Apple Arcade January 2021 Roundup: NUTS, Oceanhorn, Populus Run

Hello, and welcome to a brand new feature at Hardcore Gamer, the Apple Arcade Roundup! Since its launch back in 2019, Apple’s gaming service has racked up positive attention and boasted several impressive titles, some of which are even arguably the gold standard when it comes to what mobile games (or just games in general) should strive for. And as one of our New Year’s resolutions, we’re looking to begin giving it the attention it deserves. So welcome to the beginning of a monthly recap of the previous crop of Apple Arcade games.


Oceanhorn: Chronos Dungeon

Let’s begin with Oceanhorn: Chronos Dungeon, the very first Apple Arcade game of 2021. It looks promising, putting a new twist on the Zelda-inspired series that got its initial acclaim across iOS devices, and could easily showcase the type of bite-sized yet filling games the platform can excel at. Unfortunately, it’s a shame that the game isn’t good. This was a major bust, and admittedly not the greatest foot forward for the new year. Set two hundred years after Oceanhorn 2, the game sees a group of various heroes (who you can switch between, and have different skills) entering the titular dungeon in search of the Paradigm Hourglass, an artifact that can restore the ravaged islands in the land. It’ is a gorgeous journey at first, with perfect, detailed pixel art and a soundtrack that all perfectly evoke the SNES era. We also see unique bits of the world, like the unique calendar shifts with every floor, creating randomly-generated areas and increasing the party’s risk number each time. If players want to decrease this risk, they’ll have to save up huge chunks of the gold they find in order to spend at statues in each level, decreasing the risk number.

What the risk number actually does, though…well, that’s a good question. I mean, it’s supposed to increase the difficulty as you advance, but I honestly couldn’t tell you where this difficulty comes from. Best as I can tell, it just adds enemies with maybe a bit more health. Unfortunately, Chronos Dungeon’s lack of enemy variety and braindead AI ensure that this difficulty rarely ever comes. Using one of the melee heroes, I was able to get through a good chunk of a run using the brilliant strategy of “stay in one place and just hit the attack button as the enemy marches towards you.” Well, when they weren’t walking straight into any fire or spikes between us, anyway.

It’s rare to see a roguelike where things are too easy (your health even gets refilled between levels, something almost unseen in the subgenre). The game just throws increasingly huge groups of enemies at you as you advance, presumably hoping you brought along friends for co-op play, but they’re disposed of ASAP regardless of the party size. Even when enemies with a long-ranged attack appear, one good hit cancels their attack animation, just like it does with several others.

It doesn’t help that you’ll be battling these enemies in rather poorly-designed levels. Aside from only having five different settings to fight through, meaning you’ll see everything there is to see in little time, there’s barely anything to actually do in them. You can smash pots and crates to find gold and health and maybe search for treasures and hidden areas, but that’s it. And by hidden areas, I mean they stand out like a sore thumb, of course. They’re almost immediately visible and basically tell you where the wall you can walk through is…assuming the enemy isn’t already walking through it and giving it away. Between the poor level design and lousy enemies that results in the most basic gameplay possible for a dungeon crawler, the whole thing is a tedious slog.

In case you can’t tell, I can’t recommend Oceanhorn: Chronos Dungeon, even as part of a service like Apple Arcade. I didn’t even get into some of its other flaws, such as the awkward controls for the ranged fighters or how even aiming with the melee heroes can be off due to a lack of diagonal attacks. It’s a hollow shell of what a game like this should be, an ode to classic Zelda that somehow doesn’t understand what makes classic Zelda games great, or even roguelikes as well. You can do better with games like this and probably have.


Spire Blast

Spire Blast was the next to be released on Apple Arcade in January and it feels like an odd choice to include in what could be a fresh new future for mobile games, given that it looks and plays almost exactly like an iPhone game from the early 2010s. Not that this makes the game bad, of course. The gameplay is still timeless, after all: fling colored balls into a giant tower to clear linked groups of similarly colored blocks, try to topple the whole thing before running out of ammo. Tap to select ball, tap to fire. Simple, efficient and fun, although the aesthetics didn’t need to be as simple, with the game relying on generic fantasy visuals and music without much details. Even the blocks don’t have any real flair.

At its best, Spire Blast can easily be cathartic and addictive, as the feeling of joy you get when you successfully wipe out a huge chunk of the tower and watch the rest fall down is always welcome. But that catharsis almost comes too easily at times, as any good shot can easily create a huge chain reaction that sends several levels of walls tumbling down quickly. Several levels were cleared by me just waiting for a few seconds in order to let physics kick in and do its thing. The only reason to aim for this type of reaction is because the game encourages you to go for the high score and get three stars on every level…even if there seems to be no reward for all of them.

Each level does provide its own unique goals with a variety of obstacles (like clearing so many steel blocks, blocks with shields on them, et cetera), but they repeat too often and are easily completely by the halfway point most of the time. I initially breezed through every level in about two hours or so, and rarely failed or had to use one of the booster power-ups that you can purchase with in-game coins. This, though, is where Spire Blast also becomes tricky to review.

