Gaia, from indie developer Quicksand Interactive, isn’t a fancy game by any stretch of the imagination. It doesn’t really show off the iPhone’s graphics horsepower, or introduce any new gameplay ideas, and it’s not likely to draw much attention on the App Store, either. Nevertheless, we are amazed at how every aspect of Gaia’s production fits together perfectly, with no wasted motion, and impressed by the developer’s clear mastery of the platform. We’re confident that this game will turn into one of your favorite Apps if you give it a chance.
In Gaia, the game board is filled with a mix of square, eco-themed tiles, which clump together into groups when three or more like-colored tiles come into contact with one another. Touching such a group makes it disappear, adding to your points total and leaving a vacuum for other tiles to fall into, depending on how you rotate the iPhone. The tricky bit is that a group’s value grows exponentially with every additional tile, encouraging you to cultivate a group as much as possible before popping it for points. Score multiplier tiles, which boost a group’s total by a factor of two to five, make this strategy even more important. You could spend all day popping small groups, and still not make as many points as you could in a single large play.
The game throws in a few more twists for good measure. For instance, a level meter fills up as you eliminate tiles; when it’s full, new tiles stop dropping into the board from off-screen. If you manage to clear the entire board of the remaining tiles from there, you are awarded a big bonus as the level ends. You also have to cope with pollution tiles, which take up space and disrupt your scoring opportunities. Although they aren’t matchable, you can get rid of Poison and Biohazard tiles by dropping them off the screen. You are stuck with the stationary Radiation tiles until the end of the level, which befits a pollutant that can linger in the ecosystem for millions of years. These hazard tiles appear with increasing frequency as you complete levels, until they’re choking the board and you have to work hard to clear them on every move. This is important, because if you’re ever in a situation where you’re unable to pop something, it’s game over.
Although it doesn’t sound like much, this gameplay model continues to deliver new subtleties for hours after your first play. You’ll start to uncover new methods for building up huge groups by turning the iPhone and causing tiles to slide around, and you’ll become very adept at neutralizing and working around pollutants, as well. It becomes kinds of like playing a finely tuned instrument.
Meanwhile, you’ll grow more and more pleased with Gaia’s overall level of polish. The developer included many simple, iPhone-specific touches that make this one of the most usable iPhone games we’ve played yet. For one thing, if you interrupt play for any reason, you are returned to exactly the same state when you resume’”not just the same level. For another, the game’s sound effects seem to be designed to blend in with whatever music you care to play on your iPod. Also, the game is completely nonverbal’”it uses elegant symbols instead of words. There are no instructions to localize, nor are they necessary. A final example is the game’s high score list, which allows you to draw a picture with your finger, instead of just inputting letters. Very cool.
Gaia’s graphics suit the simple nature of its gameplay: they aren’t flashy, but they’re very functional and even beautiful in their own way. There are many, many different types of hand-drawn tiles representing Earth’s ecosystems, such as clouds, fire, vineyards, and beaches, and they group with one another seamlessly. We would have liked to see more variety from the hazard tiles (there are only the three basic designs), though. We also wouldn’t mind seeing a few more play modes out of Gaia, such as a timed competition mode with a connected high scores list. It seems to us that the developer could get a lot more mileage out of the game by doing stuff like this, without much additional trouble.
Even so, Gaia delivers plenty of bang for the buck at $2.99. This is a game you can play for a minute or an hour at a time, and it delivers such a consistently excellent experience that we think everyone should buy a copy.