I always wondered if Infinity Blade started out as a joke. It’s like a parody of a roleplaying game: the archetypal RPG boiled down and peeled back, its repetition and pointlessness not just laid bare but exalted to a virtue. Just keep doing the same thing, the game says. You’ll win eventually.
The first Infinity Blade forced you around and around a fantasy dungeon that was part Skinner Box and part Möbius strip: an infinite loop of challenge, punishment, and reward. Each time the villain killed you, the game sent you back to the start; each time you killed one of his minions you got a stat boost or a shiny new sword. It was fun, understanding exactly which bits of the standard RPG hook most directly into your brain’s pleasure center and prune everything else. Not to mention probably the most visually dazzling game that had ever been seen on iOS.
But like one of its own characters, the Infinity Blade series has been repeating itself for a bit too long. While Infinity Blade III is more graphically polished than ever and dutifully adds a number of peripheral elements to the gameplay (you can now switch between two different characters, brew potions, and reforge weapons), it seems critically short of big new ideas.
It’s not like there weren’t any problems for the makers to address. Let’s take the combat—almost the entirety of the gameplay—which remains rather limited.
Combat in the Infinity Blade series is simple: swipe in the direction of enemy attacks to parry, hit the shield icon at the right moment to block, or tap dodge where appropriate, then swipe furiously to counterattack or cast magic spells (the undignified swiping makes this the worst gaming series for adults to play in public). You master this after about an hour. From then on it’s just a case of memorizing the attack animations of the (relatively few) enemy character models, and painstakingly leveling up your stats and equipment.
The combat mechanics are slickly executed, admittedly, although you have to suspend your disbelief over the way everything works—I mean, beyond the fact that you’re an immortal trading sword attacks with misshapen giants. Don’t think about it too much, or it may become frustrating that parrying works against weapon slashes but not on shield or bare-hand attacks. More seriously, this means that, by far, the most dangerous opponents are the ones who try to punch you. Armed with a pair of massive swords? No problem! Trying to punch me in the face? Help!
As in Infinity Blade II, there are multiple weapon styles: sword and shield, double-handed weapon, and dual weapons. A slight problem is that, inevitably, you’ll like one better and refuse to use the others. The two-handed weapon style, in particular, is much harder to use because you have to do directional blocking and can’t dodge. The game does its best to encourage versatility, however, and you’ll probably end up trying them all out.
To be fair, combat is different when you fight the dragon, a new enemy who shows up periodically later on in the game. Instead of the usual blocking and counterattacking, you have to swipe or tap as instructed at the correct moment to dodge scripted attacks. You can’t kill the dragon in one go; you have to accumulate damage across several encounters. That’s nice, although it affects only a very small percentage of the fights.
What other new features are there in Infinity Blade III? The most obvious is the ability to play as a second character, a willowy brunette who nevertheless plays almost identically to her musclebound jarhead colleague. It makes for a little more variety, though. She carries a crossbow, which seems promising, but bizarrely you get no control over this. She simply shoots everyone when she meets them, then you take over for the subsequent sword fight.
A more pleasing addition is the blacksmith. He reforges mastered weapons for you, pretty much reversing the frustrating “find a cool weapon, master the cool weapon, have to dump the cool weapon to keep the experience points coming in” routine.
With this new feature, you can master a weapon, then take it down to the blacksmith for an upgrade. As well as becoming more powerful, it’ll be ready to suck up a load more experience points.
Similarly, Infinity Blade III lets you combine gems and brew potions, but the latter in particular is a bit of a bore, mainly adding an extra thing (ingredients) for you to pick up off the floor, on top of those endless bags of gold. There’s a small number of ingredient types you can combine, but veterans of more conventional RPGs like Skyrim will find the whole thing desperately limited, and the in-built waiting requirement feels like a bid for in-app payments—you can cash in chips to speed the process.
As you add points to your attack, magic, or other statistics, new skills are unlocked: the ability to remove gems from weapons, charge up super attacks, and so on. This makes leveling up far more exciting, since instead of just improving statistics you’re aiming for new features. Although one—lockpicking—sounds brilliant, and then turns out to simply open a greater number of chests without any player participation.
Previous Infinity Blade games have centred around a single (large) location, which you explore at your leisure, selecting which direction to go at junctions and following alternative routes on subsequent playthroughs. Infinity Blade III, on the other hand, has a hub location called the hideout, and a map interface that you use to travel to various smaller locations, each of which is far simpler. This makes the game feel like a series of levels rather than a map you can explore.
And what of that Infinity Blade trademark, the graphics? Infinity Blade III’s backdrops are stunning, as beautifully drawn as in the previous game, but more creatively designed and varied. One fight comes to mind: a spooky undersea castle, where monstrous fish swim across the window. But there are loads of great-looking levels, such as a melancholy Japanese courtyard, where droplets of rain run down the “camera” from time to time.
The characters themselves look nice too. One slight issue, however, is the way the game still refuses to modify its use of scripted victory animations regardless of which weapon (or weapon type) you’re using, with occasional anatomically unfeasible results. (Such as stabbing a monster through the mouth with a novelty jawbone weapon that could clearly only be used for slashing and bludgeoning.) Indeed, a surprisingly large number of these animations, along with many enemy character models, have been imported wholesale from the previous game.
And one other down side is that the voice acting is shockingly cheesy. The male character in particular is prone to outbursts mid-fight that are impossible to take seriously. Not that the game hinges on seriousness, but it would be nice to cringe less often.
Other audio, however, is excellent, from immensely satisfying weapon sound effects to truly subtle use of music. For such a big, bold blockbuster of a game, Infinity Blade III is surprisingly deft at the atmospheric use of silence. Indeed the alternating rhythms of staccato violence and serene calm are a big part of its charm.
We tested Infinity Blade III on an iPhone 5s (the game has been updated to take advantage of the 5s’s 64-bit A7 chip) and an older iPad 3. It generally ran fine on both, but we did notice some glitches; and oddly enough the newer device seemed to struggle more, with frequent shutdowns occasionally at crucial moments. This has been blamed on early issues working in 64-bit and should hopefully be fixed in future updates. The iPad 3 just tended to get stuck on one part of the title sequence every now and then, which was easily resolved by restarting the app, and didn’t disrupt gameplay.
When it comes to the 64-bit version, we must confess to not noticing much of a difference, perhaps simply because the game is already so slick, quick, and gorgeous-looking on the iPad 3. But the idea is that only 64-bit-capable devices will be able to render the game as it was meant to be seen: the update description citing full-screen anti-aliasing and bloom lighting effects, along with high-resolution shadows and improved environmental reflections.
Infinity Blade III looks brilliant, plays well, and adds lots of new features; but none of them alter the fundamental gameplay mechanics, which are starting to get a bit tired. If you’re new to the series, then this is the best Infinity Blade yet, but veterans might want to look for something a bit more original.
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