Stress Test

You are Arian Lucos – of the infamous Geonosisi family line, no less – and you are awesome. Attaining complete mastery over five natural elements wasn’t enough for you; you’ve decided to reach for the sixth and most powerful. This should have granted you immortality, not to mention supreme bragging rights, but the devil, as they say, is in the details: demonic hordes with a palate for your flesh began springing out of thin air the moment you broke the Sixth Seal (Out Now, $1.99)! As if that hadn’t already ruined your day, breaking the titular elemental seal also inflicted temporary amnesia, so you’ll only gradually re-learn all the powers you once enjoyed. Can you survive wave after wave of hellish creatures long enough to find a solution, or will all humanity get sucked into the netherworld along with you?

Imre Fazekas and co. have developed one hair-raising iOS game! As an ever evolving list of enemies swarms the protagonist, the player must strike them down by tracing simple runic shapes over the touchscreen. Each symbol invokes one of Arian’s elemental spells, which run the expected gamut from single and multi-target offensive spells to ones that freeze enemies or push them back to buy the player precious moments of safety. It appears that the latest update has improved Sixth Seal‘s playability significantly, but make no mistake — this one is not for the easily frustrated! The game’s challenge gradient begins at “extreme” and only goes up from there; novitiates are sure to spend an hour or more cursing at the first of its twenty levels. 

If the player allows a single demon to get within nibbling distance of Arian’s toes, it’s game over — and when you take into account the fact that hundreds of enemies pour out of the game’s environments, survival odds are rather grim. Only if the player finds his or her Zen, remaining calm and collected enough to carefully draw the needed shapes over and over again for minutes on end, will victory lie in reach. This is just as hard to do as it sounds thanks to how accurately the player must trace out the needed shapes. Sixth Seal does introduce each new spell with a practice screen as a courtesy, but the test dummy enemies used in these hardly replicate how frustrating it can be to lay down enough suppressing fire on moving and tightly packed hordes. The developers could definitely stand to relax the required accuracy a bit more – or better yet, introduce difficulty level options – in future updates. The most efficient trick I found was to use the edge of a fingernail to draw on the touchscreen, as the clumsy pad of my index finger just wasn’t cutting it.

Sixth Seal‘s introductory level is nothing short of a trial by fire, but once it teaches the player to annihilate every enemy twice over before it’s even finished teleporting in, the going gets incredibly good. There’s an addictive sense of accomplishment in proving Arian just as capable as the game’s intro makes him out to be, but more than that, it reaches a satisfying level of complexity as it heaps in different monsters and the spells needed to counter them. Advanced enemies are predictably immune to specific elements, requiring the player to make snap decisions about which shape to draw over an enemy if it survives whatever spell the player might have hammered it with already. Enemy placement appears to be entirely random, so memorization doesn’t help here; the player must rely completely on his or her real-time reflexes.

A tap-and-go system lets Arian move around to shelter in the nooks and crannies of Sixth Seal‘s levels, but the player is sure to find this strategic element a double-edged sword from time to time: a moment of hesitation while casting a spell might be misinterpreted as an order to hotfoot it to another point, needlessly putting Arian in more danger than he already is. My personal wish list for updates thus includes implementing a dragging motion from Arian to the intended destination, which might feel perfectly natural given the game’s overhead perspective. Should the player survive all twenty stages, why, the fun is just getting started — a few challenge(!) modes lie in wait for truly hardboiled spell casters. It’s OpenFeint enabled, but only the few and the proud can even begin competing on Sixth Seal‘s online leaderboard.

Sixth Seal‘s production values are simply through the roof; not since the first Devil May Cry have aesthetics played this much of a role in my willingness to stick with something so insanely difficult! It’s too bad the game doesn’t have much of a plot beyond its exquisitely written and excellently voice-acted intro, and it’s also a shame we can’t pinch-zoom in to get a better look at its crisply rendered characters and environments. For Sixth Seal‘s music, Imre Fazekas and crew appear to have turned to the wide body of “epic” music made available by the kind of outfits that produce movie trailer music, and selected some choice tracks from AKM Music. Aficionados of the burgeoning “epic” music genre will certainly approve. One aesthetic complaint I do have is that the game’s environments would have benefited from a more vibrant palette, as they’re prone to camouflaging approaching demons — something that’s sure to ruin a few hard-fought bouts of wizardry!

iFanzine Verdict: Alarmingly fast-paced as it is fun and creative, Sixth Seal should be of great interest to twitch action fans looking for something that truly embraces the touchscreen. It’s wrapped in a very beautiful presentation to boot! The basic nature of its rune-drawing gameplay might pique the interest of casual gamers as well, but if you’re the type who gets easily flustered, best to wait on the sidelines for now and see if the developer implements difficulty settings in future updates.

Fair warning: the iDevice touchscreen isn’t the silkiest thing in the world to slide one’s finger over when it has to be done two or three times a second, so the term “touchscreen burn” could be coined over this app if it hasn’t been done already. Interested gamers will do themselves a big favor in bringing a touchscreen stylus or a few millimeters’ worth of fingernail along for the ride!

[xrr rating=4/5]