Great Balls of (Gun)fire!

Think fast: what should you do when a horde of floating one-eyed orbs descend upon your world and start shooting? Bring out the National Guard? Dispatch some B-52s, maybe? Of course not, silly — you should find one of the floating orbs and train it to do the extermination for you, then sit back while it goes to work.  Such a hair brained scheme gives us reason to play Alpha Swarm (Out Now for $1.99; Lite), where the player commands a little cyclops ball that’s turned against its own kind to save humanity. The player’s rotund avatar must be pretty trustworthy, because it’s been outfitted with all the rocket launchers, jetpacks, and lasers it needs to get the job done.

Alpha Swarm‘s tutorial levels could stand a little more in the way of live explanations, but its gameplay flows like this. The player starts a level by getting a look at mission objectives – sometimes a set of enemies that must be eliminated, sometimes a destination platform, sometimes both – and then picks a series of equipment and abilities from a toolbox, carefully choosing an order of activation best suited to getting the job done efficiently. When he or she is ready to go live, the player manually executes the allotted moves; if the ball’s assigned repertoire runs out before its objective is complete, the player must start over. Likewise if it receives too much punishment from enemy fire.

Alpha Swarm‘s ever evolving set of objectives involve everything from launching the heroic ball in a physics puzzle-style interface to guiding sprays of machinegun fire in a way that might fit right into the next iOS shoot ’em up. In this way Alpha Swarm draws elements from a wide range of genres, to the effect that its gameplay never gets old for the sheer variety it contains.

I must stress that Alpha Swarm sacrifices some amount of accessibility for challenge over the long haul. The most complex tasks require compound execution of different skills — perhaps aiming a laser at the apex of a jump, leaving little room for error on the player’s part. If the player doesn’t already have a solid background in logic puzzlers, physics puzzlers and shoot ’em ups alike, rest assured he or she will end up developing the missing skillsets on-the-fly here. The hardcore iOS gamer who’s been exposed to a variety of genres will find the payoff completely worth it though! As if Alpha Swarm‘s brand of genre-bending gameplay weren’t deep enough on its own, secrets with very real effects on the player’s experience reward top-notch performance.

Alpha Swarm sports a reliable interface over all, aiding the player with target reticles and projected release paths once skills are activated. The pull-forward method for invoking most of the spherical soldier’s abilities does leave something to be desired, however: it requires that the player’s finger obscure the target point to some degree, leaving him or her awkwardly bobbing around for a better view of the touchscreen. While the player starts each level with a full view of its layout, most will welcome the addition of a way to slide the screen around for a better view of targets once the mission’s in progress. Finally, I’d love to see a virtual button for immediately re-starting missions; given the number of experimental runs needed to figure out some levels, the current re-try function spends a little too long on a failure screen before a new attempt can be made.

It’s too bad that Alpha Swarm shares the physics puzzle genre’s penchant for lacking music outside of its title screen, so players might want to bring an iTunes playlist to this one. Alpha Swarm‘s hand-drawn sprites and environment art may look fun and simple but they’re certainly crisp on a Retina display. Developer Jovial Apps has just added a fourth set of levels with its August 8 update, leaving Alpha Swarm with at least four hours of gameplay — and that’s not counting the time taken to master it and unlock all its cool secrets.

iFanzine Verdict: Alpha Swarm isn’t the most wieldy title, but it is certainly one of the most unique and rewarding on iOS thanks to a gameplay style that borrows from numerous genres. Puzzle and action fans alike will find something to love here provided they’re up for a serious challenge; if a few user interface kinks can just be worked out in updates, perfection is within the developer’s grasp.

[xrr rating=4/5]