Square Enix are arguably a world force in RPGs. Between just their Final Fantasy and Dragon's Quest franchises, they account for a majority of the most memorable and highest grossing examples of the genre. So when they announce that they're bringing brand new property to Apple's iDevices, with production values more typically found in $100 console games, people sit up and take notice.
Available initially for the iPhone / iPod Touch, Chaos Rings has now had the HD treatment with a full upgraded port for the iPad. If you don't have an iPad, however, read on - the differences are purely cosmetic. The bulk of this review is still pertinent to owners of smaller-screen iDevices.
The premise of Chaos Rings is not a million miles from Midway's iconic fighting franchise, Mortal Kombat. Sucked from their normal lives, four teams of two have been drawn into a deadly game where only one pairing can survive - it's kill or be killed; conscientious objectors will be summarily executed. Fortunately the prize at stake is not just survival but eternal life - something bound to tempt even the most ardent anti-violence contestant.
Before you can set about dispatching your erstwhile fellow captives however, there are dungeons to be explored - each full of enemies just waiting to taste your blade. It wouldn't be much of an RPG without levelling and loot now would it?
So how does it work? Taking control of your team, you need to explore dungeons and try to find your way through. As you wander around, you'll encounter random enemies which draw you down from the god's-eye camera to the classic fixed-camera / third person perspective combat view that should be very familiar to anyone who has played this type of game before.
At this point you can choose to attack together or attack individually - each having its own benefits and risk, with extra damage available to paired attacks but vulnerability to a single enemy attack damaging both of your characters.
Dungeons are separated into outside areas and inside areas, which are transitioned between by finding and activating crystals in the linear environments. Each area (outside and inside) has some exploration available but in general your goal is to get from one end to the other, defeating any obstacles you come across as you go.
Obstacles aren't constrained to just enemies, however, with puzzles playing a frequent part in proceedings. Utilising the touchscreen interface native to iDevices, puzzles see the player simultaneously controlling their character and completing objectives "hand of God" style. The puzzles aren't overly complex but definitely provide a different (and welcome) experience to standard dungeon exploration.
The controls for Chaos Rings are a bit of a letdown. When not in combat, touching the left hand side of the screen makes a virtual joystick appear; continue to touch but slide your finger in a direction and you'll tip the virtual joystick controlling your character. Push it far, and you run; push only a little, and you walk. Considering the game was designed exclusively for the iDevice family, that it relies on a virtual joystick (the fallback control scheme for lazy ports from devices with physical controls) is a serious disappointment. That the virtual joystick is then unpredictable and imprecise just adds to the disappointment.
The other side of the screen is a context-sensitive action, allowing you to interact with a person or device that allows it. Unfortunately, the zone in which your context-sensitive action is available is, much like Mario Galaxy 2, far too small - combined with the imprecise joystick, it means you'll often run around like an idiot trying to trigger a context-sensitive action.
Ultimately it seems like a weird cop-out to run with a control scheme like this when designing a game from scratch around the iDevice family of inputs. Why it's not more inherently touch or tilt friendly is something we can only wonder.
Combat is exactly what you expect: a bit of rock-paper-scissors, a bit of luck and a lot of behind-the-scenes dice rolling to determine the outcome. It doesn't do anything spectacular but if you're a fan of the concept, it's cool having it right there in the palm of your hand. The interface for combat works a lot better when touching buttons too, rather than tabbing around using a PlayStation controller. It also increases in complexity as you progress, albeit nothing like as much as Final Fantasy XIII does.
One of the cool things Square Enix brings to the arguably more casual platform is selectable difficulty: on entering a dungeon, you can choose whether you want higher difficulty and better loot or easier difficulty and lesser loot. This pairing of difficulty and reward ensures players are likely to push as hard as they can handle, while providing an opportunity for lower-skilled players to still find their way through the game.
Then there's the price debate. Thanks to the propensity of developers for releasing applications at the $1.29 price point, applications that cost more than that tend to attract a certain amount of negative press. Even on iPad, where things traditionally cost a little more (thanks to the premium positioning of the product itself, no doubt) the game's $19.99 price point stands out. However when you step back and think about the eight hours or so of console-like gaming on offer, with production values more typically attributed to a full retail game, twenty bucks seems like a pittance.
So when it all comes down to it, what you have here is a classic Square Enix RPG that you can play wherever you are, without having to make any major compromises in your expectations. Sure, it costs more than the other icons on your iPad and, yes, its control scheme is weirdly out of place. But ultimately it's worth every cent and you'll get used to the controls soon enough. If you've been looking for a solid 3D RPG experience on your iPad, look no further - Chaos Rings has arrived.