Zynga and Phosphor bring console-style action to mobile with Horn

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By Pete Davison

Horn is a new game for iOS, also coming soon to Nvidia Tegra-equipped Android devices, developed by Phosphor Games (of The Dark Meadow fame) and published by Zynga. At $6.99, it firmly falls into “premium” pricing territory, but premium price point is well-deserved — Horn is by far one of the most impressive mobile games in recent memory.

Casting players in the role of the titular Horn, a young blacksmith’s apprentice, the game’s quest revolves around restoring humanity from a curse that has turned them into steampunk colossi known as Pygons.

Despite the game’s designs on “console-style” gameplay, Horn eschews the usual system of virtual thumbsticks and buttons, instead focusing on a straightforward, easy to understand but flexible touchscreen control system. Players may tap on the ground to move Horn to a new location, tap and drag on the screen to rotate the camera, and tap on “hotspots” to interact with items. Combat scenes have their own discrete interface, where players can dodge from side to side, jump over area-of-effect attacks, make use of special items and swipe to attack the on-screen enemy. Combat is somewhat akin to Epic’s Infinity Blade series, though rather than the player standing in front of their opponent and simply dodging from side to side while standing in place, Horn’s combat involves sidestepping around to get behind enemies and reach their conveniently-glowing weak points rather than reading “tells” and using the “correct” movements to avoid damage.

The fact the game is split into its discrete “exploration” and “combat” components gives it a somewhat RPG-esque feeling, further compounded by the item forging and upgrade facility that the player gains access to early in the game. By collecting crystals scattered through the game world (or acquiring them via in-app purchase) the player is able to create new weapons and upgrade the stat bonuses they provide, thereby improving Horn’s capabilities. As the game progresses, the player will gain access to (or purchase) blueprints for more powerful weapons.

The game makes use of Unreal Engine 3 to provide its impressive visuals, and runs at a mostly-smooth framerate throughout — though as with many other graphically-demanding titles on the platform, it chugs a bit if notifications pop up, a screenshot is taken or the iOS multitasking bar is full of other apps. Its audio presentation, meanwhile, is excellent, featuring good-quality voice acting and orchestral music from Austin Wintory, perhaps best known for his work on the downloadable PS3 hit Journey. The game is optimized for the latest iOS hardware (iPhone 4S, second or third generation iPad) and looks great on these devices. While some App Store reviewers have been complaining that the experience on iPhone 4 is significantly inferior, and the game doesn’t support first-generation iPads, this is clearly noted on the app’s description. The Android version is not yet available at the time of writing so we were unable to evaluate its performance — its requirement of a Tegra-equipped phone or tablet suggests that few (if any) compromises will have had to be made on the presentation front, however.

The only sticking points for some will be the presence of in-app purchases for in-game currency, costume packs and other unlockable items that can seem like they would break the game’s progression structure (though most content may be acquired through normal play) and Zynga’s affiliation with the game. Horn is clearly a title aimed at “core” console gamers looking for an equivalent experience from their phone or tablet, but those same core gamers do not tend to associate Zynga with the kind of interactive entertainment they enjoy. There are two ways this could go: one, core gamers could see that Zynga’s mobile publishing arm actually does have the potential to provide games that they do want to play; or two, core gamers will dismiss this title without even trying it simply because it says “By Zynga” on its App Store page — at the relatively expensive $6.99 price point, it will be perceived by many as a “big risk” to take. It’s too early to determine which camp will “win” at this point, but it would be a terrible shame to see such a high-quality mobile game’s success stymied by its association with a company that core gamers dislike so vehemently.

Due to its recent release, Horn is not yet listed on the App Store leaderboards. Check back shortly to follow its progress with AppData, our tracking service for mobile and social games and developers.