Replay - Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor

Can you handle the truth?

Replay - Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor

In Replay, we take another look at the handheld and mobile games that have defined genres and pushed boundaries. This week, Paul Devlin makes a return journey to Bryce Manor.

If the success of the Metroid franchise taught us anything, it's that gamers like secrets. We like to prod at the edges of levels to see if there's something tucked just through that flimsy-looking wall, or if that miniscule gap will transport us to a treasure trove beyond our wildest imagination.

It's a gameplay feature that Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor both embraces and subverts, toying with our expectations of what's hidden behind that door or inside that cupboard.

Ostensibly, developer Tiger Style's debut game (its second, the similarly wonderful Waking Mars, was released earlier this year) is about a small spider with a massive appetite. Yet, it's obliquely about uncovering the dark family mysteries that have left Bryce Manor a dusty shadow of its former self.

Silky-smooth design

The brainchild of ex-EA designer Randy Smith and a small team of like-minded developers, Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor was one of the first titles on the fledgling iOS platform to demonstrate just how revolutionary touchscreen controls could be.

Casting an arachnid as the star was the first (slightly leftfield) masterstroke, for we're more used to seeing spiders as the leggy, poison-fanged monsters of the piece than as the protagonists that we should nurture and root for.

This particular arthropod is an agile little critter, capable of leaping across entire rooms in a dramatic arc before alighting on whatever piece of furniture is in his path. There's a simple joy to be had in just flinging him from surface to surface with gentle swipes. This blissful experience is then only enriched by the core goal of the game: catching dinner.

Tapping on the spider before leaping causes him to secrete webbing, which forges a line of silk between points in close proximity. By forming triangles and more complex shapes with these intertwining lines, you fill the space with cobwebs, which in turn create a sticky net for the many vulnerable insects floating aimlessly around the levels.

Once a tasty morsel is snared, it can be swiftly devoured for a combination of points and extra silk (to make more).

Although tougher enemies, like wasps and dragonflies, pop up further into the game, they're never too hard to catch - you need to hurl the latter, for example, into existing webs before they are devoured.

With its simple flick and swipe controls, Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor is a delight to play from start to finish - although filling your hungry arachnid chum's tummy is not the only reason this title demands you explore its distinctly sombre surroundings.

Weaving a web

From the moment you creep into the titular stately home in the opening level, it's clear that something strange is afoot.

The plaintive, almost haunting soundtrack, plays on your nerves as you explore the gothically opulent rooms, bouncing from one musty chaise longue to another. A cloying realisation creeps up on you: where are all the people?

For a while, you're too busy catching bugs to really pay attention, but once that becomes a matter of routine, the lush yet oppressive backdrops - all lovingly hand painted and full of decaying decadence - start to come into focus.

From the first glimpse of the faded Bryce family portrait in the entrance hall to the burnt letters, discarded heart-shaped lockets, and unused travel tickets, there's a lot to pique your Poirot-like interest.

All of this feels largely irrelevant to the main thrust of the game - much as this would feel incidental to the spider itself (it just wants to make webs and snare lunch, after all) - but exploring every nook and cranny of Bryce Manor hints at increasingly dark goings-on: namely, a tale of sibling rivalry and doomed love.

The most telling secrets, like the charred epistles to the family, are generally hidden, too. You have to scurry along the skirting boards or scuttle into furniture looking for the tiny gaps that unlock these hidden treats.

Later, your many suspicions are rewarded with genuine evidence of foul play, but we'd hate to spoil that for you - especially as it leaves as many questions as answers. There is no certainty in this tale: only what you can piece together from the fragments you actually manage to find.

Multi-threaded mystery

Truly, Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor is not a game to rush. Instead, it is one to savour and explore multiple times until you begin to grasp at the story Tiger Style so deftly weaves around the actions of a humble insect.

It helps, then, that an HD version for the iPad is also available, which makes the most of the extra screen space. The iPhone original does feel at times a little too congested and tricky to navigate.

In the bespoke iPad edition, there are even some new modes to try out (like a score attack Survival stage), but real fans, however, will return to check every virtual inch of the ten bonus stages added in the Director's Cut update - all of which conceal yet more tantalising new secrets to uncover.