It’s said that a rolling stone gathers no moss — but will a rolling pizza gather a following? If you read our interview with Riverman Media you may have been just a little skeptical that a game like Pizza Vs. Skeletons (Out Now, $2.99; Lite) could possibly work, but any doubt left my mind the moment I fired it up. From the beginning, you know the developers take the subject matter deadly serious and yet had a crazy amount of fun designing this one-of-a-kind action game. All the story you need to know lies in an opening poem that describes the dead rising every thousand days, delivered with all the panache of a professional Edgar Allen Poe reading. And then the camera pans to reveal an unassuming pizza box. You tap, and it jumps. You tap again, and it jumps. On the third tap, this giant pizza springs out and you get right down to the business of squashing skeletons in a fit of giggles that’s sure to last until you finally put the game down to get a good night’s rest.
As you might guess from our interview Pizza’s great strength is the sheer number of game modes it throws at the player, a healthy assortment assigned to each of its ten level sets. Even before we get to that, though, let’s back up and take a look at the core mechanics underlying most – but certainly not all – of these gameplay modes. The player’s greatest weapon is the pizza’s sheer size: a little tilt of the iDevice and the edible hero will crush anything in its path, although every larger-than-life protagonist has an achilles’ heel. The pizza gets bloodied up – don’t worry, it’s just marinara sauce! – if it gets poked, so the player has to be careful to get a good leap when approaching enemies with spears at the ready, or make the pizza stomp to overturn spiky-shelled cretins, Mario Bros. style.
One variation on the basic combat formula has the player leapfrogging airborne enemies until the pizza gets high enough to execute a clean karate chop through stacked blocks; another has the pizza bounding around on a rubber platform, knocking skulls into an abyss while the player keeps it from spilling into the drink itself. Other modes are more far-out. Water levels cast a slice of pizza as a little fish in a sea of skeletonized ocean creatures, asking the player to seek out smaller enemies for the hero to gobble up until it grows large enough to take on the big guys. And then there are the wrecking ball levels, where the player must take great care to smash skeletons but not civilians hanging out of their high rise windows. Don’t ask why — it just is, and it’s actually pretty fun.
Where Pizza rises to its greatest are modes that take advantage of a circular protagonist, and here Riverman show their true genius as game designers. My favorite levels are side-scrollers that ask the player to balance the pizza on a skull as it rolls over spikes, which is a little like an elephant trying to keep a good footing on a beach ball. Not far behind are the boss battles that cap off each level set. The goal here is to push a giant skull off a cliff in what is probably the closest approximation to sumo wrestling on iOS! It’s harder than it sounds because bosses intelligently roll over your pizza, throw little bombs to weaken the pizza during the titanic struggle, and dig in as landscaping allows. Hilariously, every level ends with a “Wheel of Pizza” minigame, basically a tongue-in-cheek rendition of Wheel of Fortune.
Performance rewards the player in two ways. The end-of-level rating determines how many levels the player may skip ahead, allowing for nonlinear play and getting a taste of all the game modes in short order. A well played level also grants in-game cash that can be used to play dress-up with the pizza. Now, hats are on offer, yes, but you can also change anything from the pizza’s eyes and mouth to its toppings, to its very body — if you want to play as a pumpkin instead of a pizza, that’s completely your call.
That Pizza works as well as it does is very much a function of solid controls and spot-on physics. The tilt control lets you build momentum or stop on a dime as needed, although its sensitivity does vary among game modes. The wrecking ball levels, in particular, feel designed to make the player wrestle with the pizza’s great weight and that makes enough sense in context. A dynamic camera system and the pizza’s tendency to face the nearest threat keep the player well informed of where the next smashable skeleton or other goal is.
As much as I’m tempted to give Pizza a perfect score for its accessibility and highly unique gameplay, there is an extra topping I’d like to see in updates. Like Gorilla Gondola a few weeks back, Pizza hides performance goals a little too well; in this case, you essentially have to play a level and see its performance tally before you find out what you needed to do to get a perfect score in the first place. That said, the goals appear consistent if not identical within game modes, so performance requirements become predictable with a little experience. With the exception of underwater levels, just determining how much health your pizza has left is another thing that the player has to get used to: sauce subtly bleeds through the pizza as it’s injured, and other effects happen depending on which body you’ve chosen for the hero. I only gradually became aware of this, and if it’s in the info screens that display before every level, chances are I missed it while skipping around.
Pizza is one of the most aesthetically awe-inspiring games to come along in a while — imagine parallax-scrolling Van Gogh paintings and you’ll have a feel for how scarily impressive these environments look in motion! Vectorized hand-drawn sprites and a Gothic soundtrack laced with electronica are equal matches, conspiring with the premise to make Pizza a title you’ll remember if you decide to take it for a spin.
iFanzine Verdict: Dare we say, “yum?” Pizza Vs. Skeletons makes a tasty dish if you’re looking for a title that’s creative as it is well-built. It’s got that magic balance of accessibility and depth thanks to simple controls and enough game modes to keep the whole experience fresh for hours on end.