When I first played the game at launch, I quickly make my way through its forty levels, coming to the initial conclusion that it was too short and too easy. But then just a couple of weeks later, there was an update. Now not only was there another whole forty levels with new obstacles (with the promise of more to come), but they seemed to be designed in such a way that the physics rarely ever kicked in to make any columns tilt, meaning the game basically just did a one-eighty and now felt like it was being artificially difficult. And now, just this past week, there was another update, which I checked just before writing this, and suddenly everything felt too easy again! What, were the developers somehow able to read my mind each time?

Regardless of difficulty, though, Spire Blast is still a decent enough puzzler with some uncomplicated yet fun gameplay. But if you have access to Apple Arcade, you have access to Grindstone as well, so you may as well just check that out instead if you want a more addictive and satisfying color-matching puzzle game.


NUTS

Next up came NUTS, the token Apple Arcade release that was set to come out on consoles and PC shortly after. You’re assigned with having to monitor a forest for the behavior of squirrels in order to get the area protected against construction. So each day, you set out to place cameras in order to capture the furry little critters, review the footage and find select areas they stay in. Of course, given the nature of such a game, it isn’t exactly a shock to find that these squirrels are up to some…rather odd things at times.

Automatically, NUTS stands out thanks to its visual style, using different three-color schemes that really makes everything stand out. The chill soundtrack and atmosphere also work in its favor, creating the feeling of basking in nature despite the unorthodox appearance. The gameplay is also nice and laid back, as you head out each day and use up to three cameras to get various angles of each squirrel, then review the footage each night to determine the direction it’s heading in, thus ultimately leading you to the goal. It’s simple, challenging and fun, even if the narrative focus means you can predict the area you have to go to at times. One time I just aimed a camera at a treehouse that stood out, and sure enough, a squirrel wound up there.

Speaking of the narrative, while it’s only mainly told through phone calls with your boss Nina (and cassette tapes made by her from a previous expedition that you can find), it’s a nice and weird journey filled intrigue and mystery as you attempt to deduce what’s going on. There are, however, a good number of plot points that seem to go unresolved by the end of the game, which does sour things a little. On a similar note, while the game does find some variety in figuring out different objectives in order to keep the gameplay fresh, there are moments such as parts where you have to plant nuts and actually chase squirrels on foot that can get annoying. The game also clocks in at only a few hours, so some of the mechanics do feel a little underdeveloped as well.

Even with an issue like that, though, the core gameplay in NUTS is still unique and fun enough to make it worth taking a look at, especially when combined with the clever use of minimalist visuals. But that said, I have to confess that the Apple Arcade version of NUTS doesn’t feel like the definitive version of the game on a technical level. There are more than a few areas where the frame rate gets choppy, and while the touch controls are fine, there are certain parts like adjusting the camera views that clearly feel better with a keyboard and mouse. So while this is an enjoyable little first-person boost of surreal nature, it’s one that can be done better elsewhere as well.


Populus Run

Finally, we have Populus Run. And much like Spire Blast, it feels like a throwback to the earlier days of mobile games, being an arcade-style runner. Where Spire Blast only delivers the basics, however, Populus Run goes all in when it comes to personality. The game revolves around an entire city being ravaged by giant, monstrous high-calorie junk foods, and you control an entire group of people trying to avoid them, all while searching for new runners to join you that include anthropomorphic vegetables. Yes, it may sound like a weird reboot of Captain Novolin at first, but the game leans into things with its cartoonish style and terrific pop soundtrack by Ratvader, with its lyrics that describe all the chaos going on around you.

Being a runner, there’s not exactly much to see about the core gameplay and controls. The unique twist comes in you having to control a whole crowd, with the size varying depending on how many other runners you pick up along the way. Each obstacle you hit wipes out whatever chunk of the mob that hit it, meaning it basically acts as your life bar. As an incentive to keep the crowd huge, though, completing a level with at least five people unlocks one of three stars, getting you closer to unlocking the Hardcore mode for it where you can only take one hit. It’s a simple idea, but one that makes things more enjoyable as you try to maneuver your ever-increasing batch of runners around a constant spread of massive snacks.

Populus Run isn’t an endless runner, though, so each level has its own unique layout, complete with a set of coins to collect and secret runners to find (the aforementioned vegetables), making up the other two stars you can earn as well. Your veggie friends are found via secret routes most of the time, encouraging you to keep an eye out for possible ways to deviate from the track, which adds a nice little extra challenge. While certain obstacles are set, though, others also have random behavior or placement, which is a double-edged sword at times. While it keeps you on your toes, it does result in the the occasional cheap bit that’s tricky to avoid, which can become an annoyance.

Overall, though, Populus Run’s simple yet fun gameplay, combined with its style and sense and humor, easily make it this month’s best Apple Arcade game (in my opinion, at the least). There’s just something about speeding down a city road with a mob of civilians as a Michael Bay-style explosion goes off and sends a giant donut careening at you, or having to dodge around giant chocolate Tetris blocks that makes for a satisfying experience. It’s another one that’s on the short side (and promises more levels to come), but thanks to its unlockable Hardcore levels and more, there’s still enough to make Populus Run one to play.


And that wraps up our first Apple Arcade Roundup! Not exactly the greatest month to begin a feature like this, but hopefully the rest of February will bring some surprises. At the very least, we’re already in the process of checking out Lumen, another new puzzle game that…might be hard to review as well. But we’ll see how we fare with that next time, so check back again at an earlier day in March! In the meantime, we’re still fine-tuning this new feature slightly, so let us now what you think of it so far in the comments!