Humanity had its chance. Now that our civilization has been completely wiped out by another Ice Age, super-intelligent apes and insects have inherited the earth. It would have been really cool if they decided to build a utopia and bring peace to the world, but on second thought, you can’t really make a videogame out of that, now can you? So instead, the monkeys and insects took to the high seas and started pointing cannons at each other. When XMG Studio named their stellar Action RPG Powder Monkeys (Out Now, $0.99), you can bet they were talking about gun powder!

If I could sum up why I’ve fallen head-over-heels in love with Powder Monkeys in one word, that word would be “variety.” This level of depth is simply rare at the $0.99 tier, even considering the content and quality inflation we’ve been seeing in this rock-bottom price territory lately. When it comes to RPG design, XMG really gets it: even with the best-designed core gameplay mechanic, you can only toss it at the player so many times before boredom sets in. If a game is going to stretch five or more hours and entice the player to stick with it, it has to serve up a multiple course meal. Powder Monkeys may center around ship-to-ship broadside combat, but players who wade into this one will be surprised at how much else they find themselves doing.

Powder Monkeys essentially has two battle systems, the meatier of which will occupy the bulk of the player’s time. Facing off against an enemy vessel in a seventeenth century-style cannon competition, the player has four guns and a number of pre-equipped munitions to work with. A surprising range of things can be shoved into the player’s cannons, ranging from watermelons to silverware to outright nuclear bombs! What’s fun about this system is that you have to concentrate on what the enemy’s firing just as closely as your own decisions. Each type of bullet has a range of effects on incoming fire, so the seasoned player will learn to deploy appropriate countermeasures and guard his or her own bullets with counter-countermeasures — while there’s a delay before cannonballs of a single type can be loaded again, different munitions can be loaded into the same gun in rapid succession. There are literally dozens of munitions to choose from, so the player’s strategy constantly evolves to suit whatever the opposition brings to the playing field. Should things look incredibly sour early on in a battle, the player can raise the ol’ white flag from the pause menu and skedaddle for the time being.

The fact that RPG elements flow strong in Powder Monkeys didn’t click with me during the opening live tutorial for the game’s battle system, but I certainly felt it once I started sailing through its overworld map. The main overworld presents the goal of liberating a series of monkey islands captured by the insect navy, but the player’s access to specific islands depends on his or her ship level. To bump this up the player accepts storyline and side quests from a menu, rushes around sinking free-roaming enemy ships, and loots floating barrels for goodies that are selected through a sort of gambling minigame.

Once the player’s prepared to liberate islands on the main overworld, it’s time for the ship vs. gun emplacement battles. Here, the player gets one cannon to the enemy’s three, and it ends up playing like a stationary on-rails shooter; the player has to take out incoming enemy fire as well as the actual targets. These engagements aren’t without finesse since they teach the player how to use and counter-act assigned munitions, but they’re far easier than the more cerebral regular battles, and provide nice breathers from the usual action.

The quests that get the player to these island conquests in the first place are the real stars of Powder Monkeys. Once accepted, a quest brings the player to its own unique overworld, where the goal might be to sneak past enemy ships without battling at all; collecting all the map’s buoyed treasure; transport missions; or taking out a specific enemy ship.  Whichever map the player’s ship is on, it can be zoomed out by way of a virtual button to get a bird’s-eye view of objectives. Skull ratings that measure enemies’ difficulty relative to the player’s level are much appreciated and greatly assist the player’s resource management.

Equipment and item purchases are just as integral a part of Powder Monkeys as in any other RPG, and for better or worse, this is where the game’s few flaws crop up. While cannons have clear loading and firing speed ratings, other ship parts – hulls, oars, sails, etc. – leave the player without a clue as to what advantage they give once upgraded.

Even more importantly, cash rewards for battles and quest completion tend to be pretty sparse compared to the cost of replenishing ammo and repairing the player’s ship via the shop menu — oh no, these things don’t come freely in Powder Monkeys! A stark resource management challenge results, and squeaking by requires maximum efficiency in battle. The relatively constricted cash flow here is curious in the context of In-App Purchases that trade real-world cash for in-game cash, but let’s call the result what it really is from a game design perspective: a balance issue that makes Powder Monkeys most enjoyable to challenge seeking RPG fans for now. Powder Monkeys made me break a sweat in a way no other RPG has before, and I loved that. However, many potential players would no doubt appreciate a “Normal” difficulty mode that dispenses a few more silver coins at a time, and therefore allows more liberal ship repairing and re-outfitting. As things stand, highly successful players will never reach that level of comfortable resource stock they’re probably used to, and players who have a rougher time of it will feel the game encourages IAPs a little too much.

Powder Monkeys’ ships and environments are pretty simple hand-drawn fare – ever the bane of top-down presentations – but full body portraits for the player’s selected captain and NPCs add some visual zest. Where the game really shines aesthetically is in audio, riddled with monkey chirps, creepy insect scratching, and consistently compelling background music. The amount of time the player spends with Powder Monkeys will vary widely according to the number of side quests taken, but the average playthrough should weigh in upwards of six hours judging from my own experience.

iFanzine Verdict: A superbly constructed RPG that carries far more variety and depth than you’d expect in this price range. If you’re a fan of RPGs, Action RPGs, or Real Time Strategy games, you’re guaranteed tons of fun — if you appreciate the challenge of managing naval warfare on a very tight in-game budget, that is. Unless separate difficulty modes are implemented, genre fans seeking a laid-back, take-it-at-your-own-pace experience would do well to shy away for now.