One of the inevitable facts about any gaming hardware is that as time goes on its games look better and better. Most of these improvements are gradual, but every so often, a game comes along that changes everything we think the hardware is capable of. For the iOS, Infinity Blade is that game. Using Epic's Unreal Engine 3 for the first time in a game (Epic used it previously in a tech demo, Epic Citadel, but this is the engine's first game), no game on these systems has been this pretty. But pretty isn't everything, so let's talk about the rest of the game too.
Infinity Blade's story is extremely limited. It feels like the prologue, or at best the first few chapters, of a much longer saga. The game begins with the arrival of your character at the throne of the God King, who says that it has been many centuries since any mortal has challenged him. You tell him that you are the voice of freedom, here to end his tyranny. But as a level 1 character, you're hardly the stuff of legends, and definitely not equipped to defeat a God King. He kills you quickly, absorbs your "essence" into his sword, and tells his bodyguard to let him know when your progeny arrives. 20 years later, your son shows up, and with the words "Father, I will avenge you," heads into the castle to make his attempt at defeating the God King.
You can repeat the game as many times as it takes for you to beat him, but you won't get any more story until you do. Even then, you just get a brief animation and a few more lines of dialogue teasing the fact that there's much more that you need to do... but apparently not in this game, because after that scene and the end credits, you find yourself back at the beginning again. It's a shame that there's not more story, because I really liked what little there was. It even has two endings! With a story this limited, I've had to leave out all of the interesting bits in order to avoid spoilers, but suffice it to say that Infinity Blade's story is not as black & white as I may have made it sound. A "Coming Soon!" button in the menu also says that more game is coming, including multiplayer. It's not 100% clear whether that will be in a patch to this game or in a sequel, but my bet based on the way it's worded is that it'll be a patch.
In terms of gameplay, Infinity Blade could be described as a point & click adventure with action RPG combat. You stand in one place and can drag your finger around the screen to move the camera and look around for bags of cash or health potions (which you tap to pick up), but you can't move freely. Instead, flashing blue rings on the screen indicate where you can go next, and tapping on one of them walks you to the next spot. The path is mostly linear, but there are a few side paths leading to bonus treasures and fights that you can take if you're a little bit observant.
In order to move from one spot to the next, you'll often have to fight someone who's standing in your way, and the fights are very action-oriented. When your enemy swings his weapon at you, you can press the dodge buttons to get out of the way, the shield button to block the attack, or swipe the screen in the direction of the attack to parry it. Blocking is the easiest, but you can only do it a certain number of times per battle. Dodging must be done at the right time and in the right direction, but it's still fairly easy. Parrying is the most difficult, because it requires timing and aim. Block, dodge, or parry the right attacks, and your enemy will be thrown off-balance (parrying makes this last longer than the other choices). That's your time to nail him. Swipe the screen to attack, and your character will swing his weapon in the same direction you swiped. The controls are a great mix of accuracy and leniency, meaning that while you have to make an effort to succeed, the game doesn't requirie the precision of a sniper.
You have two other options in addition to normal attacks: Super Hits and magic. Every time you cause or take damage, the Super Hit meter goes up, and when it's full, you can tap it to stun your enemy, which gives you time for some regular attacks. You also have a magic meter that fills up over time. When it is full, you can tap it to cast a spell. The spells you can cast are determined by which ring you are wearing, but they include both offensive and defensive magic at three levels of strength (that is, if this were a Final Fantasy game, we'd be talking about "Fira" and "Firaga"). After pressing the button, you must draw a simple line to cast the spell. For example, you draw a circle to cast a fire spell, and an uppercase U to heal. Of course, you've got to time this so that your enemy doesn't hit you while you're casting, and while I'd love to skip the drawing, I think that the timing required does a good job of balancing out the power of spells, which can hit your enemies pretty hard. The meters fill up quickly enough that you can usually cast one spell and give one Super Hit per battle, although I was able to cast two spells in the same fight a few times. The magic is where my only control complaint appears; a few of the drawings are fairly similar to each other, especially when you're scrawling them on the screen with your finger as quickly as you can. This means that if you've got a ring equipped that allows you to cast spells with similar drawings, it can be tricky to cast the one you want.
