Have you ever had one of those days where you’re surviving a geological survey site on an entirely different planet when all of a sudden a cave-in cuts you off from the rest of your expedition team? Then – just to ensure things get weirder – the strange alien contraption that your group was investigating suddenly comes to life, with five weird glyphs no spinning through the air in a circle around it? Did you then walk over to the machine and get transported to an entirely different world where a floating light ball welcomed you by saying “You were expected”, but otherwise not explaining much at all?
Yeah, Mondays can suck (even if they’re Mondays on alien planets trillions of miles away from Earth).
Anyways, this scenario just so happens to be the set up of Shardlands (out now, $1.99), a 3D puzzle game recently released by Breach Entertainment wherein players seek out mystical shards to get their explorer – Dawn – back home. I am going to come out right now and say this up front: I believe that Shardlands is an amazingly well crafted title with a lot to offer for right sort of gamers, I also believe this game drove me to unhealthy fits of rage and was possibly a mismatch for the iOS platform. So please keep all of this in mind as you read the following review as it is going to be an interestingly bumpy ride of genuine praise mixed in with bouts of great scorn and ire, but in the end this is still a game where I respect the end construction.
In order to get our star flung explorer – Dawn – back home, you will have to explore the many realms connected to the game’s hub world by the various portals strewn about the mystical floating landscape. In each of these realms your primary goal will be to collect all of the floating spheres that are laying about so that the level’s sealed door the shard is hiding behind will unlock, for the use of these shards will enable you to power machinery in the hub world that will open the path to even more areas. There may exist other shards in any given level that can be reached through other means, but the globe of light seeking quest itself will always be a rigid constant that Dawn will encounter where ever she travels.
Dawn – in order to collect all of these door binding light spheres – will have to avoid monsters, navigate collapsing floors, operate machinery, telekinetically slide floating platforms, avoid fiery death in various forms, deal with strange alien monsters, and reflect lasers in ways advantageous to her efforts. The bulk of this gameplay is controlled simply through the act of tapping, with one singular action letting you both successfully move around as well as activate any device that Dawn comes into contact with. The other action important to Shardlands’s gameplay involves the player sliding their finger across the screen, with two fingers simultaneously for camera control and one solitary finger for the telekinetic act of sliding objects through space.
You might have noticed that I failed to mention an attack option of any sort, despite the fact that I earlier said Dawn would have to deal with monsters, precisely because Shardlands’s heroine is not packing any form of weaponry. This does not – however – mean that the main character is completely incapable in the face of creatures save for running away, as the save points strewn about each area also double as bug zappers if unfriendly aliens are lead close enough to them. Alternatively, leading the aliens into fire – as well as powerful laser beams – will do the trick just as well; however, for curious reasons that are never explained, getting them to walk over floor sections ready to collapse does not work at all (despite the fact they’re much larger than Dawn).
Eventually through the process of collecting shards – and unlocking new parts of the hub world – Dawn will discover the true focal point of her escape efforts: a strange alien machine like the one that transported her here to begin with, except this one seems to be missing its five glyphs. One Dawn has found the places where the five glyphs are in hiding she will be able to activate the machine and flee, or at least she will after dealing with one final stage that serves as the only sort of boss level to be found in Shardlands. It is worth nothing that players can actually go to the game’s final level once they have all five glyphs, so they are not forced to track down every last shard – save for what they need to operate machinery in the hub world – unless they self elect to be completionists.
Accompanying all of this is a soothing soundtrack which, when coupled with the slow pace that the game usually operates at, easily turns the bulk of Shardlands’s experience into something almost zen-like. Due to this Shardlands is usually a great game to play whenever the player wants to calm down, or at least this is so in the earlier half of Dawn’s puzzle and shard filled adventure (more on this soon). In order ensure the player isn’t lulled into too deep a sense of security, the various dangerous elements that Dawn will come by during her journey – either biological or environmental – will produce easily identifiable noises whenever they draw near.
However, it would be terribly remiss of me if I were to simply leave everyone with the notion that Breach Entertainment’s Shardlands is actually a peaceful calming experience through and through. I mentioned earlier that Dawn will have to make use of her new found telekinetic powers to slide floating platforms and/or reflective mirrors, but it might be far more accurate to simply call these what they are: irregular-shaped sliding tile puzzles. If anyone has ever played any of the Professor Layton games then they are already very familiar with irregular-shaped sliding tile puzzles, and especially how annoying they can be at times, and Shardlands definitely has some truly nerve-wracking ones.
Another really frustrating thing Shardlands likes to start doing more and more as the game progresses forward is that right after a particularly nasty sliding tile puzzle, where you won’t be able to get back to an earlier checkpoint without completely unsolving the puzzle you just slaved away at, is that they will make it so that the next safe zone ahead of you is being guarded by a monster. I have nothing wrong with Breach Entertainment putting some tricky timing puzzles into Shardlands, I just wish they didn’t use them in such a diabolical way that failure to solve them on the first try means you have to redo the entire previous sliding tile puzzle from scratch as well. There is nothing even slightly enjoyable, or calming in the least, about having to redo the irregular shaped sliding tile puzzle four-to-five times in a row just so that you can figure out the timing on how to run by a single alien monster afterwards.
The final point of frustration comes from something that was far less intended on Breach Entertainment’s part and I do sincerely hope the problem gets resolved in an upcoming update: a peculiar bug involving the game’s camera system. While I have never seen Shardlands straight up crash on me, unlike some other 3D games when played on the iPod Touch 4 with its lower RAM resources, I have frequently ran into a curious bug where the game’s camera will lock in place and stop following Dawn. So even though the game is still responding to my commands, so long as the command doesn’t involve trying to move the camera around, I can essentially play no further and am forced to select the ‘restore previous checkpoint’ option from the pause menu. While the bug was only mildly annoying in the earlier parts of Shardlands, it becomes downright frustrating in the latter portions when the game’s checkpoints started being intentionally spaced apart with the intent to upset you as is.
Anyways, with all the matters of the ups and downs of Shardlands’s gameplay now finally out of the way, I would like to finally take a moment to discuss how this puzzling adventure looks. It actually is rather beautiful looking in a way that nicely compliments the (usually) soothing zen-like puzzle solving that is found strewn about the various worlds that Dawn will have to visit in her quest to escape. In particular I especially liked how the floating spirit in the tutorial level casted an actual light effect on the entire environment that followed the spirit around as it flitted about, and I really wish the creature had followed Dawn to all the levels she travelled to during the course of the game.
iFanzine Verdict: Shardlands is a game with amazing 3D visuals – a soothing soundtrack – and responsive and simple to use controls, and playing the game can actually produce a very calming effect (or at least it can when it’s not being mean). However, the amount of time it can take the solve some of the sliding tile puzzles in a stage – and then sometimes resolve them because the camera either crashed or the monster guarding the checkpoint caught you – means the game does not fit nicely into the short gameplay burst concept that is important to many iOS gamers. That said do not let me make you think I am saying that I think Shardlands is horrible, but I do think the average amount of time needed to finish some of the longer levels – coupled with the tricks employed to regularly prevent players from saving their progress – would have been a more natural fit on a more dedicated gaming system.