Are tutorials essential for new games? Though some might think it blasphemy to go without, Frogmind's $4 Badland prefers the learn-by-doing method. The self-styled "atmospheric side-scrolling action adventure game" doesn't so much take its players by the hand as much as it chucks them headfirst into explosive environmental hazards and anticipatory piles of clones--all without a word of warning.
Believe it or not, it's an effective methodology. From the moment the light turns green, Badland has you hit the ground running--or flapping, as the case may be. The introductory sequence is about 15 seconds long: random garbage spews out of a pipe onto a sumptuously drawn world populated by silhouette-based creatures. Shortly after, your fluff-ball of an avatar gets expelled in a similar fashion.
In spite of there being no written instructions to navigate by, Badland remains delightfully intuitive; all it takes is one stray poke of the finger to get the ball flying. Granted, that may be partially because it's pretty much a one-button game: hold down on the touchscreen of your iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch to make your globular persona rise through the air, release it to make the cutesy-looking critter sink. It's easy.
The game itself, on the other hand, is not. Though it begins slowly enough, Badland gradually escalates in complexity. Here, it makes you dodge falling masonry and floating mines. There, it demands you lead a coalition of clones down separate passages to ensure a clear path to the finish. Along the way, you'll find yourself encountering and utilizing power-ups that will cause you to expand, contract, speed up, or slow down. At all times, you must ensure that your character remains on-screen; Failure to do so will lead to an immediate return to the nearest checkpoint.
Simplistic as Badland might be, it's a tightly executed affair: every cog in the proverbial machine operates exactly as it should. The checkpoints never feel too distantly spaced, nor are the puzzles too impossible. It's the kind of game that results in a "just one more round" response, an impulse that can get exacerbated by the excellent pacing, and the fact the game is just too darn pretty to look away from. Plus, the "survival of the fittest" multiplayer mode is absolutely perfect for when you're waiting for the bus.
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