Infinity Blade Review
Version tested: iPhone
007 373 5963. That's the code, passed around schoolyards like Chinese whispers, to catapult you to Punch-Out!!'s final bout. You'll whizz past Piston Honda, skip Don Flamenco and bypass the rest of the NES game's vaguely racist stereotypes to find yourself staring up at the pre-tattooed mug of Mike Tyson.
Ding ding. He unleashes a whirlwind of blows and a barrage of fists, laying into your tiny brain-box with a toothless half-grin. You can't dodge any of his punches, you can't land a single blow and in a matter of seconds the bell has rung. Mac's out for the count, Tyson is flexing his pixellated muscles and you're reaching for the reset button.
You know you can beat this guy. One day. Just not today. You need to play from the beginning, learn the ropes, forget passwords and become a real boxer.
That's pretty much how Infinity Blade will make you feel. You'll get to the end boss in about half an hour of play. You've dashed through the lush countryside, scaled the castle walls and dispatched a few henchmen, and you're already gearing up for the game's final battle. You've hardly begun to master the combat, you've barely scratched the surface of the hefty armoury and you're already at the big evil bad guy, the so called "God King", the dude who killed your dad 20-odd years ago. Well, alright then. Have at you, scum.
Fighting in Infinity Blade is all about dodging, blocking and parrying your opponent's blows to open up a slim opportunity to inflict damage. You'll get the best results with a parry, which has you meeting blade with blade to counter an enemy's attack. Pull off a couple of those, and you'll have a few choice seconds to lay into his exposed flesh.
You can dodge attacks, but juke the wrong way and you'll get chopped down. You can block attacks, but if your shield isn't up to snuff the blade will go right through. Parrying – striking your finger across the touch-screen to meet incoming attacks – is where it's at. It requires expert timing, the right direction for your slashes and you've got to read your enemy's tells. As the battle moves on and the cinematic camera sweeps to its next angle, attacks get more ferocious, tells change, timing alters and new moves are laid against you. No point trying to parry if your titanic opponent stomps on you.
It quickly turns into a smart series of attacks and dodges, working offence and defence together in harmony. There's absolutely no room for hacking and slashing: you need to read your opponent and anticipate incoming attacks. You need to dodge one blow and parry another, knocking your enemy back before healing yourself by drawing a magic symbol on the screen.
It's electric, the same sort of edge-of-your-seat thrill you get from the best Punch-Out!! brawl. When your enemy finally goes down in a barrage of touch-screen sword slashes, it feels amazingly satisfying.
Except this is one fight you won't win. Like the 8-bit Tyson, the tyrannical God King has no hesitation in slicing and dicing you, making brutally quick attacks you can barely dodge, let alone parry, and wielding a blade that can rip through armour and shields like butter. He quickly finishes you off, plunges a pointy blade through your torso and goes back to sit on his throne for another couple of decades. Game over, the end.
Only the adventure begins anew: the same armoured bod, wielding the same weapons, standing at the base of the same castle. Except it's 22 years later, it's your son and he's here to avenge his father, who was avenging his father. And this new hero will most likely die at the blade of the God King, and his son will in turn clamour for his own bloody vengeance, avenging his father who was avenging his father who was avenging his father.
That's some seriously pigheaded stubbornness. That's a genetic war of attrition, throwing generation after generation of sons at the same bad guy, hoping that you'll finally get your revenge for the past hundred years of familial bloodshed. Those are some serious family values, but it's also tenacity to the point of farce. You can't help but giggle when you realise just how many decades have passed, and how many great-grandfathers you're now avenging. The bloodline has run so far, it's barely a trickle any more.
But constantly pitting you against the end boss gives Infinity Blade a carrot-on-a-stick mentality, letting you know that you might just be able to beat this guy with a few more levels, a few more weapons and a few more kids. Each time you fight through the castle and meet up with the God King, the tussle lasts a little longer, and you'll get a few more hits in. You've got better weapons and stronger armour, and you're also a more competent combatant, more accustomed to reading tells and making parries, deciding which attacks to counter and which to dodge. Just one more bloodline and you might get it.
It's addictive stuff, feeling remarkably reminiscent of a creaky old roguelike. But while Infinity Blade is steeped in the conventions of dungeon-crawlers and other such RPGs, the similarities end in combat. You can't explore the gorgeous kingdom, there are no helpful townsfolk to talk to and no sidequests or backtracking. You can poke around your immediate surroundings before each brawl, swinging the camera about to look for hidden money and health, but that's about as far as exploration goes. Otherwise, you simply move from one fight to the next.
Combine that with the whole medieval Groundhog Day thing, and it does makes Infinity Blade alarmingly repetitious. Sure, the enemies get stronger and tougher, you'll tear through more weapons and armour, but you're still going from fight to fight, bloodline to bloodline, laying siege to a never-ending series of evil titans, trolls and assassins.
That's sort of the point, of course. Each time you stare down that God King and bite the dust, you'll be raring to go through the same castle and the same enemies again just to have one more chance against him. And, like flinging birds or landing planes, Infinity Blade's smart, nuanced and thrilling combat very rarely bores.
So get it. Get it because it's ferociously satisfying, well designed and well executed. Get it because it easily reaches far greater heights than a mere tech show-off. In fact, it's so much fun I didn't even feel the need to mention Unreal Engine 3 once. Except there. Damn.
8 / 10
Infinity Blade is available now from the App Store for iPhone 3GS, iPhone 4, third and fourth generation iPod Touch and iPad for £3.49 / $5.99.