Lili is an adventure game for iOS, developed for the last seven months by BitMonster Games, a team of just six individuals, a rather lean development team for a game of this magnitude. This is the pretty looking game with the female lead character that was featured at Apple’s September 12th 2012 Keynote to announce the iPhone 5 and new iPods.

So what do you do in Lili? Well, you pick flowers… Primarily during a high speed chase.

The adventure game itself features an eponymous young female lead. The premise of the game is simple; The adventure begins with Lili sailing to the island of Geos whilst looking for Vegi-Magical flowers for a school report in the Gildern Magis College. On this island she finds your typical childhood video game antagonists called Spirits who cause trouble and disrupt the unusual local populace from going about their everyday lives. The defeat of each Spirit lessens their power over the Constructs which leads Lili to be somewhat of a freedom fighter for the enslaved Constructs to free them from the Mayor.

The Gameplay of Lili: The Thrill is in the Chase

The bulk of 3D iOS titles are criticised for poor controls, but Lili is one of the rare exceptions to this stereotype with a great tap based system instead of fiddling with virtual analog sticks in which players tap to walk or double tap to run then tap again to stop but they drag their finger or thumb across the screen to steer. Pinching allows you to zoom in using a first person camera view. Both the x and y axis can be inverted from the settings menu which is always a welcome addition in any game with a personal customisation like this.

The game guides you through the fairly basic story in the form of objectives telling you what to do and where to go. As is typical adventure game tradition, there are a lot of items to collect throughout the island of Geos, the items you collect are kept in a log. Tips are also displayed along the bottom of the screen making this a very accessible game, the progression of the game is more or less fetch quests; bring back x number of white flowers or defeat x Spirits in y area to progress with the story.

Featured image for lili

Doors are opened by tapping them and coins come out of the pots upon breaking them, these coins are caught in the typical video game magnetic field causing them to be pulled towards Lili for automatic collection. Touching a flower and dragging allows you to pull it from the roots with a satisfying pop, these serve as a token to barter with. The treasure you collect has a nice piece of art and a nice description, but ultimately doesn’t serve any purpose, it would have been nice if for example the telespotter allowed you to zoom in further or to have enabled the zoom after picking it up.

When you tap a character to engage them in conversation, the scene changes with the two character models shown opposite each other with the dialogue itself is shown in small speech bubbles beneath them, this is much more engaging than constantly staring at the back of your character and definitely makes text more interesting. The background of these dialogues remains animated with foliage being blown around in the breeze.

The non-navigational gameplay isn’t particularly difficult, you just need fast reflexes. The difficulty can be changed from the menu system, the default is normal, but there are also easy and hardcore difficulty settings. If you fail the combat phase then you fall off and a taunting dialogue ensues from the Spirit, but you don’t fail, you can just try again instantly, no checkpoints, nothing like that, you can just run after the Spirit and try again.

The strange non-combat gameplay mechanic is multi-phase and which begins with a chase whilst dodging bombs to get close enough to begin the ‘attack’ phase, the attack phase begins when you touch the Spirit at which point Lili automatically leaps onto the back of a Spirit.

When combat begins you aren’t taken to a separate area, the period hanging onto the Spirit actually takes place within the village area where you leapt onto them which makes this sequence particularly thrilling unlike in most RPGs where there is an ‘arena type’ for a particular area. Whilst in the non-combat phase you must pluck the flowers off the back of your antagonist. Combat is a more refined version of what Infinity Blade offers; Instead of mindless swiping, you actually have to aim at a flower on their back and pull it out of their back, other flowers will appear and the flower you are after will move around to pose more of a challenge, but you can pick money flowers or more ‘objective’ flowers in the form of white flowers, the thorns will lessen your grip. The bomb phase involves swiping the bombs away before they explode.

