When developer Strapped to a Meteor describes their second iOS offering, DEO (Out Now for $0.99) as “dark, distressed, and organic,” they couldn’t be more on the mark. It’s beautiful but unsettling in a way that makes the player appreciate games-as-art, and also in the way it defies one of my strongest assumptions about what physics puzzlers require: tangible targeting assistance. Cast as a little red ball charged with bringing life to a pair of deadened planets, the player has to rely solely on his or her best judgment to guide it from one precarious ledge to another while a chunk of land rotates beneath. Miraculously, the concept isn’t nearly as impractical as it sounds!
I’ll say up front that DEO’s liable to make a poor first impression. Let’s put it this way: the player needs a tutorial to explain how DEO‘s main menu system should be navigated, because that’s how different its system is from the norm we’ve seen in title after title on iOS. Paying only the barest attention to the tutorial panels that greet a first-timer, I found myself drowning in futile navigation experiments for a few minutes, being treated to the kind of jarring TV-static effect you’d expect in a horror film, and bouncing around in a bizarre practice level shaped from DEO‘s credits list. These sufficing as warnings that I should take the game’s introductory tutorial seriously, I reached for a Help virtual button and finally found out I needed to tap a little chunk of rock floating above DEO in the menu’s central swipe panel.
And then, things got really beautiful. Each of DEO‘s levels drops the eponymous ball onto the kind of hopelessly jagged, uneven land mass you’d never think to put a rubber ball on unless you were trying to get rid of it on purpose. Once the land mass begins its counter-clockwise rotation, the player commands DEO to hop along with as much force as it takes to bring him to the next stable ledge. Not just any spot will do; DEO gets devoured by surfaces that are coal black, so the spherical hero must land on grass covered (or in some levels, metallic) ledges. Once DEO touches down on a glowing red platform the level is complete. DEO‘s physics are spot-on and unforgiving with the exception that DEO merely has to touch the landing pad rather than sit firmly on it, which will save many a player’s nerves.
Here’s the kicker: the magnitude of DEO’s jump depends on how long the player holds at the touchscreen before releasing, and the game asks him or her to develop an intuitive feel for how this works. Don’t expect any target reticles or dotted lines marking release paths here! Once I got over the scarce and lonely beauty of DEO‘s presentation and started thinking about how the game actually works, I prepared to take notes on what a disastrous design decision this absolutely had to be. Then a funny thing happened. I noticed I had really gotten the hang of it, and my confidence in my own judgment grew to match the precision demanded by increasingly challenging levels.
That DEO fundamentally works has everything to do with the extraordinary care Strapped to a Meteor put into crafting its levels, and how much they respect the limitations of their game’s one-touch interface. While I still feel compelled to label DEO a physics puzzler for its collection of one-screen levels and the central role experimentation plays here, the developer’s effectively created a unique breed of rotating platformer. Like a good side-scrolling platformer, DEO lets the player develop a firm grasp on its physics before heaping on the challenge.
The one design decision I take issue with lies in a set of extra-difficult levels the player can access on the main menu’s left swipe panel once he or she feels confident enough. The most difficult levels hide the locations of safe platforms from the player, forcing him or her to find where they are through pure trial and error — a dastardly demand if there ever was one! Thankfully these seem to be few and far between as far as I’ve been able to progress in its second world, and I have yet to encounter this situation at all in the normal difficulty mode. While the game deserves a following for its novelty alone, depth is a concern; all variation lies in differently designed levels here, not in the appearance of brand new gameplay elements to keep things fresh.
What DEO lacks in evolution, it sure tries to make up for with the amount of content it packs in — just shy of 100 levels all told! DEO‘s presentation is an exercise in artistic minimalism, but the bleak hand-drawn art and soulful music carry a somber beauty that’s undeniable; it’s like a new form of interactive Gothic expression.
iFanzine Verdict: While it’s a little lacking in depth and its menu system can prove confusing at first blush, DEO does a remarkable job serving up a platforming experience that’s unique, challenging, and surprisingly intuitive. Whether you’re into 2D platformers or action-heavy physics puzzle games, consider this an excellently crafted title worth taking a chance on.