In the real world, you call an arborist if a tree becomes ill. Or else you sit back for summer after summer and drink beer while the tree is swarmed by termites and dies a silent, agonizing death. But in the shady depths of the world presented in Spearhead’s Phoenix Spirit, the job of “tree doctor” falls to a flying squirrel-creature who embarks on a quest to save the Mother Tree from a mysterious sickness.
It’s not a short jaunt, either. Phoenix Spirit is a long and winding adventure in the spirit of Metroid and modern-day Castlevania games. There is a lot to see, do, and fight, but the game’s imprecise tilt controls keep it out of the pantheon of Metroidvania classics.
Phoenix Spirit puts you in charge of a gray-furred hero who wakes up one day to an urgent request from a neighboring spirit called Phoenix. It asks you to discover what ails the Mother Tree, and make things right. From there, you’ll experience long stretches of quiet gameplay with few story interludes, and that’s perfectly alright by us.
Phoenix Spirit’s story is secondary. Your first concern is swooping, twisting, and cleansing your forest home of enemies with the powerups you pick up along the way.
Caught us a big one!
Unfortunately, said swooping and twisting isn’t as easy as the game’s trailer makes it out to be. Much like the scuba diving protagonist in 3G Studios’ The Deep, the squirrel lead in Phoenix Spirit “swims” through the air, thus eliminating potential frustrations with inaccurate jumps and bottomless pits.
But controlling your squirrel friend’s direction involves tilting your iPhone instead of manipulating a virtual D-pad. A small “sight” helps point you in the right direction, but it’s slow to position itself. Moreover, the squirrel needs constant momentum to keep flying, which involves diving, then climbing. With the game’s difficult controls, this can be a chore.
Rocky J Squirrel, meet an actual rock.
Phoenix Spirit’s controls are problematic, but thankfully, they don’t ruin the experience. The problems are surmountable with some practice and calibration (you may need to do this more than once), and there’s even a powerup early in the game that makes diving for speed less necessary. Enemies are targeted automatically, which aids in their destruction.
Phoenix Spirit’s flaws are worth forgiving; what it does well, it does very well. The character sprites are well-drawn, the backgrounds are soothing (if a little dark, which is a problem in strong sunlight), and the music brings the forest to life. The game as a whole offers a mysterious atmosphere with an irresistible pull. What’s around the next corner? Should we proceed, or should we backtrack and see what we can unlock with our new powers? Where is the blasted save point?
If endless leafy caverns sound like your idea of a good time, take Phoenix Spirit for a ride. Just be prepared to take a few flying lessons before you get the hang of things.