Remember that mobile game, Snake? Of course you do; for a time it was probably up there with Tetris and MineSweeper as one of the most-played games in the world, especially if you owned a Nokia mobile phone, a fact knowingly referenced in the tutorial of the very game I’m about to review…
Wait – “almost”?
Well, Nimble Quest just happens to be the latest twin-currency freemium game, which means the gameplay is skewed against your unfettered enjoyment of it one way or another right from the start. The question is, does the Awesome outweigh the Sucky?
(SPOILER: yes, just about…)
In Nimble Quest your snake is actually a conga-line of heroes ranging from warriors to wizards and everything in between; enemies are similarly themed characters which drop power-ups as you vanquish them; the arenas cover locations like sewers, graveyards and castle courtyards; and it’s all presented in 16-bit style graphics, much like the last two NimbleBit’s releases, Pocket Planes and Tiny Tower.
Selecting a hero to lead the line, from an initial choice of three, you swipe to turn as he or she marches around the map. As you approach enemies your hero opens fire automatically, and if the enemy ‘drops’ a new hero as they die they’re added to your chain when you march over them. The new hero will then be available to select as a leader in your next game, and each hero has their own strengths and weaknesses so you’ll need to experiment to discover which heroes work best in the lead.
As you stomp around the arena enemies with their own unique skills and weapons will attack your heroes whenever they’re in range. Each completed arena showers you with Gems, and completing a previously un-reached arena unlocks a new type of hero and extends the maximum length of your chain. Meanwhile those enemies get stronger and swarm more heavily, and you’ll start learning tactics to protect your lead hero and expose the enemies to the widest variety of attacks, particularly once enemy healers start showing up.
And it does get tough. I reckon most people will really feel the pressure by level 8 or 9, where the swarms of enemy conga-lines seem endless and require constant avoidance. And every time you die, at the hands of an enemy attack or by piling your leader into a wall, an enemy or your own chain of heroes, you have to start back at Level 1 with just one hero in your chain, unless you spend a Token to retry that level.
This is one of those games where you’re inevitably going to die – it’s just a matter of how soon – but by levelling up your heroes and purchasing power-ups to take in with you, your team will get further and further each time. Every death is an opportunity to tweak the team, pick a new leader and head back in for more and in that respect it’s quite similar to a ‘Rogue-like’, a style of adventure game that’s never the same twice and is designed to be played over and over.
Experience is only earned by the hero playing Leader, although the skills they learn are used no matter where in the chain they appear. Levelling up can also be bought with Gems which are reasonably plentiful within the game but, again, also available to purchase as IAPs. So although certain heroes are not ideally suited to the lead position (too slow, too lightly armoured), it’s worth levelling them all up at least once as soon as possible as the extra power they bring starts to pay off in those later arenas that once proved too much for your merry gang.
This time it’s The Real Thing
All in all, it’s a solid package, and for me it’s NimbleBit’s best yet as it’s quite simply a Proper Game. I’ve played their last three games and while each was an improvement over the predecessor, none of them have been particularly ‘gamey’ if you looked too closely:
- Pocket Frogs was diverting for a few moments but ultimately I just didn’t care about collecting pretend frogs that didn’t do anything besides cross-breed at your whim;
- Tiny Tower was delightfully charming in its presentation with a lot to occupy your prods and pokes, but before long it boiled down to the same old freemium pay-indefinitely-to-remove-ridiculous-timers mechanic with not a whole lot else going on in those cute little tower blocks;
- Pocket Planes added a considerable dollop of strategy and medium-term purpose to the same mechanic, but over time its lack of a single over-reaching goal made me start to feel I was wasting my life on it for no real reason, as compelling as the desire to build the next biggest airplane was; read my review of Pocket planes here.
But Nimble Quest replaces the ‘gotta catch ’em all’ mechanic the last three favoured with a traditional score-based gaming model – level up, get further, score higher – and an online mode in which you can join clans and compete in daily challenges to win prizes and power-ups (try #TOUCHARCADE to join readers of the popular iOS games forum).
This simple fact – it’s a Proper Game – is why it’s still on my iPad despite the currency-based IAPs lurking in the background.
One more play! Next time I won’t double-turn back in on my own heroes, and I’ll definitely get to the next level! Argh, dead again, next time I’ll use a stronger hero at the front… one… more… play…
So, about those IAPs
I read a thread in the SomethingAwful forums in which it’s claimed you could fully level up a hero from zero stars to three stars in around 20 games with that hero in the lead. I suspect that might be a conservative figure; the first star can definitely be earned with just a few games in the lead, but the next requires a hell of a lot more EXP – I played three games in a row to Arena 9 with a one-star hero and the EXP bar increased by less than a tenth. And there’s at least a dozen heroes to unlock and level up.
