The more apps I review, the more I become convinced that games with puzzle aspects are virtually a mainstay for iPhone and iPad users. If that trend is anything near accurate, then Alexia Crow and The Cave of Heroes will likely skyrocket in downloads. The free app is universally available but is optimized for iPhone 5.
The game follows Alexia Crow, a young girl who falls down a cave opening and ends up in a mythical realm. Tutored by a centaur who had as his former students such luminaries as Hercules and Achilles, it is Alexia's turn to demonstrate her courage and ingenuity in solving the tasks her tutor gives her, and thus become a heroine in her own right. As such the player sees the game through her eyes as she picks up various necessary objects to advance in the quest and completes a series of interesting puzzles.
The game is engaging, with phenomenal graphics and great attention to detail. This is sometimes unusual to find in a game that is compatible with an iPhone (the graphics are computer-quality, at least in my opinion). This is not a rinky-dink throwaway game, but one that the developers clearly spent time and thought in crafting. This type of devotion and care is refreshing.
However, an immediate and potentially deal-breaking drawback is that by all appearances one must purchase the first chapter of the game for US$1.99. A very brief demo is available prior to that, but if one actually wishes to play the game, one must purchase the chapter. Frankly, here is buyer manipulation at its worst. The app is touted as free and yet to actually do anything one must spend two dollars. Indeed, I only discovered this after messing around with the demo for some time, not realizing (until I exited to the main menu to see what was going on) that I actually had to pay money to make any actual progress. I would much rather the developers simply charge for the game outright. It is extremely annoying to go through the trouble of downloading an app that claims to be free and then have to pay money to actually use it.
The second concern is that the game by all appearances lacks clear direction as to what exactly the player is supposed to do. I played nearly the entire first chapter in preparing for this review, and I actually had to hunt down a walkthrough on YouTube to figure out what on earth I was supposed to do to begin the quest and solve the puzzles. Had I not had that, I would have been flailing around helplessly trying to figure out precisely what I was supposed to do for the first quest. Certainly I do not expect the game to solve everything for me - if I wanted that, I could watch any number of game shows passively on TV.
Even given the cute intro video at the beginning which shows Alexia fall down that cave and land on the ground, I was very confused as to what was to happen next. I felt a bit bewildered. Unless I profoundly missed something, there was zero direction. I'm a fan of walkthroughs if a game has me really stumped, but I expect a little guidance and direction on what I am supposed to accomplish before I resort to such desperate efforts. A game should not be like stumbling around in the dark trying to find a light switch. This defeats the fun purpose of play. But at the same time, I suppose the lack of direction enhances the bewildering context in which Alexia finds herself, so it isn't all bad.
With all that said, I actually really enjoyed Cave of Heroes. The basic thrust is that Alexia must complete a series of puzzles (which are hidden throughout the realm she explores) to get special objects to further her progress in the quest. As she completes the puzzles, or occasionally just lying around, different trinkets appear: A fishing rod to catch fish which go into a potion and become a stone, both of which end up furthering the gameplay. A series of rhombus-shaped stones activated by being placed in matching holes on a Zeus statue, so they can be used in another puzzle. Multiple silver and gold keys, which unlock portions of yet another puzzle. And so on.
This kind of complex continuity between puzzles and aspects of the quest is wonderful, because it demonstrates not only a thoughtful storytelling but also an attention to detail and a purposefulness in gameplay that is delightfully symmetrical. Indeed, this kind of meticulous and overarching attention to usefulness, purpose, and balance only serves to highlight the seeming inconsistency with the game's frustrating lack of direction. It is as if the game is one giant puzzle, with many smaller puzzles that yield the pieces of the larger, none of which are wasted or unnecessary.
Players should also note there is not any audible dialogue in the game - anything spoken by Alexia and any other characters appears in a kind of subtitle at the bottom or top of the screen. This was not at all a detriment to gameplay, but it was different than what I was expecting. The background music and sound effects are interesting and at times winsome but can be distracting, so I played with my phone on silent.
One potential caveat for iPhone/iPod Touch users: Because the game operates via touchscreen, the smaller screen may prove difficult to maneuver in certain puzzles. I learned this the hard way, as a slight touch in the wrong part of the screen would mess up an entire puzzle and I would have to start over. While this was not a huge issue, it may be something to note going in.
While there are some potential flaws to the game (most notably the financial one), overall Alexia Crow and The Cave of Heroes is a thoughtful and delightful exercise in both attractive graphics and challenging puzzles. As we follow Alexia on her quest to become a hero, her accomplishments become ours, until all of us just might feel a bit more heroic ourselves.