Half of every one of Polara's [$2.99] levels is out to kill you, but which half is up to you. This auto-running platformer is made up of two colors, and you can swap which one you interact with with the tap of a finger. It's not just a matter of red versus blue, though. Sometimes you'll be blue and red shots will kill you. Other times you'll find yourself face-first in a blue wall that's just knocked you to your death. Reacting isn't a matter of simple color recognition. It's that, understanding, and reflexes all rolled up in every jump and swap.
There are three responses to each obstacle: switch colors, remain the same, or avoid it all together. You'll have to weigh each option dozens of times in every level, and that constant calculus is taxing. You'll fall into patterns, and that's when the game crushes you.
Polara is at its best in those moments when it plays against your expectations. It's fine when it's hard and quick, but it's better when you're running merrily along switching back and forth and it smacks you in the face. Maybe it's a small but sudden change to a pattern, or maybe you suddenly need to switch away from a color. Regardless of the details, it's the surprises that shine far more than the moments that have you tapping and tapping and tapping every half-second.
It's hard to get frustrated either way, because the game is incredibly forgiving. Not easy; forgiving. Checkpoints are never more than a few moments apart, and you'll quickly find a spot that makes you very happy that's the case. For me, it was one segment with a quick red-blue-red-blue-blue-red, with two changes in each jump. It wasn't a hard maneuver, but I slipped into the obvious pattern over and over, unable to make that last second switch. For an auto-runner, Polara rarely lets you play on auto-pilot.
If constant checkpoints sound like nothing worth testing your skills against, don't fret: the game also makes an excellent and vicious endless runner. In the "Other Modes" menu, you'll find an endless mode that does away with checkpoints and randomizes the obstacles. If you're willing to put in a little time and effort, there are five more to unlock.
Each time you finish a story level, the game tells you that it's been unlocked. If you revisit it, there are two new objectives: collecting letters spelling POLARA, and finding a special item hidden somewhere unpredictable. As you complete enough of these challenges, more secret modes open up. You can also play for flawless, zero-death runs if you're into that much punishment.
At first glance, it makes sense to describe Polara as the bastard of Ikaruga and Canabalt. It isn't quite a fair comparison to make. Color switching was only half the challenge in Ikaruga—maximizing your score was the other half. It's the part that seems to be missing at points in this game, as you find yourself collecting colored orbs and soaking up beams to no effect. It isn't until you play for the secondary objectives that Polara feels complete. Those orbs make good obstacles when they sit right in front of the letter you need, and the beams hang out below to make you switch to collect and switch again in midair.
This does leave much of the game's 50 level campaign feeling a bit like Intro To Color-Switching, but to its credit that primer is badly needed. Despite a simple base mechanic and a small collection of obstacles to work with, Hope This Works Games has done a fantastic job of introducing new challenges at a steady pace. The studio combines and recombines each element to create situations that go from being puzzling to simply difficult as you work your way through them.
The story isn't quite as vital, but it's not half bad. Polara suffers from the same sense of dissonance that plagues most games that rely on comic-style cutscenes—it's often hard to relate the story to the action as it plays out—but the story it tells is compelling enough. Short and fairly uncomplicated, but hey, it's a coherent story in a mobile game. That's nothing to scoff at. It serves as part of a strong package, along with striking scenery flying by behind the neon foreground, and a good beat accompanying the whole experience. None of these things stand out particularly, but neither do they detract.
There are plenty of reasons to recommend Polara, but the one that takes it past the tipping point is the sheer volume of quality content. One trip through its levels takes a few hours. The second trip through is even more satisfying. And on top of all that, there are six endless modes to play with to your heart's content. It's almost unreasonable that a game should offer this much for this little. In a time when consumable IAP is king, Polara stands out for its stand-alone offering. If you find yourself asking for more games that are sold complete, then this is most definitely one that deserves—or requires—your love.
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