In what might be an alternate-history Earth 19th century robber barons got so out of hand that their industrial efforts triggered a premature ice age, forcing humanity’s remnants to excavate subterranean Vaults where they could wait out the centuries-long winter. Upon leaving their shelters the descendants of these intrepid steampunks found that another race of intelligent beings conquered the surface in the meantime, and it just so happens that nifty destructive gadgets left behind in the Vaults would prove handy to those bent on militarily solving the discord between humanity and those who view them as a sudden immigration threat. It is against this backdrop that Rose Cristo, pro treasure hunter, makes a living fulfilling Vault pillaging requests for her eccentric grandmother.
Greeted by vivid art stills and visual novel-style captions in the game’s intro, one gets the impression that Rimelands: Hammer of Thor was never too far away from striking storytelling gold with Rose’s efforts to figure out what, exactly, her tight-lipped and kooky Granma has in mind. Unfortunately the refreshingly excellent setup is followed by stiff characterization and the kind of wisecracks that make it clear Dicework and Crescent Moon wanted to deliver a fun, quirky story more concerned with poking fun at itself than with breaking new ground in videogame narrative. RPG fans yearning for a great story and great gameplay in equal amounts will probably forgive Rimelands this one trespass because it’s an excellent ride otherwise.
Rimelands operates at all times on a seamless isometric field in which Rose’s movement is limited to four directions, guided by tapping or holding on arrow virtual buttons that can be switched to the left side of the touchscreen if the player dislikes their default position near the bottom right corner. The lack of eight-directional movement isn’t missed here because the interface feels very snappy as-is and allows the same buttons to be used intuitively for multiple functions: move adjacent to a shopkeeper, treasure chest, or an enemy and one of the movement buttons is replaced by whatever function is appropriate.
In towns the player’s objective is to gather quests by speaking with various NPCs. Aside from Granma’s directives the thorough player will discover smaller fetch quests that can be completed nonlinearly and usually yield a nice stash of loot. The in-progress quest list accessible from Rose’s character menu feels a bit sparse on specifics at times but thankfully the world map fills in the gaps with clarifying markers.
Combat often begins well before the player gets close enough to an enemy for the movement buttons to turn into melee attack buttons. Virtual buttons for spells and ranged gun attacks activate if Rose is prepared with appropriate equipment and learned skills, and enemies likewise make prodigious use of their own long range repertoires. While there exists a virtual button for explicit cycling through targets, it is only needed on the rare occasion that an enemy wanders into an area of the touchscreen occupied by other virtual buttons.
The outcome of each player and enemy action is influenced literally by the roll of dice, which moderate the attacker’s and recipient’s chances of successfully landing or evading an attack, respectively. All the dice tossing might seem like an anachronistic throwback to ye olde pen-and-paper RPGs, but all told, it’s a creative mechanic that gives RPG veterans a bit more control over events than they might be used to: unfavorable dice results can be re-rolled at the cost of one Mana point, from a total that also measures Rose’s remaining spellcasting ability. The player can use only one re-roll per turn, so important decisions must be made beyond whether to call upon this option at all; it might need to be reserved for strategically boosting defense against a particularly nasty baddie’s attack should Rose become surrounded and exposed to multiple enemy actions at a time.
Rimelands piles on additional layers of strategic possibility in the form of environmental geography, traps, and special skill effects. Options for completing any given battle vary widely. Since letting Rose get surrounded is hardly in the player’s best interest, I quickly grew fond of drawing enemies into doorways and finishing them off one by one as they barred one another’s movement, or leading them onto damage-inflicting traps and using a certain combat skill to cripple their movement and let the trap whittle away at them. Each player is sure to find his or her own delightfully vicious way of dealing with foes in Rimelands.
When Rose earns enough experience to garner a Level Up the player is required to allocate a Talent Point among three character growth paths: one melee intensive, one gun intensive, and the last magic intensive. It’s a genuinely tough call to make, as each path is associated with bonuses and skills that can all be put to good use — a relief for RPG fans who by now have grown fed up dealing with character skill trees girded by wasteful or impractical abilities. The developers did a great job balancing gameplay so that no decision is objectively “wrong”; with appropriate equipment changes a barbarian Rose can function as a decent mage in a pinch. On the other hand, the sheer variety of outcomes encourage multiple playthroughs for the obsessively curious.
Both in and out of battle item management is a breeze thanks to very responsive menus and well-intentioned streamlining. Consumable items are stripped down to the most basic RPG necessities: one potion to restore Hit Points and the other to restore Mana, each acting in a certain proportion so the same items are equally effective regardless of how many Hit Points Rose has racked up. Moreover, curatives are mostly an in-battle concern since Rose’s health and Mana regenerate at a very fast pace during exploration mode.
This streamlining of consumable item management allows the player to focus on the really fun stuff — evaluating oodles of equipment plucked from treasure chests and making use of Rose’s item engineering ability, which allows the player to create rare equipment on-the-fly. Before Rose can start whipping up new equipment the player needs to acquire raw materials by dismantling lesser equipment at shops and locate blueprints necessary for combining these resources into particular items. Owing to a slight random generation aspect in Rimelands‘ dungeons that alters what’s found in non-critical treasure chests, the player can never be sure that he or she will re-discover a particularly interesting blueprint should a Game Over kick Rose back to the start of the dungeon floor she’s on (don’t worry, an auto-save lets you exit the game at any time without losing an inch of progress otherwise). This encourages the player to write down alphanumeric codes associated with each blueprint and add them into the engineering menu manually with the iDevice’s virtual keyboard, and these blueprint codes can also be traded among players online.
Rimelands caters well to sticklers who demand that equipment changes be reflected on the player’s character in realtime. Its visuals are crisp if largely unembellished; winter wastelands and dank caves don’t necessarily lend themselves to stunning panoramic vistas after all, and flashy spells are conspicuously rare. While the game uses ambient noise to great effect, players are likely to lament the very limited core soundtrack given the game’s 15 or so hour length.
Dicework and Crescent Moon still appear to be stamping out a few performance bugs, the most noticeable I experienced being progressively longer load times during extended play sessions. Powering my iPod Touch off and on seemed to do the trick for a temporary fix.
iFanzine Verdict: Rimelands’ greatest strength is its appeal to fans of multiple RPG sub-genres running the gamut from turn-based to Western to Strategy RPGs. Its overall slick and streamlined interface may very well pull in newcomers to the iPhone’s growing RPG library as well. If you’re a longtime RPG fan, just don’t get your hopes up for a sprawling storyline and you’ll undoubtedly have a fun time with a game well worth its midlevel price at the Appstore.