine customizable aspect to the game is that the level of enemies encountered is negotiable. When entering a dungeon, the player is given a range of ten-level options for the strength of his opponents in the dungeon. This allows the player to match the difficulty level of the monsters to whatever he feels like playing. And if the player doesn't want to fight any random monsters at all, that's no problem either. One of the basic gene abilities allows characters to turn off random encounters, which is especially useful on subsequent playthroughs of the game. This level of customization helps to offset some of the grind of dungeon-delving, but also allows the player to increase the challenge level if things start to get boring. If only more games offered options like these, especially in shorter games designed for replay, I think that all gamers could benefit. It's nice to be able to play exactly what you want to, exactly how you want to play it.
Navigating with the characters is a snap, as Chaos Rings takes a novel approach to character movement on the iOS screen. When the player touches the screen, a virtual navigation stick appears. By gently sliding a finger, a character moves throughout dungeons and the hub area accurately and without the slippage that permeates controls in many iOS games. This is a feature that more iOS games NEED to implement, as it is a much more natural and responsive control system than the usual virtual D-pad squirreled away in the corner of the screen. Not only is this system more responsive and comfortable, the iPad doesn't quite lend itself to being held like a controller, meaning that this control system is infinitely more comfortable. The big takeaway here is that character control is smooth, simple, and should be the standard for most iOS games.
Most people either love or hate the Square-Enix or Final Fantasy character design style, with all the jackets, pockets, and oversized weapons. And while Chaos Rings does have all the design trappings of a Square-Enix game, the level of overwrought detail is minimal, and contrast is light, with softer colors and lines. Character portraits and models are highly detailed and rendered with care. One area where the iPad version of the game falls a little short is with the sizing for the larger screen of the iPad. There are areas where the graphics look a bit blocky and pixelated, most noticeably in battle sequences. Despite this, Chaos Rings has better visuals overall than many PSOne-era titles, and is among the class of iOS games in terms of graphics.
One minor programming issue crops up from time to time in Chaos Rings: unfortunate slowdown when fighting some of the larger enemies. Framerates have a tendency to get a bit choppy when large bosses are part of the battle screen, and it does drag down overall graphical quality. However, on the whole, Chaos Rings appears to be programmed about as well as any commercial iOS release.
iOS games are almost always hit-or-miss when it comes to sound, as many iOS users play their own music while gaming. It is an artifact of the platform to have games where music is an afterthought. However, Chaos Rings is one of those few iOS games where the player will actually miss out on something if they play the game muted or listening to their iPod tunes. Dungeon themes are smooth, unobtrusive, and pleasant. They pull the player into the detailed world without overwhelming with the brute force of heavy strings or crashing cymbals. The combat tunes are suitably emotive, ever so slightly raising the heart rate as the stakes of battle increase. Say what you will about diminishing quality in Square-Enix titles, they are still capable of arranging a great soundtrack, even for a mobile title.
Chaos Rings for the iPad is an enjoyable and light traditional RPG. With an interesting story, a high level of replayability, and strong control, it surges to the head of the class in iOS RPGs. Best of all, it's optimized not only for the iOS, but the transition to the iPad as well. The iPad-specific version of the game is a joy to play for the first few hours... and though the gameplay may get repetitive after the first playthrough or two, it can still provide several hours of enjoyment. The iOS has a spate of hastily-ported classic games, shovelware, and titles with critical flaws. Chaos Rings is as professional, complete, and polished as any offering on the iPad; one that no iPad-owning RPGFan should miss out on.
This game was played on a first-generation iPad, and the version played was 1.02.