Spells Arena: The Signs of the Gods Re-Review

Somewhere in a dimensional void — in an age before worlds existed — there were a bunch of bored Gods sitting around in utter silence, and so they decided to invent for themselves a game with which to pass the time. Thus goes the premise to 2 Think Games’ Spells Arena: The Signs of the Gods (out now, $0.99), a physics based game wherein two gods square off against each other in an epic battle to see who can smash all of their opponent’s gems first. The catch is that each player’s spells must also be cast using these selfsame gems that they’re desperately trying to keep their opponent from blasting into a cloud of fine smithereens.

screen480x480People may freely move their personal gem about by dragging it around with their finger, which — if you’re fast enough — can be a handy way of avoiding incoming spell blasts. These spells are — in turn — conjured by dragging your gem in any of the four cardinal directions, with the spell then being fired off whenever you finally release the screen (this is useful for aiming, since the gem can be freely moved around before the spell is fired). The available spells include things such as plasma bolts (which fly in a variety of patterns) — a wide assortment of blast blocking barriers — and eventually even traps that can be strategically arranged, with the direction swiped determining which spell is used.

Complicating matters is that players don’t get to carefully choose which four spells they’ll have available at any given moment, they instead get the spells attached to the gem they’re currently using. At the beginning of each match two sets of three gems are displayed, wherein each gem will have four wildly different spells attached to it (and the Gods themselves will have to decide which set each of them receives). Blasting one of these out of the opposing God’s hands will force them to go to their next gem in line, which — depending on the spells contained — may or may not prove more advantageous.

Obviously the match’s winner is whomever can first destroy all three of the other God’s gems, which will then award that player control of the currently contested portal (and apparently he who owns all of the portals first will be the one to achieve enlightenment). These battles can either be played head-to-head against an opponent on just one device (larger devices — such as iPads — are preferable), against the computer, or against someone online (either randomly selected, or chosen from your Game Center’s friend-list). Matches against live opponents basically work well enough, although I was unable to properly test the game’s online component due to there seemingly never being anyone available whenever I checked for challenging deities.

screen480x480Right about now you might be feeling a strong sense of Déjà Vu, as if you’ve already read a nearly identical review — on iFanzine even — of a game exactly like the one I’ve just described. Don’t worry — however — as you aren’t losing your sanity, and the Matrix didn’t pull a sinister universe altering reset either (although that does seem to be what every Sims player does to their wards right after coaxing them into a backyard pool). Instead, the reality is that Spells Arena’s initial release — due to the some control issues that rendered the game virtually 100% unplayable — made us all feel that 2 Think’s app deserved a proper second look after receiving a recent patch.

For those of you whom might be asking, the chief change was in relation to how the Gods select their spells (which previously asked players to draw shapes such as these: <, >, ^, \, -, 3, O, ?, etc). Ask anyone who’s ever played games featuring tons of gesture based inputs on either the Wii — DS — or various mobile units, and you’ll generally get what is basically the same response: motions actions, beyond simple swipes, rarely work. Suffice to say: it didn’t work all that reliably for Spells Arena either; but that’s okay, since — as mentioned earlier in this review — they’re now using a far more reliable control scheme.

Although it probably should be said that this new control scheme didn’t arrive without its own share of new quirks, which in turn have led to some new control issues all its own. Previously — under the old system — it was quite hard to accidentally draw a spell you didn’t desire, yet now it’ll happen far more often since motion — in pretty much any direction whatsoever — counts as a valid spell. This makes it especially hard to cast shields — which are always executed via downward swipes — when your gem is at the screen’s absolute bottom, since you’ll have to move up first before you can move back down.

screen480x480I understand that the ability to freely move your gem around after prepping a spell is a fully deliberate feature, especially since its utterly vital for aiming your attacks, but this also means that you often have to fire off unintended spells because of the limited space. Although it wasn’t a feature the older version of Spells Arena needed so much, this recent update could really use some means of letting the game know that you aren’t trying to cast spells when you’re really just moving from the screen’s edges. There probably needs to be a button for each player that — if held — lets the game know they aren’t currently trying to cast a spell; but, then again, some might say it’s all part of learning how to play.

What can’t quite easily be chocked up to taste — however — is that gems often seem to get stuck at the screen’s bottom, a problem I wasn’t running into the last time I tackled Spells Arena. I can’t really figure out what keeps triggering this bug, but it’s really annoying whenever it does happen as it usually gives a free point to the other side (except for when you get stuck behind a shield, then you might become unstuck before you’re blasted). One would assume, in light of the developer’s already demonstrated commitment to fully polishing up Spells Arena, that this odd issue would presumably be fully rectified at some point in the near future.

Control matters aside, another concern that probably needs looking into is how Spells Arena informs players of the four spells attached to the gems they’re allowed to choose from at the beginning of each match. The spells are currently displayed using the same complex stroke gestures that players previously used to invoke their power, which over time — as a matter of necessity — players would be forced to internalize. Now — however — all spells are assigned to one of the four cardinal directions, meaning the old stroke designations are no longer quite as meaningful to players as they once previously were. I’ll admit that I’m not entirely sure how this new dilemma should best be tackled, since an iDevice’s precious screen space is always premium real-estate, but perhaps a glossary explaining what the various symbols mean could be added to Spells Arena’s main menu.

screen480x480Anyways; all explanations — conceit or mechanical — now fully aside, the ultimate question still remains as to whether or not Spells Arena is actually enjoyable to play this time around. The answer to all of this would actually be yes, with the game being heavily reminiscent of Lazer Tag’s later iterations (wherein you attempted to shoot your opponent’s target using the very same target that you simultaneously needed to protect). We here at iFanzine always value when game developers see fit to include a proper Risk-Vs-Reward mechanic into their game play, as things are always far more interesting when you are required to put yourself into a state of enhanced risk in order to score big.

Playing against the computer is a bit more frustrating — though — since most of the spells are designed to fly in complex patterns that aim to psych your opponent out, whereas the AI has an uncanny ability to predict where each shot will land (probably via cheating). Still — even with the computer’s superior dodging skills factored in — it was far easier to defeat the computer after Spells Arena’s recent patch, but that did little to change the fact that their ‘easy-mode’ felt more as though you were actually beginning on ‘hard-mode’. It would probably be in the 2 Think’s interest to consider revising their AI — or possibly even add a lower difficulty tier for new players — as against the computer is where most people will sadly end up, due to the mobile lifestyle often favoring asynchronous play.

iFanzine Verdict: Spells Arena’s game of two wizards battling it out — each being forced to attack with the very same thing they’re striving to keep safe — is an interesting concept, reminding me heavily of later incarnations of Lazer Tag. The unique method of selecting spells further spices up the mix, by tying players actions into the direction they’re currently moving their gem (which can be frustrating if you’re near an edge). With actual players the game is quite fun — even if you do sometimes get stuck on the bottom — the AI, however, is downright frustrating since it’s impossible to do anything that would ever psych him out (and most games will probably be played against the AI).