The Hills Have Eyes
And this is why kids should be advised against rummaging around their grandparents’ backyards: there’s always the possibility a litte’un could stumble upon a magical bracelet that whisks him or her away to an alternate reality. At least that’s what happens to the young protagonist of Ignacio Sastre’s and Kristina Krebs’ debut iOS title, Mystic Forest (Out Now for $.99, Lite). Sadly its plot cuts out once the nameless girl lands in the titular forested realm but seeing as the local flora exhibit a taste for children, returning home would seem to be her most probable goal. To do that she must forage around for shards of the gems once inset into her grandma’s bracelet, which got her here in the first place and conveniently scattered to the four winds upon her arrival.
On paper Mystic Forest sounds like a brilliant concept. Together with tons of lush artwork, its environmental puzzles – in which the heroine shapes her surroundings by watering plants, stuffing them with pollen, yanking at their roots, etc. – should garner interest from casual puzzle fans who typically go for games like Hamlet or Machinarium. That the puzzles here take place in side-scrolling stages filled with mushroom springboards and other plant-powered gizmos should simultaneously appeal to platforming fans. The marriage of casual puzzler and sidescrolling platformer could, if things work out just right, result in a casual puzzler that’s delightfully fast-paced and an action game that solves the conundrum of having to rely on combat as a gameplay mechanic.
Alas, as soon as the player lays his or her fingertips upon Mystic Forest‘s controls, it becomes apparent that things didn’t work out just right. It’s not for lack of trying. The devs offer no less than four user interface options, ranging from the now-familiar virtual joystick-and-buttons setup to functions invisibly spread over the touchscreen’s surface area. The problem is that no option feels completely comfortable: the virtual joystick radius is much too small – ever a UI bane on iOS – but left and right movement buttons tend to stick at inopportune moments. Context-sensitive actions like shaking the iDevice to rustle pollen out of useful plants or accelerometer-driven rides on giant dandelion seeds fare much better, and experience does help once the player finds a best user interface setup for his or her own needs.
What’s liable to weigh more on players’ enjoyment in the long run is the heroine’s leisurely gait relative to the giant world that is her playground. After an easy set of introductory levels Mystic Forest really ups the ante, introducing rapidly moving platforms and bottomless pits. I can’t shake the feeling that greater momentum would have made critical leaps less frustrating, let alone taken the sting out of its checkpoint system — there’s nothing like having to repeat a lengthy and complex segment of a level ad infinitum over one tricky jump. Rather than provide fun breaks or accelerate the number of puzzles the player is exposed to in a given time, Mystic Forest‘s side-scroller platforming merely introduces tedium. Collision detection, both with enemy attacks and the edges of platforms, feels odd and lacking of visual feedback that lets the player immediately know whether a jump was successful or if the heroine’s been injured.
To its credit, Mystic Forest sports satisfyingly intricate level design and refreshingly creative puzzles. While the game offers a help screen that shows how to surmount each type of obstacle – essentially equivalent to the casual puzzle genre’s “Hint” button, but always available – it’s more fun to rely on the player character’s commentary and figure it out on one’s own. Only rarely do Mystic Forest‘s puzzles become impenetrable to the player’s deductive reasoning.
There’s no doubting Mystic Forest‘s production values; its cel-shaded character models are just as impressive as its whimsical eyeball-filled and plant-covered environments. Each major region the heroine travels through also sports its own soothing New Age track. I did experience occasional frame rate issues on my Fourth Gen iPod Touch, software version 4.3.3, and these seemed to be heavily exacerbated if I had other programs running in background when I fired up the game. Weighing in at nine levels, Mystic Forest should be good for approximately five hours’ worth of puzzle-solving adventure.
iFanzine Verdict: A little too clunky for side-scrolling platformer fans and yet a little too frustrating in the action department for casual puzzle fans, Mystic Forest will appeal to an all too narrow audience given its production values and quality of level design. If you’re generally a fan of puzzle-filled adventure games and are drawn to its gorgeous presentation, do yourself a favor and grab the Lite version first to see whether it’ll be your cup of tea.