The summary screens between each non-combat sequence with a Spirit with a star rating are very similar to another game with Unreal Engine called Infinity Blade, it also includes the ability to share your result with users on Twitter. After defeating a new Spirit you are shown some background information on them, a nice touch is being able to rotate their character model and appreciate the artistic talent that went into  You can rematch Spirits if you want to improve your score, this can be done in a nicely designed selection screen from the Spirit menu.

The menu system is one of my favourites of any iOS title with a clear, bright and chunky buttoned user interface with nice graphics on each icon which indicate what each button does which is great if you have big hands like I do. Enemies can be found more easily by looking at the map in the menu, although this isn’t as fast to get to as you would like when the enemies themselves carry on running around the map whilst you’re looking at the map and trying to figure out in which direction you are oriented.

You can upgrade your grip, speed and stealth levels by talking to the trainer. Items can be bought from Shoppington and flowers can also be sold to him. Items include upgrades such as Speed Shoes or new outfits for Lili. Keys can be bought from the Keymaker to open doors which is a little bit of a lazy way of progressing through the game, that harkens back to the days of yore with ‘pull switch here then go back to that locked door you saw earlier’. You can gamble via a simple ‘guess which cup the ball is in’ game for quick coins, but in-app purchases are available if you’re feeling lazy.

Lili does eventually become a little tedious with the gameplay never really evolving in any aspect and reminds me of Pursuit Force with a really great concept just never really fully explored, I would have liked to have seen some platforming elements in Lili, the game felt a little one-dimensional being stuck to the ground whilst exploring, a simple jump button would have been useful in parts instead of having to take the long route back to where you started walking up a set of stairs. The lack of a jump button seems unusual given all the Strange Mario references populating the game like a ‘Plumber’s Hat’ treasure or commenting that an outfit is ‘suitable for jumping on turtles and mushrooms’ and half a broken turtle shell.

Quite frequently if I switch apps then go back into the game then I’ll be forced to endure the startup screens again and load my game back up, this can be pretty tedious if replying to emails and iMessages and can add a minute or so onto actually getting back into your short burst of gameplay. The BitMonster intro animation is impressive the first few times you see it, but it would be nice to be able to skip through it with a tap, this was always my complaint with Naughty Dog games in which the developer idents were unskippable. What irks me the most about having to do this is how the rotating Lili logo on the loading screen isn’t a smooth loop either, this could have been so easily made smooth and aesthetically pleasing, hopefully that is solved in an update.

The Graphics of Lili

Lili is a game which evokes an air of nostalgic familiarity yet brings several refreshing concepts yet nothing new in terms of gameplay itself. Visually, the game reminds me of The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess on Wii, but with a much brighter choice of colours, the exotically scenic island of Geos will evoke a sense of nostalgia for those who played the original Jak and Daxter for PlayStation 2, this definitely shows off what the A series system on a chip and Unreal Engine 3 is capable of rendering.

The graphics of Lili make you stop and appreciate just how far handheld gaming has come in the last eight years. When the original PlayStation Portable was announced we were all really taken aback with how the games were supposedly of an experience similar to the then current generation consoles, but smartphones still didn’t even begin to compare in terms of gaming, eight years later and we’re now seeing smartphones surpass that level of quality with highly detailed environments, amazingly diverse engines and original storytelling available for just a few dollars and available to play within minutes.

Character design is something that makes you either love or hate a video game, and thankfully Lili has the former. The character design for Lili is childlike and appealing; The large-spectacled, long brown haired female lead has an aptitude for botany. This makes for a pleasant change from the usual, unhealthy, Barbie doll way that women are generally depicted in console games. This is one of the reasons that I lost interest in the Tomb Raider franchise with lacklustre storylines and poor gameplay with a focus on eye candy unlike the first two games.

Lili on one knee

The character designs themselves have an almost Studio Ghibli aesthetic to them due to the attention to detail on every character, fantastical designs like these are the reasons I adored my SNES for the quirky JRPG. The little details like Lili’s hair moving on the character model and the band-aid on her leg make the game come to life. When adding the first flower to your inventory, you see it appear poking out of the pouch Lili carries around her waist, but the bag never seems to bulge or change after this point. When you get your first potion then it adds a green liquid to the spherical glass bottle on her waist, this liquid moves around as she moves which is a lovely detail.

