Imaginary-Range---iOS-Review Imaginary Range - iOS Review

   06/05/2011 at 11:25       NewYork       4 COMMENTS. - Score 2/5
 - Imaginary Range, Square Enix, comics

Apple's iOS devices have become a natural home for minigames and for comic books. Minigames dominate the download charts every week, while Marvel's comic reader app nearly always holds a spot near the top of the reading applications. It was only a matter of time before some bright spark decided to merge the two, and the marriage comes courtesy of Square Enix. And as you can expect from a Square Enix production, the result is visually gorgeous, but perhaps mentally numbing.

The premise of the app is this: you read the comic as you would most comics available on iOS devices. You can view panel-by-panel, or entire pages at once. Flicking left or right moves forwards or backwards through the story. Meanwhile, the comic is made slightly interactive, with objects within the artwork that you can collect by tracing circles around them. At points during the story, you'll then be asked to use those objects by dragging them into the panel, in order to advance the plot.

But the meat of the gameplay comes from minigames scattered throughout the comic: buttons within certain panels will launch these minigames, which are tied in with the plot. These minigames must be completed to advance the story. For example, in a certain panel, you may see a character trying to remember something: in order to trigger his memory, you must complete a sliding panel puzzle.

Throughout the comic you are awarded with coins for collecting objects and completing the minigames. These coins can then be spent on content in the gallery mode (although, rather frustratingly, you must first purchase and play a virtual scratch-card in order to unlock that content – and winning at the scratch-cards is rare).

Let's start with the comic itself: with art handled by Toshiyuki Itahana--the character designer for the Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles series--the visuals are predictably pleasing to the eye, with a dreamlike, muted, children's-storybook style that is made all the more charming by the setting of Paris, France. There is subtle animation to the panels, too, with beautiful panning shots and dynamic speech bubbles that make the comic seem less static. On the new retina displays, the imagery pops brilliantly off the screen.

The storyline, however, leaves much to be desired. It has been written by Souki Tsukishima, author of the novel Emeth: Ningyo–tsukai no Shima, and overseen by the director of Final Fantasy XIII – so take that how you will.

In brief, a giant creature known as Omega is attacking Paris. You are tasked with helping two characters, Cid and Ciela, in taking down the menace. However, as they battle the monster, they begin to vaguely discuss ending the world, and the nature of reality. Add in some torturous vague references to technology and concepts that aren't fully explained, and cameo appearances from characters with no background, and the story is simply an impenetrable mess.

In particular, the shoehorned-in philosophical discussions (during a battle with a huge monster, for crying out loud), come off as pretentious psychobabble. Some offending lines include “What's the difference between normal and insane in this world?”, “A dream isn't a dream unless you wake up from it”, and “The worst kind of miracle... is the kind nobody wants.”

After completing the comic once, you are allowed to read the comic straight through without worrying about minigames and such things. Instead, you are presented with butterfly icons within panels, which provide additional backstory to explain what is going on. Vital terms used the first time around, such as “IP”, “PAD”, and the embarrassingly-named “PILEs” are only explained the second time through. This is a poor way of doing things, both in terms of using exposition as a way of conveying plot, and in terms of conveying these details far too late.

The two main characters are the only ones with any significant screentime, and unfortunately that time is wasted. All that is learned about Cid's character is that he is aloof and childish, with some inner turmoil that is badly presented. Ciela is your typical anime herione, very loud and spunky, and with some strange distrust of Cid that again fails to materialise into anything substantial. You come away not knowing who these two really are or what they are about. There's more time to delve into these characters, but Square Enix hasn't exactly set off on the right foot.

That's not to say that the plot won't eventually become good after a few issues (the app contains only issue 1 at the moment: it is not known if the subsequent issues will be free or charged for). But being intentionally vague while throwing a heap of confusing elements at the reader is not compelling. Even the main hook of the issue, the battle with the huge monster attacking Paris, lacks any punch.

The minigames, meanwhile, serve merely as a distraction. Standing alone, these are not games you would chose to play. The main games are:

1. Omega Assault. This plays like the popular air traffic control games seen on iOS devices. You must guide missiles towards the enemy while guiding the main character from harm. Unfortunately within the comic the minigame is too easy and over far too quickly. However, it can be accessed as a standalone game, with hi-scores helping to stretch the game out. Unfortunately, there is no integration with Apple's Game Center, so you can't compare your score with friends (unless you manually talk to them about it, I guess).

2. Puzzle Attack. A rather clever puzzle in which you rotate squares to make pegs fall in holes. Not at all taxing within the comic, but a standalone version offers the ability to go for hi-scores.

3. Omega Blast. Like the Bust-a-Move bubble shooting games, except the bubbles are falling slowly towards you and your weapon automatically swings left to right, making you time your shot correctly. This is the most fun out of all the games, and something that could be fleshed out to a full title. Also available in standalone mode for hi-score gaming.

Other games involve sliding panel puzzles, and finding set objects camouflaged within a scene. None of these puzzles will tax your brain, and there's no particular excitement to be had. They seem like interactive diversions for the sake of it – serving only to slow down the plot. As for the object-finding minigame, it won't even be clear on your first playthrough what relevance it has to the plot, until concepts are better explained the next time around.

Overall, there's no denying that Square Enix can deliver a slick package when it comes to their media. The interface, the artwork, the music: it's all a very classy affair. However, the content itself does not live up to the presentation. The story is hollow, a combination of philosophical rambling and mysterious figures without any real substance. And the games sometimes feel more like obstacles rather than an integral element to the experience. If the minigames offered any challenge, if they were more exciting, and if they were more seamlessly integrated with the comic itself, they would be more of a joy to encounter.

There are interesting elements, though. The dynamic animated panels breathe life into the comic, though this is something we have already seen with efforts from Konami and EA, who have also produced dynamic e-comics. Having to look for objects within the panels is an interesting concept, which encourages you to look at the artwork in a new way – instead of glancing over it, you start analysing details. It's a new way to appreciate comic art. The music adds a sense of unnerving atmosphere. Finally, while the additional plot commentary on the second playthrough does give the writers a crutch in terms of explaining the plot, it is nonetheless a clever idea.

This is a concept that may take a few more issues to fully take hold in terms of story. Otherwise, the marriage between games and comics seems at least moderately successful. Free admission is also a positive: there is no excuse for fans of Square Enix's output (and this truly is a Square Enix affair, with chocobos and moogles out in full force) not to check this out. Despite issue one failing to create a decent impression, it does end with a promise of better adventures to come.


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