Draw Your Way to Victory with Avatar of War: The Dark Lord on iPad

Avatar of War: The Dark LordWhen it comes to iPad games, some of the best have been strategy games. The touch controls just lend themselves so well to the genre.

That said, the interaction has generally involved tapping units and locations. Well, CDE (Celestial Digital Entertainment) is attempting to tie in another common iOS mechanic — path drawing — with one of its newer titles Avatar of War: The Dark Lord.

With the company based in Hong Kong, bits of the game are lost in translation (namely text), but this strategy game is highly reminiscent of casual web titles that have come before it (e.g. Epic War). Nevertheless, this simplistic title, like its predecessors, is more tactical than strategic using drawn commands to affect the armies of the user on the fly. As interesting as the game may sound, however, it’s clumsy. Many aspects of it seem more like extras, instead of than integral parts of the game.

The premise is the classic fantasy story of some dark entity returning to take over the world (or destroy it). Regardless, it’s evil and the player has to send their armies to wipe it out. Like the noted casual game, Epic War, players must manage a singular resource dubbed “mana.” Recharging over time, mana allows users to summon a variety of soldiers to fight for them that will march from their castle toward the enemy, unless told otherwise.

CommandsThis is where the “path-drawing” controls come into play. Users can draw various shapes in order to command their units to advance (quickly or slowly), retreat, hold position, or use special abilities. For the first three, these are used the most frequently as players must watch each engagement with the enemy (which marches toward the player’s castle) and retreat and advance as necessary. It’s a little clunky though, in that it must always be used, because your units are all idiotic.

You see, each unit has a particular place in army formations. Ranged units for example, always sit at the back, while melee take the front. Makes sense, yes, but when enemy ranged units start hitting melee, the units just stand there and take it unless told to advance, while the range stay too far away to do anything.

Essentially, this means that ranged units are almost always useless against anything but enemy melee units on their own (more on that in a bit), and that all units must be constantly babysat. Moreover, other than having a decent mix of ranged versus melee units (melee to soak up damage while range unleashes it), there is minimal point to use all of the units available in game.

Here’s where things get more obnoxious. When units are on the move, the player’s hero unit becomes attackable. Now, users don’t lose if it dies, but they can no longer give any commands until it respawns. So during one level it died at the very end of the mission and we had to wait thirty flow-breaking seconds to do anything while the idiot melee sat there getting shot by a single enemy archer.

Special PowersEventually, things get better once players start earning more money (from kills) and upgrading their troops and hero. Eventually, you can unlock new units like catapults, assassins, and gryphons as well as earn upgrading spells and abilities that are also activated via drawing symbols. There are a myriad of spells, and all are fairly interesting, but in essence there isn’t much reason to use one over the other. For example, one will boost the defense of melee swordsmen significantly enough that players can beat back the enemy with brute force, while another will allow players to target enemies using mage-class soldiers and burn them to cinders.

Both work pretty well, so it really just comes down to play style. While that isn’t a bad thing, there is no real tactical decision to be made. Also, since both examples cost the same amount of mana (which is often the case), there’s not even a decision to be had on a resource management level. Nevertheless, in the game’s defense, some of the later powers do cost more mana, which leads to some actual choice making, but until then, everything is pretty much do whatever makes you happy.

What also feels a bit cumbersome is that players also have the option to touch a button to activate commands and abilities instead of drawing the symbol. However, this doesn’t always cooperate. For example, tapping and holding the screen is supposed to tell units to halt. But it doesn’t, forcing the user to use the button command. As for the special ability for mage units called Hellfire (which burn enemies to cinders), players have to target where it lands by drawing a circle around the enemies. Obviously, this doesn’t work with a button press; at least not for us, creating inconsistencies in control schemes.

Enemy CastleAs players earn more money, they can make strategic decisions about what units to upgrade, what weapons to equip, and even some special abilities for their hero. The unit upgrades are really just trial and error, as they just sort of say “upgraded” without a measurable stat increase to be seen; the weapons add bonuses such as money earned from kills, stunning targets, and so on; while the hero upgrades gives them auras that do things such as boosting attack damage or defenses of friendly units.

To top off the list of annoyances, there is also a defensive cannon atop the player castle that they can use to fend off baddies. However, to use it, players must tap and hold the cannon, adjusting its arc in an inverse fashion (inverse should only be used, by default, in flying games). This isn’t the most irritating part though, as while it is held down, players can’t summon new units, and to make matters worse, users have to actually keep touching the cannon to fire it. This means that if enemies are marching in from off screen, even though they are within range, users can see where they are actually aiming because they can no longer touch the cannon if they scroll over!

Eventually, the game gets a little more strategic once players start getting multiple units and can summon more, but there is a dramatic limitation on maximum units for the player while the computer gets to build about a bazillion. Furthermore, other than a sort of “boss” fight with an undead dragon, everything is repetitive: “Defeat this many waves” or “Survive for this long.” The only thing that feels different is a battle mode against a computer where users start with basic units and try to destroy their castle.

In the end, Avatar of War: The Dark Lord is a truly interesting concept that left us with sore disappointments. The idea of using path drawing to give commands was promising. But with a general lack of strategy and tactics, along with repetitive game play, it left a sour taste in the mouth before even half-way through. Granted, it does get better toward the end, but this is just not enough when there are just much better strategy games out there. All the same, if you want to give it a shot for yourself, the app is $2.99 for the iPad and there is also an iPhone version for the same price.