As far as fictional settings go, JRR Tolkien’s Middle Earth has a lot for which to answer.
The author’s rich concoction of orcs, elves and wizardry has had a profound influence on a great many fantasy writers, leading to a whole heap of slightly bland prefabricated universes across literature, film and games.
Catacombs follows this trend, setting you up as a brave warrior (or archer, or mage) in a familiar fantasy dungeon crawl. But Tolkien isn't the only influence at play here; InMotion’s game features a fairly distinctive blend of classic hack ‘n’ slash design and modern twin-stick shooter mechanics.
Straight in the (Helm’s) deep end
Of course, one of the advantages of setting games in a familiar universe is that there's no time wasted setting the scene or telling you what to do. Which is a good thing since Catacombs does neither.
After selecting your warrior, you’re thrown right into the fray without so much as a clue as to the purpose of your mission. You just set off through the dank, twisting levels instinctively using the left virtual analogue stick.
When the first skeleton sets upon you, your reflex reaction will be to clobber it – this time by using the right virtual analogue stick to lob a never ending supply of axes, arrows or energy bolts towards your foe.
While we’re all for getting to the meat of the action, this transition feels a little too sudden for its own good. The game does a decent job of creating atmosphere with some moody music and suitably grim top-down visuals, but a line or two of explanation wouldn’t have gone amiss.
Ye Olde Twinne Sticke Shooter
Still, there’s no doubting that there’s something pleasantly fresh on offer here, despite the generic setting. We’re used to our iPhone twin-stick shooters being fairly modern, firework-laden experiences involving large firearms.
Stripping things back to a Gauntlet level of simplicity (young ‘uns: look it up; oldsters: wipe that nostalgic grin off your face) is a surprisingly effective way of adding fresh impetus to a bloated genre.
Your weapon never changes here – rather it becomes temporarily enhanced by any combination of power-ups, such as the one that trebles the scope of your firepower (spreadshot) or the one that bounces your shots off walls (bounceshot). Manage to overlap the two and you have yourself 30 seconds or so of chaotic carnage.
Bone of contention
Unfortunately, your weapons aren’t alone in not changing much. As you progress through the levels picking up keys, collecting loot, dispatching baddies and locating the exit, you’re doing much the same thing in much the same environments, with very little in the way of variation other than the odd new baddie.
You can buy extra levels (starting with Forest) through in-app purchase, but this changes the gameplay little. While it will be enough to keep hardcore dungeon-crawlers, er, crawling, the rest of you will doubtless give up after an hour or so and look for something more colourful and varied.
Such games are often bolstered by healthy character progression and item management systems, but despite there being tons of loot to collect in Catacombs there’s nothing to spend it on. Though your character levels up it’s hard to spot any discernable improvement in his abilities. Both elements are superfluous, robbing the game of both depth and purpose.
Add the lack of any sort of high-score table - online or otherwise - or multiplayer mode (which would have boosted the game's appeal three-fold) and Catacombs starts to look like an unfinished experience.
Like many a Tolkien imitator, Catacombs may look the real deal on the surface, but it lacks that all important attention to detail that sorts the best from the rest.