After just officially releasing the latest update to Insurgent Games' Skeleton Key, Micah Lee, head of the studio and the game's programmer, was kind enough to send me a promo code so I could do a review. With iTunes being such a hot bed for app development these days and there being countless games available in every possible category and price point, it's not surprising that this is the first time I heard of the game. Since my time is extremely limited these days, I do most of my gaming on the go with my iPhone 3G, so I thought this would be a good opportunity for me to leverage my current situation and put up a review. So, with all that said, exactly what is Skeleton Key?
According to Insurgent Games, it's a "unique brain-teasing puzzler" with "An element of adventure...as you travel across an ancient treasure map, cleverly unlocking the way to an ancient pirate ship." The game's latest update includes improved audio-visuals, an additional 20 levels (to bring the total to 120, which are split into four differently themed 30-level regions) and the aforementioned adventure wrapper. Naturally, taking a solid puzzle gameplay foundation and merging it with other trappings is nothing new (one of the more popular examples of this being the multi-platform Puzzle Quest series of puzzle/RPG hybrids), and, while Insurgent Games aren't really mixing genres here, it's nice to see them put the extra effort into supplying context around all the puzzle solving. At the very least, reaching new areas of the map provides incentive for continuing as the puzzles increase in complexity.
Playing Skeleton Key is simple. You use your finger to swipe the screen to move your keys (two or more) - all of which move in unison - towards a matching number of treasure chests, with one key able to open a single chest. You can move down, left or right, but not up, so you need to plan your moves carefully. Action is turn based, rather than real-time, with a single finger swipe counting as a move. You have a limited number of moves to complete a specific level and if a key gets stuck, you need to restart the level, which can be accomplished by shaking your iPod Touch/iPhone. If you do need to restart a level or choose to skip a level, you lose a life, which can in turn be ticked up by one for every 30 points you accrue. If you run out of lives, you can choose to continue at the level you left off, with your score reset to zero, or to end the game and see if you qualify for the high score list. Besides the keys and treasure chests, there are also doors that are closed and impenetrable without moving a key over a door switch to activate it.
There's something very Zen-like and relaxing about the turn-based gameplay, and it seems particularly well suited to the portable platform. In many ways, Skeleton Key reminds me a lot of the 1983 Penguin classic by John Besnard and Robert Hardy, Pensate (Apple II, Commodore 64, Atari 8-bit), particularly in regards to basing gameplay around movement limitations, though Pensate certainly had more intensive chess-like gameplay elements.
Screen capture of the game's first level, with play already under way. Naturally, this first level is just meant as an introduction to the "how", as you merely need to keep swiping your finger down to use the two keys to unlock the target chests.
As you can see, even for the iPod Touch/iPhone, Crystal Mayer's graphics are hardly state-of-the-art, but they are undeniably clean and pleasing, which in and of itself is an accomplishment in this day and age of assaulting the senses. With that said, Skeleton Key has all of the thoughtful touches a modern app should have. If you need to quickly exit out of the game and return to the iPod Touch/iPhone's home screen, you can continue at the level you left off when you return to the game. As mentioned, it also saves your high scores for each difficulty level: easy, medium and hard (the only difference being the number of moves you're allowed to complete each puzzle level in). Finally, you can choose to listen to the five songs from Kevin MacLeod that are included, or play from whatever you have stored on your iPod Touch/iPhone.
For puzzle game fans, at just $1.99 in the US iTunes stores, Skeleton Key is clearly a winner. The oft-used "easy to learn, but difficult to master" applies fittingly here. Learning to play takes seconds, but mastering the harder levels takes quite a bit of repeated effort before you have that "a-ha!" moment and are able to move on. I give this an "Excellent", four out of five stars (x)(x)(x)(x)( ).
Insurgent Games' video of Skeleton Key's gameplay from August 2009:
Quick note regarding Skeleton Key from Micah Lee:
"Insurgent Games is excited to announce that Skeleton Key, a unique iPhone puzzler, has been updated and is available in the App Store today. The update includes OpenFeint integration, bringing global leaderboards and achievements to the game, and it now has support for iPhone OS 2.2.1, for iPod Touch users who haven't upgraded."