Desert Quest (Out Now for $1.99, Lite) invites you on a “long, mysterious quest toward the Volcanoes of Vengefulness to save your beloved.” Okay, so maybe this Action/Adventure game doesn’t feature the most groundbreaking of stories, but it’s got bucket loads of style. Does it have the substance to back it up?
The name of the game in Desert Quest is to wander a 3D wilderness in search of keys and puzzle pieces while laying waste to all the animals that apparently want to eat you. Think of it as an average day on the Serengeti, except the leopards here breathe fire. You’d never guess it from screenshots but Desert Quest feels reminiscent of Bug Heroes Quest with its dual-stick controls: left-hand and right-hand virtual joysticks control movement direction and angle of attack respectively.
Desert Quest gets a great start right out of the gate by offering a live tutorial of all its gameplay functions. It quickly becomes evident that depth is this game’s strong suit. While reaching the end of a level depends on the hum-drum task of finding gate keys more often than not, the player is intermittently treated to very interesting puzzles that bust down obstructing walls once solved; these are squarely the kind of logic puzzles you’d find in a casual adventure game rather than environment-shaping puzzles. Using gems and instructional formulas strewn over the open plains, the player can concoct spells through a drag-and-drop interface in the game’s menu system. Also on tap is an RPG-like shop system where the player can exchange his or her animal-poaching score for better weapons and armor.
With such a strong foundation going for it, all Desert Quest needed was a central gameplay mechanic enticing enough to tie everything together into a fun package. Given the number of aggressive animals harassing the player’s exploration, combat becomes the game’s central activity — and, unfortunately, its greatest weakness. Comparison with Bug Heroes Quest is useful in identifying what went wrong here, and I can’t help but feel it’s the enemy design. For sure, enemies have different properties and slightly different attacks, but their behaviors aren’t differentiated enough to justify any change in the player’s approach to self defense; whether it’s a porcupine or a fireball-breathing demon that looks like it got peeled right off the Rosetta Stone, the player’s dominant strategy is to attack at an angle that enemies are strangely incapable of firing back from. In sticking so closely to the shadow puppet aesthetic with its adversaries, Desert Quest leaves combat in a rather flimsy state. At least the player has several types of short-range and long-range weapons to experiment with via the shop menu, so not all is lost.
Desert Quest‘s level maps do a good job of marking where the player has and hasn’t been yet, and the all-important keys and puzzle pieces usually stand out well enough that the player is more likely to see them than pass them up accidentally. Still, it would be great to have a pinch-zoom and extra markers to let the player know where missed items are, exactly. Once all territory has merely been walked on, the player’s liable to panic if he or she is still missing some key or item needed to trigger a puzzle, as the game’s environments are humongous. An ability to revisit completed levels would also be welcome insurance, as items needed to complete one level’s gate-keeping puzzle may appear in previous levels. What happens if the player missed one or two key items before completing a level? To be fair, I wasn’t of a mind to test that possibility, because there appears to be only one save slot available to the player.
Otherwise, Desert Quest feels beautifully designed — I have nary a complaint with its user interface. Stability during puzzle segments is a concern, but I noticed that I didn’t experience any crashes after I rebooted my iPod Touch 4. Its environments are simply drop dead gorgeous, rendered in a style we don’t get every day on iOS and smoothly presented by way of an effective dynamic on-the-fly loading system. Only when the auto-save function kicks in – an exceedingly rare occurrence – do things get choppy from my experience. Desert Quest can be counted on for a good ten to twelve hours of play thanks to its enormous world.
iFanzine Verdict: An imbalanced title if there ever was one! Desert Quest packs in gorgeous visuals, variety, smoothly working technicals, and plenty of content. It’s set back by the fact that the core of its gameplay is composed of rather lackluster combat and a find-the-needle-in-the-haystack approach to mission objectives. Desert Quest’s technical quality and content-to-price ratio work well in its favor, so Action/Adventure and Action RPG fans are definitely advised to give the Lite a spin and see if the overall experience strikes their fancy.