The Family that Slays Together Stays Together

Much ado has been made about violence in videogames over the years – whether it be jumping on moving mushrooms with eyeballs or the FPS genre’s outright bloodbaths – but it’s easy to forgive the Stone Age family that stars in Paleolithics (Out Now for $.99, Lite). There’s little alternative when everything else in the world is out to eat you. Sort of like “The Flintstones” with fewer laughs and way more dino bashing, this offering from Instant Games follows one hunter-gatherer family’s quest to forage for materials and return to their tribe in one piece after every dangerous outing.

Stone Age folks aren’t necessarily known for their great English, but it’s wonderful to see that Instant Games has revisited Paleolithics‘ limited script to iron out some rough spots in its latest update. The village shopkeeper no longer breaks into Portuguese, for example, entertaining as that was when it happened in the game’s initial release. Also corrected in the March 25 update was a bug that caused an item forging minigame to freeze, bringing an already nicely polished title that much closer to perfection.

Paleolithics embraces incredibly simplistic sidescrolling game mechanics. Three family members who serve as player characters – a club-wielding man, a woman with no weapons of her own, and a son who specializes in long range attacks – split up and cover separate tracts of each game level, doing nothing but walking forward and automatically picking up items until the player taps the screen to execute the singular action each character is capable of. What makes things interesting is the fact that each character’s path is presented side-by-side in realtime, so the player has to split his or her focus accordingly. Naturally the challenges that each character faces are tailored to his or her ability at first: the man gets to swing his club or axe at enemies that go down quickly to heavy short range weapons, the boy finds even smaller enemies that go down with a boomerang to the skull, and the woman leaps over stationary environmental obstacles.

Once the player has gotten used to the basics over the first few levels, however, Paleolithics ups the ante with one surprising curveball after another. Having to figure out how each family member’s extremely limited ability might be used to surmount challenges not suited to that particular character – and doing this for all three simultaneously – is what makes Paleolithics far more compelling than its simplistic premise would otherwise suggest. The game becomes interesting enough during regular play, but it shines its brightest in cleverly designed boss battles that really put the player’s brain and reflexes to the test.

Once a level is completed or the family forced to retreat, the player characters return to their tribe’s village. Here, the player can barter materials found in stages for equipment that improves or supplements each character’s basic ability — this lends Paleolithics some nice resource management depth and an Action RPG feel over all. During village visits the player can also chew the fat with a tribe elder who provides gameplay tips or help the village blacksmith forge new materials in a timed button pressing minigame. The latter doesn’t feel completely necessary but it’s a nice diversion from acquiring materials the usual way.

Each of the game’s ten levels offers only one type of material, so completionists seeking the best equipment upgrades will do some hefty revisiting of certain levels. This isn’t such a bad thing: the level itself “levels up” with each completion, offering a tougher challenge, more frequent appearance of abnormally strong enemies, and more materials each go around. Where the game does become a bit clumsy is the fact that each level offers separate night and day variations of its material, and if the player wants to meet specific bartering requirements in the shop, he or she literally has to play through that stage during the daytime or evening as determined by the iDevice’s own internal clock. While one can presumably go through the hassle of resetting his or her iDevice’s time to circumvent this innovation gone wrong, it feels uncannily like a measure to encourage in-app purchases of materials, also available in the village shop.

A more serious complaint that could be raised with Paleolithics is its approach toward consumable item usage. It so happens that the game’s auto-save kicks in before returning to the tribe’s village regardless of whether a level is completed or failed, creating many an occasion in which the player essentially wastes items on failed attempts — and consumable items aren’t anything to laugh at in terms of strategic importance or bartering requirements. This appears to be a side effect of Instant Games’ decision to give the player a slight consolation prize in terms of collected materials retained when the player characters must retreat from a level, but from a game design perspective, the costs inflicted on the player outweigh the benefits.

With a reliable touch interface giving way to drag-and-drop mechanics for shopping, there’s nary a complaint to be found in Paleolithics interface wise — except the placement of its pause button when it’s in sidescrolling mode. If my experience is any indication, right-handed players are going to trip over it on occasion when trying to execute the caveman’s club swings in the top lane of the touchscreen. Southpaws may very well have the upper hand when it comes to Paleolithics‘ user interface! In any case, the player will have to make use of both thumbs during the later levels, as enemies and obstacles come in hot and heavy in all lanes of the touchscreen.

It’s a shame that Paleolithics‘ cutesy Stone Age aesthetics might turn off some of the hardcore gamers who owe it to themselves to check this one out, but I ended up finding the graphics attractively stylish when viewed in motion; Paleolithics is one of those games you really can’t appreciate from screenshots alone. The game features ambient Jurassic drumbeats for the most part, with a few tracks being pretty catchy. In any case, with a separate track devoted to each of the ten levels, Paleolithics has a more loving audio treatment than we’ve been getting from a lot of other titles in this price range lately.


iFanzine Verdict: Even if you can’t possibly imagine getting excited over the anachronistic dino-filled foraging ventures of a Stone Age hunter-gatherer family, grab the Lite version of Paleolithics right now and see if you aren’t pleasantly surprised. While it doesn’t feature the fanciest graphics or the deepest game mechanics, its developer poured a ton of love and good game design sense into (most of) the right places. Definitely a steal given the price range.

The Lite version ends with the plant boss judging from its description, and that’s a good point for sensing whether you’re liable to be hooked for the rest of the full game.

[xrr rating=4.5/5]