SpyCorp 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.)

An entrepreneur with a penchant for colorful quips has made his first two recruits for SpyCorp (Out Now, $0.99), and as you might expect, things can get messy in the spy business. When the biotech company Agents Katt and Shark are sent to investigate turns out to be a front for a mad scientist bent on creating super-soldiers, it’ll take all the player’s wits and resource management skills – and maybe just a little real-world cash – to get them out alive!

In many ways SpyCorp is that Metal Gear Solid side-scroller you’ve always wanted to see. Taking control of Katt or Shark, the player will be evading plenty of security cameras and guards while pulling off some impressive platforming stunts. It’s not your typical action platformer, in the sense that the player character can’t survive head-on confrontations and most of his or her abilities are derived from expendable gadgets that have to be rationed with care. Lurking in the shadows until a camera looks away, or until an enemy’s back is turned, may not sound like the most exciting side-scroller experience right off the bat. Add grappling hooks, scuba gear, jetpacks, and wall-scaling suction cups, however, and you’re looking at the platforming title with the most depth iOS has seen since Shantae: Risky’s Revenge. SpyCorp does a downright great job of stirring in new challenges and corresponding abilities to address them as the player dives further in. The most interesting levels even give the player both spies to work with, trading off as necessary to solve puzzles of the block-pushing or lock-and-key variety.

If all the cool spy gadgets flowing into the player’s inventory are SpyCorp’s greatest strength, then the game’s most controversial aspect will undoubtedly be how much their use costs. Item pickups feel very sparse compared to how much the player relies on them — this is especially noticeable with the grappling hooks required for zipping up and down the game’s untold number of platforms! The player makes up this difference by visiting an ever-accessible gadget shop, where he or she can trade collected Credits for more supplies. The shop is also where the much-discussed In-App Purchase phenomenon appears, and this is the first game I’ve reviewed where IAP seems truly enticing, for better or worse. Credits are collected in very small numbers, and bear in mind the player draws on his or her inventory of gadgets to explore for them in the first place. I had the sense that a true expert could beat the game without IAP, but for the average player who makes an ill-calculated jump here and there, an extra 200 Credits for $0.99 USD is going to look mighty necessary as collected resources wear down to the nub midway through SpyCorp’s 50-level campaign.

For the depth and breadth of content on offer, considering the game at double the cost to your real-world pocketbook ($1.99 USD) still leaves it well priced in my opinion, and just one injection of in-game cash should push the great majority of players over the edge — especially if the struggling player homes in on the infinite grappling hook and rappel cord, which pay for themselves countless times over.

Still, as a requisite IAP was not the developer’s intent, there are a few ways resource management balance could be improved. Returning to completed levels and grinding for Credits in the traditional sense isn’t possible, but the game is designed so that Credits missed the first time through will be added to the player’s total after a revisit. Distinguishing between pickups collected and missed on the first pass, now, there’s the rub — one that Mystery Ball handily solved by making previous collections transparent during level replays. Moreover, I’d love to see SpyCorp’s level rating system feed back into gameplay by modifying the amount of Credits the player receives per collection. With Game Center and OpenFeint leaderboards becoming more and more neutral nowadays, what better way to entice the player to go back and improve that Spy Fame rating?

I also have a few non-IAP gripes with SpyCorp’s design. I’d love, love, love to see level maps, as the stage layouts can get very complex. For now, players will have to make do with spy cameras – the disposable kind, naturally – that allow screen panning while Katt or Shark stand still. Speaking of the selectable heroes, there are few differences between them — definitely a growth opportunity in sequels. There are a few puzzles involving dynamite crates where the player can get stuck: toss that explosive box the wrong way and you’ll have to hit the Retry button unless you happen to have an exploding briefcase handy in inventory. And finally, there’s no way to de-activate gadgets like suction cups and double-jump ankle rockets except by tediously going through the menu system and dragging them out of active inventory. Being able to tap on the icons in active inventory to turn individual gadgets on and off would be lovely.

Wicked Games bent over backward to give the player user interface options, including full-on resizing and rearrangement of SpyCorp’s virtual buttons. The devs deserve serious accolades for this alone, and yet it’s also revealed an unfortunate truth I might not have recognized myself had I not spent some time with Kale in Dinoland just before this. When it comes to four-way virtual D-pads, it’s not button size that matters so much as the touch activation area surrounding them. In SpyCorp the touch activation area for each of the movement keys feels precisely equal to its visual size; let your thumb slip into the off-button diagonals just a tad and the character’s movement will cut out. For sure, bumping up that button size to the max makes this happen less frequently, but I still ran into this problem from time to time even then. When it comes to the pursuit of the perfect virtual D-pad, the answer lies in expanding the touch sensitivity area of the left and right movement keys well outside their visual borders. In any case, it’s worth noting that Kale is still in development, so SpyCorp’s UI is well on par with its present competition in the iOS platformer library.

SpyCorp’s character models are all beautiful in motion, and some impressive ragdoll physics come into play when the hero or heroine jumps on rope-suspended girders or throws boxes around. On the downside, the game’s physics leave it prone to awkward collision detection with walls, which cuts into SpyCorp’s aesthetic polish at the moment — or at least that’s how I felt after playing umpteen 2D platformers where the player character doesn’t bounce back from walls while jumping. The game’s wonderfully twangy soundtrack fails to loop from time to time; for what it’s worth, at least the game’s excellent sound effects samples are emphasized when this happens! SpyCorp’s 50 levels should stretch somewhere in the range of five to six hours.

iFanzine Verdict: A great stealth platformer weighed down by a number of minor issues, SpyCorp could stand lots of further polishing — but even so, it’s still a feast for platforming fans in search of titles with real depth.

Addendum: In-App Purchase issue blunted with more in-game cash
Addendum: In-App Purchases removed completely, area minimaps added, interface improvements