At a glance, one might think Unit9's2 Nano Panda [99¢ / Free] is a not-so-subtle copy of Big Pixel Studios' Land-a Panda [99¢], but other than a striking similarity in the look of the icons and the existence of barrels in both games, they're wholly different experiences. Still, that one commonality -- adorable animals existing in obstacle based puzzle games is an App Store trademark to say the least -- but thankfully, Nano Panda rises above the clichés and offers something new.
Stylistically, it's a shoe-in for success based on its collect-three stars system, its adorable visuals and its single-screen puzzles, but even though it looks the part of so many games before it, Nano Panda offers enough innovation in its gameplay to keep if from disappearing among a sea of clones.
It might have been nice to get an absurd story to explain why you're tasked with launching pandas out of barrels and into evil atoms, but the game instead drops you immediately into it with little explanation as to why you're doing what you're doing --which is rocketing pandas to their death, either by accidently sending them flying into spikes or by tossing them into the atoms, which will complete the level for you.
There are two core systems at play here: a simple physics function where you launch the panda and it goes flying, and a magnet mechanic, where when two or more pandas are launched at once they'll attract each other and whirl around the screen with a slightly unpredictable rubber band effect. Sending the corpulent pandas on a suicide mission into the nasty atoms will net you a completion screen, but you'll also want to snag up as many stars as you can along the way. The more stars you collect, the more chapters you can unlock.
The main innovation is the magnet mechanic and when it works, it's a challenging, but entertaining play on the physics game. The problem is that for a large chunk of the levels you won't feel like you're solving puzzles so much as getting lucky. There is certainly a consistent system at work here, but you might not ever feel like you understand it well enough to use it predictably.
As the game progresses, more modifiers come into play and it starts to get a bit overwhelming. You'll have to quickly touch, slide and move objects on the screen to get good results, which on an iPad works well, but on the smaller iPhone screen things start to get a little difficult to handle. The fourth and final chapter in particular feels entirely based on luck.
Even with the trial-and-error style gameplay, Nano Panda does a good job of taking the increasingly standard, single screen, star based physics puzzler and adding in enough innovation to keep you entertained. It's well produced too, so for those who like small graphical touches, you'll find a lot of quirks throughout the game to keep you happy. Like many before it, the game features a mystery final chapter with a note that more levels are on the way, so if you manage to three star all 64 levels in the game and collect all the Game Center achievements, you can expect more in the coming months. Of course, if you've ever found yourself at a "Save the Pandas" rally, you might want to steer clear here, unless you happen to be cool with killing hundreds of adorable red, white and blue pandas.