When faceless kung fu aliens stow away on a mining ship with a warp beacon that will have the galaxy flooding with more of their kind in mere minutes, you’d better send in Sarge (Out Now, Free Launch Sale)! With a little help – and even more interruptions – from his handler Trysh, this muscle-bound mercenary sets out to throw as many punches as it takes to solve the problem. You’d never expect a free game to contain a fully voice-acted story with excellently penned humor, but believe it: Sarge’s story interludes will have more than a few players busting their guts laughing, and everything that happens in between is just as fun!

Belt scrolling beat ’em ups like Streets of Rage and Double Dragon are probably the first that spring to mind when most gamers think of the genre, so it’s great to see Avalinx tackle the lesser appreciated side-scrolling formula where the player character is confined to a single plane. The player works with Sarge’s fists for the most part, chaining light and hard attacks to produce a string of moves that will hopefully pummel each alien into submission. Rounding out his repertoire are a shield to block enemy shots – it doubles as a weapon, Captain America-style, if you block short range attacks! – and a grenade launcher for times when his fists just aren’t cutting it.

Aside from Sarge’s respectable moveset, the first thing to really strike me was the game’s enemy AI. Pause long enough to let an alien slip away once engaged, and it’ll likely warp behind Sarge or jump back to snipe at him from afar. Secondly, the game turns its side-scrolling perspective to great advantage with light platforming segments that break up the usual action. Sarge’s formula still has a long way to go before tying complex platformer and beat ’em up together into a true genre mashup, but the experiment fundamentally works here and I’d love to see just how far developers could take this idea. A four-way virtual joystick also lets the player duck under enemy shots, but it’s way more fun to reflect them with Sarge’s shield!

Avalinx took a big gamble in making the player drag the virtual joystick up for jumping, and it will indeed feel a bit clunky to born-and-bred console veterans. In the end I did get used to it, and feel it was completely worth freeing up enough room for the three action buttons. I found the virtual buttons themselves reliable despite how closely packed they are – even that tiny grenade button above the virtual joystick works well – but the pause menu definitely needs some touch area widening. I very much appreciated that Sarge’s floors are raised high above the virtual buttons, as this keeps enemies from overlapping with the UI — that’s a darn good bit of design sense right there!

I was astounded to find this much quality packed into a freely downloadable title, and Sarge will stand out at the App Store even after the release sale expires, but its price tag does show in a few respects. Sarge’s six missions are on the short side and unlikely to last the player much more than an hour total. Moreover, aside from one satisfyingly creative boss battle, all enemy types are introduced by the time the player makes it through the game’s second stage.

A look back at classic side-scrolling brawlers – The Ninja Warriors Again on the SNES comes to mind for me – shines a light on how Sarge’s formula could gain new ground in sequels now that the foundation has been laid. Sarge’s bulkiness and slow combos leave him feeling like the brutish counterpart to some faster, alternative player character who doesn’t exist yet. Three virtual buttons may give the player way more moves to pull off here than in most action games on iOS, but the bread and butter of this particular genre has always been a good grappling system: sometimes a developer can accomplish more with interaction between one attack button and a good D-pad than with multiple attack buttons. Finally, it’s easy to see where upgrades and an expanding moveset could come into play; Kung Fu Warrior used this idea to great effect earlier this year.

Give me all that with Avalinx’s prowess in the animation department, and I, for one, would pay a premium price for it — and I’m serious, Sarge features some of the sleekest kung fu aliens I’ve ever seen. There are some issues with disappearing background objects during vertical scrolls, and levels jarringly cut to black once Sarge has reached the end, but otherwise the game is a visual tour de force as far as iOS side-scrollers go. Sean Beeson strikes again in the music department, delivering a raging title theme and a foreboding in-game tune, both heavy in electric guitar riffs; it’s just too bad the game isn’t long enough to merit more tracks, and that there’s no in-game music volume control. Not that having sound effects play as loud as they do here is necessarily bad — Sarge caps off each victory with a hilarious one-liner, and enemies interestingly drone on in an alien language until they fall before his mighty knuckles.

iFanzine Verdict: Packing in way more production value than you’d ever expect of a game released at no charge, Sarge boasts a satisfyingly deep combat system but matches its price in terms of length and variety. If you’re a beat ’em up fan, this is one you totally need to pick up while it’s free.