It’s not necessarily the best RPG I’ve ever played, but one could argue pretty convincingly that Digital Tales’ Battleloot Adventure (Out Now, $0.99) isn’t trying to be a full RPG in the first place. The best turn-based combat simulator I’ve ever played, now that’s a label well deserved! First thing’s first: Digital Tales could very well have a perfect RPG on their hands if only they’d reach for it in the story department. Battleloot’s script is utterly clean and pretty charming all around — it’s just too bad so much of it’s spent on item descriptions, functional tutorials, and mission briefings rather than building a memorable drama. Even so, Battleloot stands out as a shining beacon that points the way forward for RPGs on iOS.

Digital Tales’ major accomplishment here is presenting a battle system that blurs the lines between turn-based, real-time strategy, and plain old action. If I had to compare its system to one of the classics, I’d have to say Valkyrie Profile — and believe me, I wouldn’t use the name of Tri-Ace’s crowning achievement lightly! Translate that “control all characters at once” scheme perfectly onto the touchscreen, then add even more depth, and you’ve got Battleloot in a nutshell.

For those of you not already pouncing on the “buy” button, here’s the gist. Unlike the standard RPG battle system – which would have player and enemy characters act one at a time – Battleloot pools each side into one epic onslaught provided the player has enough skill to pull it off. When your turn comes up, you select a character to lead your attack, double tap an enemy to get things rolling, and then tap on your remaining party members to have them join the fray. Several factors help or hinder this process. First, class matchups seem to determine how the attacker behaves. If your chosen lead is very effective against the target, he or she will whale on that enemy long enough that you’ll have plenty of time to link other characters into the attack; if the matchup is chosen poorly, you have to be quicker on the draw. Secondly, each character has a stamina bar that depletes when he or she is called to back up the lead attacker. Since the lead’s stamina bar isn’t consumed, this forces careful rotation in practice — there’ll be no abusing a single attack pattern.

It gets even juicier. When the enemy’s turn comes up, you can’t just sit back and twiddle your thumbs — you’ve got to keep them in motion, tapping on your heroes to make them defend as needed. Naturally that stamina meter gets depleted here too. Managing the heroes’ stamina bars is a task that kept me well on the edge of my seat; Battleloot will quickly hand your rear end back to you if you don’t do it well! Pulling it off time and again loads your Game Center record with performance stars, but these aren’t just bragging rights — they directly fuel spells and other special moves summoned from a suitably discrete menu at the top-left touchscreen corner.

Managing your reward cash outside of battle can be just as challenging as all the fighting. While the player roams around a point-to-point world map in search of new quests, he or she can access an armory menu to purchase new equipment, skills, and characters on a whim. A character’s level determines how far up the skill tree and equipment list you can reach at any given moment, but everything has to be bought with reward gold — and for that reason, the player will occasionally be tempted to replay completed missions for more when the going gets really tough. The emphasis is definitely more on player performance than grinding though, and I’m satisfied that Battleloot has largely escaped that common RPG dilemma.

Another thing that really impresses me about Battleloot is how well balanced its character classes are. It’s difficult to choose just three heroes because each class brings something important to the table. Your starting grunt is a keeper because he warns you in advance which of his allies is about to be bombarded by enemies; a healer is essential for obvious reasons but holds his or her own in combat too; your fire mage whips out the nukes; etc. With three character slots in your party but four classes – plus an extra variation on each class via the hiring system – you’ll never have all the bases quite covered, and experimentation always seems worthwhile. Two things I do hope to see in updates are a quick cheat sheet for class matchups and an archived tutorial once the player has completed the game’s lengthy intro, as all the details can be hard to keep track of.

I’m not normally a fan of super-deformed characters, but Battleloot’s presentation is impressive when you take it as a whole: the hand-drawn sprites are all packed with personality and the watercolor battlefields are just gorgeous. Battleloot’s soundtrack is unfortunately just as limited as it is spunky, and the exhaustion sound effect can be overwhelming. The fact that your party can sound like a herd of panting St. Bernards is all the more reason to keep those stamina meters well controlled! Player control over music and sound effect volume may prove helpful under these circumstances.

iFanzine Verdict: Don’t go into Battleloot Adventure looking for a great story – unless you happen to like yours featherlight and silly – but if you’re looking for an innovative and thoroughly engaging turn-based battle system, you’re in for a real treat. A must-have for RPG fans of any stripe who’ve tired of conventional genre mechanics and want something a little more active.