Become the god of pixels and play in The Sandbox

It’s always a pleasure to come across a genuinely original game concept, and The Sandbox from Pixowl and Bulkypix fits that description perfectly. The free-to-play iPhone game, available now from the App Store, is a quasi-sequel to a Flash title which is still available to play for free on Kongregate. An Android version is reportedly also in the works.

The Sandbox is a building game in which players can use a variety of “elements” to create their own single-screen “universe.” The game is built on the fundamental laws of physics, and the game’s story mode introduces players to these concepts one by one. Initially, the player will be performing simple tasks such as dropping water on soil to make more fertile mud, setting fire to trees and crushing the ash to make oil or powering simple electrical circuits, but later more complex objectives with multiple solutions present themselves. In one level, the player might be tasked with lighting a volcano without changing the temperature of the world; in another, the player might have to cause the clouds above to snow rather than rain.

The game’s interface is very simple. Players select an element and a pen size and then simply “draw” it on the screen. Most elements are affected by gravity, meaning they will fall to the bottom of the screen like powder, while others, such as metal, may float in the air freely. Combining various elements has the appropriate effects — applying fire to trees burns them down, applying steam to clouds makes them bigger and eventually causes precipitation, applying electricity to metal creates a circuit. Players also have the option to adjust various environmental effects in their universe, including whether or not the sun is out; whether there is dynamic lighting; whether or not to use dynamic weather systems and water cycles; and the overall temperature of the world.

The story mode allows players to unlock the game’s diverse elements a few at a time with each level, but each must then be purchased using the game’s currency of “mana.” This is earned in three ways: completing story mode objectives, earning achievements in the game’s freeform mode or by making in-app purchases. Players also have the option of immediately purchasing access to all current elements for a one-time fee of $6.99, allowing them to save their mana for purchasing custom backgrounds or any future content which Pixowl chooses to add. App Store reviewers have so far been overwhelmingly negative towards the developer’s use of IAPs, but in practice it is perfectly possible to have a satisfying experience without having to pay a penny — or, indeed, to pay a one-time fee and not have to worry about it again.

The game is set up for social play, as “free mode” creations can be shared online with the community, then downloaded and rated by other players. The developer is also working on the facility for players to comment on each other’s creations, and the most impressive community creations are being showcased on the game’s official Tumblr page.

The Sandbox is noteworthy for its sheer flexibility. It can be played as a pixel art drawing tool, a physics playground or an objective-based puzzle game. It’s an excellent use of the iPhone platform and an impressive game in its own right. There are a couple of noteworthy bugs — growing trees off the top of the screen seems to cause the game to crash, occasionally the toolbar at the top of the screen fails to register player input after starting a level and loading a universe requires players to pop up a menu and then dismiss it in order to get things moving — but these are small blemishes on an otherwise high-quality experience, and one which the developer is dedicated to actively improving over time.

The Sandbox is currently No. 29 in Top Free Apps, No. 17 in Top Free Games, No. 78 in Top Grossing Apps and No. 63 in Top Grossing Games. Follow its progress through the App Store charts with AppData, our tracking service for iOS and social games and developers.