Everything about Helium Boy [$1.99] seems like it should make for a highly appealing, adorable platforming experience, and I admit I had high hopes for it when I pulled it off the App store. The 3D look reminded me of games from past consoles, but in that fuzzy, fond way that makes you nostalgic to go back and play 'em again. And hey, I like cute stuff. So why wouldn't a game about a boy and his balloons fill all my portable gaming needs?
Helium Boy doesn't bother with too much backstory, which I actually appreciate in a platformer -- I don't care why I'm there. I just want to jump on stuff. All you need to know here is that you're a boy who slightly resembles a frog, and you just so happen to have some balloons and a pump at your disposal. You will be able to use these balloons to float your way through many treacherous levels, and you can also burst them when you need to do some walking. Let's not forget that there are enemies out to get you too, so you'll need to avoid them using the tools you have at your disposal.
When it comes to any type of controls where floating is a key mechanic, you need said controls to work. And here is where the first flaw kicks in for Helium Boy, because it simply doesn't do what it's supposed to sometimes. The best way to describe the problem is a depth of perception issue. For instance, in the very first level, if you hesitate for even a second, the boy sort of ends up behind the directional pad, which is in the bottom left of your screen. Since the screen scrolls from left to right for you as you play, as you can imagine, this is a problem. You also have to be very careful about gauging the depth perception of the level when you are trying to make the boy land. He does cast a shadow, so that is helpful, but all in all these details detract from the experience of losing yourself in the gameplay.
The worlds you guide the boy through are actually lovely. Vivid colors, adorable cottages and cute enemies give the game a memorable look. As you maneuver your way through collecting stars and avoiding baddies, you'll likely find yourself having a fair bit of fun if you can adjust to the challenges of the control scheme. The levels are also well-designed and challenge you to use or not use the balloons depending on what's ahead (for instance, some areas will be cramped and you'll need to deflate the balloons, but will need them again the moment you emerge.) There's some challenge to it here, which is nice as I feel all too many iOS games these days are a bit too easy. Like all good platformers, there are ice levels waiting for you later on in the game, and they are none too easy!
I wanted to love Helium Boy. That being said, I pushed through the awkwardness because I felt as if the game had fun to offer beyond it, and I was right. I'm not sure most gamers will have the same sense of tenacity, however -- for the most part it seems as if people have an even shorter attention span for iOS than they do for high ticket console game purchases. If you only spent a buck or two on a game, you can't consider it too much of a waste if you don't love it. That being said, I'd advise that if you do pick up Helium Boy, you go into it knowing the controls will give you a mildly hard time. A brand new update tries to address some of these issues by offering a beginner control mode and various other gameplay tweaks, which do help somewhat.
The awkward depth perception and control issues, as well as the overall brevity of the game, aren't enough to completely mar the experience of Helium Boy, and it can actually be pretty fun as long as you have a bit of patience and aren't expecting too much from it.
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