Prequels are rarely as good as the originals that inspired them. Usually intended to cast new light on the subsequent story, by nature they tend to be rather convoluted, esoteric, and less than satisfying as standalone entities.
Just look at the first three episodes of Star Wars.
Solomon’s Boneyard marks a refreshing departure from that reality. While it’s the prequel of the twin-stick role-playing game Solomon’s Keep, it actually stands as a more focused game.
Stripped back to the bones
You play the part of one of four trainee wizards who must head out on an errand to put a stop to the ghoulish graveyard antics of Solomon, a former fellow pupil and current dark mage.
Said graveyard is the sole arena-like setting for the game, as opposed to Solomon’s Keep’s relatively sprawling dungeon trudge. It comes down to preference, but I prefer this game's condensed approach.
As your nemesis bombards you with wave after wave of clattering skeletons and shuffling zombies, you respond in true twin-stick shooter fashion, moving with one virtual dial (it’s not exactly an analogue stick) and firing magical attacks using another. These attacks differ in range, accuracy, and nature depending on your character.
The variety between each of the four playable characters is one of the game’s great strengths.
My personal favourite is Aliss the Witch. Aliss fires lightning from her rod, which is quick, far-reaching, and possesses the ability to arc across multiple enemies.
Lucritius the Fire Mage (my least favourite) shoots powerful, but slow-moving fireballs that cause splash damage on impact.
His elemental opposite, Morth the Icebinder is equivalent to a shotgun wielder, firing a short wide burst attack. Finally, Sirmin launches a fairly slow and weak homing attack.
While it sounds like an out-and-out shooter, the game’s role-playing credentials soon become apparent. You gain experience for every kill, and once your experience gauge fills you level-up.
At this point you’re presented with choices of attributes for improvement ranging from the strength of your main attack to the size of your life bar, the speed at which your mana recharges, and so on.
You can only select one and you may not get the chance to improve a certain area again for a few levels, so you're forced to think carefully about where your character needs the most strengthening.
Perk yourself up
As well as the standard level-up system, you also collect gold and the odd magic ring from downed enemies. The rings, when equipped, grant you modifiers to such things as the strength and speed of your attacks. The gold acts as a persistent currency for use in the pre-game perks screen.
These perks have evidently been borrowed from recent online console shooters and serve to enhance the abilities of your character from the off, allowing you to customise your mage.
You might want to increase the potency of your base abilities, or to start with two magic rings already equipped. You could opt to start with extra health and mana potions, or to lengthen your default mana or health bars.
Whatever you buy, you can only equip two at a time – unless you purchase an addition perk slot, that is – which adds another tactical element to the game.
Money can't buy happiness
You can also buy three additional playable characters, which extends the life of the game yet further. Of course, you need a lot of money to buy all of these things, which leads to my main gripe.
You don’t get all that much money from open play, which means that unlocking all of the playable characters can be a slog.
The alternative is to purchase 10,000 credits through an in-app purchase. It’s only 59p/99c, but the idea of shelling out real money to improve your character sticks in one's craw – particularly when the focus is on creeping up the OpenFeint leaderboards.
Regardless of this somewhat cynical move, Solomon’s Boneyard is an excellent fusion of twin-stick shooter and role-playing game. By shifting the focus more towards pure action than its predecessor, the combat and character development systems really shine, and a superior portable game is formed.