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iPhone Game Review: Eliss

If you have approximately an infinite amount of patience, Eliss will be one of the most original, unique, and addicting games you can add to your iPhone game library.

If you have anything less than an infinite amount of patience, Eliss will be the most sadistically frustrating game that you ever really, really wanted to like.

Sadly, I fall into the latter camp.

Still, with that said, I would recommend giving the game a try (especially as it seems to be on sale for $0.99 for a short time as of this writing - making this, frustrations aside, an absolute steal). I will now attempt to explain these contradicting emotions of mine.

The actual gameplay in Eliss is remarkably hard to describe. Nothing short of playing it for yourself will really tell you what’s going on (and there is, thankfully, a Lite version so you can try it before you purchase). Stated simply, however, the game is set in a stylized universe where you guide differently colored planets around the screen with your finger. Touching similarly colored planets to one another combines them into a bigger planet, while touching differently colored planets makes you lose health (quickly).

The goal is to match these planets to similarly sized receptacles, called squeesars, in order to form supernovas which make the planets disappear. You must form a certain number of supernovas in order to finish each level. Combining planets to form bigger ones and splitting them apart with a pinching motion is key to matching planet size with that of the squeesars.

The challenge, and I must again stress that there is a lot of it, comes from juggling supernova creation with elements like adding more colors of planets, a faster rate of new planets appearing on the screen, vortexes that pull planets toward them forcing you to hold your planets in place lest you lose them, and black holes that erode your health when planets collide with them.

Upon clicking Eliss’s icon on your iPhone and watching the game start up, you can often hear the game sigh with contempt at having to actually interface with the user. You get the distinct feeling it would rather be hanging on the wall in an art gallery with a pretentious tour guide explaining to eager visitors what statement it makes about humanity.

Eliss makes absolutely no attempt at user friendliness in any aspect of its design. The “how-to” section is almost comically cryptic and useless. There is no sort of tutorial whatsoever, and nothing short of trial and error will introduce you to the game’s concepts. Once you get acclimated, the difficulty curve will kick you to the curb within an alarmingly short number of levels unless you have a truly respectable amount of patience.

As I understand it, an update released before I purchased the game gave it a gentler difficulty curve than it had originally. I don’t even want to fathom what that must have been like.

All that said, if you go into the experience with an open mind and a willingness to put up with the game’s shortcomings and maddening difficulty, you will experience a game unlike anything else you’ve ever played and one that is only possible on the iPhone platform, making it a terrific showcase for what Apple’s device is truly capable of bringing to the gaming scene.

If you can put up with it, that is.

The most striking thing about the game initially is its visuals. They are highly stylized and minimalist, unlike anything else on the App Store (or elsewhere, for that matter). The planets and vortexes and black holes aren’t exactly what you’d call visually stunning, but they’re both pleasing and creative. Coupled with a great, soothing soundtrack (that makes for a suitably ironic backdrop to the absolutely frantic, challenging gameplay) and the presentation is decidedly one of the game’s strengths.

Once you’ve actually managed to figure out what’s going on, however, the thing that will keep you coming back despite the frustration is the multi-touch gameplay. Only eight or so levels in and you’ll be placing your iPhone on a flat stable surface and controlling the game using at least four fingers at once if you want to stand any hope of surviving. You’ll be flicking the planets all over, holding them in place, and trying to keep track of a whole lot at once and it really is absolutely frantic and fun. At least, until you’ve lost for the hundredth time.

It is, yet again, a frighteningly challenging experience, but one that just might keep you coming back because of how truly original it is. Eliss could literally not exist on any other gaming platform to date because of these multi-touch controls, not to mention that its niche nature means commercial failure on any more “mainstream” platform would be all but guaranteed.

The 25 levels included with the game may seem like a low number, but length probably won’t be an issue here as the sheer challenge will keep you occupied for many an hour unless you’re truly skilled. For reference, I got stuck, and hard, on the eighth level after only twenty or thirty minutes of play.

I desperately wish that Eliss were easier because I would love to add it to my list of must have games for iPhone gamers. Its pure originality almost gets it there even now. As it stands though, I simply can’t recommend Eliss to a general audience because the difficulty curve is far too much of a barrier for most.

For the hardcore set, for those that love a challenge, or for those that are simply willing to shell out what is still a relatively small fee (only $3.99 even after it goes back up to its regular price - still a steal) to experience one of the best showpieces of a truly iPhone-exclusive experience, Eliss might still be worth a look.

Despite my harsh criticism of the difficulty, however, I do want to stress that I did keep coming back to the game. The game has a draw, an addictive quality, due to its unique nature that might just hook you even if you’re normally not the challenge-seeking type. So download the Lite version and if it intrigues you at all and you’ve got a few dollars to spare, give it a shot. Even if it’s too hard for you, you’ve at least gotten a taste of the qualities only an iPhone can bring to gaming and you’ve supported a truly unique title while you’re at it.

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