Phoenix Spirit Review: Some squirrels weren’t meant to fly.

Ask yourself: when an old forest becomes mysteriously riddled with disease, what is your first best option? If you said Flying Magic Squirrel, then you are on the same wavelength as the developers of Phoenix Spirit. This deeply quirky, sometimes outright confusing game put you in the role of the aforementioned Magic Flying Squirrel in a Castlevania inspired game of aerial exploration.

Phoenix Spirit is a game clearly influenced by the past, particularly original Nintendo-era titles. At the outset you are told that the great old forest you (presumably) inhabit has been afflicted by various dark diseases, and it’s up to you to set things right. Initially your sole ability is flight.

A curious dynamic is at work here. Your goggled squirrel will hover in-place without any input from the player. A small targeting dot hovers around the squirrel itself, indicating the direction in which you are tilting the iPhone. An on-screen button initiates a dive, which propels the squirrel straight down while picking up speed. It is through a combination of diving and tilting that you fly throughout the two-dimensional forest, holding the iPhone horizontally and tilting as you go. A brief moment for calibration is allowed at the beginning of the game, where the player can orient the phone in a comfortable position before beginning. (While the tilting works well and is sensitive enough to provide a real sense of control, it can also be very distracting when in places with bright lights, as the glare from the iPhone screen flashes in your eyes as you change the orientation constantly.)

Phoenix Spirit

The squirrel can also attach himself to walls and then launch himself away, which proves handy for tighter situations when enemies start to appear. The flying mechanic itself is somewhat interesting and has a certain rhythm to it, although it can quickly become tiresome when you need to move upwards in the map, while constantly needing to dive down in order to gather speed so you can fly up again. Two steps forward, one dive back.

As you traverse the game world -which expands greatly in both the vertical and horizontal planes in cells (Castlevania again), the squirrel begins to interact with other denizens of the forest, and collect new abilities. These include a simple disease-blasting power early on, which acts as a sort of homing missile against critters, and gusts of wind. Exploration is the key activity here as each power grants you access to more of the forest map by clearing away obstacles. The squirrel has a life bar in the upper-right corner which can be upgraded, but you only get one life, and it’s Game Over if you perish.

The presentation aspect of Phoenix Spirit is a mixed bag. Overall the game feels like a somewhat shoddy cross-platform port, although after researching the title itself I couldn’t find anything that it might have been ported from. Many of the graphical elements appear to have been badly scaled for the iPhone screen. Enemies and other sprites have a distinctly limited colour palette, in what appears to be an attempt at 8-bit Nintendo style graphics. This effort is a little too clunky. Speech is rendered in the time-honored Japanese RPG style: box with typed text that you click (tap) through. The background forest is essentially one screen of repeating purple plant-stuff that scrolls endlessly, and doesn’t appear to change much. The enemies themselves are dumb and confusing; for some reason there are giant flying fish that have a problem with your squirrel, as well as some evil “diseased” plants that you can cleanse with your germ-blaster. Rather than coming off as a quirky, oddball style, the whole thing feels badly rushed and uneven. Elements in places like the on-screen map are tiny and poorly laid out. The sound effects and music are certainly better than the graphics, adding a slightly ethereal, laid-back vibe to the whole affair.

Very little explanation is given after your initial “forest is sick” briefing as to what you are actually supposed to accomplish. It’s left to the player to roam out on their own and discover what they can in the forest. Also in this sense, it is too slavish to old Nintendo games. Certain aspects of video games in general, such as player guidance, have improved over the years – but Phoenix Spirit will have none of that. It’s very easy to imagine a lot of players giving up in frustration, due to lack of directional cues or a compelling reason to continue. There are three save game “slots” (another Nintendo throwback) which does provide some flexibility for those sharing an iPhone or iPod Touch with other players.

As a budget-priced game for younger kids, it’s not terrible – in fact Phoenix Spirit could be a pretty good time-waster, at least for a few hours. For teens or adults, you’ll want to give it a pass and look for more substantial fare.