Breath of Fire
(and Ice, and Lightning)

Poor dragons! They’ve been so misrepresented in Western media ever since the Middle Ages. Truth is, they aren’t the princess-devouring, town-destroying, gold-hoarding beasts we’ve taken them for all along; they’re hard working Joe Sixpacks just like the rest of us. Fictional accounts sure got the fire-breathing part right, though! Now every little dragon that can be hatched onto a battlefield must be called upon to defend their realms from hordes of misguided knights and other miscreants out to lay hands on their wealth.

It’s a real tragedy the indie team behind Holy Moly! Dragons (Out Now, $1.99) didn’t set out to tell a full story beyond introducing their game’s premise, because what little there is to read in its intro is the kind of witty and well fashioned text the App Store needs much, much more of. Otherwise, what is on tap is a very unique experience that succeeds in setting itself apart from the crowd in what is undoubtedly a well populated genre on iOS.

The goal in each of Holy Moly‘s levels is to prevent enemy waves from marching all the way from an entry point to an exit point. To this end, the player is given almost free reign over where to hatch dragon eggs upon the battlefield, and which of four dragon types should spring from said eggs. Naturally resources – measured, perhaps a bit strangely, in cash here – are expended in hatching dragon eggs but replenished over time, and each dragon type proves most useful in combating a particular threat. None of this will surprise genre veterans, but Holy Moly‘s real fun lies in the fact that each level presents a complex landscaping mission at heart. Dragons aren’t attacked by enemies, who would prefer to take a fireball to the gut as they whiz by in hopes they’ll survive the withering storm and make it to the level’s exit. The tradeoff is that the player can’t entirely block off the path from the level’s enemy entrance zone to its exit zone — but he or she can actively shape that path by using dragons as an extension of trees, rocks and other environmental objects.

Holy Moly‘s dominant strategy is thus dual-layered. First, the player must make the path from entry to exit as long and winding as possible so that enemies waste their precious lifespans pivoting through the resulting maze. Secondly, dragon types must be distributed effectively: simply plugging holes in the defensive net with cheap fire breathers won’t suffice where a more expensive lightning dragon is needed to take down a heavily shielded foe. The player learns the first principle fairly quickly, but constructing a maximally efficient gauntlet – and earning the highest level performance ratings, and thus the loftiest Game Center achievements – is a matter of strict trial and error. Only after gaining familiarity with the set of waves assigned to a level will the player learn what a perfect defense consists of. However, there’s enough leeway in bare minimum completion requirements that one doesn’t have to be a clairvoyant strategist to become completely absorbed in Holy Moly‘s gameplay.

Another interesting complication Holy Moly adds is a secondary resource – meat gained from destroying certain foes – that can be spent either on upgrading deployed dragons or on player-directed super attacks to finish off enemies. This turns out to be a great way of countering the game’s single drawback, which is how removed the player becomes from the action as he or she learns how to build better defenses; expert players are likely to find the game’s fast-forward button tempting once their landscaping job is complete otherwise.

Aside from twelve levels offered in the release version’s main Campaign Mode, Holy Moly sports three challenge modes that add various twists sure to be of interest to anyone who’s become an expert in the main game. These include harsh limitations on deployment cash, multiple entry and exit zones, etc. I could ask for no better controls in an iOS game’s user interface than what’s presented here; Holy Moly has given me faith that, yes, an isometric grid-based battlefield can be very smoothly executed on iOS. Dragging the battlefield around feels just a bit oversensitive at first, but once the player gets used to it he or she is likely to appreciate how little movement the player must exercise to get a full view of the current battlefield.

Holy Moly is aesthetically crisp all around. Its character models tend toward simplicity; on the upside, this may help the game run smoothly with dozens of dragons onscreen, but on the other hand, dragon evolution is a bit lackluster as it doesn’t produce very noticeable changes in the models other than their sheer size. I found Filipe Beyer’s suitably medieval-ish soundtrack a treat to listen to. A run through Campaign Mode lasts around five to eight hours depending on the player’s perfectionist tendencies.

iFanzine Verdict: A stellar entry in the iOS Real Time Strategy library, Holy Moly! Dragons is involving, exceedingly well polished and satisfyingly fleshed out. Just as accessible to casual players as it is challenging for experts, it’s a must-have for most RTS fans and a great entry point into the genre for others who haven’t already waded into the crowded pool of competing iOS offerings.

The “plan ahead” aspect of Holy Moly! Dragons’ RTS style dominates realtime player interaction, which may be a downer for those seeking something that revolves around instantaneous player performance.

 [xrr rating=4.5/5]