A good story is hard to find. I'm not pointing any fingers, but many iOS developers will leave huge, obvious gaps in their games rather than try to delve into story writing. So when I downloaded Monkube's 6th Planet [$0.99] after its most recent update, I was pleasantly surprised to find not just a game with a story, but a story that's both well-executed and compelling.
If I hadn't been going in blind, I wouldn't have been surprised. The game's comic-book cut scenes were created in part by Vivifilm, an Oscar-nominated production company who worked on, among other things, Les Triplettes de Belleville, and the colorist has long worked with Marvel. This pedigree shows. In the near-future tale of 6th Planet, Saturn has changed. The governments of earth are left scrambling to discover why, and two trained chimps may be the only ones who have a chance to decide the future. This story is compelling, the dialog is sharp, and while the characters are cliched, they're cliched in a forgivable, comic-book sort of way.
The story's quality actually creates some dissonance early on, because the gameplay (while also quite good) doesn't match up well with the serious tone of the cut scenes. Aside from its story, 6th Planet is a fairly standard lander-style game. The thruster physics feel great, the level design is excellent, both in looks and layout, and it all works very well, but it doesn't quite mesh with the story. Just as I was getting grumpy about this problem, the game dealt with it in a very satisfying manner. I won't spoil it, but this dissonance definitely isn't worth worrying about.
Otherwise, 6th Planet is tight. There are two on-screen buttons that control the lander -- tap one to go left, the other to go right (and these can be inverted) and both to thrust upwards. Like any lander game, you've got a limited amount of fuel to burn, and you've got to get to the landing pad safely and slowly enough to avoid crashing. The levels, which often have sci-fi neon and elegant flourishes, throw obstacles in your way, like asteroids, walls, gates and the occasional martian. Your performance is rated on your fuel conservation, and you can replay levels for better scores.
Story Mode is easy, but with a good reason. When 6th Planet was first released in February, Monkube found that most players were getting stuck early on and missing out on most of the story. Rather than let that stand, they reworked the game, creating 30 new, easier levels for story mode and moving the existing 50 levels to a Master Levels mode. The new story levels are smaller, taking up no more than 3 screens. The Master Levels can be up to 12 screens, and they're meant to pose a serious challenge to experienced players. In that, they definitely succeed.
The 1.1 update also added Retina support and an in-game store where you can buy the ability to skip levels and purchase faster or more armored ships (neither of which is necessary to complete the game). Normally I'd hope for Game Center support in a future update, but 6th Planet has 80 levels, each with its own leaderboard. Until Game Center can support more than 25 leaderboards, the game's OpenFeint support will have to do.
6th Planet ends with a cliffhanger, after two full comics worth of story. I'm looking forward to the next installation, which should be coming later this year in 6th Planet II: Mission Earth. Looking forward to an iOS game's story is a rare enough treat, but 6th Planet also has great music and game design too. If you've skipped over it until now, the 1.1 update offers a great chance to jump in.
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