Crow offers a great mobile experience, but it could have flown so much higher

Talking with developer Sunside Games, I remark that their avian adventure Crow shares the kinds of epic set pieces and sprawling vistas of Shadow of the Colossus. Cornily, I can’t resist the pun:

“Shadow of the Crowlossus,” I offer.

“Truth is,” responds programmer Joe Riedel, “we joked about that during development. We’d call it that or ‘Infinity Bird.’”

Having just beaten the game, I’d say that the truth lies somewhere between the two jokes. On one hand, Crow is a graphically ambitious experience with solid gameplay, and moments of massive scope. Like Infinity Blade, however, its reliance on repetitive gestures and a predictable formula may turn some players off.

Set in a world of lumbering beasts, possessed creatures, and ancient gods, Crow puts you in control of the titular bird imbued with unlikely powers. Your mission? Fly in service (or defiance) of a mysterious voice, as you use your magic to curse or spare “guardians” of the land. Along the way, the game has you collecting gems that increase your powers for good – and evil.

When it comes to the game’s storytelling, I find myself torn. In equal parts, Sunside serves up a bolder premise than we’ve seen in a while on mobile, and then fails to really deliver on it. The arc of Crow feels so cinematic, so filled with mythos, but the bulk of the game’s narrative is delivered through optional blocks of text that make the experience feel disjointed. There’s certainly no shortage of flavor peppered atop the game’s battles, menus and cutscenes; I just wish Sunside had taken more care to weave it into the fabric of the gameplay.

Crow

Speaking of which, Crow‘s core experience is at once engrossing and anticlimactic. In each of four worlds, you’ll hunt down hidden gems on your way to challenging a major boss. It’s in these showdowns that the game really shines. Sunside’s proprietary Radiance engine brings verdant fields, snow-capped mountains and ivy-covered castles to life in stunning detail that made me wish I was playing on something better than my original iPad.

Meanwhile, each battle brings with it a unique sense of thrill, as you use touch controls to dodge incoming attacks, wind around massive obstacles, and launch split-second magic. As a test of hand-eye coordination, Crow feels so much more breathtaking for its decision to quite literally give you a bird’s eye view. Without spoiling anything, keep an eye out for the fight against a mountain-dwelling snow giant.

Unfortunately, this sense of wonder is often deflated. At first, roving around the world map shares Shadow of the Colossus‘ stark sense of exploring somewhere beautiful and abandoned. By hiding gems until you fly above the spot where they exist, however, Crow quickly turns the experience into something repetitive and frustrating. I often found myself a few diamonds away from my next upgrade, only to spend ten minutes aimlessly wandering around the edges of the screen where I could swear I’d been a hundred times before.

Crow

What’s worse is that this problem of repetitiveness often plagues the game as a whole. As ambitious as Crow is in some areas of play, it sticks steadfastly to formula in others. Every zone has you hunting obtusely for power-up fuel; each comes with a “challenge level” that is a vaguely similar cave where you’ll dodge rocks and stalactites. In moments, the game starts to feel like a series of strung-together orb collection levels. One iTunes commenter put it put it perfectly when they observed the game’s surprising sense of “claustrophobia.” As a die-hard fan of adventure games, I think it would have done wonders if Sunside had axed the game’s challenges, and tied gem finding to clever puzzles that added backstory and variety.

It’s worth noting that players should take the team’s recommended device listing seriously, as I experienced sporadic crashes on my original iPad, even after the recent update. With that said, this is far less the fault of Crow than it is the truth about older devices. With their graphics engine often matching what you see in games like Infinity Blade, you’ll want to use the newest iDevice to do justice to the experience.

Crow should be lauded for ambition and its attempt to raise the bar in mobile gaming. At risk of looking a gift horse in the mouth, however, I’d argue that it doesn’t deviate all that far from the platform’s mini-game standards; instead, it wraps them in a much glossier package. There’s plenty here to enjoy for casual action and adventure seekers alike; the shame is how much higher it could have flown.

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