"...I'd rather have a consistent, great experience for 2 hours than an average game that's artificially extended to 10 hours."
The power available to mobile devices today versus just a few years ago is remarkable. Comparing titles like Infinity Blade to what passed for a 'mobile game' in the pre-iPhone era of 2006 is akin to comparing the PlayStation 3 to the Game Boy Color. And while this is exciting – and the future of handheld/mobile gaming is brighter than ever – it's also nice to see developers using these powerful platforms to create modern 2D RPGs and adventures. Fara, an action/adventure not unlike a classic Zelda game, is one such title and the first from independent developers Pixel and Texel. The real question, of course, is whether the marriage of old ideas and new technology creates an enjoyable experience.
Following an oddly modern-day introduction, you'll be placed in control of a traveler who has washed ashore on the island of Fara. Between his attire and well-groomed hair, he fits in as well as Marty McFly fit in with 1955 society wearing his 'life preserver.' Armed with a sword (thanks to your gel-based companion), you embark to find a way off the island and back to civilized life. The rest of the game's story is told by a handful of villagers before and after you accomplish a series of quests for them, and your enjoyment of the story will probably depend on how serious you expect your games' stories to be. There's not a lot here in terms of plot. You won't find any deeply moving scenes or learn that your character is destined to save the world from a great evil. You won't even learn who he is or what science he practices in the 'real' world. However, what you'll find is interesting and often humorous dialogue (with the occasional typo) from a quirky cast who poke fun at each other and video game clichés. Some even allude to the fact that they are inside a game, to the confusion of the traveler. It brings a light-hearted feel to the game, and I was quite pleased with the approach, although I still hoped to see a more fleshed-out story by the end. (As an aside, make sure to read through all of the credits if you want a chuckle.)
The aesthetics of the game are remarkable. I don't think it's clear in screen shots how gorgeous Fara can be. You can see the detailed and lovingly-crafted hand-drawn backgrounds, of course, but it's the details that bring the world to life. Tiny butterflies flit about the fields. Bushes (and the shadows they cast) sway in the breeze. Rain falls delicately from above. The soft shadows of fluffy clouds glide across the landscape. It's the attention to the tiniest details that help create a world that feels alive. That it accomplishes this without taking advantage of the iPhone 4's (and 4th-generation iPod touch) Retina Display is all the more impressive. In contrast to the detailed environments, character and enemy sprites are drawn more simply, with clearly-defined black pixel outlines. Perhaps this was a case of function over form: the sprites may not look as elegant as their surroundings, but stand out enough that you won't have trouble distinguishing them. Finally, the music fits the game's various areas well, and has a delightfully 8-bit-inspired feel to it.
Controls are always a point of contention with touchscreen games, depending on who you ask. Perhaps acknowledging that one control scheme cannot please everyone, Pixel and Texel allow Fara to be played two ways: via a virtual d-pad and buttons, or using a cleaner HUD that relies on touch controls. The touch controls are intuitive: movement is as simple as tapping where you want to move (think 'click to move' on a PC game), while attacking is handled by double tapping in the direction you want to attack. Where the d-pad won me over was in dashing. To dash with the d-pad, you double-tap the edges of the d-pad, which is fixed in the lower left. With touch controls, you swipe a finger from your character's position in the direction you want to dash. It's logical, it's fun – but I found it easier when I wasn't aiming for a moving target.
In touch mode, menu and equipment selection are relegated to two quarter circles in the lower corners, which also display your HP and shield energy. This approach is perfect for a mobile game, as it puts everything within reach, but uses minimal screen real estate. Oddly, when using the d-pad controls, the two energy bars and 6 hidden buttons are all displayed on the left and right sides of the screen. It's not terrible (though the additional clutter caused me to hit the Map button when trying to move), but I wonder why the intuitive touch menus had to be jettisoned for the d-pad. I played using both styles and came away using the d-pad more, but preferring the less-intrusive menus of the touch control setup. One last note on control: the Shield spell relies on tilt control to move about the field, and I had to re-calibrate my iPhone to use it many times. The game seems to set its center of gravity when launched, so if you, for example, start the game laying down and later adjust to sitting, you might find yourself rolling in an unexpected direction until exiting and re-opening Fara.
Thankfully, it's hard to lose progress in the game, whether it's because you have to quickly exit the game or because you died for the 45th time (yes, I logged 45 deaths). Progress is auto-saved at each new map screen, so recovering from death is as simple as starting again from the entrance to an area. Death, oddly, is another place the game's humorous writing comes into play. Dying will display a dialog window featuring morale-boosting phrases like "Well, THAT was disappointing." It's part insulting, part encouraging, but above all, makes dying less frustrating and something you can laugh about and move on from.
There's a healthy selection of Game Center achievements to be unlocked in Fara, and an in-game statistics screen tracks these and other stats, such as the afore-mentioned death count, chests opened, enemies defeated and more. There's also Twitter integration for achievements, but be careful about turning this on: depending on how you play, it can be easy to rack up several in succession, and the seamless integration of the tweets means you don't confirm each time one is sent. I worried about annoying my followers (I think I came close in one case), so it's something you'll want to enable with care.
By now you realize that despite some quirks here and there, I was left with an overall positive impression of Fara. It's a well-put-together adventure title that should appeal to people with fond memories of old school Zelda, and an excellent first effort from its creators. If there's one big drawback though, it's that Fara is short. As in, I finished the game, cleared every quest and looted every chest (except one surrounded by deadly mist), in under 2 hours. To be fair, it was a thoroughly enjoyable 2 hours, and for my money, I'd rather have a consistent, great experience for 2 hours than an average game that's artificially extended to 10 hours. If you feel the same way and are looking for a light-hearted, gorgeous adventure game that's easy to get into and pass the time, then Fara is for you.