Reiner Knizia's Labyrinth [US$1.99, universal, trial version available] is one of a number of iOS-only games the prolific game designer has created (the others being Monumental -- here's our review -- Roto, Yoku-Gami and Teocalli). It's always been difficult to keep up with the board and card games that the mathematician has come up with, but now that he is working with a number of small iOS developers, it's almost sisyphean. While some Knizia titles are much more worthwhile than others, this is one "brand" that I'm usually interested enough in to take a look. This counts double considering that his new app comes from Tribeflame, developers of the excellent Keltis: Oracle and Through The Desert. Like those other apps, Labyrinth is a puzzle game, but what's it all about?
The impression I get is that If Knizia had designed Carcassonne as a solitaire game, this app is probably what it would have been. Tabletop gamers already know how Knizia's two-player version of Carcassone works (it's the variant called The Castle), but Labyrinth is a calmer affair and specifically designed for digital play. Keep reading for the details.
In mid-December, when Tribeflame released Labyrinth, they said up front: "We apologize in advance for wasting hours of your life, stuck in a digital labyrinth." We've heard this plenty of times with plenty of apps, but it can hold true for Labyrinth ... for some.
The idea is that you're "a hero venturing deep into the earth in search of unknown treasures." Actually, the treasures are known: points, which come from chests and gems. You can also collect swords, which help you defeat any monsters you may encounter. If you make it through a scenario (there are three in total, each with nine levels), any leftover swords score bonus points.
"You" start at the bottom of the screen, and with each turn, you place and rotate a random tile somewhere onto a 4x4 grid. You don't need to always expand your path –- isolating monster tiles in a corner is a good trick -– but the goal is to reach the exit at the top. If you don't accomplish that or if you meet more monsters than you have swords for, the game is over.
There is no player icon, just a lighted path to show where you can walk. If you light up a treasure, you get the associated points (the chests increase in value by 10 points each).
The three scenarios in the game are: the Hedge Maze, the Castle Ruins (which adds ghosts and other ways to get treasures) and the Dungeons, which Tribeflame describes as "really quite hard to get through." The good news is that it's quite fun, if a little bit frustrating, to be stuck in this digital labyrinth for a spell.
Unlike some game apps, Labyrinth (Version 1.2 reviewed here) works equally well on both an iPhone/iPod touch screen as it does on the iPad. In both sizes, the graphics are crisp and sharp, if not exactly gorgeous. The screen real estate could be better used, too, on all devices. I know we're trying to pack a square game board into a rectangular device, but just look at the image to the right. Couldn't the score/swords/preview area be shrunk down a bit to make more room for the playing area? Yes, it could (and should). Another visual tweak I'd like to see is a change to the green line that surrounds the currently-in-play tile. It sometimes obscures the borders of the tiles, making it tough to tell exactly where the wall exists –- and once you've confirmed placement of a tile, there's no taking it back.
This brings us to another problem: the lack of an undo button or a way to save a game in progress in order to come back to it later and try another path. Given that you have to start at the beginning of a scenario every time you perish (and the Castle and Dungeon levels are locked when you get the game), it can be a frustrating experience to get anywhere in the game. We asked Tribeflame about this, and they said:
When you quit the game, it will save where you are, but we are not planning on including a save game feature from where you can continue multiple times. We are also not planning on including an undo button - that's why you separately confirm each tile's placement :) (The first spec we got from Reiner said that the tile simply sticks to the place when you release it -- that was a bit too harsh!)
The reason for not including save and undo are that we anticipate people to start playing this competitively when the global high score lists are available. Anything that allows you to back up, can also be used for cheating in that case. Pressing undo until you get the perfect next piece, for instance.
There are some 20 tiles available per level, out of which 16 are chosen. There is a basic tile set that is quite easy to play with -- but every time you pass a level, one of the tiles in the pool of 20 gets switched for a tougher tile (with more monsters on it, but also with more treasures and swords). Of course, once you pass a whole scenario, all of the tiles are replaced.
We get all this, but an undo button for your own use would be nice, even if it made the game not count for Game Center rankings. Other than this, the UI works exactly right. The game is a bit slow to load and resume upon startup, but the delay is nothing tremendous.
Tribeflame also had these tips for playing the game through to see the next levels:
Make a path to the exit
Avoid monsters at all cost
Take as many swords as possible
Only take a treasure when it does not interfere with the above
Actually getting to the exit can often be handled with the first few pieces, so the challenge becomes how well can you get there. Can you collect the gems and treasures and swords without unleashing too many monsters? Trying to beat your own best score is nice, but with the latest update, Tribeflame has included Game Center support, which means you can compete against all those other cavern explorers out there.
Of course, why listen to me when you can just check out a video and a trial version of the game yourself. Get it here and watch the video below.