There's no question that the number of games, both good and bad, for iOS is skyrocketing. While casual games still dominant the landscape, there are plenty of action RPGs and console-style classics becoming available for Apple's devices. However, one of the more under-represented sub-genres on the device is still the strategy role-playing game. Fortunately, a noble example has emerged on iOS, titled The War of Eustrath.
The War of Eustrath is set in Eustrath, where two opposing factions are at war.
I know, you can't make this stuff up.
The player is thrown into the action in media res, taking the role of Lucas Bradferd, a Wefradian knight. And knights in Eustrath pilot giant robots called GEARs. As the game opens, Lucas is resting in a small village with his damaged GEAR., when he and the village are suddenly and cruelly assaulted by the Kradion military, which destroys the town and kidnaps its inhabitants. Finding a young woman, Tiana, amid the wreckage, Lucas rescues her and takes her on the run with him. Eventually they meet up with the rest of Lucas's military unit and become the spearhead of an effort to end the war once and for all.
Make no mistake, the plot is very straightforward. The player guides Lucas, Tiana, and an assortment of other GEAR pilots in battles against the Kradionese forces as they attempt to end the war. Along the way, the Wefradians discover that there is a more nefarious plot at hand than the simple Wefrad / Kradion conflict, and of course, Lucas and his team must save the world.
The characters in War of Eustrath are, as you might imagine, extremely flat and archetypical. Occasionally they are mildly amusing, but personality is not a focus, and there's very little character development. A big positive, however, is the amount of variation of characters and gears; there are plenty of party members relative to the game's length, and more than a few interesting designs for enemy and ally GEARs. Getting to the end of the game results in a pleasant surprise, as there are specific character endings based on who has survived the war.
Gameplay is similar to that of many other strategy RPGs. All battles take place on a large grid map, and pit the player's group of units against the enemy's. Unit speed determines turn order. On each of these turns, the active GEAR can first move (if so desired) and then attack. Attacks vary based on the GEAR and the GEAR's elemental affinity, and the enemy attacked gets the opportunity to retaliate in kind. As you prepare to attack, there are five combat abilities that you can activate in order to change the way battle plays out: Strengthen, Aim, Elude, Fortify, and Counter-Ability. Aim and Elude change the likelihood of attacks succeeding, while Strengthen and Fortify either increase or decrease the amount of damage an attack does. Counter-Ability negates the opponent's abilities, depending on ability levels. Also, the defending unit has the option to forgo a counter-attack and either Defend or Evade, which helps reduce or avoid the initial attack damage.
So what does all of this mean? It means that the GEAR-on-GEAR combat is remarkably fresh and engaging, even into the late-game battles. Both sides have to guess the intentions of the other and use abilities and attacks accordingly. More powerful attacks use up Energy, while combat abilities use Will, and if players find themselves with low reserves of either of these, it can be disastrous. Energy regenerates slowly, and without it you can't use many of your GEAR's attacks. Will is probably the most important statistic in the game, as high or low Will affects every aspect of combat, functioning like a luck statistic, and amplifying other statistics when above or below 100.
Though the system may sound complex, it is actually quite elegant in execution. The learning curve is smooth and the action goes strong, specially early in the game. It is only as the game goes on that players need to focus on maintaining high Will. The combination of resource management and effective battle tactics come together to make a particularly intense brand of strategic combat.
There are definitely a few points in the game where difficulty spikes quickly and without warning. Most of these points are late in the game, when one or two enemies on the field are extraordinarily powerful. Honestly, while I welcome a bit of a challenge, there were certainly times when the game went from "okay, this is tough" to "do I need to go back to an earlier save and develop my characters differently?" On the bright side, it did actually make beating a particularly tough foe something to feel worthwhile about, and I do appreciate that.
There's a fair amount of variation between attacks, GEARs, and unique abilities that GEARs can access. Between each of the battles, there is a cut scene or three, and the player has the opportunity to upgrade the GEARs' statistics by using elemental ores. These ores are critical in terms of maxing out the potential of the GEARs, and management of upgrades is the most important way to succeed in the game. Each gear also has an equipment slot to attach one game-changing piece of equipment.
As the story develops, the player is given several choices, which ultimately affect the path that the party takes and certain battles along the way. This is probably one area which could have used a little more care in development, as it is very difficult to understand what effect your choices will have going forward in the game. It is not always terribly clear what each choice means, so many of the player choices come down to a simple guess.
One of the major flaws in this game is a very poor localization, a hallmark of hastily-ported iOS and PC games. Translation was obviously phoned in, and especially after the first few battles, the game could quite obviously have used a great deal more polish in this regard. The poor grammar and lazy sentence structure certainly takes you out of the flow of the game and is just plain unacceptable.
Navigating the menus and battle screens in TWoE is easy, with the touchscreen doing all the heavy lifting. It is very much optimized for the iOS interface, as moving your GEARs around with a touch here or there and targeting enemies is very simple. Some players may have to undo and repeat actions over again to get the GEARs in the right place, due to the fact that the screen is small and fingers are large, but it is not a game-breaker by any stretch of the imagination. It does seem that since the game was originally developed for the iPad, and pushed later on to the smaller iOS devices, that screen size issues could result.
Graphically, The War of Eustrath is nothing impressive, but both the character portraits and GEAR designs are solid. One complaint might be that on the map screen, the GEAR icons aren't terribly representative of what the GEAR looks like the rest of the time. They are supposed to resemble the head of the GEAR, but this icon is invariably a bit different than the full image seen in the battle screen.
Cut scenes and character portraits feature static anime-styled artwork; what, you were expecting something else? The art quality is quite good, and there are several portraits for each character. Also, battlefield backgrounds are actually fairly well detailed, and the menu interfaces are clean and classy. The whole graphics setup seems akin to a polished PSOne offering, which is not bad. All in all, it is certainly better than average for the iOS.
Sound design in TWoE is interesting. There are a couple of overworld and cutscene themes that aren't engaging or terribly dramatic, but they are certainly serviceable. However, each of the party members gets his or her own battle theme. Granted, these themes aren't particularly emotive or stylish, but they provide some much-needed spark to the battle animations.
The War of Eustrath has the skeleton of a truly great SRPG. With a little more polish, a better localization, and a little careful tending of the plot and customization settings, it could have been a really terrific game and standard-bearer for the genre. Despite its shortcomings, however, it still stands at the head of the class of SRPGs on the iPhone and an excellent value for the price of $5.99. Any fan of SRPGs with access to an iOS device should pick up this game without delay.
Note: For the purposes of this review, the version played was 1.1 and the device used was the iPhone4.