A dropple in the bucket
Reflecting on it after having put it down, Dropple is not all that different from games I've rated quite highly. Games that - in the formative days of the iOS landscape - represented all the wonderful novelty of mobile as a platform. And yet here, at the beginning of 2013, that fact represents not only a welcomed strength, but telling weakness for this recent Apple Editor's Pick. It's a pleasant, energetic distraction, sure - but like the central water droplet under the pressure of extreme heat, the fun factor here quickly evaporates under the weight of prolonged exposure.
Name a formative ingredient in what has become the typical mobile experience, and Dropple has it. A three-star rating system; tilt controls; staggered power-ups; in-app payments. All of it comes together to bolster the mission of guiding a sentient, magical drop of water to a mystical gateway across 170 levels filled with crumbling platforms, deadly spikes, and bottomless pits. Foundation Mobile Games tacitly positions Dropple as the quintessential time sink.
And in some ways, for the right gamer, it might just be. With a low, low price of zero dollars, it's hard to argue against the wealth of content provided. Yet here is the first of multiple key areas where surface value is belied by sub-par quality. Of a world's 30-ish levels, I'd argue that at least half are ruined by homogeneity. Indistinct design choices and uninspired level organization causes stages to bleed together in a mess of platforms, crumbling blocks, and obstacles that leave little to no lasting impression. Where Angry Birds and its continued spin-offs get away with milking the three-star philosophy because each level oozes with character, a fair portion of Dropple's stages could not be more forgettable. It's hard not to almost see the behind-the-scenes use of a stock level editor to kind-of sort-of mix up building blocks half-heartedly.
Even more unfortunately, this illusion of quality is further shattered when you move beyond level design to the core mechanics. Foremost, the game is powered exclusively by tilt controls, supplemented throughout by taps for context-sensitive abilities like bouncy walls and cannon shots. And at its best, this scheme makes Dropple a thoroughly satisfying experience that transports you back to a time when you thought moving your body with your controller would make you turn more easily in Mario Kart. When it's firing on all cylinders, Dropple had me fully leaning into tense jumps and literally biting my lip as I considered whether or not I could make it back to the previous crumbling platform to snag enough points to ace the level with three stars.
That's a big "when," however, as the game often fails to understand the subtle differences between tension and frustration, delivering less than precise accelerometer action more often than not. A healthy dose of refining at the level of controls could have gone a long way here. Especially since the game’s in-app payment system is centered around incremental “rewinds” that move your droplet back one bounce - but just one for each use. What ultimately has the makings of a balanced, generous in-app payment system comes across as overly aggressive when faced with handfuls of seemingly unfair deaths at the hands of clunky movement.
Playing my own devil’s advocate, however, some gamers will no doubt find me crazy. The visuals in Dropple pop enough to separate it from the pack of truly worthless entries in the “three-star” platforming sub-genre, with special mention going to the central character’s Earthworm Jim-like expressions. Doubtless, effort has been poured into earning the player’s trust before shilling for payment, as it’s practically impossible to argue that there’s a dearth of content here. And the game’s many worlds are each defined by the addition of special power-ups and obstacles, making Dropple a game arguably set in a well-defined little world all its own.
And yet it’s 2013. As mobile gamers, we have three-star platformers set in well-defined little worlds coming out our ears. "Free” has become the new barrier to entry for developers on to our devices and into our lives, making time our most precious resource. And unfortunately, Dropple never frees itself from the status quo long enough to justify spending all that much time on it.
- An overarching sense of "pleasant energy" in visuals and mechanics. Occassionally strikes that perfect balance between fun and frustration, leaving you hankering for perfection. Some of the game's context-sensitive mechanics (I'm looking at you, tap-walls) are awesome. A massive, massive wealth of content for zero dollars.
- More often than not, the clunky controls make failure feel like the game's fault. The otherwise fair in-app payment system quickly seems necessary for fun as level restarts are cumbersome, and "rewinds" become a must. The majority of levels feel homogeneous and indistinct. I'm running out of the ability to justify going for "three stars" in games who seem to think that's good enough to make a mobile hit.