Zu was tending to his cottage – the same as he did everyday – when something mysterious fell from the skies, in the process causing the artifact in a nearby shrine to lose its shimmer. Since he was the shrine’s appointed protector – like his father before him – Zu immediately took bow in hand as he rode off to discover what was happening, not realizing the difficult trial that awaited him. Thus begins the simple setup of Lee-Kuo Chen and Chia-Yu Chen’s magnum opus A Ride into the Mountains (out now, $0.99), an iOS app that is simultaneously as beautiful as it is challenging.

screen480x480Zu – in order to reach the now damaged mountain shrine – will have to avoid the varied attacks coming in from a plethora of shadowy apparitions, all while returning fire with his fine-tuned archery skills. The dodging is handled by tilting your iDevice in the direction you need for Zu to lead his horse, with the directions you can currently move being determined by the stage’s camera angle. In A Ride into the Mountains – unlike many other iOS titles featuring tilt based motion controls – it doesn’t matter how far in a specific direction the unit is tilted, the speed with which Zu steers his horse is a linear constant.

To fire an arrow you must first tap and hold somewhere on the screen, and then – without letting go – move your finger in order to control how tightly Zu pulls back his currently nocked arrow. This motion also control the direction in which the hero aims, with Zu pointing his bow in the exact opposite angle of the line created by where the player moved their finger to. I would like to repeat that Zu aims his bow based on the angle of the line drawn, and – so long as you don’t move your finger about – this aiming will stay consistent even when his own position does not.

RideMountains-5This angle specific aiming can certainly be a bit tricky, which is why it’s certainly a good thing that A Ride into the Mountains has a bullet-time esque function that can be activated by tapping an enemy – with a second finger – during aiming. Probably the best part of this focus period is that during the slow down a dashed line will appear on screen to show exactly where your next shot will go, but – even then – you still need to do some leading if you truly wish to hit your target. The activation of this skill needs to be handled judiciously as it lasts for only a few seconds, after which taking forever to recharge, although it does receive many enhancements during the course of Zu’s journey.

You will definitely have to master both aiming and carefully timing your use of Zu’s focus ability if you want to get anywhere in A Ride into the Mountains, for this game – especially before you acquire health upgrades – is positively brutal in its difficulty. The saving grace to this extreme challenge is that you are given infinite extra lives to complete Zu’s journey with, and furthermore that there is a checkpoint after each and every enemy formation.  A Ride into the Mountains – thanks to its generously brutal setup – is free to throw out all sorts of varied puzzle combat situations, sans any hint whatsoever, without driving the player to rage quit.

screen480x480Those who do triumph over this meaty challenge will discover that they can now select from two new bows to play the game with, both of which significantly modify the way Zu’s attacks work. They also gain access to a level selector that enables players to go directly to whatever stage their favorite attack wave appeared during, rather than forcing them to reach it from the start again. Finally, this also provides an excellent hub for players – particularly those seeking even greater challenges – to peruse which GameCenter achievements they both have and haven’t earned yet.

My chief – and primarily only – complaint with all of this is that A Ride into the Mountains is a rather short affair, with the exact same things happening each and every time you play through it. While you can mix things up by utilizing different bows on replays, or by striving for some of the rather brutal achievements available, your first run through will still probably take somewhere from 1-to-2 hours to finish. That said, I am not sure the game could have safely been any longer than it already is – especially if the difficulty curve held constant – or the theoretical next stage probably would have been straight up cruel and unfair.

Anyways, with gameplay matters now out of the way, I would finally like to take a moment to close this review by talking about the graphical presentation of A Ride into the Mountains. The best analog would be to say that this game – especially when seen in motion – bears many visual similarities with Prince of Persia, specifically the original rotoscoped Jordan Mechner classic from the eighties. The scenery is certainly no slouch either, and I was particularly impressed by the stage – set late at night – that involved apparitions being reflected off the surface of a nearby pond.

Verdict

A Ride into the Mountains is a well crafted – albeit short – game that provides the player with an ample supply of both beautiful imagery, as well as brutally difficult challenges. This high level of difficulty is thankfully tempered by the inclusion of both an infinite set of lives, as well as checkpoints so frequent that they basically occur after each and every enemy formation. However, the shortness of A Ride into the Mountains matters little as this is a stellar – and 100% IAP free – value since it’s being offered at the impressively low price tag of 99 cents.