/Scraps: Kids vs. Goblins

Sometimes, the things you write don’t get published, and they languish in some site’s CMS like a forgotten doll. This is one of those times, from March: a review of an iOS game I didn’t particularly like but found interesting in terms of execution.

Goblin anatomy

The funny thing about Kids vs Goblins  is that it understands something vital about Pokemon that sham companies and cloners like Qeab haven’t taken the time to grasp.

Kids vs Goblins differs wildly in form and function from Nintendo’s oddly prolific pocket monster sim, but it nails the conceit: in the same way that Pokemon sanitizes and bowdlerizes  cock fighting, Kids vs Goblins whitewashes its dingos-ate-my-baby narrative about cannibalistic goblins and the fact that its stars a ten-year-old with a spiked warhammer.

KvG plays like baby’s first real-time arena battle game, with the caveat that Stolen Couch and Crescent Moon have made smart concessions to the realities of touch-screen gaming. Being a single-player game, KvG features three controllable characters with two “stances” and two spells in each stance. In theory, players can direct each of the three characters and target their spells, but in practice, my tank, archer, and mage mostly flailed and automatically perform basic attacks. Even with only twelve spells at your disposal at a time, KvG can be a messy game, despite the clean UI and intuitive controls.

The controls may be intuitive — double tap to focus attacks on an enemy or move the entire group, swipe to target specific enemies or spots on the map — but they’re not particularly responsive, and they undermine the balance of the game.

Each “stance” — attack, support, or heal — feels fully fleshed out and versatile, and being good at the game is a question of using scarce mana and long cool-downs efficiently, not of tactics or resource management. Most missions also have specific spell and ability restrictions, forcing the player to mix up their usual loadout while also complimenting the relatively limited number of available spells.

My favorite are the “Random” missions, during which each character’s spells change randomly every thirty seconds. It’s a good place to experiment with high-level spells you can’t afford to unlock yet — there’s an in-game currency of gems, awarded after each level — and it encourages on-the-fly decision making. There’s creativity in limitation, and KvG feels like it was, at some conceptual point, a balanced game in which each decision was meaningful because there are so few of them.

Controls notwithstanding, Kids vs Goblins‘ biggest problem is its unwillingness to share information or feedback with players. The stance mechanics aren’t particularly well explained, and it will take several frustrating missions to figure out, for example, that even basic melee attacks don’t do damage in the healing and support stances. KvG‘s strategy elements aren’t clear enough to plan for battle or run cost-benefit analyses of each character’s mana pool and damage output, but it’s controls are too clunky to truly function as an action game. The animations, too, don’t do much to convey any weight or physicality: even when things are going well, Kids vs Goblins rarely feels good to play.

In short, winning and losing feel more like the haphazard machinations of the game’s engine more than a result of good or bad playing and decision-making, and, given the odd pacing throughout, I rarely felt encouraged to keep playing.

Other nitpicks abound: even after a month-long delay, Kids vs Goblins is prone to crashing, stuttering audio, and long load times unless players close out their other running apps. KvG‘s opening splash screen includes a helpful reminder of this fact every time you open the game. (Kids vs Goblins incidentally doesn’t run on the iPad 1, iPod Touch, or the iPhone 4 — just the iPad 2 and 4s.)

More distressing, though, is KvG‘s desire to steer us toward its in-app purchases, namely, large piles of gems.

Completing missions rewards players with gems, which can be used to buy new spells. Some spells are unique to each character, but some — especially in the healing stance — cross over. Unfortunately, though, buying a shared spell for one character doesn’t unlock it for the other two. If I want all three of my characters to be able to cast basic healing, I have to unlock that spell three separate times. This isn’t a question of combat balance or of keeping the in-game economy tight, since gems can be farmed by repeating missions over and over — if you have the time and patience, you can unlock the high-level spells as soon as you want. This is tedious, though, and IAP is easy.

Kids vs Goblins may have started as a good game, and it’s clear that Stolen Couch Games have given some thought to the limitations and possibilities of real-time strategy gaming on the iPad. Even at its best, though, KvG is unoffensive, an idea unfortunately reinforced by its use of  well-established fantasy conceits and mechanics. The execution is bungled and aimless, and I stumbled through most of the game without much direction or intent. This unfortunately means that I never actually got around to saving the baby from the clutches of the ostensibly evil Goblin King.

Sorry, little guy.

Image by Tony DiTerlizzi

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