Aiko Island [$0.99 / HD] is, at first glance, just another physics puzzler in an endless procession. Is there anything we haven't seen from the vast selection of games where you balance one item while poking away at everything beneath it? Apparently, yes. IceFlame's opus may draw inspiration from sources both within its genre and beyond, but it has more than a few surprises left to share.
If you were to create a "best of" mix for physics puzzlers, it would probably end up looking a lot like Aiko Island. There are elements of most of the big names here. Let's not get hung up on calling it a knock-off of this or that, though. Instead, consider this: if I could play just one game in this genre, I'd seriously consider choosing this one.
Here's the scoop: the red Aiko have stolen all the cookies from the blue Aiko. As a result, you need to ruthlessly destroy every living red Aiko while carefully preserving all the blues. Let's hope peace talks were already attempted. As if your mission weren't going to be difficult enough already, the blue Aiko are hopelessly intermixed with their red fellows, so if you make one wrong move you'll probably end up toppling the whole mess of them to their deaths.
Initially, your influence is limited to one command: tap to pop. You can pop some of the red Aiko, some of the platforms they sit on, and so on. You'll need to make strategic decisions about the order you should pop them in, because you need to drop the reds and not the blues. You've probably played one of many variations on this theme already if you've spent much time in the App Store.
Aiko Island makes great use of this basic formula. The levels are designed with a great deal of imagination. Some don't go any further than requiring you to pop a few reds to carefully drop a blue. But others are vastly more complex. Eventually you're managing levels that span several screens, panning around while you work out the logic behind set ups with scattered Aikos, multiple machines, and carefully timed and tuned interactions.
There is a depth to Aiko Island's level design that often surprised me. Deep into the game's hefty list of 125 levels, some levels have a huge number of movable parts. You end up controlling cannons, sliding gates, explosives and more, while dealing with environmental factors like slippery ground and variable gravity. Such complexity could get overwhelming, but not here. Levels get quite challenging, but working through them with trial and error wins out eventually every time.
Slow and steady won't win this race, though. Each level has three cookies to be earned: one for completion, one for finishing under a set number of taps, and one for finishing under a time limit. Earning the extra two cookies can be difficult, but a quick time earns you more than a snack -- the game's Game Center leaderboard tracks total completion time, so faster is always better. Meanwhile, collecting the cookies is good for more than feeling good about yourself. You'll need them to navigate the world.
Aiko Island takes place in four areas, each with its own distinct look, feel, and special features. Your journey through them is non-linear. A complex overworld leads you from level to level, but it's filled with branching paths and locked doors that take you from one area to the next, and back again later. The areas unlock as you complete levels, and paths within them unlock as you earn cookies.
This serves three purposes. You rarely bore of one area before you can start poking around the next. You can occasionally skip a level and certainly don't need to master them all to get by. You do, however, have a good reason to go back and improve your results at times, but you can pick and choose your battles. Thanks to the overworld, I always felt like I had a choice of where to go next. It's a great motivator.
On my first glimpse of Aiko Island, I thought it looked bland, and so very similar to all the other physics puzzlers out there. But not only does it look and sound far better than I expected, it's also strikingly imaginative. Not always original, but always fun, and often surprising. Even if you think you've already enjoyed everything this genre has to offer, you should give Aiko Island a look. And pop by our discussion thread with your impressions when you do.