So the alternative is to buy the next level in Gems, and although the price for the first star is highly affordable you should probably try and save that cash for later as buying the second star costs around 10,000 Gems.
Without IAPs I was collecting about 1,500 Gems getting as far as Arena 9, so that’s six or seven good runs per hero to get their second star, and of course the price drops a little as they earn EXP. However, your third star will set you back a lot more and bear in mind you can also spend Gems on upgrades to the various power-ups that drop so that’s going to eat into your ol’ bank balance there, and so eventually you begin to think about considering looking at those IAPs…
But a freemium game always has two currencies, and Nimble Quest’s second is the Token. These drop very rarely, maybe once or twice every five or six arenas. They’re used to purchase power-ups that last your entire next game, to retry arenas when you die, add random heroes to your conga-line before the next arena, that sort of thing. Usually the cost is just one Token, but repeated retries of the same arena cost double the last amount, so be careful.
You start with ten Tokens and by not going nuts on retries unless I was on a particularly good run, making only occasional use of the health and attack-speed power-up purchases, and keeping my eyes peeled for Tokens in-game I’m still not quite out of stock, but I really have to think carefully before spending one as they’re too infrequent.
So what’s on offer in the IAP screen? You can buy packs of just Gems, just Tokens, or a mixture of both, and the tariffs within each category are a little odd, at 99¢, $4.99 and then a huge leap up to $19.99.
For my money if you were going to get an IAP the $4.99 mixed pack offers 180,000 Gems and 120 Tokens which should easily be enough to put together a nice strong line-up of heroes with plenty of retries and power-up options, making progress much less of a grind.
Alternatively, or additionally, there’s a one-time unlock of Red Gems which offer ten times the value of a standard Green Gem (or twice the value of a Blue). This gives your Gem balance after each run a considerable boost making it much easier to level your characters by paying, and doesn’t leave you with that unpleasant wallet-gouging sensation when your purchased Gems and Tokens inevitably run out.
There’s no denying that like
all the most hateful most traditional freemium games, the mechanics have been skewed against the player so they’ll consider an IAP sooner rather than later. The question is to what extent it bothers you in this particular game.
There’s none of the annoying timers that plague Real Racing 3, The Blockheads, and other could-have-been-great games that decided it would be a Really Good Idea to perpetually annoy their players – instead Nimble Quest freely hands out the currency in-game but is, shall we say economical with it, making it a question of how much time you want to spend replaying the early arenas until you’re strong enough to progress, as opposed to how long you’re prepared to do something else entirely while a timer counts down.
And now, a short rant about freemium
The only freemium I don’t have any problem with is the kind that gives away part of the game – the first 3 arenas, for example – and puts the rest behind an IAP that reflects a decent one-time price for the game. But even so, Nimble Quest hands out enough Gems and Tokens that with some skill and persistence most people could probably get more than enough fun out of the game for the ridiculous asking price of FREE and have nothing to complain about, and a purchase of $4.99, a fair price for a casual game of this quality, would unlock enough Gems and Tokens that they could feasibly tire of the game itself before they spend them all.
The problem I have is, I am one of those weird, rare App Store users who doesn’t have a problem paying a fair, single price for a good app. I want to support the developer, but I hate the notion that I’m buying an expendable, entirely arbitrary ‘resource’ that I’ll have to keep buying if I enjoy and want to keep playing the game, which is why the only purchase I’ve made is the Red Gem unlock, and yet I still feel I’m being driven towards the IAPs as it’s still a grind.
If NimbleBit make the currency drops too frequent they won’t make any money from their only income stream, IAPs, and be left in a similar position to the developers of the beleaguered Punch Quest, a freemium game which also included currency and power-up IAPs but gave so much currency away in-game that barely anybody bought the IAPs and it nearly killed their company.
Then again, that’s the whole point of freemium, that most people will put up with the arbitrary frustrations, but a small percentage (known as ‘whales’) will pour enough money into the IAPs that the developer makes enough income to cover all of the freeloaders. By making the app free that small percentage can easily swell to a significant number as free apps attract an exponentially higher number of downloads. To take just one example, read this Gamesbrief article from 2010 to see how well IAPs performed in NimbleBit’s own Pocket Frogs, or this PocketGamer article from 2012 that looks at how much money high-priced IAPs can bring in for a developer.
