It's not every day you come across an Adventure/RPG hybrid, built for touchscreen devices using the Unreal engine. But that's Lili for you. She's just that quirky.
BitMonster‘s Lili puts you in the hiking boots of the title character, a perky grad student looking to complete her “Vegi-Magical degree,” who sails to a mystical island called Geos in search of rare flowers. What she finds instead is a society comprised of beings made of living wood. The most powerful of these beings are called Spirits, and they’re responsible for creating Geos’ commoners, the Constructs. The Constructs are simple, friendly folk who are usually happy to help you out. But they’re oppressed, and some of them want to start a resistance movement to fight back against the tyranny of the Spirits. Given Lili’s newcomer status on the island and the ease with which she can approach the Spirits, you can guess what her objective is going to be.
Using the latest Unreal technology, Lili looks as if it pushes the game engine to its limits and then some. Simply put, it’s a gorgeous game. More than once I was reminded of the eerie beauty of another island-set game where it’s easy to get lost while staring at the wonders around you. But Geos is a bright, vivid, welcoming environment that draws you in from the moment Lili sets foot on it. Some of its vistas are really quite breathtaking, and I never experienced a single hiccup or drop in frame rate. It’s no wonder Apple chose to present Lili at its iPhone 5 unveiling event; the game certainly shows off what next-gen iOS devices can do.
Touchscreen games have always struggled with figuring out how to implement a first-person or (as in this case) third-person navigation scheme. 3D engine-based games look great on the iPad and iPhone, but how do you maneuver your character when there are no buttons or thumbsticks? Past solutions have typically been either virtual buttons (nearly every game Gameloft has produced) or putting the player’s character on rails, so they walk a pre-determined path from spot-to-spot (Infinity Blade).
I love me some free-roaming exploration in my games, and there are precious few games built for iOS that allow for this. Lili‘s solution is the most ingenious I’ve seen. Tap the screen once to start walking forward. Tap it again to stop. A double-tap will start you running, and you can touch interactive objects nearby to manipulate them. Changing your view is as simple as swiping with a single finger in the direction you want to look. If you’re moving while you do this, Lili will turn and walk in the direction you’re looking. (If you don’t like the orientation of the X and Y axis swiping, you can reverse them in the settings.) You can also pinch-to-zoom to look far away. There’s no jumping or crouching, because they aren’t needed. It’s so simple, so elegant, I can’t believe no one’s thought of it before.
Geos is split into four quarters, each walled off from the others. Though they all share a similar aesthetic and architecture, each quarter has its own personality. These quarters are effectively Lili‘s levels, and as you gain access to a new quarter, you’ll notice a jump in difficulty. Collectibles are everywhere. Sometimes they take the form of treasure chests, or clay pots that can be broken. But being a botanist, Lili will find more flowers than anything else. To collect one, you just touch it and slide your finger as if you’re picking it out of the ground. Flowers are valuable, and can be traded for money. You’ll need money to upgrade your speed and skills, while completing various sets of battles against Spirits allows you to upgrade your talents and abilities.
Combat is perfectly emblematic of Lili‘s lighthearted quirkiness. It’s triggered when you chase a Spirit, the island’s all-powerful but mischievous malcontents. Once Lili catches up to one, she’ll jump up on its back, at which point a grip meter appears at the top of the screen. You have until the meter runs out to try and grab all the flowers you can that are growing out of the Spirit’s back. (It’s not as weird as it sounds. Remember, everyone on Geos except Lili is made of wood.) Just like the flowers in the ground, you tap and slide to “pull” them free, but this requires a higher degree of dexterity, because it’s timed, and missing a grab will knock your meter down a notch. Succeed, and you win a coveted red flower. Lose, and you’re thrown from the Spirit’s back and have to chase it down again. The whole process gets increasingly difficult as you go, with tougher, faster Spirits sprinkled through latter areas in the game. They’ll throw bombs at you as you’re giving chase, and that’s just for starters.
Fortunately, you can fight back with your own tools and potions. There are also in-game purchases available that allow you to essentially cheat your way to a faster, easier experience. You can buy in-game currency, or special items like a key that opens every door on the island. It’s crucial to note that these purchases are entirely optional and not needed to get the full experience. But doing this robs you of a lot of the game’s beauty and flavor. I’d go so far as to say that it actually does the opposite: by speeding up your progress, your exploration of the island is abbreviated, so you miss out on a lot of the game’s best features.
There are some narrative leaps here and there, such as why Lili isn’t shocked or frightened the first time she meets a living being made of wood, but ignore that stuff and you’ll be fine. It’s not every day we get a game this gorgeous and addictive. Lili is a rewarding experience that’s easy to pick up but impossible to put down.