Perhaps because of how many of them are made, platformers have often turned to heavy usage of gimmicks to try to breathe some fresh air into things. Whether it's the closet full of special suits from Mario's adventures or the gravity-defying antics of VVVVVV, it's strangely more difficult sometimes to find a platformer that isn't packed full of novelties. There's nothing wrong with gimmicks, of course. When used well, they can make running and jumping from point A to point B feel like something you've never done before. Still, it's nice once in a while to play a game that gives you a straightforward run and jump through cleverly designed stages. Ava's Quest [$0.99] is just such a game. There are a few little gimmicks as you play through the game's 30 levels, but for the most part, the game simply focuses on using familiar elements to present you with a pleasant challenge. Oh, and to let you know up-front, you only get four stages for free. The rest are unlocked via an IAP for $1.99.
The heroine of our story is Ava, a girl on a quest to rescue her friends from the spiteful clutches of the Witch Doll. The game progresses through three themed worlds: a grasslands, a snowy area, and a magma-filled lava area. The themes are just window dressing, for the most part, so you don't have to worry about slipping and sliding in the snow levels, for example. It's just a bit of visual variety to change things up here and there. The levels break evenly between these settings, with each world containing eight regular stages, a boss stage, and an unlockable bonus stage. After completing a world, you'll view a brief cinematic and be on your way to the next. Though the stage count isn't very high, the stages themselves are quite lengthy, scrolling both horizontally and vertically, and there is a variety of goals in each beyond simply reaching the goal flag.
To simply move on to the next stage, all you need to do is clear the current one by reaching the blue goal flag somewhere in the level without losing all three of your hearts. However, each stage also has five extra goals to complete. Three of the goals are connected to collecting things strewn about the levels, including coins, a diamond, and a puzzle piece. The coins and diamonds simply add to your points, but the puzzle pieces are required to unlock the bonus stages, so you'll probably want to prioritize sniffing them out. In addition to the collection goals, there are also goals for completing each stage in a certain amount of time, and completing the stage without losing a single heart. You don't have to complete all of these goals at one time, nor could you in many cases, so you'll have good reason to revisit a stage even if you've finished it.
Ava's move set is very limited. She can move in either direction or jump. If you find enough puzzle pieces, you can unlock a gun, but that's more of a bonus toy than anything else. The physics of the main character feel really good. She's very maneuverable, and I never had any problem gauging where her jumps would take her. The game is controlled with virtual left, right, and jump buttons, which worked very well for me. If the default positioning and transparency of the buttons isn't to your liking, you can change them in the options, which is something I always appreciate in games that use virtual controls. Ava's only means of attacking enemies before you unlock the gun is by jumping on them, though many enemies have a defense for this, which means you'll have to be clever if you want to dispatch them. She can double jump, but that's her only extra bit of acrobatics. The sole power-up in the game is a star that grants you temporary invincibility.
The design of the levels really shines. It's clear a great deal of thought went into them. Almost everything that could possibly hurt you is first introduced in a non-lethal situation, letting you see how things work before putting your hearts at risk. The hidden items are actually well-hidden, and given the size the stages can be, you'll have to do a lot of exploration if you meant to find everything. The stages often have multiple routes to the goal, if you can find them, and searching out the best route is a critical component of beating each stage's target time. Most of the levels are built around genre mainstays like crumbling footholds, moving platforms, and pits, with careful use of enemy placement providing most of the challenge. The last set of stages introduces the biggest gimmick the game uses in the form of portals, but they're basically compact warp pipes, so they steel feel at home. My biggest criticism of the stage design is that it's not always clear if something is a harmless background element or something that will damage you when you touch it. Fire in particular is very inconsistent.
There are quite a few enemies, though some share certain behaviors. They cover a wide spread of attacks from many directions, so certain combinations can be absolutely horrifying. If any of them manage to connect with Ava, she'll be flung backwards, Belmont-style, something the developers are not shy about taking advantage of in later stages. Interestingly, enemies can be taken out by friendly fire, which is something you might want to keep in mind. Touching an enemy or falling down a pit costs you one heart from your stock of three, though there's a generous invincibility period after any damage. You'll find hearts to collect in the levels if your life is running low.
Ava's Quest is a beautiful game, with bright, crisp graphics and good animation. The colors are vivid and rich, and the enemies all very clearly communicate what they're about through their designs. That said, there were occasions, particularly in the snow world, where the frame rate would take a hike and things slowed down badly. Most of the game moves pretty smoothly, but when it chugs, you'll really notice it. There's a good variety of music, with a few different themes and boss tunes, and the sound effects are quite effective. Stronger enemies often emit a cry that helps alert you to their presence, and when you bop an enemy on the head, the little crunching sound it makes is pretty satisying.
The game also features absolutely incredible implementation of Game Center. Tons of leaderboards for each stage so you can compete for fastest times, and 100 achievements that run the range from the ordinary (defeat the bosses) to the challenging (complete a certain tough level without picking up any hearts) to the bizarre (touch the goal in the brief second between the end of the background music and when it cues up again). This adds yet another layer of replay to a game that was already brimming with it. As for IAP, there's the game unlock I mentioned in the opening paragraph, an IAP to unlock all the levels (including the bonus stages) automatically for $2.99, and an IAP to unlock the gun automatically for $1.99. Aside from the initial game unlock, everything else can be earned by playing the game, and it's actually quite fun to do so.
Aside from the occasional slowdown and some confusing stage elements, the only real issue with Ava's Quest is that it's quite content to simply be a fine example of a by-the-numbers platformer. I don't mind that too much, but I know some people are sick to death of the genre conventions and aren't all that interested in playing one that isn't doing something new. I think as long as you don't expect anything novel here, you'll find Ava's Quest to be well worth its asking price, and you can even try it out for free to see how well you like the basic gameplay. It's not very ambitious, but when a game gets as much right as this one does, it doesn't necessarily have to be.
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