Infinity Blade 3 review: Graphically stunning but unadventurous iPad/iPhone roleplaying game
Infinity Blade III (or Infinity Blade 3), the latest instalment in the mega-popular action roleplaying game series for iPad and iPhone, is gorgeous but curiously unexciting (at least to a veteran of the previous two Infinity Blades). There are plenty of new options and features, but none of them change the fundamental gameplay mechanics - which are starting to feel a bit tired. Here's our Infinity Blade 3 review.
I always wondered if Infinity Blade started out as a joke. It's like a parody of a roleplaying game: the archetypal RPG boiled down and peeled back, its repetition and pointlessness not just laid bare but exalted to a virtue. Just keep doing the same thing, the game says. You'll win eventually.
The first Infinity Blade forced you around and around a fantasy dungeon that was part Skinner Box and part Möbius strip: an infinite loop of challenge, punishment and reward (amusingly, and somehow appropriately, a member of Macworld's staff carried on playing the second game for weeks without realising he'd finished it). Each time the villain killed you, the game sent you back to the start; each time you killed one of his minions you got a stat boost or a shiny new sword. It was fun, too, understanding exactly which bits of the standard RPG hook most directly into your brain's pleasure centre and pruning everything else. Not to mention probably the most visually dazzling game that had ever been seen on iOS.
But like one of its own characters, the Infinity Blade series seems to have been repeating itself for a bit too long. Because while this third instalment is more graphically polished than ever, and dutifully adds a number of peripheral elements to the gameplay - you can switch between two different characters now, brew potions and reforge weapons - it seems critically short of big new ideas.
Infinity Blade 3 review: Combat
It's not like there weren't any problems for the makers to address. Let's take the combat, for instance - almost the entirety of the gameplay - which remains rather limited.
Combat in the Infinity Blade series is simple - swipe in the direction of enemy attacks to parry, hit the shield icon at the right moment to block, or tap dodge where appropriate, then swipe furiously to counterattack or cast magic spells (the undignified swiping makes this the worst gaming series for adults to play in public) - and it feels like you master this after about an hour. From then on it's just a case of memorising the attack animations of the (relatively few) enemy character models, and painstakingly levelling up your stats and equipment.
The combat mechanics are slickly executed, admittedly, although you have to suspend your disbelief a touch over the way everything works. (I mean, beyond the fact that you're an immortal being trading sword attacks with misshapen giants.) Don't think about it too much, or it may become frustrating that parrying works against weapon slashes but not on shield or bare-hand attacks - doesn't really make sense, does it? More seriously, this means that by far the most dangerous opponents are the ones who try to punch you. Armed with a pair of massive swords? No problem! Trying to punch me in the face? Help!
As in Infinity Blade II, there are multiple weapon styles: sword and shield, double-handed weapon, and dual weapons. A slight problem is that, inevitably, you'll like one better and refuse to use the others (the two-handed weapon style, in particular, is much harder to use because you have to do directional blocking and can't dodge). The game does its best to encourage versatility, however, and you'll probably end up trying them all out.
To be fair, combat is different when you fight the dragon, a new enemy who shows up periodically later on in the game. Instead of the usual blocking and counterattacking, you have to swipe or tap as instructed at the correct moment to dodge scripted attacks; and you can't kill the dragon in one go, but instead have to accumulate damage across several encounters. So that's nice, although it affects only a very small percentage of the fights.
Infinity Blade 3 review: New features
So we've got the dragon. But what other new features are there in Infinity Blade III? The most obvious is the ability to play as a second character, a willowy brunette who nevertheless plays almost identically to her musclebound jarhead colleague. It makes for a little more variety, though. (She carries a crossbow, which seems promising, but bizarrely you get no control over this - she simply shoots everyone when she meets them, then you take over for the subsequent sword fight.)
For us, a more pleasing addition is the blacksmith. He reforges mastered weapons for you, pretty much reversing the frustrating 'find a cool weapon, master the cool weapon, have to dump the cool weapon to keep the experience points coming in' routine.
Infinity Blade III's blacksmith lets you carry on using favoured equipment without ruining your levelling up
(Not familiar with the Infinity Blade series? One of its eccentricities is a levelling-up system that depends on a continuous supply of new weapons. Earned experience points are split and diverted via your equipment: weapon, shield, helmet, armour and magic ring. The item fills up with points, and as it does so, your overall level counter increases. But once an item is filled up with XP, you 'master' it, and it's no more use for levelling up.)
With this new feature, you can master a weapon, then take it down to the blacksmith for an upgrade, and as well as becoming more powerful, it'll be ready to suck up a load more experience points.
