Guest article by Erik Harmon.
Orion’s Gold – Capable iPad Arcade Action
Platform: IOS (iPad only)
Price: $0.99 USD
In the interest of disclosure: this review was (minimally) compensated. I was supplied with a promo code so that I could review this game. I assure you I did not sell myself out for 99 cents of swag. Now, on to the review.
Orion’s Gold is the first app store offering from indie game team digiKhel. Its genre is labeled as “arcade/experimental.” While this description is accurate, it is hardly sufficient. And while “experimental” can go good or bad, in this case it is good. The gameplay is certainly unique, and while not without flaws, it was a worthwhile experiment to bring to completion.
At the game start, you learn that Earth’s raw materials have been depleted. You are a rookie space miner, tasked with extracting gold ore from loose asteroids and returning it to your spaceship. This is literally the whole story, but don’t let that bother you. This is an arcade game. Nobody cared about the story in Congo Bongo either. You’re just supposed to have fun.
It is difficult to describe the gameplay succinctly. Asteroids pop into existence in four positions around a ship centrally located on your screen. Each of the four positions contain a “portal” which is basically a location where you know an asteroid is going to be so you can target it for mining. Your ship emits miners to mine the asteroid and carry ore back, but they only know where to go by dragging “power balls” (you start with just one) from one portal to another. When you see an asteroid appear, you drag a power ball from the portal it’s at to the portal the asteroid is in, and miners will make their merry way there. As the miners get there, they scoop ore from the asteroid until it’s depleted and carry it back to your ship, and the ore returned is your scoring mechanism. As you progress, you gain more power balls so that you can target more than one asteroid, or plop multiple power balls on a single portal to mine even faster.
The asteroids themselves come in “hot” and “cold” varieties. Mining one or the other raises or lowers the temperature of your ship. Your ship’s temperature equilibrium must be maintained, and going too far to either extreme will cause your ship to be destroyed. Furthermore, asteroids are unstable. They will blow up if you don’t mine them promptly, and this rapidly affects your temperature equilibrium as well.
Trust me when I say it makes more sense when you’re doing it. At the start of the game you’re given a very short training mission that visually assists you in the fundamentals, and you’ll know what you need to play the game. At that point it just becomes a matter of skill and escalating game difficulty. Eventually the difficulty will increase until you blow up. At that point you can trade your mined gold for enhancements such as increased temperature capacity, faster mining capability, or emergency items that can stabilize your temperature if you’re getting too hot or cold.
Ultimately I describe the gameplay as a balancing act. The game is throwing asteroids at you, and you must correctly rapidly reallocate your miners as they bring in hot or cold ore so that you don’t get too hot or cold. But there are a lot of subtleties. The basic rules of the game mask how quickly the balancing act accelerates. Asteroids are different sizes which means different time it takes to mine, which means quick reallocation away when one is completely depleted, or to another asteroid to mine it before it explodes. There is latency between when you assign a power ball to a portal and when miners get there, which creates a kind of “snap the whip” where you’ve sent a bunch of miners, you’ve told them to reallocate because your temperature is too hot, but they’ve already got a bunch of hot ore in tow that is just going to put you over the edge.
So, I’ve described how it works, but how well does it work, and is it fun? The first answer is it works pretty well, but not perfect. As I mentioned before, the mechanics are simple but as the game accelerated it it pleasantly became more challenging than I had anticipated. Powerup items you can use your gold on after failure keep the game challenge progressing. This is not a “casual” game in the sense of a game that is a brainless skinner box like Cookie Clicker. You have to enjoy being challenged to enjoy this game. So yeah, it’s an arcade game.
While I experienced very few “that’s not fair!” moments, there were definitely times when I wasn’t sure why my temperature suddenly spiked and my ship blew up. This was a general problem with the game, visual feedback is present, but not sufficient in all cases. I wish there was a more direct visual connection between events in the game and its effect on your temperature, like when an asteroid explodes, a flash is sent from the explosion to the temperature bar.
As I mentioned, the story is sparse but doesn’t need to be more than that. The space theme is a good aesthetic for this game. The music is catchy, and the graphics, while not as professionally polished as a much larger company’s offerings, get the job done and don’t look cheap like some indie games. There is not a sense of “progress” in the game, things just get harder and you keep playing. There are missions, but they are more like achievements. I did not complete all the missions by the time I began writing this review, so I can’t speak to the ending.
Finally, the bottom line: is the game fun, and is it worth the money? I have been playing the game for about four days now, and have been enjoying it. It is not without its flaws, but it is a good game, in particular as a first offering from a single developer and based on an unorthodox game mechanic. I want to see more. I say go for it.