Cardinal Quest for iPad and iPhone review

Cardinal Quest is quite possibly pure evil incarnate. That, in turn, is probably also why it's so devilishly compulsive. For what greater lure could there be than defeating evil itself?

It's what's known as a roguelike - a lo-fi trawl through randomly-generated, maze-like tunnels battling monsters and collecting loot, where death is permanent rather than a mere inconvenience. Picking to play as Fighter, Wizard or Thief, you advance into ever-deeper levels of dungeon in search of the murderous Minotaur who rules it. Chances are you'll never meet him, so suddenly and unexpectedly does death arrive.

It's remarkable how you'll always fall into the same thinking - this time, you can do it. This time, you've found the right weapon, the right armour, the right spells, and will surely prove incinvible. Then you'll stride blithely into a room full of two golems, a teleporting snake-woman and a ghost and it'll be all over before you've blinked. You'll lose your levels, your loot and your progress there and then. It's devastating. You can't possibly put yourself through that again.

Just one more go. This time, this time...

Traditional roguelikes - a long-running, often deeply sadistic genre of game - are far more complicated, and in turn the sense of loss is that much greater. Cardinal Quest finds a delicate balance of immediacy without feeling inconsequential, and as such is ideally-suited to the snatched gobbets of time inherent to iOS gaming. The controls too are a natural fit - simply 'bump' into an enemy to attack, or click an appealingly chunky spell button from over on the right to cast a special ability.

Meanwhile, inventory management - that tedious timesink that so blights games like this - is handled by the game, with unwanted or supplanted loot being automatically sold if and when you pick up something better. It's always about being straight into the exploration and action with a minimum of fuss. Even the graphics don't include anything that isn't more or less necessary to play the thing.

This makes it all the more confusing that Cardinal Quest is so poorly optimised, despite the undemanding blocky, retro graphics. On a first-generation iPad it stutters badly, lagging so much when multiple enemies appear in later stages that you can be killed without even seeing the fight. Reports are it copes better on later devices, but it's simply not high-tech enough to justify this poor performance on older ones. So, best steered clear of unless you have an iPhone 4s, iPad 2 or later, or a major update drops soon.

Which is a terrible shame, as Cardinal Quest is one of the best dungeon-crawling roleplaying games on iOS at the moment. It keeps the deadly spirit of roguelikes while stepping up the immediacy and the charm, and the randomly-generated nature of its simple-but-fiendish levels ensures a fresh challenge every time.

OUR VERDICT

Fast, smart, brutal and surprising characterful for something that's so lo-fi in both look and nature. Cardinal Quest is also refreshingly free from the in-app payments and parcelled out play that increasingly dominates iOS gaming - it's exactly the sort of fully-realised mini-experience we need more of. Shame about the performance problems, then.

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