Steampunk-themed programs have done pretty well on the App Store. Games such as Gears [$1.99] have certainly demonstrated the viability of incorporating that sort of fantasy/mechanic aesthetic into a game. ArkanoArena [$1.99 / Lite / HD] is the latest game to incorporate the fantasy/steampunk motif, this time in a brickbreaker. While I think ArkanoArena definitely nails the steampunk visuals, issues with the controls may turn off some folks.

Before we get started, a quick history lesson on ArkanoArena. It was originally released as an iPad-only game back in early January. A “free” version of ArkanoArena then appeared on the App Store for the iPhone in July as a prelude to the full version of the game, which came out last week. This full version of ArkanoArena for iPhone includes more levels (or “Arenas”) as well as a third weapon that wasn’t in the main gameplay mode of the free version.

Simply put, ArkanoArena is a brickbreaking game in the vein of titles such as Arkanoid and Breakout. In fact, ArkanoArena also includes the majority of the classic power-ups, such as paddle expansion, multi-ball, and so on. Where it differs somewhat from its classic brethren is in its inclusion of an in-game store that you can visit between levels that allow you to spend points on various weapons, ammunition, and even extra lives. Weapons and ammunition also play a more prominent role in ArkanoArena, as have most recent games in the genre. Overall, you aren’t going to find any significant differences here from a core gameplay perspective.

Interestingly, ArkanoArena is one of the more challenging games that I’ve played lately. The inclusion of enemies that fire projectiles at you and can destroy your paddle in one blow, combined with the expensive cost for extra lives means that you’re going to be restarting quite a bit. Also, the fact that ArkanoArena’s main gameplay mode is a “tournament” in which you must start over from level one every time you want to start a new game (vice being able to select any level you’ve beaten) means that for some folks, you’re never going to see those later levels. The easiest mode does let you restart the last level you’ve played as many times as you wish, but if you started that level with only one life, then you will continually only have one life each time you restart, increasing some of the frustration. Overall, I didn’t have too much of an issue with the game difficulty-wise, but it can become frustrating when combined with its controls.

By far, the best thing about ArkanoArena is its overall presentation. Everything from its steampunk backdrop and retina-display graphics to the ambient music in the background while you’re playing are well done. It’s pretty obvious that Sketch Games took great pains to make sure that nearly every aspect of ArkanoArena would shine graphically. While the background doesn’t directly impact the gameplay, it is teeming with life and activity. Also, graphical touches like having giant blimps fly across the screen while you’re playing are nice as well. Be advised that ArkanoArena is steampunk through and through; if this sort of graphical flair turns you off, then you’re not going to enjoy it. For everyone else, it truly is a delight and the highlight of the game.

It’s because of ArkanoArena’s awesome presentation that its flaws are so frustrating. The most glaring issue I had was with its erratic controls. On the iPhone version of the game, the only way you can move your ship is by dragging your finger back and forth. Normally this is fine (in fact this is usually the normal way these sorts of games are controlled), but ArkanoArena only lets you drag your finger across the bottom portion of the screen, rather than the standard screen-wide touch area.

Considering there’s not a lot of clearance below your ship, there were many times when my drags weren't being registered quickly and I couldn't get the paddle to move fast enough. There were also times when my touches just weren't registered at all, even though I know they should have. Combine this with an general slight delay in controlling your ship, and the whole game experience just becomes frustrating. The iPad version allows you to tap on the left or right side of the screen in order to move your ship, but this control scheme is just as unreliable if not more so.

I’m sure you’re thinking that I’m making too big a deal about the controls, but when it comes to reflex oriented games like brickbreakers, having fast, responsive controls is almost a prerequisite in order to have an enjoyable gameplay experience. This goes double for a game like ArkanoArena, which takes the normally fast-paced brickbreaker genre and infuses it with power-ups that can drastically speed up or alter the path of the ball and enemies that shoot projectiles that must be avoided. Admittedly, I found that the game controls a lot better on the iPad, but for those that have to use the iPhone, it’s definitely a problem.

Another strange issue with ArkanoArena (at least on the iPhone) is that the game does not respect the ringer mute/unmute switch. There were a few times when I launched the game at work for a quick run and the game started blasting its music even though I had the whole phone on vibrate. In this day and age, this kind of bug should never happen.

ArkanoArena is one of those frustrating games that manages to get certain things absolutely right while falling short in other elements. While I absolutely love the steampunk theme and the overall presentation, I just felt that the controls were definitely lacking. I’d recommend at least checking out the Lite version to see if the controls are an issue for you. If they don't pose a problem for you, then consider picking it up as it’s certainly one of the prettier brickbreakers I’ve seen.

TouchArcade Rating

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ArkanoArena Reviewed by Eric Ford on . Rating: 3