We have a little something for everyone in this week's iPad review roundup, with a varied set of recent App Store releases that starts off with Fractal: Make Blooms Not War, an amusingly-titled original puzzler that'll kick your ass – and probably still leave you wanting more. Beyond that, we're checking out Touchgrind BMX, which puts your pointer and middle fingers in command of a realistic bike, along with free shoot-'em-up Phoenix HD and the long-overdue iPad version of iPhone megahit Doodle Jump. And everything can be had for a grand total of just under $10 (before tax) this week, so if the mood strikes, consider hitting them all up buffet-style.
Confession time: we've been sitting on plans to include Fractal: Make Blooms Not War in this space for a few weeks now. It's not because we wanted to deprive you of a great new iPad experience (though we've been filling these features with some other stellar apps of late), but rather, we simply didn't fully comprehend what we were supposed to do at first. We don't want to use the word "impenetrable" to describe this sleek puzzler, but Fractal doesn't exactly ease you in or bother explaining its core mechanics in any meaningful way. When we finally circled back on this app after a frustrating initial session, the game really clicked – though it's arguably more challenging once you actually know what you're doing.
Fractal's hexagon-packed game boards might first remind you of Hexic – and boy, would we kill for a great iPad iteration of that classic – but instead of rotating hexes into seven-piece clusters, you'll push empty spots on the board or borders to spawn additional hexagons from the chosen point of origin. In essence, you're creating the pieces needed to clear these blooms from the board, but at least in the tough campaign mode, you're given only a certain number of pushes per round to clear a designated number of hexagons. When additional colors and other elements are introduced, Fractal becomes a taxing mental challenge in which surveying the scene for the best move is essential every single time. It doesn't play like Hexic, but damn if it doesn't tap into that same sort of frantic desperation that drives some of the best modern puzzlers.
In addition to being a bit obtuse at the start, Make Blooms Not War’s campaign also becomes difficult without much build-up – which isn't a problem on the surface, but with certain missions acting as checkpoints you may have to replay several missions if you fail. But it's the kind of frustration that's more likely to push you to keep playing and get better rather than rage-quit forever, plus endless arcade modes and quick-hit puzzle stages push different sorts of buttons. And developer Cipher Prime – which previously created the excellent iPad rhythm game, Pulse: Volume One – has packed in some expectedly sharp visual and audio design, making this fresh concept one phenomenal option for puzzle fans. Don't wait on it like we did!
Illusion Labs' Touchgrind series likely would not exist without the success of Tech Deck skateboards and little bikes, as those finger-based extreme sports devices clearly inform the core of these alluring iOS offerings. More notably, the games wouldn't be half as interesting without a multitouch interface, which lets you interact with the board or bike in a meaningful and skillful fashion. The original Touchgrind was a low-frills affair that let you spin a little skateboard around the ramps and rails of a street course, but follow-up Touchgrind BMX steps things up with various worldwide courses and crisp aesthetics. And thanks to a recent update, this one-time iPhone exclusive is now a universal app with native iPad support.
Two fingers are all you'll need to command your bike; simply place them along the frame and your bike will propel forward, leaving you to focus on steering and pulling off killer spins and flips along the way. Knocking out rad tricks requires flicking the front wheel or back frame as you emerge from a ramp, or swiping both fingers in a direction prior to the jump to flip the entire bike around. The touch commands are pretty responsive, and it's nice to be able to just spin the handlebars like you would in real life, then grab hold again before landing. But every once in a while a flip or spin just won't register, or the game will restart you on the ground out of nowhere, despite seeing a proper landing zone from the air.
Those bits are undeniably frustrating, but if at any point in your life you found yourself guiding a plastic bike or fingerboard around a desk over and over again, Touchgrind BMX offers a similar appeal – and the myriad objectives in each stage give you incentive to learn the layout of each track and attempt to master the various touch commands. It truly can be a grind, though, as later tracks are unlocked through Adrenaline points earned by completing challenges or notching score-based medals, both of which can be hard to come by. It's a bit refreshing that the game doesn't offer some sort of in-app purchase to skip ahead and see everything – but then again, that decision makes for a consistently tough road throughout.