Similarly, Infinity Blade III lets you combine gems and brew potions, but the latter in particular is a bit of a bore, mainly adding an extra type of thing - ingredients - for you to pick up off the floor, on top of those endless bags of gold that we've complained about before (to recap: you're encouraged to spend the game scanning nooks and crannies for gold, instead of sitting back and taking in the grand spectacle). There's a small number of ingredient types you can combine, but veterans of more conventional RPGs like Skyrim will find the whole thing desperately limited, and the in-built waiting requirement feels like a bid for in-app payments - you can cash in chips to speed the process.
To return to levelling, that side of things has been tweaked too: as you add points to your attack, magic or other statistics, new skills are unlocked - the ability to remove gems from weapons, charge up super attacks and so on. And this makes levelling up far more exciting, since instead of just improving statistics you're aiming for new features. Although one - lockpicking - sounds brilliant, and then turns out to simply open a greater number of chests, without any player participation.
Infinity Blade 3 review: Exploration
One further tweak affects exploration, and we're not sure we like it entirely. Although it may just be a matter of personal taste.
Previous Infinity Blade games have centred around a single (large) location, which you explore at your leisure, selecting which direction to go at junctions and following alternative routes on subsequent playthroughs. Infinity Blade III, on the other hand, has a hub location (called the hideout), and a map interface that you use to travel to various smaller locations, each of which is far simpler. This makes the game feel like a series of levels rather than a map you can explore.
Infinity Blade 3 review: Graphics and sound
And what of that Infinity Blade trademark, the graphics? There's an old gaming cliche about watching a video-rendered cut scene and not noticing when it finishes, because the in-game graphics are so close in quality; but I've never before felt moved to deploy it for a mobile game.
IB3's backdrops are stunning, as beautifully drawn as in the previous game, but more creatively designed and varied. One fight comes to mind: a spooky undersea castle, where monstrous fish swim across the window. But there are loads of great-looking levels, such as a melancholy Japanese courtyard, where droplets of rain run down the 'camera' from time to time.
The characters themselves look nice too. One slight issue, however, is the way the game still refuses to modify its use of scripted victory animations regardless of which weapon (or weapon type) you're using, with occasional anatomically unfeasible results. (Such as 'stabbing' a monster through the mouth with a novelty jawbone weapon that could clearly only be used for slashing and bludgeoning.) Indeed, a surprisingly large number of these animations, along with many enemy character models, have been imported wholesale from the previous game.
And one other down side is that the voice acting is shockingly cheesy. The male character in particular is prone to outbursts mid-fight that are impossible to take seriously. Not that the game hinges on seriousness, but it would be nice to cringe less often.
Other audio, however, is excellent, from immensely satisfying weapon sound effects to truly subtle use of music. For such a big, bold blockbuster of a game, IB3 is surprisingly deft at the atmospheric use of silence. Indeed the alternating rhythms of staccato violence and serene calm are a big part of its charm.
Want to see how Infinity Blade looks on the new iPad Air? Watch our video of an Apple exec demonstrating the iPad Air to us at the Apple Event on 22 October (sorry about the annoying laughter in the background - crowded/busy room!)
Infinity Blade 3 review: Hardware required
Finally, let's talk about hardware. We tested Infinity Blade III on an iPhone 5s - the game has been updated to take advantage of the 5s's 64bit A7 chip - and an older iPad 3. It generally ran fine on both, but we did notice some glitches; and oddly enough the newer device seemed to struggle more, with quite frequent shutdowns, occasionally at crucial moments. This has been blamed on early issues working with 64bit, and should hopefully be fixed in future updates. The iPad 3 just tended to get stuck on one part of the title sequence every now and then, which was easily resolved by restarting the app, and obviously didn't disrupt gameplay.
When it comes to the 64bit version, we must confess to not noticing much of a difference, perhaps simply because the game is already so slick, quick and gorgeous-looking on the iPad 3. But the idea is that only 64bit-capable devices will be able to render the game as it was meant to be seen: the update description citing full-screen anti-aliasing and bloom lighting effects, along with high-resolution shadows and improved environmental reflections.
Here's Infinity Blade III running on an iPad 3 (take careful note of the shadows)...
...and here it is on an iPhone 5s, with the 64bit update
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Infinity Blade 3 looks brilliant, plays well, and adds lots of new features; but none of them alter the fundamental gameplay mechanics, which are starting to get a bit tired. If you're new to the series, then this is the best Infinity Blade yet, but IB veterans might want to keep their £4.99 for something a bit more original.