Take a simple control system, spin it out in an impressive number of directions, and you have World of Popus
What’s a Popus? For that matter, is it pronounced Poh-poo-s or Poh-puss? Having spent the last couple of hours in their company, I’m still nowhere nearer the answer to either question. It doesn’t really matter, though, because as Small Wonders’ game shows, the blobby little creatures can turn their stumpy little hands to anything.
Let’s start with what these Popus (Popuses?) look like. There are a number of variants, but they all feature a bulbous body and a single, huge eye. Other than that, they can take the form of any recognisable creature, from wolves to zombies.
The gameplay follows a similar path, in that beyond a shared core mechanic there’s a huge array of tasks to be accomplished.
The controls see you pushing each Popu (I’ll stick with that interpretation, I think) around the screen. They’re scared of your finger, and will run in the opposite direction at a speed determined by distance (the closer the faster). If you can think of pushing a coin around a table with the very tip of your finger, and the inherent difficulty of keeping it under control at speed, you’ll understand the basis of World of Popus.
Fortunately, Small Wonders has come up with some brilliantly imaginative ways to implement this simple device. No two consecutive levels are exactly alike which, while making the game feel a lot wider than it is deep, manages to keep boredom away for a surprisingly long time.
One level might see you guiding an adventurous Popu around a treacherous cavern while the screen constantly scrolls onwards, while another has you controlling several sheep-shaped Popus simultaneously. There’s even a racing section, where you must steer your Popu through three laps of a twisting track.
Throughout the game there are several cultural nods, incorporating games, films and general history. For instance, the aforementioned adventurer sports a fedora hat in a nod to Indiana Jones, while the level that has you fleeing from the undead in a graveyard invokes every horror film and game you’ve ever seen or played.
As you’d hope from a game that borrows dozens of ideas from as many sources, it’s all carried off with tongue firmly in cheek and a wicked sense of humour. Failure in any level usually shows the results of your gaff in the form of some graphic cut-scenes, with spears sticking through Popu eyes and limbs being chewed off.
If that all sounds a bit horrific, rest assured that the highly stylised, cartoon-influenced visuals (along with a jaunty sound-track) keeps the game child-friendly at all times.
While the world is gorgeously realised, and pushing the Popus around it is fun, the two don’t always fit together as you would like. No single task in World of Popus feels like it could stand as a complete game in its own right. It’s in the little details that this is really felt.
It’s a little jolting to have your Popu suddenly disappear when the game deems you’ve strayed too far to an edge, for instance. You’d expect some kind of ‘teetering on the edge’ animation, both to warn you and to fit in with the game’s generally solid fiction. Indeed, many of the levels feature iffy collision detection that snags you on scenery or lets your Popu fall to its death a little too readily. It’s not game-breaking, but you do occasionally feel that it was sloppy design rather than a lack of skill that got you killed.
Still, Small Wonders deserves credit for making such a simple core mechanic stretch in so many different directions. While it’s not the deepest or most nuanced game on the App Store, World of Popus will win you over with its charm and invention.