Gorilla Gondola Review

(Editor’s Note: What follows is the original review written for the first version the author played. Since then, one or more major critiques have been addressed by the developer. For a list of these, see “Addendums” below the original review score at the end of the article.)

Just when you thought they had stopped making great ski lift games, Electric Pixel Factory swings into the App Store with Gorilla Gondola (Out Now, $1.99)! A sensible explanation of how a gorilla could end up riding a gondola isn’t forthcoming, but what you will find here is a challenging action game with a dash of logic puzzle that’s perfectly suited to iOS.

As we described in last week’s hands-on preview, the gist here is that you swipe to make Gorilla stomp on the gondola, and then tilt at the top or bottom of the resulting bounce to swing the lift clear of obstacles. You might expect a Lunar Lander-style blowup when you let the gondola crash, but in truth, it’s pretty rough-and-tumble. When it catches on something, the main worry is that it will fall out of view as the level continues auto-scrolling, which shaves a life from the player’s total — a pretty rare occurrence because the game lets you break through by madly tapping in emergencies. There’s also the fact that crashing reduces a score multiplier earned for long stretches of excellent performance, but the live tutorial and the first of eight levels will have new players wondering whether this is all there is to it.

Fear not, the developer’s just giving you some room to sharpen your gondola-driving skills before the real fun begins. Gorilla Gondola’s second level introduces insta-killing mines that remain a chief nemesis throughout. The player has plenty of incentive to scramble for every banana in sight because there’s a 1-UP attached to collection milestones, and these afford precious breathing room for mistakes. Gradually mixed into the fray are tap-activated fans, lasers and gates that lend the game a strong logic puzzle element. Shape the environment around Gorilla correctly and it’ll be a fairly smooth ride, but accidently blow him the wrong way or disable lasers too early and you’ll have a Game Over on your hands in no time. Setting the gondola’s default position a little left of screen center was an insightful move on the developer’s part because this gives the player enough reaction time to figure out puzzles as they spring up.

Suffice it to say Gorilla Gondola’s challenge is the kind that tests your brain and your reflexes equally. It’s a rare iOS game that pulls this off so effectively, and challenge  seekers are sure to be in some kind of heaven here once it picks up to full speed. The casual gamers who so confidently weave their way through the first level, on the other hand, may find themselves overwhelmed with Gorilla Gondola’s peak intensity. The one thing that really stacks the deck against casual players is the lack of a bona fide checkpoint system; levels are separated into clearly marked phases, and yet you start from the top if Gorilla runs out of lives. As a result, each level becomes an endurance run that will have even twitch action veterans wiping the sweat off their brows when Gorilla reaches the finish line intact. There’s nothing like the feeling of triumph one gets when he or she manages to squeeze through in one shot, but having to repeat lower-intensity segments after an unlucky run toward the end of a level has its drawbacks too. It’s worth noting that Gorilla Gondola’s levels are randomly generated to some extent, so sheer memorization doesn’t enter the equation as much as you might expect.

Aside from the complex and well-varied challenges it throws at the player, my favorite aspect of Gorilla Gondola is the way it ties achievements directly into gameplay. Progression isn’t just a matter of making it from Point A to Point B. Levels ask for certain banana collection goals, performance requirements, and miscellaneous feats before they unlock, which motivates the player to dive into the game’s intricacies far more effectively than your typical Game Center achievements list (which Gorilla Gondola also has, by the way). On the downside, the player has to keep checking the stage select menu to review what must be done in currently accessible levels before new levels will unlock. An in-game list of goals one can achieve in the current level, available in the pause menu, would be much appreciated in updates.

Gorilla Gondola’s controls are perfectly suited to the platform and its tilt physics feel just right, so the lack of calibration options at present isn’t a concern. One thing that will drive some players crazy on smaller iDevices is the way the downward swipe triggers the iOS 5 pull-down tab. Thankfully this is only a visual nuisance because one downward swipe never follows another in Gorilla Gondola’s gameplay; the next stomp starts with an upward swipe to get Gorilla airborne, which pushes the notifications tab right back up.

I’ve used the phrase “drop dead gorgeous” to describe iOS games before, but now I realize I should have reserved that description for this one — Gorilla Gondola is the best looking 2D title on the platform right now, hands-down, in my opinion. Even if you’re miffed that you have to replay a level to pick up an achievement you weren’t aware of the first time through, chances are you would have returned anyway just to ogle those dazzlingly beautiful backgrounds! Seriously, Electric Pixel Factory should open up their own visual arts school to spread their talent far and wide. Gorilla Gondola is no slouch in the audio department either, with generally catchy music and the coolest in-game announcer since the Mortal Kombat guy giving the player real-time feedback on his or her performance. Gorilla Gondola resurrects the fine tradition of tucking a sound test into its main menu, where players can listen to all its tracks free of the stress they’ll feel in-game.

iFanzine Verdict: With gameplay just as unique as its premise, Gorilla Gondola will tax your action skills and your powers of on-the-fly puzzle solving to their limit. While its sheer beauty and intuitive interface will draw in plenty of casual players, bear in mind that Gorilla Gondola ramps up the challenge until it’s positively sky-high. A true checkpoint system would be worth implementing in updates on that account, and the game demands a more efficient way of tracking level unlock requirements

Addendum: Here’s that true checkpoint system we asked for, plus streamlined level unlock criteria for easier goal tracking.