Goodland would probably be a more appropriate name.
Badland is the debut game from Frogmind, a small studio comprised of two developers who cut their chops over at Redlynx on the deviously challenging Trials series. With a history in precision motocross, it’s somewhat surprising to see the studio’s first game take on a floatier style of side-scroller, more akin to Jetpack Joyride‘s tap to fly gameplay. But once you dive into Badland‘s lushly-drawn world, it’s clear that Frogmind knew exactly what it was getting itself into.
There is little story, per se, in Badland, which sees you controlling a round bat-like creature flying through the forest. While narrative is entirely absent, there is a strong tonal plot told through the gorgeous scenery. As you flap through levels at dawn, noon, dusk, and night the forest takes on beautifully mysterious quality tinged with the foreboding of machinery encroaching on the natural world. A sort of Ferngully by way of Michel Gagne’s Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet.
Controlling your bat is simple, as it flies up when touching the screen and descends when you let go. Simple controls do not mean a simple game though, as you navigate tight deadly corridors and environmental physics puzzles.
A wide range of item pickups litter the levels. What is brilliant is that every item works on a matter of scale, and has an equal and opposite counterpart. For example, there is a pickup that makes your bat shrink, and the more of them you collect the smaller your bat becomes. There is also one that makes you grow, and it acts on the same principle. None of the pickups work on a timer, so the only way to undo their effect is to collect their opposite. This leads to some very creative level design as later pickups add abilities like sticking to or bouncing off of walls and a spinning effect that essentially turns the bat into a rolling ball.
The one item that does not scale is cloning, which comes in versions that either spawn just one more bat or a whole swarm. Navigating a swarm of bats around corners and past spinning saw blades is no easy task, but satisfying if you can manage to emerge on the other side with more than one survivor.
The level design in Badland is also quite interesting. The 40 levels are all carefully created rather than procedurally generated, and alternate between predominantly clever puzzles and the occasional chaotic mad dashes to the exit. The latter may be off-putting to many since they generally throw in all of the pickups at once, resulting in giant bouncy bats barreling at full speed as you tap and pray.
The mad dash levels seem like an inclusion from a console design mentality, where they would act as a cathartic release of tension during extended play sessions. They still accomplish that effect here, but aren’t as necessary since most players will likely tackle the game in short bursts of one or two levels at a time. At the very least, seeing the cacophony of abilities together highlights the clever restraint Frogmind used when building the puzzle levels.
Each level has three unique goals in addition to simply reach the exit, though Badland doesn’t tell you that right away. The goals are only seen on the level select screen and when replaying previously beaten levels. It’s actually quite refreshing to play through the levels the first time without worrying about secondary objectives. It lets you just immerse yourself in the stunning artwork detail while the bonus goals get to actually fulfill their role as a reason to return for replay value.
There is also a multiplayer mode, which lets up to four players compete to fly the furthest. The catch is that all players are using the same device and given a portion of the screen to tap for their respective bat. The mode is pretty much useless on an iPhone or iPod Touch, but makes for some fun multiplayer runs on iPad, especially if everyone gets into the spirit of dirty tactics like tapping on other players’ space.
Badland is a frequently clever and always gorgeous side-scroller for iOS. It has some issues in level pacing, and the physics simulation has that inherent quirk of sometimes acting in unexpected ways, but they are issues quickly forgiven in the moments when Badland truly soars.