I was initially excited by Fur and Feathers. The visuals are more nearly my aesthetic ideal than any other game I’ve played on iOS, puzzlers often work well on the iPhone and iPad and it’s intended to be accessible to children as young as four years old, one of whom I happen to have. Unfortunately, the game gets some really basic elements of game design wrong–surprisingly wrong, since they seem like they would have been relatively easy to fix.
PopAppFactory, Inc. and Visualize®s tailored the experience to different screen sizes enough that they’ve eschewed a universal app in favor of having Fur and Feathers for the smaller iOS screens and Fur and Feathers HD for the iPad. Without a retina-level iPad, I can’t comment on the sharpness of the art at the highest settings, but the visual style is far and away the greatest element of the game. The audio is cute but minimally interesting.
Fur and Feathers is a pretty simple match-three played on a relatively small board consisting of three wires which have space for nine (on the phone or iPod Touch) or twelve (on the iPad) birds of various colors to perch. Birds can only move up to a higher wire, never down, though abacus-style lateral movement is available. New birds appear on the lowest wire on which a spot is still available, but if a bird ends up on the highest wire, this will attract a balloon-assisted cat to float by for a snack, removing a bird and resetting one’s scoring multiplier (on which more later).
The “4+” difficulty level is as simple as that, but the “10+” level makes it possible to make matches not just on color but on character model, with an extra scoring bonus for matches on both characteristics. There are a few other wrinkles, but the game is intended to have relatively low rules overhead, instead allowing the escalating buildup of birds to keep the game manically compelling. It can be a fun formula, but Fur and Feathers has three serious flaws which suck the fun out like a hard vacuum.
First, the input is poorly programmed. Long lateral slides naturally tend to involve some rotation of the wrist, so there’s an element of downward as well as purely sideways motion. The game detects such a dip as the player’s intent to bounce the bird to a higher wire, though this is both extraordinarily unlikely and relatively risky.
Second, the way the game is scored makes it much more important to make a match consistently quickly than to make high-value individual matches. This is because your score multiplier increments with every match you make until either more than ten seconds elapses between matches or a cat eats one of your birds. The value of the added multiplier very quickly overwhelms the value of matching many birds, so it doesn’t pay to try to take advantage of the strategic complexity of the game. The game effectively features a push-your-luck element like the one present in Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo and SpellTower, where a fuller board means more ammunition but more chance of losing; the only problem is that the decision about whether you are right to push your luck is trivially easy because you never should.
Third, the game remains easy no matter how long you play. It’s good that it starts easy–there’s no reason for it not to, and it makes it possible for even young children to genuinely experience the game. But there’s no reason for the difficulty to plateau, which it does relatively quickly even on the higher difficulty setting. Jetpack Joyride and Flight Control do this well–the challenge gradually increases until even a truly excellent player is doomed. By contrast, I’ve played a single game of Fur and Feathers for fifteen or twenty minutes, and the difficulty doesn’t seem to rise at all after the first five.
By adopting a strategy of making matches quickly rather than aiming for interesting ones, it’s possible to keep the board relatively clear until one chooses to stop. My games have only ever ended when I became persuaded that nothing new was going to happen to make it harder, and further play would be sort of pointless (only one other person had more patience than I at the time of writing, according to the all-time leaderboards). This is somewhat less true on the phone than the iPad, because the narrower field of play makes it slightly harder to make matches without ever using the highest wire (and therefore risking a cat attack), but it’s still a serious problem.
What’s so infuriating about these issues is that none of them seem challenging to fix. For a game which put such craft into its art and which seems solidly programmed (I never experienced a crash or bug), problems like these are just baffling. My four-year-old does like it, though her attention span for it is short, so it’ll stay on my devices for now. I hope that a future update unlocks the potential of Fur and Feathers–with some simple fixes it could be quite a charming entry into the frantic puzzle genre.
Review copy of game provided by publisher.