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Mobile games can be console quality and tell cool stories, too

by Phil Hornshaw

Storytelling in video games is an element that doesn’t often get much play in the mobile universe. Most mobile games tend to be short, fast-moving affairs that rely on one or two elements. As Infinity Blade creator ChAIR’s Donald Mustard discovered in researching his iPhone game, many titles are enjoyed while its players are on the toilet.

So games like Horn™ are on the rarer side. The latest title from Phosphor Games, published by an unlikely company in FarmVille-maker Zynga, focuses on fantasy elements and on a deeply realized world. Horn feels like a game designed for the traditional video game market. It’s expansive and interesting, its production values are high, and it functions like a game players would expect to spend $60 on instead of $6.

What makes Horn different? Well, for one, it’s just pretty. Gameloft, another mobile developer, often creates games of roughly the same size and scope as Horn, but they often tend to look a bit sparse. Their graphics are good, but not really great. Horn, on the other hand, has an aesthetic quality in its visuals and storytelling that make it rather beautiful. It feels like a great deal of effort was put into making Horn a unique and interesting place. It’s a place whose secrets you want to discover.

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There aren’t a huge number of mobile games out there that operate on Horn’s level, but there are a few remarkable games that push the limits of what mobile seems like it should be able to handle. These are games that reach the well-loved term of “console quality,” but they really do bring it. And they tell some compelling stories while they’re at it.

Previously, from Phosphor Games…

Phosphor’s last title actually falls into this category as well. The Dark Meadow is a title that’s both beautiful and haunting, developing something of a strange horror story and putting players into an atmospheric, ominous setting.

The Dark Meadow finds players in an abandoned hospital, in which there is only one other person, located somewhere distant and who only communicates through the hospital’s intercom. As the protagonist, operating in the game from a first-person viewpoint, you’re left with no explanation for your circumstances except what can be gleaned from bits of paper found scattered throughout the building. Oh, and there are monsters that want to kill you – but if you die, you just wake up in your room, not too much worse for wear.

Chief among the elements delivered by The Dark Meadow is atmosphere. Searching though the empty, decrepit building is as foreboding as it is fascinating, and you never know what huge monster is going to accost you along the way. The game uses sword-fighting controls that are not unlike those of Infinity Blade, and its influences can be felt on Horn as well. It all creates an oppressive atmosphere that makes exploring worrisome even as it’s necessary.

Taking a page from Diablo

Another high-quality game to recently hit the iTunes App Store might remind avid video gamers of a big release to hit the PC market: Diablo 3. In ORC: Vengeance, players take on the role of an orc chieftain as he breaks free of captivity and takes on a dark lord who seeks to enslave his kind.

ORC is a great-looking title and does a great job of capturing the isometric role-playing gameplay seen in titles such as Diablo 3. It also captures a similar vibe to the Blizzard’s PC title, with players battling through dungeons primarily to gather cool new weapons and armor, and upgrade Orc, the main character.

But ORC presents some very pretty graphics, for one, and it builds a story along the way that’s fairly compelling. Like the Diablo series, ORC is drenched in lore that’s discovered through discarded journals and notes found throughout the world. Those items add a little bit of background to each area, and when you come across the massive monsters that were mentioned in a note left on a corpse a few rooms back, you know a little more about what you’re about to deal with – and why you should be afraid of it.

Visiting another world

Finally, we have the revisiting of an old title that’s definitely worth your attention. That title is Another World, a game that was originally released way back in 1991. The game’s graphics are dated, but take advantage of their limitations to deliver a fairly incredible style in this platformer that’s primarily about avoiding traps and other obstacles as you move through its various areas. It’s also very difficult.

The cool thing about Another World, though, is that it effectively tells its strange science fiction story without any dialog and little more than some fairly simple visuals. The story is portrayed quietly, through implication, as you play a character stranded on an alien world without any bearings or explanation of how he got there. It’s a tale of survival, but before long, you’ll find allies to help you.

With its stylish retro graphics and understated style, Another World is a game that’s fairly affecting, as well as beautiful and challenging. It looks, well, cool, and it offers an experience that isn’t really available so much in modern titles. It also shows that you don’t need a wash of text or high-quality voice actors to get across an interesting tale.

Titles like Horn and those similar to it show that mobile games don’t have to be riffs on the Bejeweled formula or clones of Temple Run. They can reach for the same heights we see on other platforms, and they can often achieve them. And because of its singular, unique nature, the mobile platform can often deliver experiences not possible on other platforms; those titles are just a little rarer and tougher to find.