Super Heavy Sword [$0.99] is one of those games that really breaks me up. It's such an earnest effort, full of interesting ideas and mechanics that pay clear tribute to some all-time greats. It's also a complete mess. This is becoming the unfortunate calling card of developer Monster Robot Studios, who make games I truly want to love, but can't for a variety of reasons. Anyway, this one is the sequel to Heavy Sword [Free], which is probably this developer's best effort, largely due to the design obscuring the game's technical flaws. This sequel takes things in a bit of a different direction, dragging the gameplay into places it really shouldn't be. This is basically a 2D take on Super Mario 64, an idea that hasn't been tapped out nearly as much as it should have. You guide your choice of the hero of the first game or the princess he rescued on a quest to defeat the bad guys and restore peace to the realm.
First off, I want to say that I love that the princess is playable. Watching the opening scene, I was expecting the bad guys to throw her over a shoulder and take her away just like in the first game, so I was pretty happy to see that not only did she avoid being kidnapped, she actually gets angry and decides to exact her personal revenge. Functionally, both characters play the same, but who isn't going to pick the ticked-off princess with a giant sword?
After choosing your character, you're shown the world map, and how the game differs from the first becomes almost immediately apparent. You can freely walk around and choose the level you want from the currently available choices. Each one displays how many medallions are up for grabs in it, along with how many of the three special coins you've found and whether or not you've located that stage's special sticker. A little further exploration shows that the world and most of the stages in it are gated off to you based on how many medallions you've collected. The set-up is essentially the same as Super Mario 64, with some goals clearly paying homage to that game, like collecting colored coins or racing "Andrew The Swift".
Of course, the game itself is a 2D sprite-based game as opposed to Super Mario 64's 3D polygonal stages, which makes Super Heavy Sword interesting in a demake kind of way. Sometimes the game is uncomfortably close to elements of Super Mario Bros., for example the jingle that plays when you select a goal being pretty much copied note-for-note from Super Mario 64, but its unusual mix of mechanics from 2D and 3D Mario gives it its own feel.
Unfortunately, it also has its own feel thanks to the floaty mechanics which generally plague this developer's games. Jumping never feels right in Super Heavy Sword, and it's a problem because you're doing more jumping than in the previous game by far. The wall-kick move, while improved from this developer's last game Steam Punks [Free], causes a lot of issues when you're jumping near walls or other vertical surfaces, since your character tends to cling to the wall and jump lower than you might expect. There's a move you can use to get some air in a hurry that is activated by pressing attack two times in the air, but thanks to the bouncy and floaty nature of the physics, you'll probably end up doing it unintentionally more than anything else.
From a design point of view, the merger of concepts has more than a few glitches. Super Mario 64 focused more on exploring the levels, using the stars as an incentive to do so. This also allowed the developer to work with fewer stages, since by sending players to different areas of each stage, they effectively gave you a whole new path to traverse. Taking that concept to 2D, there's not as much freedom to explore without the added third dimension, so repeat visits to stages end up feeling virtually the same. Worse, the developer decided to use a timer, so you really don't have the luxury of exploring around the levels. There are a couple of stage goals that make good use of this element in theory, but its presence has a negative impact in almost every stage. Even the stages that use it well run into problems. Having time pressure can add an exciting edge to an otherwise simple collectathon, but combined with this game's ropey physics, that tight timer all too frequently adds to the play control frustrations.
If you can somehow look past the game's design flaws and control issues, there's a lot of neat stuff going on here. There are quite a few stages, and the visual variety is extremely impressive. There are plenty of secrets to find, and there are some pretty clever level designs. The quality of the sprite work has increased considerably in this sequel, and the animations are cute and fun to look at. Once powered up, the heavy sword is once again a hoot to bash enemies with, and all of the extra collectibles ensure that you'll be picking away at this for a while. It's also free of any IAP, though it's hard to say if it'll stay that way or not, since there is a shop where the coins you collect can be spent on various goodies. That said, at the moment, the game's economy is totally fine, and there's no indication it has been balanced with grinding or IAP in mind.
The controls are the virtual sort, with left and right arrows and two buttons for attacking and jumping. It's a bit hard to get some of the more advanced moves to work consistently, such as the double-tap for dashing, or the butt-stomp performed by hitting jump twice, and as I've mentioned, the game's physics are not going to help you in any way. The somersault and long jump moves are a complete pain to try to pull off, though you never really need them. Basic actions are responsive enough, though, so that's something, at least. There's Game Center support for leaderboards and achievements, though the latter seem to be quite glitchy at the moment, and I'm not so sure about the former, either. Since this game is built with the GameSalad engine, you can also look forward to longer-than-usual load times and oddly disproportionate power requirements. The time from dying and getting back into a level is far longer than it should be.
Looking back at my review of this developer's previous game, Steam Punks, I'm feeling a serious sense of deja vu. There's a lot of things to love in Super Heavy Sword, but its biggest problems are very big ones that every other element of the game has to be filtered through. If the game sounds interesting to you, I'd recommend trying the free version of Steam Punks. If the floaty jumping and difficult dashing are things you can live with, then Super Heavy Sword might be worth your attention. Otherwise, you're better off giving this one a pass and hoping, like me, that Monster Robot Studios are someday able to address the chronic problems that are holding back their excellent ideas and enthusiasm.
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