When a mining ship mysteriously vanishes inside the bowels of an alien planet, who should you send in? A bunch of space marines armed to the teeth with the latest weaponry, maybe? That’s just not how things roll in the Global Space Alliance, which opts for the Triton, another mining vessel so innocuous it might as well be the Nostromo from Alien. With the Triton’s odds amounting to suicide, is this operation on the up-and-up? And what’s with all these alien DNA extraction assignments? You’ll literally be scouring the insides of a planet for the answers in Gene Effect (Out Now, $4.99).
By now the iOS gaming library has trained us to think Lunar Lander or the latest bullet hell shooter whenever we see a side-scrolling spacecraft. That’s why I think Lightstorm 3D are taking a huge risk in delivering an avant-garde, exploration heavy adventure that hews closer to survival horror conventions than anything we’ve seen on the platform lately. Linking Gene to survival horror may sound strange, but bear with me on this. As the Triton goes about its 25-mission sweep of Gene’s planet, it’s unwittingly descending into an underworld defended to the hilt by alien security systems. Various types of mines, acid-spewing flora and more exotic things make such short work of your ship that you’ll feel like you’re piloting a rusty jalopy.
And I love that! Survival in Gene Effect requires clever strategies — tricking defense systems to activate when you’ve got a clear getaway or learning how to tiptoe around them while you’re solving switch puzzles and making resource collection runs. There are no lasers or spreadshots available to the player here. The only tools you have to work with are your own piloting skill, a seismic wave meant for mundane rock crushing, and the rare missile that’s just about as dangerous to the Triton as it is to enemies. Once things pick up about four levels in, Gene provides a satisfying break from the action extravaganzas we’ve come to associate with sci-fi games.
That’s not to say Gene doesn’t miss a few opportunities. It reaches for the Metroid ideal of making the player explore for useful upgrades but doesn’t quite grasp it; there’s a level randomization aspect that makes Gene’s alien artifacts particularly difficult to locate. Moreover, the upgrades would appear to have only marginal effects on gameplay even if they’re successfully dug up. I’d love to see an expansion of Gene’s formula where upgrades encourage players to revisit previous missions, push into new territory and see them in a new light. Gene’s environments still offer plenty to do regardless; missions tend to be very meaty once the game gets up to full speed, with secret passages you’ll want to explore just on the off chance it furthers your assigned tasks.
Gene has a customizable virtual joystick and the Triton handles like a charm. I’m especially impressed with the game’s map system, which paints levels in a spray can buildup style that tells you how close to the walls you’ve been — definitely a help if you get caught up in the search for upgrades and score bonuses and wonder where you might not have investigated thoroughly yet. As long as items and collectible resources are visible the ship automatically loads them when it’s parked close enough, saving on user interface buttons.
Gene is also a dark game, and I’m not just talking about the cryptic plot that unfolds over personnel logs. The game offers brightness adjustment but it still doesn’t seem quite sufficient for my poor eyes; on the other hand, one could always argue it adds to the feel of picking your way through creepy derelict caves. The soundtrack is suitably atmospheric and I enjoy the jukebox that gradually fills up in the main menu as you play — that’s definitely something I’d like to see in more iOS games.
iFanzine Verdict: You’ll be disappointed if you go into Gene Effect expecting the latest shoot ’em up, but it succeeds as an unsettling adventure game that has you relying on sharp wits rather than high powered weaponry to survive. If you have a hankering for a sci-fi game and miss ye olde underpowered protagonist, this should be right up your alley as long as you stick with it past the first few missions.