Darkside for iPhone and iPad review

A 3D dual-stick shooting game called Darkside by Clockwork Pixels recently launched for iOS, putting players in charge of defending mankind's asteroid mining operations from alien threats and rogue space debris. Not only do you bust up asteroids and avoid the fractured remains, but you'll also get caught up in dogfights with enemy ships.

The 3D element extends beyond just the graphics. Since you're defending a large asteroid, you're looping around the same rock and perpetually keeping an eye on the radar for obstacles and enemies swooping in from any direction. That said, I got some serious Mario Galaxy flashbacks playing Darkside. As you destroy enemies and asteroids, power-ups quickly litter the field, which offer new weapons, extra health, and score bonuses. New weapons have limited ammo, so if you want to play smart, you'll need to conserve shots, though given the pace of the action that tends to be tricky.

There are three game modes: a story-based campaign that spans 100 missions, arcade mode that gives you three lives to last as long as possible, and a hardcore survival mode which only gives you one life, no shield power-ups and endless waves of enemies. There are four different types of campaign missions: asteroid clearing, power station defense, evacuation pad defense, and crate defense. There are three difficulty levels available for when things start getting too easy, and three player profile slots if you've got friends or family that want to progress on the same iPhone or iPad.

The controls are dead simple and use the standard dual-stick layout: the left virtual joystick moves your ship, the right one determines firing direction. There's also a button just above the aim stick which fires off limited-use smart bombs. The control options are limited to changing the scale and relative X/Y locations of the joysticks. Personally, I wouldn't mind a bit of accelerometer control in this style of game. Between the weird perspective, distracting visual effects, and the continual drifting as a result of being in zero-g, moving around can be really challenging in Darkside. If not careful, you can be bounced around like a pinball between stray asteroids, which can quickly ruin a ship's shields.

The shooting controls require a bit of getting used to for the same reason; in most dual-stick games, it's natural to steer the firing stick towards enemies that are visible on screen, but in Darkside you'll often have to be using the radar to aim, since energy blasts slingshot over the horizon. When enemies are actually on the same screen, it's often too close for comfort.

There's Game Center support for leaderboards and achievements, if you're into that kind of thing. Besides getting to the next level, there's not much of a sense of progression or persistent rewards. After playing Battleloot Adventures, I found myself looking for new ships to buy, upgrades, or leveling up, but on the other hand, it's nice to play the game just to play the game rather than hunting after the next unlock. Aside from the upgrade from the free version (which only includes the arcade mode) to the paid version (with challenges and mission modes), there aren't any in-app purchases for extra power-ups or lives, which will be a welcome sight for many

The story's pretty shallow, not that anyone's looking for gripping dialog in this kind of game. Having played a fair bit of EVE Online, I already had a soft spot for asteroid mining, which made the premise easy to swallow.

The major feature of Darkside is the graphics. The game is jam-packed with futuristic lighting effects from ship weapons, mining colony outposts, nearby suns, and enemy ships. Models are very high detailed and a joy to see in action. Even playing on the iPhone 4, there were no hiccups in framerate, and Darkside scales up nicely to the new iPad's Retina display. Unfortunately, despite being universal, there's no option to restore the in-app purchase from one device on the other, and there's no syncing progress over the cloud. Though the in-game graphics are stellar, the menu interfaces feel a little blocky and bare-bones. The soundtrack has an easy listening elevator muzak of AD 2172 thing going on, which oddly isn't a bad thing. Meanwhile, the sound effects are all standard sci-fi whizz-pow fare.

The good

  • Incredible lighting effects
  • Fast, challenging action

The bad

  • Few persistent rewards
  • Disorienting 3D gameplay
  • No iCloud sync or purchase restore

The bottom line

At its core, Darkside is a visually-polished, high-octane arcade shooter. The lighting effects are particularly great, and though the 3D gameplay takes awhile to get used to, it's a nice change to standard top-down dual-stick games. Even the free version offers exceptionally high-quality action, even if it's only through the arcade mode. Overall, Darkside is a gorgeous and thrilling sci-fi ride - well worth a buck if you're prone to putting a lot of time action games, and a great free option if you're just looking for a casual (and very pretty) fling.

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Simon Sage

Editor-at-very-large at Mobile Nations, gamer, giant.