First impressions are important. From the beautiful art style to the simple-but-fun gameplay, the newest game by Chillingo, Tiger Hill Entertainment, Moonshark, Chimera Entertainment, and filmmaker John Woo (did I forget anyone?) made a pretty strong one on me. It’s called Bloodstroke (out now, $2.99), and after playing for an hour or so I thought I’d found a new gem. Around the second hour that idea began to sour a bit, and by the third I’d all but given up on the game. First impressions are important, sure, but they usually don’t tell the whole story.

Bloodstroke_4The game does a few interesting things right off the bat. First and foremost, you are a female assassin named Mai Lee kicking ass and protecting a cowering dude named Dr. Koorse, which is a welcome change from the usual Mr. Muscle Guy saving the chicks thing these sorts of games usually do. Furthermore, your character can’t take damage. You are a human bullet sponge, and your job is to draw fire away from Koorse while simultaneously taking as many bad guys down as you can with an assortment of guns, blades, and grenades.

Most levels see the two of you auto-running through streets, alleys, and parking lots until you get to an X on the ground, at which point the level ends (unless the Dr. is killed, in which case it obviously ends much sooner). The controls are decent, with a virtual stick on the left to control where in the auto-scrolling landscape Mai Lee moves and a few buttons on the right for firing, grenades, and healthpacks. Aiming is done automatically, which may turn some people off, but it works quite well here. It doesn’t matter too much anyway, though, because meleeing is the name of the game here. Run through an enemy and you’ll automatically slice them up, with a big, bright red stream of blood splattering on the pavement. Melees tend to be quite a bit stronger than guns — and net you triple the points — so that should be your main means of execution.

All of this works pretty well and is quite fun, but the coolest part of Bloodstroke would have to be its visuals. It looks a bit like Okami and MadWorld put together (yeah, I had a Wii. What of it?). It’s like a gritty graphic novel, all black and white with splashes of red for emphasis. It also feels heavily influenced by East Asian art, with ink wash painted cars, buildings, and trees filling in the environments. It’s actually pretty beautiful — blood and all — and is easily among the most interesting looking action games I’ve seen on iOS.

Bloodstroke-1Shaping up to be a pretty stellar game, right? Well… at first. After a while, though, the upgrade prices started getting in the way. You earn cash for beating levels, see, which you can spend on making your gear better. I usually love that sort of thing in games like this, as it adds much needed depth. Pricing is a balancing act, though, and unfortunately Bloodstroke eventually falls to the wrong side. The first hour or so things seemed fine, and I always had just the right amount to beef up any item that needed it. Then, about halfway through the game, things began to tighten.

It turns out that once you get the maximum amount of cash from a level (by achieving a specific score) you can’t get any more. Your only option is to forget that level and hope you can squeeze a bit out of a different level that you haven’t gotten a high score on yet. Okay, so there’s also a few endless wave-based levels to grind out cash, but those are mission based (similar to Jetpack Joyride, you pass three objectives and get currency from that) and come with several problems of their own. First of all, a large number of missions require money to pass them (‘Revive Dr. Koorse”, for example. That costs $500, which is far more than you earn from completing it). And worse, they quickly run out of missions altogether, leaving you high and dry. You do get a small amount of cash just seeing how far you can survive in these endless levels, but it’s very, very small. Of course, you could just spend real money…

The game itself is a bit buggy, too. One of the endless levels would always freeze when I’d try to play it again after a death, so my grinding for upgrades involved force-quitting the app and opening it fresh, waiting through about a hundred splash screens (seriously, how many different companies does it take to make an iPhone app?) before finally being able to grind some more. Even worse, there’s one level about midway through the game where a motorcycle appears at the edge of the screen and Koorse would instantly die. I played it dozens of times, making sure he had full health and that I’d wiped out all other threats on the screen, and even parking myself at the exact spot the bike would appear, and I’d still lose instantly. The biker guy didn’t even seem to have a gun, or be anywhere near Dr. Koorse. Bike appears for a split second, and I inexplicably fail the level. Eventually I was forced to pay that stupid $500 revive fee to finish it and move on.

It’s a shame that so many problems crop up the further you get into the game, too, because that first hour was great. It was gorgeous, fun, and had loads of style. Hopefully the developers can draw straws or something and one of them will update the game to balance the cash payouts and fix the freezes and instant death problems. Until then, I’d only recommend it if you’re really desperate for a simple, pretty looking action game.

iFanzine Verdict: John Woo’s Bloodstroke is a pretty decent action shooter, with awesome visuals, smooth and satisfying combat, and loads of style. Yes, it’s a pretty slick little game, for an hour or so. Soon you’ll get stuck and need to do some serious grinding in order to upgrade your weapons. Then you’ll all but run out of ways to grind. If that doesn’t make you tear your hair out, the (almost) game breaking bugs will. Of course, this was just one guy’s experience with the game. Maybe you’ll fare better. And in any event, it sure is nice to look at.