(Reviewer’s Note, 1/20/12: This review applies to the iPhone and iPod Touch edition; it was brought to our attention that the iPad version suffered from lackluster enemy AI at release, a condition has has since been resolved in updates.)

In an industry with as many developers as iOS, it’s getting more and more difficult to find something truly fresh. So rather than  compete with all the creative minds trying to cook up the next big gameplay concept that’s never been done before, Wake Up Studios and Alawar Entertainment decided to reach far back into history and draw inspiration from a medieval pastime. The result? Something that’s way, way more fun on iOS than it ever was on horseback, and a game that stands head, shoulders, and hooves above the crowd. Action fans, it’s time to strap on some plate armor, saddle up, and Shake Spears (Out Now, On Sale for $0.99; Lite)!

What little story there is in Shake Spears goes something like this: a rookie knight has begun a quest to prove that he’s worthy of a lady’s hand in marriage. Standing between him and the wedding reception are exactly 100 knights on horseback, some of them pretty big and mean looking. Rather than wimp out, he’s depending on the player to guide his lance and shield in hopes he doesn’t get skewered before he conquers every jousting arena in the land. Despite the game’s tongue-in-cheek title and obvious potential for the brand of humor that’s practically a staple on iOS, Alawar and Wake Up have kept the tone deadly serious — and about as satisfyingly epic as a series of one-on-one duels can get.

The player and enemy horses have minds of their own, automatically charging the moment a tourney begins. This leaves the player free to use invisible vertical sliders on either side of the touchscreen to direct the knight’s lance and shield; a well-performed round is one in which the player deflects the enemy’s lance and scores a direct hit on the opponent’s body. As the duelists close in on one another, the camera view zooms in dramatically and the action slows to a crawl for a split second, giving the player – and the enemy! – one last chance to make final adjustments. A health meter exists as expected, but what’s really cool in Shake Spears is a body part system that keeps track of how the duelists’ shields are holding up and which pieces of armor are degrading. A careful eye on the armor indicators and on the player and enemy sprites clues the player in to where a critical hit may be scored, and the tourney ended swiftly.

The gameplay mechanics described above already make for a taut challenge and a truly gripping experience, but it gets better. With victories come spoils: gold earned for excellent performance can be splurged on armor upgrades and special skills. Enacted with virtual buttons that can be pressed any time during a round prior to the zoom-in, skills may be used to spur the player’s horse along for greater impact, snap the enemy’s lance for a turn, or even repair armor pieces that haven’t been totally smashed yet. Beware, though — enemies may call on these too! Each skill may be used only once per tourney, so the player needs to strategize heavily and use them in situations where they’ll carry the greatest impact.

Shake Spears expertly eases the player in, using the first arena as a live tutorial that introduces interface functions and gameplay techniques one by one. Enemy intelligence rises with the player’s progress, and bosses that cap off each “world” have some truly dastardly tricks up their chainmail sleeves. The game is divided into four such “worlds,” each with five arenas, and each of those consisting of five tourneys. The one thorn in the player’s side is liable to be the fact that a lost tourney sets the player back to the beginning of the current arena, albeit with earned cash retained — a bit of a throwback to the days when fear of starting over used to be a major element in action games. The player may also dump out of a tourney and re-play matches via the world map at any time.

Shake Spears‘ slider interface is silky smooth and perfectly responsive, all without using up a lick of touchscreen space! Its aesthetic presentation is about as ecstasy-inducing as it gets in 2D; I don’t think I’ll ever tire of that zoom-in, nor the pieces of armor and lances snapping to smithereens. The appearance of the player’s knight evolves if the player upgrades liberally, but skills are accompanied by visual effects that remain tastefully subtle. The game’s music follows suit for the most part, the developers preferring to reserve the more epic tracks for boss battles.



iFanzine Verdict: Just as addictive as it is fresh, easy to get into as it is deep, Shake Spears is a simply un-missable App Store gem. If you’re into action games in the slightest, but also enjoy some depth, you won’t be disappointed if you snap it up during its release sale. If you’re still on the fence, grab the Lite and see for yourself what all the fuss is about!