Eliss: A Puzzler That’s Perfect for the iPhone

Digital media designer Steph Thirion may be more artist than coder.  He has won awards for “best experimental website," told beautiful stories with interactive type, created a workshop that challenged people to get creative with code–without any knowledge of programming, and generated artistic 3D data visualization cityscapes.  His latest project, a multitouch iPhone game called Eliss [App Store], is no less impressive.

Eliss is a finalist in this year’s Independent Games Festival mobile division, up for the Innovation in Mobile Game Design award–and it’s no wonder.  Simply stated, Eliss perfectly demonstrates what iPhone gaming can be.  It’s a highly challenging game that’s near impossible to put down and it could not exist on any other platform.

As the author describes it,

Your job is to keep up harmony in an odd universe made of blendable planets. Touch-control multiple planets at once, join them together into giant orbs or split them up into countless dwarf planets, and match their size with the squeesars. Wipe off the stardust, resist to the attraction of the vortex and other space phenomena, and slow down the passage of time. Each of the 20 levels will require creative ways and strategies in using your fingers. Warm up your hands, you’re up for some serious finger gymnastics in the bizarro galaxy.

As soon as the app launches, Thirion sets the stage for challenge in a world of simplicity.  “Pure" is a word that springs to mind.  The sparse vector text start menu puts little between app launch and gameplay.  And these past weeks I’ve appreciate that, given how often I’ve been tapping that little pink and white icon.

The universe that Eliss presents is a place of entropy.  The game challenges the player–in mind and body–to apply order to this universe.  Into this dark void spring planets of varying size and color.  Like colored planets can be combined to make a larger planet (pinch) or pulled apart to create smaller planets (spread).  The goal of the game is to eliminate the planets by dragging them into the “squeezars" (think black…err…multicolored holes) of matching size and color that blink in and out of the universe.  After a set number of planets have been eliminated it’s on to the next level.  And the most important thing to remember?  Don’t let planets of different colors touch!  Failure to heed that warning will result in a rapid drain of energy levels and a chance to see the Game Over screen.

Making the task harder are the space vortexes that draw planets towards them (and one another) as well as a red giant star that meanders its way in and out of the playfield, draining energy on contact with any planet.  Happily, all is not set against the player in this universe.  When a planet is dragged into a squeezar, as it goes supernova and blinks out of existence, stardust briefly dances about the screen and can be swiped to recover lost energy.  A powerup that slows down time for a period, as well as one that restores energy, cross the playfield periodically, as well.

I’ve been playing the final release of Eliss since its launch and a pre-releaese beta for weeks before that in connection with the IGF awards competition, and the longer I play it the more impressed I am with just how perfect this game is for the iPhone platform.  There’s no game in the App Store that uses multitouch so fully.  I’ve found myself laying my iPhone flat on a table and struggling to keep the planets away from each other and that cursed, wandering red giant with as many as five fingers on the screen at once.  (Twister for the mind, perhaps?)  Show me that on a DS or a PSP!  That kind of gameplay is truly a new experience.

With its simple, basic graphics and dreamy, playful soundtrack, Eliss puts its unique gameplay at front and center.  It requires serious concentration (as well as finger dexterity) and, as a result, draws the player in much deeper than the typical puzzle game.  If you’ve got 10 fingers and a mind that multitasks, Eliss is not to be missed.

See the developer’s gameplay video for a closer look.

Game Details
Name: Eliss (v1.0) Price: $3.99 [Buy]
Developer: Steph Thirion
Size: 15.0 MB
Device: Tested on iPhone 3G
Eliss is a unique puzzle game that makes extensive use of the iPhone’s multitouch screen and is extremely hard to put down.  This game could exist for no other platform and is not to be missed.