It’s hard to appreciate a novel game when clunky stuff enters the picture. Sminis [$.99] is one of the few Unreal Engine 3 games on the App Store that doesn’t look like an Unreal Engine 3 game, and it’s one of the few puzzlers out there that tries to be something different. I also have a man-crush on its attempt to feel at home on touch devices, as it doesn’t try to do too much despite being rendered in 3D. On the other hand, it suffers from a hairy problem: its core design flashes ruthlessness too often, leaving you squirming helplessly in the hands of overindulgent design decisions.
Sminis are tiny, and supposedly sentient, robot beings crafted by an evil scientist in order to help him do, uh, evil stuff. After a “freak accident," the Sminis are free to bust out from the scientist’s contraption-filled lair. You play as a maestro-god tasked with guiding entire groups of Sminis simultaneously through the scientist’s Frankenstein machines. Lose too many Sminis to a saw, hydraulic press, or a moving platform, and it’s game over.
Think of Sminis like a new-age Lemmings. Sminis act on their own accord unless you tell them to start or stop with a simple tap on the screen. Presented in a couple of different perspectives, each level has you actively guiding these little guys through various timing-based traps. Sminis are a manufactured good, however, so they’ll keep spilling out of spawns as you guide one or two along a level’s rote path. The catch is that Sminis also possess timers. Stopping one may start others, and so on. If two Sminis touch, you lose both. Each level has a cap of Sminis you can lose. Greater difficulties stress increasingly clean runs.
In the smaller and more focused levels, the individual Sminis timer is an enjoyable, if not wholly pleasant, aspect. It’s a second layer of complexity that compliments the other perfectly. But later, the individuality of the game’s parts can feel overwhelming. Quickly enough, gone is the air of coherent, puzzle-driven play, as the entire experience devolves into a mess of sloppy reactions and stupidity thanks to the sheer amount of moving stuff on-screen. In these moments, it’s like Sminis is afraid to let you breathe.
In one level, for example, you’ll be forced to navigate Sminis moving from three spawns onto three moving platforms set at a very, very specific pace. The timing here seems to revolve more around luck. Take a second to think, and you’ll lose a Smini. Watch the platforms, and you’ll lose a Smini. I should note that, all too often, it’s possible to glean an absolute solution by peering into the level designer’s mind and synching each Smini at specific, undrawn checkpoints. Levels all have a specific rhythm, and you’ll squirm while trying to figure them out.
There’s some solace to take in the schizophrenic pacing; some levels indisputable walks in the park compared to their predecessors. Another helpful thing when you come down with the Sminis blues? The fact that it’s clearly different. It isn’t a match-three. It isn’t a block rotating game. And it isn’t a word game. It’s a novel experience, so that keeps you moving.
It’s disturbing that the consistently awesome look of Sminis hasn’t influenced what goes on in the game. It looks good, if not unique. Only a handful of UE3 titles on the App Store attempt to be something more than “Shiny Dude Kills Everything Part 3." This has some touch and character, as well as a fun, cutesy vibe.
But while Sminis always looks good, it tends to take big, scary dives in puzzle quality. At the same time, it’s hard not to recommend it alongside a few caveats. Sure, it can be a tad ruthless, and yeah, the mechanics can feel clumsy, but in bursts, Sminis feels good.