Inertia: Escape Velocity HD is exactly what we’ve come to expect from the sadly large majority of iOS games. It sports the now-familiar crappy graphics and sound (often pitched as being “retro” due to their similarity to crappy graphics and sound from the 8-bit era or else friendly to non-gamers because their visual style apes an existing flash game). The premise of the game is that you’re trying to collect space junk with which to repair your spaceship, so you spend your time trying to navigate a three-dimensional world through the sort of interface iOS devices allow.
As you might expect, this just doesn’t work very well, though enough struggle with it does allow the user to get a feel for the unusual nature of navigation in microgravity. The spaceship repairing feels like a tacked-on minigame, which is poorly suited to the rest of the experience. This is exacerbated by the banality of that experience–it feels exactly like every other platformer, with minimal innovations deployed in uninspiring levels to create exactly the kind of formulaic experience which makes the phrase “more than the sum of its parts” meaningful by contrast.
Every sentence in the above paragraphs is false. It was tempting to write the entire review in falsehoods, because the ways in which Inertia violated my expectations were so plentiful and varied. You control Hermes (who actually is trying to collect scrap in space) by moving him left or right, jumping, and by turning his artificial gravity suit on and off. This last is the only distinctive trait of the mechanical premise of the game, but Inertia shines in the exploitation of its one innovation.
The game’s level of graphical polish far exceeds the usual iOS fare, with very attractive 3-D models and highly evocative animations and sound effects. The music effectively sets various moods and is appropriately electronic, but didn’t suit my tastes and so the sound was off for most of my play. The palette and rendering of the different level elements evoke a science fiction setting. This is thematically jarring, since the levels don’t seem like haphazard accretions of space junk and most of those elements obviously require a substantial amount of power.
Those levels are entirely two-dimensional, which also suits the theme of exploring space poorly but seems crucial to making it possible to control the game. Because the player has to be expected to hold the iPad in two hands, with only the thumbs available for control, navigating truly 3-D space would leave no opportunity for anything else. Even as it is, I found myself too clumsy to use a single thumb to control both jumping and turning off gravity, because it’s frequently important to kill the gravity at just the right point in the jump. Instead, I used the option to tilt the iPad for left-right motion, allowing me to dedicate a thumb to each of the other buttons. This was adequate, but there were certainly still many occasions on which I missed having a console-style controller.
As you navigate these levels, you pick up liberally distributed pieces of scrap, though they might as well be fruit or rings or coins, because all they do is unlock levels. The idea that you’ll use them to build a ship is never made real in the game (in fact, it organizes levels into galaxies, which you’re perfectly able to navigate between long before you’ve acquired enough scrap to open all the levels, and all of which are apparently part of the same junkyard despite residing galaxies apart). In many ways, this is also probably a great decision, because games that graft multiple systems onto each other are often tricky to pull off well; gamers interested in one may well have very little interest in the other. It was a disappointment for me, as the interaction between disparate systems can also be fascinating, and I liked the idea of choosing which missions to attempt based on which pieces I needed to build the ship I wanted. There’s simply nothing like that in the game–it’s a pure platformer.
The scrap does do something that is new to me, though: increases player freedom without ruining motivation. Simply finishing a level isn’t what unlocks the next level; gathering scrap does that, but you need much less than all of the available scrap to unlock the next level, so it’s not difficult for a player to invest a little extra time in being more completist about collecting scrap in levels they are able to complete, and thereby allow themselves to skip a level with which they’re having difficulty. This works extremely well. Instead of something like the Eagle from Angry Birds, you can buy your way out of a jam by grinding a bit; if you’re like me, that will come naturally and it’ll never be an issue. Of course, if you’re like me, completing all the levels will be its own reward and the option to skip one won’t be used, but even then it was a comfort to know I had an out if I found anything too frustrating. That option was appealing enough that it changed the way I played and the value of rising to the challenge of collecting some of the less accessible scrap.
The graphics are nice, and a cool advancement system is sort of neat, but the value of those features is completely dependent on level design. Inertia’s is superb, far and away the best I’ve seen on iOS. What I love about it is how gradually it introduces a whole different attitude. Early on, any rush comes entirely from the player. You can always slow down and think things through. The interaction between gravity and the lack thereof takes enough getting used to that this is necessary, That stage of the game lasts a good, long while. Then, very gradually, the game introduces situations in which attractors, repulsers, and other elements can send you careening in very eccentric paths at high speed, often through areas so distant from the last good point to catch your breath that you’ll need some very quick thinking (or, as in my case, some trial and error). It can be reminiscent of the experience of the early Sonic the Hedgehog games, and the delightful sense of speed and the need to be slightly out of control. The unusual pacing feels deliciously fresh and exciting, much as Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho did and still does.
Inertia does virtually nothing I wanted it to do. I wanted it to interestingly connect scrap-collecting and shipbuilding, to help me develop my intuitions about movement in space and give me a real sci-fi experience. There is no shipbuilding, the ability to turn on gravity and lack of a third dimension mean that whatever skill I’ve developed applies to nothing real, and the science fiction is completely superficial. Yet, it’s a wonderful platformer that I would never have played if it weren’t for those misconceptions (some of which I wouldn’t have had in the first place if I’d read the description carefully). The small number of simple level elements like attractors and force fields are deployed so well that delightful things happen.
Review copy of the game provided by publisher.