Free-to-play games often look appealing, but it’s difficult to know at a glance whether the business model is insidious and fun ruining, or reasonable and worth pumping a few bucks into. With Freemium Field Test, we’ll take a recent free-to-play iOS game, put it through its paces, and let you know if it’s really worth your time (and money).
Helplessly falling through the clouds at a rapid pace towards the dirt? Terrifying. Controlled falling, on the other hand? Potentially exhilarating. And that’s the kind of sensation that Sky Dancer taps into, blending a familiar behind-the-back endless runner approach with the less-familiar feeling of dropping large distances to platforms below.
It’s a neat hook that helps set this mobile experience apart from the mostly done-to-death runner genre, pumping a bit of fresh excitement in between the sprints. But is it enough to keep things interesting over the long haul, or is Sky Dancer just a dashing diversion that wears out its solid welcome?
Sky Dancer comes across as a blend of Temple Run—or any of the many, many games like Temple Run—and the brilliant first-person leaping game, Fotonica, albeit with the third-person perspective of the former. You’ll start off on a floating platform in the sky and start running down the path, but it quickly becomes clear that the route ends. And then you fall into nothingness.
But then the camera pans downwards a bit and you see the next platform below. In some cases, you don’t have to move at all to land perfectly and keep running ahead: some of these parcels of suspended land are a straight shot down. However, as your endless run keeps going, that’s less and less the case, and you’ll need to shift left or right in mid-air to carefully position yourself and land. If you miss, the run ends.
Later platforms add complexities to liven up the leaping action, as you’ll bolt across smaller gaps, handle several successive jumps without a break, dive through chasms to reach the next landing spot, or handle turns around curved platforms with barriers on both sides. Luckily, the controls remain ultra-approachable throughout, with simultaneous left and right taps used to leap, and individual left or right taps or holds used to shift in either direction.
Like most endless games, the goal here is to top the leaderboards—but it’s about setting the highest score rather than necessarily the farthest distance, and your score multiplier will increase steadily as you complete in-game challenges. And that’s an area in which some real-life money can directly influence your scoring ability.
First, the good news: Sky Dancer doesn’t have any kind of energy meter or credits system, so you’ll never be forced to stop playing to wait on a timer, or pay your way through a barrier. And luckily, it also doesn’t have any banner or pop-up ads, as I played for hours before spending a cent and never hit anything. That’s a great start.
However, there are ways to spend money here. You’ll pick up coins steadily through play, as they’re found in rows on the platforms and sometimes in little mid-air bundles, and those are used for various purposes in the game. You can spend 1,000 of them for a single continue once you fall, for example, or opt instead to watch a short video ad with the same result. You can also spend coins to unlock some of the extra characters, which all seem to play the same when it comes to the basics of running and jumping.
Lastly, you can spend coins to skip challenges, which is where a bigger impact is felt. Each time you complete the current trio of objectives, your player level advances, as does your score multiplier. And if you hit a challenge that you just can’t seem to get through, you can spend a few thousand coins to clear it, which counts the same as actually completing it. In short, you can spend a bunch of coins to knock out challenges and buy your way to a higher multiplier.
It’s an annoying quirk of a leaderboard-chasing game, as it would be possible for someone to dump $50 or $100 on premium bundles of coins and quickly double his or her score multiplier, for example. That could get really expensive, however, and besides, I’m not convinced that the average player will see any need to buy coin packs. If anything, spending $1 on the coin-doubling ability is a smarter investment for long-term play, and that’s all I bothered grabbing from the store.
Sky Dancer is pretty giving with perks for daily players, as you’ll earn chests of coins and other bonuses (such as characters) with each successive day played. And since the characters are pretty generic and appear identical in functionality—based on the handful I’ve unlocked so far—it’s hard to justify spending big within.
Pine Entertainment’s game puts a nice spin on the typical endless runner, as the challenge of falling towards the platforms below is a tricky and taut twist. Better yet, Sky Dancer has no limitations on play and won’t bombard you with ads, making it a rather friendly freebie.
All that said, I feel like I’ve seen and played enough after a week with the game, and don’t have a lot of motivation to keep coming back. The incremental score improvements might help me nudge a bit further up the leaderboards, but there isn’t a lot of variety in the mix once you’ve notched several dozen runs.
It reminds me of last year’s Dashy Crashy in that respect, which I really liked at first but didn’t see a lot of compelling long-term appeal… and its unlockable cars were more interesting than the drab heroes you’ll score in Sky Dancer. But I’ll stay optimistic: Dashy Crashy was recently overhauled to pump in some fresh excitement, and maybe Sky Dancer will also see some big updates to shake up the routine. Let’s hope so—but even if not, it’s well worth a try.
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Andrew Hayward is a Chicago-based games, apps, and gadgets writer whose work has been featured in more than 70 publications. He's also a work-at-home dad to an unruly four-year-old.