You could be forgiven if you mistake Big Blue Bubble’s Dark Incursion (Out Now, $2.99) for the latest mobile Castlevania title based on screen shots alone, but the differences number as many as the similarities. For starters, it’s not Dracula’s castle being infiltrated here, but a secret research facility in a vaguely totalitarian, nineteenth century setting. Some government with a nasty-looking emblem has gotten its hands on a dangerous bio-weapon that could turn the tide in a world war, so a secret agent named Anya is dispatched to check it out. Dark Incursion’s story is pretty minimalistic, consisting mostly of Anya muttering to herself while shuffling around secret documents, but the script is clean and I had to appreciate the manner in which her mission is only gradually revealed to the player.
Whereas the Metroidvania style has become synonymous with heavy RPG elements, Dark Incursion tends more toward pure Action Adventure. All the player has to manage are Anya’s Fuses, which are basically little energy containers that power special abilities. Fuses with elemental affiliation play a role in minor environmental puzzles; the Ice Fuse creates platforms that help the player reach high ledges, while the Electric Fuse can power elevators.
Sadly, the remaining capacity of equipped Fuses are hidden from the player in real time; the best the HUD provides is a warning that one or more are about to run dry. The player has to keep dipping into the Fuse equipment menu to check on how many uses are left otherwise. I was excited at first to see permanent Fuses on offer in a shop menu that’s always available to the player, but here again I was disappointed — the credits that are supposed to be used in the shop are non-existent except through In-App Purchases. While there are usually plenty of Fuses to go around since they’re frequently dropped by enemies and found in environments, there’s still a remote possibility of the player getting stuck if he or she doesn’t carefully budget the elemental ones. On the bright side, I really appreciated how the Fuse system lets the player tailor Anya’s attacks; normally she uses a gun at long range and swords at close range, but the player can force one or the other universally through the Fuse equipment menu.
In terms of environment design, the Metroidvania label fits pretty well; Dark Incursion’s lofty vertical corridors gave me lots of flashbacks to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. There doesn’t seem to be much in the way of hidden passages or non-Fuse upgrades, however. The only secrets to be found lie in drawers and filing cabinets that the player taps on to search, and there are plenty of these to rummage through at least. A major disappointment is Dark Incursion’s lack of a map system! The player won’t think much of this at first, but environment complexity explodes in the game’s second half, making mapless navigation very tedious. There were a few times when I just missed a save room – yes, manual saving ahoy! – and suffered quite a setback when I got chewed up by some powerful monster later on.
Speaking of monsters, I must say I enjoyed Dark Incursion’s enemy design. Enemy AI is very predictable – which is actually quite appropriate given the number of automated defenses – but this also means the player has to approach each situation methodically. There are no one-size-fits-all attacks for the player to rely on ad nauseam here; the defeat of every enemy and boss is a very carefully choreographed event. The number of enemy types balloons just as rapidly as the game’s environments do, so the player is constantly shifting from one strategy to the next.
The latest update has improved Dark Incursion’s interface by keeping the virtual joystick stationary, but it’s still problematic. The touch area devoted to the right and left directions feel much smaller than the touch area devoted to the down-right and down-left directions, which means the player will often try to run left or right but make Anya crouch instead. If the virtual joystick can just be lifted up a bit and more touch area given to the cardinal directions in the next update, the interface should be in tip-top shape.
Just like Konami’s Metroidvanias before it, Dark Incursion’s sprite work may look unimpressive in screen shots but it’s all wonderfully fluid in motion. Sadly I didn’t have 3D glasses on hand to try out its bonus visual mode. The game’s music and sound engineering are also standout; it’s just too bad there’s only one music track for all the game’s areas. Dark Incursion should last between two and three hours the first go-around if the player explores thoroughly.
iFanzine Verdict: There’s a wonderful little Action Adventure buried beneath Dark Incursion’s hard-hitting flaws. Lack of a map system and finicky movement controls leave it at a severe disadvantage compared to its competition on iOS, so it takes a forgiving genre fans to enjoy it for the time being. Given its relative depth and excellent level and enemy design, however, it’s also clear Dark Incursion could become a well-polished title if its current issues are addressed in further updates.