Brought to you by 1337 Game Design, the effort behind Dark Nebula is spearheaded by the lead designer of Battlefield 2, which almost makes the level of polish to the environments, controls and interface unsurprising – almost. Dark Nebula is a great looking game, and I love and appreciate the amount of effort that has clearly gone into the title. At about an hour’s worth of game time it’s a notably brief offering, but not without replay value. Frankly, I’m not sure what people’s demands are for a .99 title, perhaps we’re all a bit spoiled by the AppStore budget pricing.
The orb you control in this ball roller is really more like a disc with a shield. Each level is a vertical progression, not particularly maze-like, that you guide the disc through by tilting your iPhone. The accelerometer controls are marvelously precise, though the game is also very forgiving when it comes to nearly losing the ball over an unguarded edge.As you progress through the futuristic environments towards the goal you try to collect “orbs” (which look more like capsules).
Playing across ten futuristic levels, from Ascension to The Mainframe, things begin a little slowly. After the first level, which really serves to introduce you to the game principles and illustrate the ease of accelerometer control, things get more exciting with the appropriately name Speed Zone A. Each of the ten levels does focus on a particular type of challenge, and even incorporate platforming elements.
You are given three lives but can collect more by picking up objects and collecting 100 energy vials, and the lives transfer across levels – so picking them up early on is a boon to your survival. There are checkpoints within the levels, which means falling into space or getting crushed by spikes usually doesn’t set you back very far. Should you lose all your lives the level must be retried from the beginning, but completed levels remain unlocked.
Among the pitfalls are laser fields. In order to traverse them you must first locate a nearby zone of the corresponding color that charges your disc with that color and allows you to pass. While much of the early levels have safely guarded edges, you will encounter narrow zones from which you can easily slide right into space, or enclosed areas edged in spikes. Vertical and horizontal sliding mechanisms throughout the levels are both a help and a hindrance, with some rocketing you through lengthy corridors and others knocking you backward. Still sound tame? How about turrets and spinning spikes?
Upon finishing a stage you are graded on the time it takes you, the orbs collected and lives lost. Based on your performance in each area you are awarded gold, silver or bronze stars which are then averaged for your cumulative rating. This is a nit picky item, but upon level completion you have the choice of restarting the level or going to the next. However, often I want to return to the main menu which means I have to begin a level just in order to quit to menu. Otherwise, the design at work here is a treat. The environments are great, and while the menu music is a heroic theme the in-level sounds are appropriately minimalist.
If the game had a high price tag I might harp on more about the relative brevity of the title. At .99, I feel the quality here is worth a paid game, making the brevity only slightly unfortunate. A tilt control with an arcade vibe Dark Nebula avoids some signature arcade frustrations remaining accessible, engaging and decidedly not frustrating. Intuitive controls, slick level design and challenging gameplay combine to make Dark Nebula:Episode 1 a truly impressive AppStore offering. Bring on Episode 2.