Stories are hard to come by on the App Store. Most games don't bother with even a pretense of a story, and those that do tend to be crammed in rather painfully. It's understandable -- most iOS games are created by tiny teams, often just a programmer and an artist, so there's not much room or budget for writing.

Sometimes, though, a game comes by that shows that you don't need to sacrifice to tell a good tale. Some stories are as simple and eternal as boy meets girl, and they can be told over and over in brand new ways. These Robotic Hearts of Mine [$1.99] is one of those games. It's small, simple and charming, and it does an admirable job of bringing narrative to that least-storied of genres, the puzzle game.

Better still, the puzzles in These Robotic Hearts of Mine are successful and interesting. Games that really experiment with narrative sometimes tend to end up a little light on enjoyable gameplay, but this game does not. It plays out over 36 levels of Rubik's Cube-inspired puzzling that boast a reasonable difficulty curve, entertainment and even a smidgen of replayability.

The puzzles are straightforward. Each level has a field of hearts and gears. You can turn the gears by tapping them, and they take adjacent hearts with them when they rotate. The goal is to rotate the hearts until all are right-side-up, sometimes moving them from one gear to another in the process.

Each level gives you a minimum number of taps to try to achieve, but you can keep going as long as you'd like without penalty. There are the usual controls -- buttons to take you back or forward a move, buttons to reset the level, and so on. You'll never find yourself frustrated by an inability to proceed.

After each level is completed, you're shown your progress compared to that of others, whether you hit the par score or fell within the average or worse. Then you're treated to a single screen of narrative, one sentence of the story.

To avoid spoilers, I won't get into the story. It's so short and sweet that there isn't much to be said that won't give it all away. Suffice it to say that it's emotionally charged, if not especially original, and that it's quite successful.

As to how it merges with the gameplay, my feelings are mixed. I like the slow reveal of the story, the way you need to work through each level. As the levels get longer and more difficult, the story feels similarly halting. Needing to work for it feels quite appropriate. But some mechanical choices get in the way. For one, that score page you're presented with on ending each level if quite an intrusion into the game's atmosphere. It's a distraction to start thinking numbers and strategies when the story is presented so briefly.

A more serious problem presents itself: you can freely skip your way through the entire game if you want to, reading the story panels and then skipping the level. It's hard to take the combination of the two seriously when they can be ripped apart like that. If the goal is that people will play for their narrative, letting them skip the game undermines the experience, and frankly the story isn't quite enough on its own.

In the end, These Robot Hearts of Mine is good, but it isn't great. As a game, it doesn't go quite far enough to reward players for pushing through or to encourage them to play well. As a narrative, too many of the game elements get in the way of the presentation. A bit more commitment could strengthen the game, hopefully in the direction of its narrative. There are plenty of great puzzle games out there, but never enough strong stories.

Still, it's a lovely game, and for the most part it works quite well. I consider my time with it well spent, even if a few tweaks could have made These Robotic Hearts of Mine much more atmospheric. Give it a look for yourself, and let us know what you think in the discussion thread.

TouchArcade Rating

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  • http://wondroushippo.com Carter Dotson

    I feel rather validated in my 148Apps review - the ability to 'cheat' and read the story in its entirety on a whim took a LOT away from the experience.

    • David Howe

      I think both of your reviews make some really solid points.  I think I agree with Nissa's 4/5 though - despite the level skip, it's a pretty complete package.  I enjoyed the graphs between levels - small, but neat touch.

      • https://twitter.com/#!/NissaCam Nissa Campbell

        Thanks David!

    • https://twitter.com/#!/NissaCam Nissa Campbell

      Yeah, I just read your review and it looks like we're both on the same page. The level skip is useful, certainly, but it's too accessible, too unlimited, too tempting in a game that can be a bit frustrating at times.

      By the way, SpaceChem is another (great) puzzle game that uses the graph rating thing. It's the only other game I've played that does it, and I agree - it's a fantastic feature that more puzzle games should adopt.

      • David Howe

        I'll check out SpaceChem - great pointer.  Came really close to implementing a heat map at the end of a level in one of my games, very similar to what Alan did with this puzzler.  He really pulled it off effectively.  The idea was the same: show players how unique their solutions to each level are. I think that's a really great way to get players to think outside of the box and retry their solutions in games like this.  If nothing else, I find it fun to scratch my head and think "holy cow, how did someone do this in 2 moves?!" or "how did someone beat this level in 2 seconds - what the heck is he doing flying way over there?"

      • http://twitter.com/Draknek Alan Hazelden

         I was inspired to add the graphs after playing SpaceChem: it's a fantastic game and the graphs are a great feature. Definitely check it out.

  • http://twitter.com/AngelosLH Sarah Ford

    Adored this game when I tried it at Eurogamer (on PC), but the thing seems to crash on my iPod when I finish a level, anyone else have this problem? :s

    • http://twitter.com/Draknek Alan Hazelden

       :( That's not good!

      You're the first person to mention any crashes to me, and I don't know why it might happen. What OS version/hardware is it?

      Is it connected to the internet? (I ask because the only vaguely interesting thing it does at level-completion time is to send stats to a server, but don't see how that would crash it...)

      • http://twitter.com/AngelosLH Sarah Ford

        Ipod Touch 4th gen on iOS 4.2.1. It kinda freezes when the grinding noise comes on (at successful puzzle complete) and none of the buttons are selectable, thought it might be all the apps I had running in the background but closing em didnt do anything :[

      • http://twitter.com/Draknek Alan Hazelden

        Looked into this a bit and still none the wiser. I've sent you an email.