The Apple Watch hasn’t yet become the wearable gaming sensation that some hoped for, with an irregular stream of interesting games and little spotlight from Apple itself. Games like Lifeline and Runeblade have shown that there’s potential to create compelling experiences around the Watch, but for the most part, larger publishers haven’t taken much interest.
However, that might be changing. In July, Square Enix—the storied publisher behind the legendary Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest role-playing series—released Cosmos Rings, its first-ever Apple Watch exclusive. True to the publisher’s legacy, Cosmos Rings is a role-playing adventure, but it’s one that is tuned to the strengths and limitations of the Apple Watch: it’s simplistic and playable in tiny bursts… or you can just let it play itself most of the time.
It’s also nicely polished and presented, although the premium price point ($6 now; $9 once August ends) might surprise some mobile gaming fans. Cosmos Rings has been rocking my wrist since it lunched, and I’ve been pulled into its progressive grind more so than with any other Apple Watch game to date. Here’s why it’s worth a look for wrist-based gaming fans—and a positive sign for the future.
Cosmos from Chaos
Cosmos Rings is apparently spun off from the Chaos Rings series, which was Square Enix’s first major attempt to create original RPGs for iOS devices. Luckily, you don’t need to be familiar with the four previous games in that series, which is smart, since the first three aren’t even on the App Store anymore—only Chaos Rings III remains. So much for franchise-building!
While the game is played entirely on the Apple Watch, you’ll need your iPhone for a few minutes to kick off the storyline. The God and Goddess of Time oversee the passage of time across the universe, but disagree over whether they should ever intervene to help humans in peril. When the God ultimately does stop time, the Goddess shatters into pieces that fall into the Rift, which the God of Time must then explore to bring back his beloved.
From there, you’ll swap over to the wrist and guide the God of Time through battles as he tries to restore the movement of time and recover the shards. This takes place over the course of several in-game days, each with 12 “hours” worth of monsters to slay. Cosmos Rings takes its cues from roguelike games such as FTL: Faster Than Light and The Binding of Isaac, in which your character can die permanently and you’ll be forced to start over again. Sounds rough, right? The upside is that you gradually get stronger and earn new abilities, which enhance and empower each subsequent run.
It’s a hardcore genre made pleasingly straightforward in Cosmos Rings. In fact, the game can play on its own most of the time without your interaction or even oversight: The God of Time will swing his sword every few seconds, clear through the monsters in each area, and then face a tough Reaper of Time boss at the end of each in-game hour. You will need the Watch screen on for those bosses and during the last three minutes of each play attempt, but otherwise there’s gradual progress being made while you’re in a meeting or taking a nap. That’s handy.
At the start, each campaign lasts for 30 minutes of real time—once the timer ticks down, the God of Time falls and his quest begins anew at the start. However, you’ll earn experience points all the while, which can be used to enhance your sword’s power, permanently buy more minutes for your timer, or even add special abilities that can be chained together with powerful results. Over time, these little upgrades help you push further and further with each new attempt, unlocking more of the game.
And if you actually pay the game a small amount of attention, rather than just letting it exist on your wrist, then the rewards and progress are significantly amplified.
To be honest, I didn’t even realize there was an active component at first—Cosmos Rings’ concise instructions on the Watch aren’t always super clear, nor are they complete. You can find out plenty more via the Help section on the iPhone app, but in the moment, I figured the extent of my active tinkering was simply picking the right upgrades and abilities over time and starting new adventures as needed. Not true!
In battle, you can tap the screen to bring up your skill relics, which recharge and rotate into view when available—and tapping each one adds, for instances, a massive power boost to your next attack. Keep tapping these skills in succession and you’ll create even more damaging chain attacks, which help you clear through monsters at a much faster clip.
Better yet, you can unlock additional skill slots to extend your chains, which ultimately makes active play even more rewarding over time. But it also becomes more necessary, it seems, otherwise the higher-level enemies will take ages to defeat if you’re just watching rather than actually interacting. It’s an interesting approach that not only eases you into the game’s mechanics, but also quickly shows you the benefits of playing your moment-to-moment role.
It’s not the only active perk, either, as you can also rewind time to effectively reset the clock. Rolling back the digital crown lets you go back to the start of the current “hour” or back to any previous one, thus adding a big block of time in the process.
It’s almost too beneficial, in my initial testing: You can do it multiple times in a single adventure, and as far as I can tell, there’s no drawback to using the game-extending feature. In fact, the Help guide in the iPhone app suggests you’ll find hidden relics and items via time travel! It’s like a massive reward for being mindful of the game, as opposed to just letting it play out on its own.
Still, I like the choice provided by Cosmos Rings: You’ll still make slow and steady progress simply by checking in a few times during the day, or you can spend a couple minutes really playing it and significantly enhance the rewards. It’s an ideal fit for your Watch, then, as it’s always there running in the background, and you need only the main screen and a couple of menus to get the full experience. Even little story nuggets pop up as you explore new hours and days in the game, although the ever-upward grind really is the core of the experience.
Cosmos Rings does have a couple of the common issues of Apple Watch games, even if it runs natively on the device. It’s sluggish to respond at times, both to taps and spins of the digital crown, and can take several seconds to refresh its status when you fire it up after not paying attention for a while. And having to keep the screen on during those new Reaper battles or during the last three minutes of your run can be a bit irritating.
On the other hand, Square Enix’s first Apple Watch exclusive is attractive, and it’s a new benchmark for what’s possible on the tiny screen. It uses detailed pixel art, but rather than spotlight retro-fantasy heroes (like in many Square Enix classics), the graphics showcase futuristic, neon-heavy battles that dazzle on the wrist. Add in occasional artwork stills for the story segments and it’s surely the most impressive-looking game available on Apple Watch.
But it’s also $6 to $9, which will probably shock some prospective players. That’s a reasonable price to pay for a game you might enjoy over the course of several months, but if you grab it expecting a more expansive experience for the money, then you may feel shortchanged. The free Runeblade hits some similar notes, in terms of furthering a light role-playing quest through small interactions and gradual improvement over time, but I’ve found Cosmos Rings to be a more engaging effort. You’ll pay a premium cost, but this is also a premium game built for the wrist.
It’s an uncommon find in the App Store of late: A noteworthy, original game designed for the Apple Watch, plus it’s from one of the biggest publishers in the industry. Cosmos Rings is oddly alluring in its wearable design, plus it’s an encouraging sign: A hint that maybe more studios are seeing the Watch as a platform worthy of development and experimentation. Hopefully Cosmos Rings finds enough of an audience to warrant that initiative.