In a swamped mobile games market, it can be difficult for games labelled as “just ok” to stand out. Hope This Works Games’ Polara raises the bar for mobile titles that require quick thinking and intense focus high enough to merit its recent price increase And it does so under the pretext of a mostly compelling narrative.
When the mechanics of an endless-runner and Ikaruga’s (or more recently Outland’s) colour-switching get thrown together in the same sentence, there are many who would ravenously start hunting around for the source of the rumouring, But while the allure of a game that combines the two elements is extremely tempting, the number of ways that the game design could go wrong is enough to make me avoid premature excitement.
What if the colour-switching becomes repetitive? Couldn’t one of the conceits end up understated? If one mechanic was tacked-on by the developer only to be quickly tossed aside by the player, it would feel like a wasted opportunity. But Polara leaps over these potential pitfalls with ease and even manages to dance around the them at times. It makes for an experience that’s not only fun to play, but rewardingly challenging too.
Polara is hard. It’s infinite-lives system and frequent, well-placed checkpoints may initially deceive you, but if you try to power-through obstacles and fluke it, you’ll find your self stuck fast. The obstacles that the game tasks you with are extremely cerebral in nature. Polara establishes colour and movement patterns that are specific to each act, level, and even between checkpoints, and then it routinely subverts those expected sequences in ways that will kick your brain into shape.
Coordinating your fingers with what your
mind wants to do is a dicey proposition
In one of the later sequences of the primary story-mode’s 50 levels, I found myself restarting the same 15-second checkpoint more than 100 times, after dying in the exactly same spot. You know precisely what you’re doing wrong thanks to the responsive controls, but coordinating your fingers with what your mind wants to do is a dicey proposition. Once you accomplish the feat however, you’ll feel more prepared to take on the next challenge.
There are also a few boss battles to deal with every 10 levels, mechanized contraptions that move along rails and combine obstacles from the act leading up to their showdown into a single climactic scene. While the bosses do provide a little visual variety to break up the standard fare, mechanically they don’t really force you to step too far out of your comfort zone. When it comes down to it, you’re still doing the same leaps and colour swaps you always were.
Polara’s story isn’t going to keep you on the edge of your seat, but its brief cutscenes do a good job of framing the player’s actions, and the futuristic moral issues that are thrust upon Lara, the protagonist, are developed enough to make you care about the changing environments and lethal defence systems you need to navigate. The scenes seem to be intentionally kept short so as not to disrupt the pick-up and go flow that most mobile games benefit from, but I was left wanting more.
Gameplay is definitely the focus in Polara. So much so in fact, that I would hardly call the games entire narrative a chapter when compared to other narrative works. Does Polara suffer for this? Not significantly. When the moment to moment gameplay is this good, I’m not going to hold an anemic story against a mobile experience. And once you’ve completed portions of the story proper, by replaying levels and hoarding collectables, Polara gives players the opportunity to unlock truly endless modes of varying difficulties.
A game with the atmospheric intrigue of Polara doesn’t come along too often, let alone one that executes on the immediate promise of two venerated game mechanics put together. And though it might not make good on some of the narrative expectations you’ll build-up over the course of your playthrough, you’ll be two busy having fun dodging red and blue lasers to care.
(Polara is available on Google Play, the Amazon Appstore and as a universal app in the iTunes App Store for $1.99)