Star Serum Review

I imagine one of the first things a typical iOS developer does is find an audience to target — tailoring every game mechanic just right so the entire package appeals to logic puzzle lovers, or to action buffs, or to role playing gurus, without much concern for crossover. Kc8 is not a typical iOS game developer. Star Serum (Out Now, $1.99) is not only their most ambitious title yet, it’s one of the most daring games on the App Store. If you didn’t catch our preview or developer interview, the reason why is that it hits several genres, from action games to logic puzzlers to a sci-fi rendition of Angry Birds. I’ve always believed variety is a great thing for a game to achieve, but on the other hand, Star Serum reveals that the wider a studio casts their net, the more risk they take on.

After a stylish intro comic Star Serum ushers the player through five separate minigames, each progressively unlocked. The first two require the skills of a twitch action fan. Droids erratically bound around the screen in the first, making the player track them with a lightsaber in a bid to block their shots and score hits when they get close. Holding out when there are two or even three onscreen at a time demands a high level of endurance; windows of opportunity where your lightsaber can connect with the droids are brief, so you have to hold out against a truly epic onslaught until you essentially score enough lucky hits to pass. To make things even tougher, the droids have a way of sneaking toward the bottom edge of the screen – where touch sensitivity takes a dive – and attacking where the player has a difficult time blocking.

Thankfully the interface is spot-on in the flight simulator/asteroid evasion game that follows. Again, it’s an intense experience and luck plays an important role: whether a string of fuel canisters appear smack dab in the middle of randomly generated asteroid clusters can make all the difference between victory and a hard crash. Some tweaks to the fuel indicator and distance-to-goal meter would be great help in updates. These currently vanish whenever you press on the left-hand or right-hand side of the screen to maneuver, which is pretty much all the time — so the player is left ignorant of the spacecraft’s status until a verbal low fuel warning kicks in.

Survive those and you’ll be treated to Star Serum’s strongest segment: a 25-course physics puzzler I like to call “explosive Jenga.” The goal here is to selectively destroy blocks until a droid falls onto a landing pad. It’s a deeply satisfying and laid-back test of brain power, and also happens to be the most fleshed-out of all Star Serum’s game modes. The player has to feel out each level move by move with help from an instant retry button, gradually discovering which structural elements should be left in place before setting off bombs and turning floaters loose. The number of solutions in later levels seems limited only by the player’s creativity. I enjoyed these puzzles so much, in fact, that I’d love to see some kind of stand-alone release for puzzle fans to dive into without having to survive the heavy action sequences that serve as roadblocks to this feast.

Puzzle fans are also in for something interesting in Star Serum’s fourth phase, a ball flinger in the Angry Birds tradition that takes some innovative liberties. The Angry Birds genre has always suffered for the player’s inability to see the entire field of targets while aiming; the usual way around this is to help the player range with a marker that traces the previous projectile’s path. Star Serum opts instead for live control over the projectile once it’s released: swiping brings the power ball down on a target if the player times it right. The player also has limited control over the ball’s launch position, so getting a good launch angle isn’t a problem. Or at least that would be the case if not for this phase’s one big sticking point: it’s difficult to tell how much power you’re going to fling with, always a problem when the player has to use a flick-forward motion and there’s no visual power feedback. I suspect the difficulties I experienced here could be the result of a bug, as it seems to affect the first fling in some levels while subsequent flings work just as one would expect.

Star Serum’s fifth and final phase is a top-down, dual stick shooter where the player holds out against waves of enemy ships that close in from every direction. This one is much more approachable than the first two action sequences but still makes for some quick fun thanks to a handful of weapon power-ups and very tight controls. Its ten rounds go by quickly and it doesn’t get a chance at real gameplay depth for that reason, but if you like what you see here you’ll find endless modes for each of the action phases upon completing the game.

In sum, Star Serum serves up five sub-games that are successfully tailored for very different audiences, hit-or-miss though their controls may be. Normally such variety would give a game an edge in my opinion, but in Star Serum’s case the variety of content is so wide, I have to wonder whether puzzle fans will be prepared to deal with the initial action sequences, and whether most who pick up Star Serum for that blood-pumping intro could grow bored with the puzzle segments that follow. Difficulty levels on the first two action phases could really be a boon to Star Serum’s accessibility in updates, letting fans of low-intensity casual games scrape by and access the third and fourth phases.

What isn’t in question is the quality of Star Serum’s aesthetics. Its sub-games present just as many different graphical styles as they do game mechanics, and they all turned out beautiful. Star Serum’s soundtrack ranges from somber electronica to full-blown choral epics, and that certainly doesn’t hurt!

iFanzine Verdict: A mixed bag in every sense, Star Serum tries its hand at a variety of genres with different degrees of success. There’s a fantastic little logic puzzle game inside, but you’ll need the reflexes of a true action gaming Jedi to reach it. With further interface polishing and difficulty levels to make it more accessible all around, this one could certainly go places.