Helsing’s Fire Review

The problem with apps is that most sacrifice substance for style. Flawed mechanics and flat gameplay are easily forgiven when you touch the screen and make beautiful things happen. Helsing’s Fire is the first iPhone game from Ratloop, and its stylish exterior makes it an easy sell. But Ratloop, the developer behind the excellent indie Rocketbirds: Revolution!, aims to fill that shell with strategic depth and a genuinely interesting mechanic. In the end, though, Helsing’s Fire still leans more heavily on being attractive.

On a series of screens laid out like a board game, Dr. Helsing and his dead-eyed assistant Raffton vanquish instruments of the Shadow Blight from London. The beasts are shown as stationary, colored figurines. Helsing and Raffton must bathe them in light with their torch and use like-colored tonics to weaken and finally slay them. You interact with the game by dragging the torch around the screen, which dynamically changes the light and shadow on the map. When you’ve positioned your torch correctly—illuminating only red creatures and keeping the blue in shadow, for example—you tap the appropriate tonic to do your damage. Reposition, repeat.

Helsing's Fire Helsing's Fire

The bestiary ranges from rats and vampire bats to demonic archers and mechanical automatons. Each creature behaves differently, making maps increasingly more complex. For example, vampire bats move to a different spot after they’ve been hurt, and automatons carry a shield that makes them invulnerable from certain directions. Werewolves, when killed, turn into helpless maidens that you must protect from the line of fire. Other creatures actually attack your torch, which you must drag away from their shadow attacks.

It’s the perfect iPhone game, on paper. Thanks to the touch interface, the dynamic light-and-shadow mechanic feels completely natural. Slowly completing a given puzzle feels both intuitive and attractive. The puzzles are quick conundrums, making Helsing’s Fire an excellent pick-up-and-play game. Moreover, the 90 maps across three different worlds are randomly generated with each new game, making the game infinitely replayable in theory. Finally, the Gothic aesthetic and Helsing and Raffton’s banter are both sharp and spot-on, a much-needed shot of freshness in the App Store.

But Helsing’s Fire at times seems too enamored of its freshness to decide what exactly it needs to be. Foremost are the puzzles themselves, which are often far too easy to the point of feeling like distractions rather than actual puzzles. This is true even in the third and final world, where monsters are sometimes arranged in such obvious groupings that you can guess the solution before you even try. Presumably this can’t be helped, due to the random level generation. But it’s also an issue with the interface, which allows you to realize the solution through trial and error. While the touch controls make perfect sense for the device, they can’t help but make the puzzles a casual trifle more than a mental challenge.

Helsing's Fire Helsing's Fire

The game also changes its bent somewhere between the second and third world. As you progress, you face more and more monsters that simply attack you, instead of actually complicating the puzzle. The game becomes a trivial matter of dodging bullets, especially with its three bosses that simply spew different bullet patterns. While this may speak to the device and its audience’s propensity for casual fun, it makes one wonder why Helsing’s Fire even bothers to randomly generate its puzzles and record the minutes and seconds you take to solve each puzzle. Ditto for the gold coins you collect for killing monsters and saving tonics, another number with no gameplay relevance. (A choppy framerate on earlier-gen devices makes the game’s action and timing elements feel even more unnecessary.)

Survival mode hints at the game’s true potential. Here you face endless waves of monsters that you must vanquish before the clock runs down. The limited time forces you to think before you act, and the random map generation and monster placement puts Helsing’s Fire up there with Super Quickhook‘s Avalanche mode in terms of endless games with depth. It’s potentially spoiled, though, with those later monsters that turn the puzzles into a twitch game. Stick to the first survival map if you want the puzzle in its purest form.

Helsing’s Fire could clear up its identity crisis with the inevitable performance and design updates. For now, it’s a fun but flawed dose of style on the App Store, disappointing only because it should have transcended that class.