I’ve been enjoying Clay’s Reverie (Out Now, $0.99) quite a bit since our hands-on preview, but I’m still not quite sure how a little ball of clay ended up on the conveyor belt of doom. In the end, the game’s audience really won’t need a story excuse for jumping into this utterly cute, yet utterly dangerous world — Clay’s creative interface, satisfying level design, and expert approach to balance will suffice to entertain iOS gamers from a wide swath of different backgrounds.

As explained in the preview, the game’s premise is that a conveyor is hurtling poor Clay through a complex network of serrated walls and moving drill bits. Being what he is, Clay can’t do much for himself, so the player keeps him out of harm’s way by tilting the iDevice to roll him back and forth, and shifting the conveyor belt vertically with a hold-and-drag control. One collision with a wall or drill and Clay will lose a life, being sent back to a checkpoint earlier in the current level or re-starting from scratch if he has none to spare. At least Clay can scarf down power-ups that temporarily grant him the ability to bust through barriers, slow down the conveyor speed, or become skinny enough to slip through tight spots easily. The power-ups stir a little depth into an otherwise simple formula, as the player will often figure out ways of using a particular pickup more efficiently the next time through a level.

Aside from impressively hair-raising level design that requires lots of rushing around to conquer one emergency after another, what really strikes me about Clay is the developer’s effort to make it equally appealing to the casual and challenge-seeking crowds. The player’s first Game Over reveals quite a shocker: he or she is free to move on regardless of whether Clay successfully made it across the finish line! On the other hand, Clay follows tradition in requiring a minimum performance – measured in collectable stars here – before new level sets unlock. The overall effect is that Clay’s structure allows the casual player to survive an impasse, while still giving hardcore gamers a sense of progression and an incentive to go back and master each level — better performance opens up the next set of levels that much quicker. This is the game’s greatest accomplishment in my mind.

Clay throws an additional bone to the casual player in offering “Slow” and “Normal” speeds for the conveyor belt, which affects the rate at which Clay hurtles through each level and can be toggled in the main menu. Since the player’s star collections on “Slow” and “Normal” are tracked separately, there’s also some from-scratch replay value to be found here. Fans of endless side-scrollers will be pleased to know there’s a randomized “Survival” mode in store, with various difficulty levels tied to the player’s star collections in the main game. Whereas the number of stars needed to unlock each of Clay’s level sets is clearly stated in the main campaign, the requirements for unlocking new Survival mode challenges could use some clarification.

Clay’s design still has some room to grow and improve. The saw-toothed walls and moving pistons that eternally threaten Clay are arranged in every imaginable way as level designs become more intricate, but at the end of the day, there are still only those two threats for the player to deal with. Fans will no doubt welcome more obstacle variety in updates or sequels. Secondly – and much more importantly for now – the developer would do well to review the feasibility of Clay’s level checkpoints. On a few occasions I found Clay sent right into the middle of some trap that required serious emergency maneuvers to pull him out of; in one case I lost the remainder of Clay’s lives just trying to make it past the checkpoint location, and this outcome seemed nigh unavoidable. Based on my own spot checking after noticing the problem, I’d have to say it’s rare enough that it amounts to a minor nuisance rather than a generally weak checkpoint system.

I found Clay’s interface spot on in all respects — no mean feat on iOS! The tilt intensity feels well calibrated for the game’s level designs, and I never had a problem grabbing the conveyor belt; I was even able to take it to the very edge of the touchscreen and back with no problem. If players ask for anything in the UI department, it will probably be a way of manually calibrating tilt control strength to suit different tastes.

Clay’s lollipop charm, and the lullaby tunes that go with its first and third level sets, are liable to turn a few hardcore gamers off — but they’ll be missing out on some truly infectious tunes used in the game’s second and fourth worlds! While the game’s threats come in noticeably few flavors, one has to appreciate the amount of work put into animated backdrops that keep the game’s presentation fresh. Clay currently offers twenty levels and four Survival mode levels – not counting difficulty variations – making it suitable for a two hour playthrough session or lots of short bursts thanks to the typical level length.

iFanzine Verdict: With a creative and intuitive interface, satisfying level of challenge, and an excellent approach to difficulty balance, Clay’s Reverieappeals strongly across the board. Whether you’re a casual physics puzzle fan or a master of tough side-scrollers, you’ll find plenty to love here. A flawed checkpoint system occasionally proves a nuisance, however.