Wharr: Age of the Colossus Review

If videogames have taught us one thing about Norse mythology over the years, it’s that Valkyries are not to be messed with. Thus, it’s easy enough to understand why all Colossi in the world of Wharr (Out Now, $.99) are quaking in their gigantic boots, despite the fact that whatever lies at the heart of the conflict is well obscured beneath text translation that’s eccentric at best. It appears that the head Colossus has been “bent badly” by corruption, and that’s why a do-gooder Valkyrie named Wharr has started hacking away at every moving giant she can find.

Wharr‘s gameplay premise sounds so promising: boiled down to its very basics, it’s a vertical scrolling platformer spread out over seven levels, each a showdown against a giant creature. The rock platforms Wharr uses to reach the Colossus crumble the moment she touches down on them, so she must continually ascend during the attack or fall to certain doom — too bad she’s not quite as adept at using her wings as a few of the Valkyries gamers have seen in other franchises.

Alas, what sounds excellent in theory severely trips up in execution. Wharr‘s shortcomings are all tied to its user interface, which relies entirely on tilt controls. As any veteran of 2D platforming is well aware, precision of user input is an absolute must — especially when the platforms in question become as narrow as the player will often encounter here.  Devs who have made successful use of iOS tilt controls usually offer sensitivity level options, alternative control schemes altogether, or at least build a comfortable level of wiggle room into the game’s core design; Wharr lacks all these potentially saving graces, and the player will pay for it with one needlessly frustrating Game Over after another.

As always, familiarity gradually takes the sting out of the loose physics associated with this game’s tilt interface. The more pressing concern is how automatically Wharr’s activities occur; all the player does is guide her right or left during her many jumps, hopefully at a trajectory that allows her to snag occasional powerups. Meanwhile she whittles down the Colossus’ health meter at a set rate, building up an energy bar of her own that triggers an automatic special attack once it’s filled. The tilt controls score some points for simplifying the user interface and freeing onscreen real estate, but this is a pyrrhic victory when gameplay has been stripped to the point that the player never feels truly engaged in the proceedings.

Wharr’s nemeses don’t do anything particularly interesting to spice things up either. The Colossi are, in truth, about as harmless as art deco wallpaper; their only defensive action is to periodically obscure the player’s view of Wharr and her surroundings with their giant hands. You have to give them credit — they know the player’s having enough problems guiding Wharr from one instantly collapsing platform to the next when he or she has full view of the screen, let alone when all visual feedback regarding Wharr’s position is suddenly removed.

There is a bright spot in Wharr‘s gameplay: finishing a level yields gold coins the player can use to purchase upgrades from a skill tree of sorts between levels. Like any good stat management system this skill tree forces allocation decisions; the player can spend in-game cash on developing an already-unlocked skill further or moving on to learn a new skill. Sadly it’s merely a stat management system – one that affects the power of Wharr’s normal and special attacks, rate of gold acquisition, etc – not one that opens up new actions for the player. Once the tilt physics are mastered to an extent that allows progression through the game’s seven levels, the player is left yearning for something else to do besides repeat exactly what happened in the previous level.

There’s no question that Wharr‘s greatest asset is its interesting art style, but a tragically unfortunate design decision weighs on the audio department. Nobody would have an easy time swinging around a giant cleaver like Wharr does, and whether it’s because of that or because she means to intimidate the Colossus, she shrieks like a banshee out of some bad wuxia flick every time she dishes out a sword combo. Since that, in turn, happens automatically about once every two seconds…you get the picture. Wharr‘s levels are musically unaccompanied and the game cancels out external music tracks, so the dying shriek of a Colossus becomes a much welcome respite no matter how much it sets off the player’s inner PETA alarm.

iFanzine Verdict: If you’re the kind of gamer who believes the toughest vertical scrolling levels in classic platformers absolutely could not have been pulled off with tilt axis controls, you’re doing yourself a favor in passing this one up. Those who are still drawn in by Wharr‘s art style and the sheer power of its premise will likely be disappointed in mechanics that serve mostly to divorce the player from the onscreen proceedings, rather than create an engaging experience.