A dark god has decided to lay down some curses and needs a suitable animal for the task. The world Sunside Games created for their iOS debut seems fresh out of black cats, so he chooses the very next best thing: a big, razor-taloned Crow (Out Now, $4.99)! Flying around and assassinating targets is pretty cool on the surface, but Crow goes a step beyond your typical iOS game in confronting the player with palpable moral ambiguity; think of this as the mobile answer to console gems like Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain and Shadow of the Colossus. The upshot is, the game will proceed differently depending on whether the player chooses to kill or spare the Crow’s assigned targets — and while this is incredibly exciting on paper, it’s best if you tone down your expectations for this feature before diving in. As long as you can do that, you’ll have a great time if you’re a fan of immersive action adventure titles.

We did a full rundown of Crow’s major elements and gameplay flow in our hands-on preview last February, so let’s get straight to the big takeaways. First, Crow plays like a dream. Its battles have really brought the combat flight sim into a state that’s perfectly accessible to casual players, and that’s no mean feat! There aren’t any control options beyond the relative virtual joystick for movement, but it’s all you need: the response is snappy, it gives you an unobscured view of the Crow, and it keeps screen clutter to a minimum as an added bonus. There’s no need for pinpoint-perfect accuracy; the player proves his or her skill by dodging and exploiting each enemy’s behavior. All of the game’s stages hit that perfect balance between exciting eye candy and tractable gameplay, with the Crow shifting from dizzying swerves to level flight or outright stops where the player can get in a few good licks.

What impresses me most about Crow is how well it rewards player performance. You can approach its Game Center leaderboards from several different angles: completing levels as fast as possible, letting the Crow make a few sweeps to capture all the little energy trinkets instead, or making it through unscathed. Continually evading enemy attacks recharges the Crow’s magic meter, which in turn lets the player take more swipes at background objects that release upgrade crystals. These are also scattered on Crow’s overworlds and found in hidden challenge levels.

Suffice it to say Crow is made of all the right stuff for gaming perfection, and that’s why it’s so tragic that it pulls back before reaching its full potential. The symbol drawing interface for attacks and shielding couldn’t have been pulled off more perfectly in technical terms, and yet the slash and the circle are the only two gestures the Crow ever has at its disposal. Previous rune-drawing games like Sixth Seal have really spoiled me; I kept hoping the Crow would eventually learn flashy spells triggered with little squiggles and lightning bolt gestures, but alas! Crow’s upgrade system focuses on passive things: attack recharge rate, stronger shields, more health. The most sophisticated upgrade lets you make two actions at the cost of one. That’s not to say Crow ever gets tediously repetitive; the exquisite level and enemy design manage to keep things fresh and the game’s average three-hour length is well suited to the number of upgrades at hand.

That’s three hours per playthrough, mind, and one does not simply play Crow a single time! I don’t want to be the guy who spoils Crow’s entire story on release day, but I do have an important piece of advice for new players on this subject: take the evil path first! Crow absolutely feels meant to be played in that order. The good path actually ends up being a challenge mode and it’s one level shorter than the evil path — not to mention, you have to sacrifice a few potential upgrades to take the good path. Being evil pays to the point that new players who take the good route will end up feeling blindsided by the sudden and irreversible difficulty spike. Save it for later, on the other hand, and it becomes a natural progression for the Crow veteran.

To be fair, Crow nudges you in the evil direction by making the choice to spare bosses pop up much more slowly than the choice to annihilate them. But darn it all if the way these bosses are presented doesn’t outweigh everything else on the player’s mind! Crow is a great showcase of how important aesthetics can be to storytelling. The second boss’ tortured groans, limping animations and gradual bleeding made me feel like some ashamed matador. I just didn’t have it in me to finish the poor giant off in my first playthrough; lo and behold, I suddenly found myself getting chewed out by Satan, or what certainly sounded like it, once the Crow’s employer caught wind of this! Rounding out the gorgeous visuals and competent voice work is a cinema-worthy soundtrack that really gets the blood pumping. Crow’s world is definitely one of the most compelling I’ve visited on iOS, so here’s to hoping we get to jump in again sometime — or at least something like it!

Verdict

A unique action adventure title well worth its price tag, Crow is the kind of game that draws you in and sticks with you long after you put it down. While its gameplay is perfectly delivered, the Crow formula still has plenty of room for growth — a wider range of combat skills and squeezing more content out of branching story paths are areas to look at in any sequels.