It’s one thing for a game to promise players the moon and the stars, and it’s another for it to actually come close to delivering what it promised. Angry Bugs‘ Drylands ($2.99) has managed to both promise and deliver a great iOS game that manages to artfully blend RPG and platformer. A few weeks ago, I decided to preview Drylands because the promises of a Fallout-like game for iOS were sirens too enticing to ignore. My time with the game back then left me hopeful that Angry Bugs hadn’t made their promises lightly; the developers were really trying to evoke those old PC RPGs that have gone down as among the most influential games of all times. Even though the game had a failed launch (technical issues due to the 8.3 iOS update), the developers weren’t deterred and even managed to improve the game for its second, official launch. The game is a pleasure to play and adds to iOS a kind of game it was missing, a quality RPG platformer that will keep players entertained for hours.
As the title reveals, the game takes place on an Earth completely devoid of water (Drylands is the opposite of Waterworld, thankfully with no Kevin Costner). You start the game in a cell (which bodes well for your future, I suppose), but you are soon released to help protect the town of Serenity (no relation to Firefly) from raiders and all kinds of other post-apocalyptic threats. I won’t say much about the story, so you can get to discover it yourself. What I will say is that the developers utilize the oft-used story-telling device of “found story," where your random enounters with old computers and computer discs help unravel the story of Earth’s current predicament. This device works well in Drylands, and I appreciated the occasional humorous entry that brightened the otherwise-dreary (by necessity) backdrop. I also enjoyed how in Drylands, your journey is not a lonely one; having Serenity work as the main hub of the game worked well in populating the game with other people and avoiding the stark wasteland of other post-apocalyptic games, including Fallout, where your walkabouts often take place in an oppressive lonileness punctuated by random encounters with strangers. While the Earth is dry, your “social" life sure isn’t.
The story also develops through multiple quests that offer a variety of different missions, most of which are, of course, fetch quests. Still, even the fetch quests are entertaining because they enable the platforming part of the game to come to life. Instead of finding quests on a bulletin board (which, surprisingly, is still a device used in RPG games), you are given quests by the various people who start returning to Serenity. By avoiding the bulletin board device, the game’s story feels more connected to the game’s characters and, therefore, more emergent from below than imposed from above. The perk system also helps you personalize, to a degree, the way the story unfolds. If you decide to level up your hacking, you can mess around with many more computers in the game; if you go with dual-wielding, you can be more of a killing machine. While these perks don’t change the outcome of the story or the way NPCs react towards you, they do enable you to make your hero experience the story and the game-world in different ways. Angry Bugs have created an admirable overall cohesion to the game that is even more admirable when we consider the studio’s size.
The platforming part of the game was pretty good when I played the game for my preview, but the extra time afforded to the developers by the 8.3 issues really enabled them to take the platforming to another level. In my preview, I talked about how the controls were very responsive and fully customizable (which is a huge plus for many) and made the jumping and gunning accurate and entertaining. However, before the developers reworked the game’s platforming, your character could only wield guns and throw grenades, both of which gave the game a run-stand-shoot-run rhythm that made the platforming feel stilted. When Angry Bugs was forced to pull the game, the developers decided to spice up the platforming and added knife melee, deteriorating shields, and various obstacles to hide behind (which the AI also uses). These additions really improved the game’s rhythm because you can now hide, shoot, charge and slash, and hide again. The improvements are so pronounced that Angry Bugs could really have turned the game into a platformer and players would still love it.
This isn’t to say that the fighting is perfect; it’s not always clear that you are indeed behind cover (the character kneels, but it’s hard to see when he does so), and you can’t drop shields once you pick them up (which means you can’t use your knife until the shield’s destroyed). Still, these are small issues and easily remedied in a future patch. Drylands even offers an Arena, which you unlock in-game, that emphasizes the fighting and breaks the game up nicely. The weapons you get to wield have procedurally generated stats and elemental damage, which forces the player to think a bit more about which weapon to equip – more damage doesn’t always mean best weapon. Add to this the various vendors and the loot, and the weapon system is a fun one to play around with.
It’s good that the humor provides a necessary spark of fun in Drylands because the visuals are, necessarily, on the barren side. The overwhelming brown-ness of the game provides the appropriate tone to a game set in a dry, devastated world, but I would have liked to see more vibrant colors on the various buildings to break the slight monotony (the game’s icon also suffers from the “post-apocalyptic syndrome" as it is monochrome and constantly looks like it’s still downloading). I did enjoy the various signs and graffiti on walls as they did provide welcome breaks of color. However, don’t take my criticism here to mean that this is an ugly game; far from it. Dryland’s sprites are very well drawn and with enough variety to help the illusion of a world populated by different people rather than different varieties of the same character sprite. The weapons also look hefty, in a good way, and the environment is varied enough to make the game enjoyable over long periods of time. The developers put a lot of effort into creating the world of Drylands, and it shows in all the little details that they’ve added. The game’s music is also more on the barren side, but the sound effects are quite good and pleasantly echo through the wastelands you will be traversing.
Drylands is a very easy game to recommend to iOS players because it offers a lot that’s quite good and a lot that you don’t often find on the App Store. If you enjoy RPGs, this game’s for you; if you enjoy platforming, this game’s for you; if you like spending hours on the couch exploring a well-made world, this game’s for you; if, instead, you enjoy short bursts of platforming and exploring, this game’s still for you because of its checkpoint and save system. In other words, this is a great game that could have easily been a great PC game too. So, we are lucky to be able to enjoy this parched land on our mobile phones and tablets. The game is officially out now (after the small hiccup), and it’s $2.99 with no IAPs whatsoever. If you are one of those who say give me premium or give me death, well, Angry Bugs has just given you a great premium game.