As in most RPGs, cause enough damage and your enemy will die. When that happens, you earn money and you get XP, as does all of the equipment you're wearing. If you level up, you earn 2 stat points, and if one of your pieces of equipment's XP bar gets filled up, you have "mastered" it, which earns you 1 stat point. You can use stat points to raise your HP, your magic power, your attack power, and the number of times per battle you get to block. You can use the money to buy better equipment, which you can then master for even more stat points. While I'm on the subject of equipment, I should mention that the developers did a great job of keeping your inventory and the store streamlined. You can view all equipment at the same time or filter to just certain types, and if you're looking at something in your inventory, tapping the store icon will switch you to that item in the store. (As opposed to switching to the store and being bumped to the beginning of the list of items for sale.) This really helps when you've just mastered something and want to buy the next better item.
And that's how you play Infinity Blade. The thing is, it's a very short game. Counting the God King, I believe there are only 10 enemies in a playthrough. Of course, if you weren't ready to take him down at level 1, you'll hardly be in much better shape after one playthrough, when you'll still be in the single-digit levels. Fortunately, you're already a father when the God King beats you, and 20-some years later, your son comes along to avenge your death, wearing your equipment with the exact stats you had when you died. Every time. Your foes change equipment and get stronger each time you play, and the bags of gold and health potions move around, both of which help lower the tedium factor of this repetition, as does your ability to fast-forward through any walking animation. I beat the God King on my fifth or sixth generation, but the game still let me start again as though I had lost the fight, so winning doesn't stop you from playing again. Infinity Blade is a Game Center game, which will certainly play into its future multiplayer capabilities, but for now it just means that you can check your total kill count against a leaderboard and earn achievements when you play. Some of those achievements will come quickly, others with time, but they all look attainable to me.
Speaking of looks, let's go back to what I said earlier about games that change everything. This game is gorgeous. The environments are extremely detailed, as are your character and your enemies. Changing equipment changes your appearance, and your options include plenty of visual variety. There are even moving water and flags waving in the wind. The animations are smooth and show attention to detail – there's a moment where you get on a platform, and when it begins to rise, your character's knees bend a bit with the force. This game absolutely lives up to its billing, outshining everything that's come before it by a mile (with the possible exception of Rage, but that's not an RPG, so we don't care about it, do we?). And I'm playing the original release version on a 3rd generation iPod Touch. Imagine if I were playing it on an iPhone 4 or an iPad. The only reason this game's getting a 95% on graphics instead of 100% is that I ran into one or two framerate issues in my several playthroughs.
Infinity Blade sounds pretty sharp, too. The game's few lines of dialogue, in the opening and closing scenes, have voice acting, and it's pretty good. There are English subtitles, but the spoken lines are in a semi-intelligible gibberish that sounds like a mixture of a few real languages. In battle, you hear the grunts of attacks and of being attacked, as well as the appropriate sounds of swords and shields. In a game this short, there's not a lot of music to be had, but I enjoyed what there was, and felt like it fit the game well.
Infinity Blade is a game that ups the technical ante for all future "big budget" games released on the iOS. Is it a must-have? As great a score as I'm giving it, that's still a tough question to answer. The answer mainly depends on how you feel about repeating a short game over and over. Repetition is a common factor in iOS games, so I have a feeling that won't be an issue for many iOS gamers. If the concept doesn't bother you, then Infinity Blade is an easy game to recommend. It's entertaining, it sounds good, it controls well, it's beautiful, and although the story is the game's weakest front, it hints strongly at much better things to come. Even if you decide against buying this game, the fact that it's good and that the tech works well may mean really good things for future games on the iOS. On home consoles, other RPGs that use Unreal Engine 3 include Borderlands and the Mass Effect series. How cool would it be to have games like that in the palm of your hand?