Unfortunately, thanks to the race-to-the-bottom pricing which was, I believe, originally driven by the poor discoverability on the App Store which meant that getting onto the Top 50 charts was the only sure-fire way to get decent exposure on the App Store, there is now a mass-market expectation of low prices, and ideally no price, and a fascinating seam of outrage is always bubbling up somewhere on the internet over the ‘greed’ of developers asking more than a dollar for their hard work. It is to this culture of expectation that we owe the freemium phenomenon’s current prominence on the App Store.
(I originally wrote "the freemium phenomenon’s undeniable success of the App Store" but I realised that really, it isn’t much of a success objectively-speaking; customers demand free, which isn’t sustainable, so developers are forced to sustain free by adding IAPs, which necessitates the arbitrary breaking of their game in order to annoy enough people to pay to remove the annoyance, while the casual market continue to freeload; the high downloads and statistical likelihood of netting a few whales sustains the belief that freemium is the way to go, which leads wankers at EA to say things like "the market has spoken and it loves freemium" when in fact the market is these days left with little choice but freemium.
But I digress…)
However, Nimble Quest has two things in its favour in the freemium argument: that grinding for Gems by just playing the game is a fairly effortless task insofar as, well, that’s the game, and it’s therefore far less of a chore than, say, hunting for time crystals in the Blockheads; also, the offer of the one-time Red Gem unlock to permanently boost your Gem gathering. These make the optional packages of currency less of a slap in the face for someone enjoying the game, plus, the price of that Red Gem unlock ($4.99) is very fair if it’s the only thing you buy. If you’re enjoying the game I think you’ll want it anyway.
Play on all your Apple devices, sync on none
Nimble Quest is on the Mac App Store as well as the iPhone and iPad, and it plays well on all three. It’s the perfect iPhone game in much the same way as Snake was the perfect Nokia game 20 years ago, but the screen is a little small so you often obscure a bit of the action with your swipes.
On the iPad it’s a delight as there’s much more space to swipe around, and while it’s not the sort of thing I tend to play on my Mac, it’s exactly the same game assigned to the arrow keys, giving that little bit more precision to the controls if you want that.
But thanks to the unreliability of iCloud, NimbleBit haven’t added any form of save-game syncing or backup between different versions. That means if you spend the day on your iPhone heroes but get home and want to pick up on your iPad from where you left off on the iPhone, you can’t – your iPad heroes live completely separate lives, as do your Mac heroes.
In a SomethingAwful forum thread a chap called empiremonkey who appears to work at NimbleBit posted in response to a question about device syncing:
Sorry but nope. Our experience with iCloud was interesting and we are not ready to try it again.
And when asked if other services like Dropbox could be used instead:
… once you get into requiring the player to turn it on or popup a 3rd party login screen the uptake will drop off dramatically and you can actually push people away from the game. That and if someone only uses a service with your games and actually signs up with it in your game you now become the expected place of support for everything about that service including all login issues.
Over at the Touch Arcade forums, NimbleTim from NimbleBit posted the following:
iCloud support in Pocket Planes was an interesting experience. Because of that we don’t have plans to support it in Nimble Quest right now. However I will not say it is off the table permanently.
iCloud’s notorious unreliability has been a recent bone of contention in the iOS and Mac development community but if the only option available for save-game syncing doesn’t work reliably, it’s hardly NimbleBit’s fault. I started on the iPad and put a lot of time in on it before realising my iPhone would start over, which is a shame as it’s a perfect iPhone game, but I don’t have time to waste grinding two sets of heroes up to scratch.
Nimble Quest is a freemium game done about as affordably as you could hope for in the era of hateful timer-based freemium ‘games’, although that doesn’t change the fact that the Gem and Token drops have been arbitrarily crippled to drive as many people as possible to purchase expendable IAPs, which almost ruins the whole thing. If you attempt to avoid paying for currency, which is certainly possible, you’ll probably feel the grind starting to chip away at the fun once you get all your heroes up to One Star.
But it’s still a great twist on a classic game that I had never considered could be refreshed in such an endearing way, and the fact that it’s perfectly possible to play without dropping a cent on the expendable IAPs will probably make it all the more successful in terms of downloads.
If you’re enjoying it, even if you’re against currency-based IAPs like me, consider a one-time purchase of the Red Gems, or the $4.99 Gems & Tokens pack, as that’s the price the game would be worth on it’s own, then get on with playing what’s almost the best Snake game ever.
(P.S. I still hate freemium, and would like to urge you all to stop ignoring great games that ask a single, one-time purchase price of more than a couple of dollars!)