Torches & Tonics

Helsing’s Fire for the iPhone OS is a puzzle game with a clever mechanic and terrific presentation

HelsingsFireTorch.pngI’ve been neglecting my site for iPhone OS recommendations, but I haven’t forgotten it. But I didn’t want to wait until I could fix it up before recommending a cool new game that, for me, perfectly encapsulates why the iPhone is such a genuinely exciting platform.

The game is Helsing’s Fire by developer Ratloop, published by Chillingo. It’s a puzzle game in which you destroy creatures of “The Shadow Blight” with a combination of Professor Helsing’s torch and his assistant Raffton’s tonics. The puzzle is positioning the torch so that your target creatures (and only your target creatures) are hit by the light of the torch, and then using the matching-colored tonic against them. It’s a simple, clever, and surprisingly engaging mechanic that I’ve never seen in a game before.

It’s a good thing the mechanic is so novel, because the puzzles themselves take a long time to get interesting. The entire first screen of the game is no challenge at all, and it takes a while for the game to start throwing new complications at you. In effect, the first 20 or so puzzles play more like a “software toy” than a puzzle game. But the puzzles are generated randomly, so you’re free to keep experimenting.

That sense of experimentation is the most interesting thing about the game, since it’s so rare for puzzle games. Typically in a puzzle-based game, you’re expected to think of a solution first, and then start interacting with the game to put the solution in motion. In Tetris, you find where the piece fits, then move it into place. In Bejeweled, you find the match, then click or tap on the screen to make the swap. And in an adventure game, you stop and think about what item works with what object, then try the combination to see if it works. It results in the player “switch modes” throughout, alternating between passive and active, and it can be a turn-off. On the other end of the scale, you’ve got physics-based games, where the developer just sets up a condition and lets you do whatever you can think of to hit on the right solution. That has its own set of problems, since to me it always feels like I’ve just interacted with a simulation, instead of interacting with the developer — there’s too much randomness involved to make me feel like I’ve accomplished anything.

I think that the torch in Helsing’s Fire does a great job of splitting the difference: you’re constantly moving the torch around, seeing how the light interacts with obstacles, actually playing the game. Not just staring at a screen waiting for inspiration to hit.

HelsingsFireChars.pngAnd even taking all of that into account, the puzzles aren’t even the best thing about Helsing’s Fire. The presentation is fantastic — you can tell that the developer’s a fan of Mike Mignola’s work on Hellboy (and Edward Grey: Witchfinder), which earns it double plus extra points with me. It’s not just in the artwork, either, but in the tone of the whole game. It doesn’t take itself seriously, but isn’t filled with desperate attempts at humor, either. The dialogue’s clever and used sparingly, and the music carries the tone throughout, blending a contemporary-sounding track for the puzzles with a title-screen track that reminds me of a 16-bit Castlevania game.

And best of all: the victory screen for each puzzle has Helsing and Raffton giving each other a fist bump or high five, one of those completely gratuitous touches that can send a good game over the top.

According to the credits, only two people worked on the game, but you wouldn’t know from playing it. It’s got a professional level of polish to it while still feeling weird and novel enough to be an indie project. And it’s only a dollar, so there’s absolutely no reason not to recommend it. Even if you breeze through all the puzzles, you’ll be entertained while doing it.

2 thoughts on “Torches & Tonics”

  1. Did you ever play Highborn? Sort of a similar pros-turned-indies vibe, but a play-by-mail strategy game with some humor. I dug it. I’d downloaded Helsing’s Fire based on the fact that it looked awesome, and was developed by an (ex?) Naughty Dog employee(s?), and frankly, after Uncharted/Uncharted2, I’ll buy anything that anyone who worked on those games puts out. Which may be irrational, but it is what it is.

  2. Yeah, I only played through a little bit of Highborn, but what I saw I liked a lot. It’s on my list to dig back into it at some point.

    I had no idea that Helsing’s Fire was another pro-to-indie thing. I think I’ve got this unrealistic vision of the App Store being a platform where people who’ve always wanted to break into games but never had the chance can finally see their stuff made real, so that’s kind of an irrational disappointment. Still a neat game, though.

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