We came away from last July’s preview of FatCow Games’ iOS debut with very positive impressions of how it would turn out, and after spending an afternoon with the final I’m glad I can say I wasn’t disappointed in the end. It is, indeed, Idyllic (Out Now, $1.99)!

The fairy-winged, hard-thumping, life-giving Messiah Dude has gotten a name and a back story since then. He’s Arcanian, a fully trained SUN priest who’s out to defy the decaying influence of some kind of Nothing that’s swept over his world while he was away learning his trade. Hey, it works for me. My greatest disappointment is simply that FatCow didn’t integrate Idyllic’s premise into the game itself — I learned the story when FatCow blogged about it.

In any case, I can’t blame the developer for focusing on polishing the title’s gameplay! As a quick recap, Idyllic takes the side-scrolling infinite runner, transforms it into an endless island hopper, and adds much-welcome depth to the genre. Arcanian spends far more time in the air than he does on solid footing; no sooner does he touch down and bring life to a dead piece of floating soil than he pops back up, ready for the player to guide his next landing by tilting the iDevice as needed. Also at the player’s disposal are a double-jump executed by tapping on the screen; a right-hand virtual button for stomping, which squashes enemies and adds some more greenery to the revived land for bonus points; and a left-hand virtual button for flying, which is useful when the player needs some extra room to reach the next platform.

As the player collects coins and reaches shop-equipped checkpoints in an otherwise infinite journey, Arcanian continually evolves — and this is what takes Idyllic up to a level of fun that matches its name. Upgrades noticeably alter his physics and point-scoring abilities, which appeals to the gameplay depth seeker and the leaderboard competitor alike. A feature we didn’t see in the beta is a tentacle-armed boss that Idyllic now periodically tosses at the player, and these static-screen interludes really help to keep the normal gameplay flow from becoming too monotonous. On the downside, I saw only this type of boss during my time with the game and it was only sparingly used; now I’m itching for more, and more kinds of bosses, in updates! Still, it’s great to see such a tried-and-true element of level-based platformers merged into the infinite genre to begin with.

Another aspect of Idyllic I’ve come to appreciate since the preview build is the game’s approach to balance. Naturally, I was glad to see that the checkpoint system prevents seasoned veterans from having to re-play easier segments, but Idyllic also gives the struggling player a hand by retaining gold collected in failed attempts. Checkpoint shops can be revisited at the beginning of retries if the player lands on them before the screen begins scrolling, and in this way players who find the game difficult get first dibs on upgrades — quite a helpful thing when a higher double-jump can make all the difference between life and death.

Still, Idyllic has room to improve. Seasoned challenge seekers may fear that Idyllic is too easy for them when they’re starting out, but they’ll find that the difficulty see-saw is tilted in their favor over the long haul. About twenty minutes in, the player encounters a difficulty spike where the scroll speed picks up, islands become smaller and more spread out, and checkpoints more thinly distributed. The player really has to find his or her island-hopping Zen to make it through these segments and pump out the game’s full potential, and it will quickly get frustrating for casual players drawn in by the smooth tilt control and depth. My sense is that a difficulty option that changes checkpoint distribution is just what the doctor ordered if Idyllic is to fully bridge the gap between casual and hardcore appeal. As a final nitpick, the virtual buttons used for flying and stomping could stand to be a tad bigger on the iPhone and iPod Touch; locked firmly in the player’s peripheral vision, they’ll occasionally be missed by his or her thumbs once things get hectic.

Idyllic‘s aesthetic presentation is truly brilliant, the game’s world and music seamlessly evolving in reflection of progress. But don’t worry — that lovely in-game tune never loses its jazzy feel despite the pick-up in mood and number of instruments, and the player is welcome to bring external music along for the ride in case it starts feeling monotonous. Challenge seekers and Game Center leaderboard buffs can rest assured they’ll get their $1.99’s worth of entertainment out of Idyllic, though casual players will probably sense the need for difficulty options in updates before they come away equally satisfied.

iFanzine Verdict: Idyllic scores a home run for bringing the endless side-scrolling genre forward, through the depth afforded by its upgrade system. Thanks to a perfectly calibrated tilt control, players will also find that it’s challenging for the right reasons if they stick with it past the beginning segments. Lack of difficulty options at release makes this a double-edged sword, however; casual players may find that the level of endurance needed to keep up is more than they bargained for.