I also really liked to see Lili pushing her glasses further up her nose, that was something which really bothered me in games from the past which features characters wearing sunglasses or spectacles of any description doing fairly active things and how they never fall any further down their nose, this is an implementation of realism in a naturally appealing and character building way. This is an era of gaming beginning where lead characters don’t look like models, things go wrong for them, they have little flaws like glasses which slip down their nose, these are the little quirks and flaws which make a character likeable.

The developers seem set on self-parodying Lili as a hipster with a pair of chunky black glasses being found within the game as a treasure, found with a comment that people online will make fun of you. On top of this there’s also a ‘hipster’ outfit.

Colourful and generally aesthetically fun games were something that was missing for a lot of the current and previous generation of consoles so it is great to see colourful and playful games find a new home outside of the Nintendo Wii on iOS. As far as I’m concerned, realism is something negative in most games and the focus should be on escapism and fantasy with doing things you could never do in reality in worlds that don’t really exist; as pretty and strangely surreal as the graphics are, I do find it a little irksome with how Lili glides across the ground sometimes when her feet don’t make contact with the texture like whilst walking across some planks.

The Audio of Lili

The music is upbeat and orchestral though the music can be disabled from the settings menu which is great as the loops can wear a little thin at times. Lili contains fun and expressive sound effects such as the pleasant twittering of birds and occasional ‘hello!’ from Lili to other characters when initiating a dialogue with them. The coin sound effect is particularly pleasant, you can never hear that too many times.

As likeable a character Lili is, this game would have really benefited from full voice acting even if it meant the app would be of a larger file size, this is what made Sonic Adventure for Dreamcast so appealing. Nintendo has Mario, Sega had Sonic, Sony had Spyro and Crash Bandicoot, now it is Apple’s turn to have some mascots for the platform that are recognised by those who don’t even own iDevices, Lili could be one of them if she was given more of a personality with a voice.

The dialogue sequences with NPCs lack voice acting though this doesn’t detract from the overall enjoyment of the game. Some of the characters make sounds during dialogue which harkens back to Animal Crossing, the dialogue itself is about as fleshed out as something you would find in a Pokémon game, so very child friendly and nothing mentally taxing, just the bare minimum to move the game along and link segments together, after a while I found myself skipping through the dialogue sequences.

Summary of Lili

Apple Inc. really botched the launch of Lili by allowing users with a 4th generation iPod Touch to download the game, this was a mistake on Apple’s behalf as the device features a front-facing camera even though the game itself doesn’t require one, that isn’t the issue, the issue is the significantly less amount of RAM on the 4th generation iPod Touch (256MB, half of the iPhone 4) which means that the game won’t run. At present BitMonster Games is attempting to rectify this problem by trying to squeeze a very resource intensive game into very low-end hardware thanks to a failure on Apple’s behalf which hopefully a lesson will be learned from on Apple’s behalf for future application releases.

Portable gaming has become one of the last havens of playfully colourful single player gaming that isn’t shoehorned into a mainly multiplayer product and I hope this remains the case for a long time to come because there are still many of us who do enjoy single player games alongside multiplayer games.

If you’re a child, this is an amazing time to be growing up with bright and colourful games on demand for just a few dollars, but even as an adult, I can’t recommend Lili enough and consider it to be one of the finest offerings for iOS yet. At $4.99, this game is a steal. There is something great to be said for the sheer genius of the app business model for independent game developers; Develop a great game, sell it for just a few dollars and sell a ton of them globally with no packaging or distribution costs.
Lili is a game which I would gladly play a sequel to, but I am also interested to see what other character driven franchises BitMonster develop next.

If you own an iPhone 5 or Retina iPad then Lili is an absolute must-see showpiece for your device. Lili can be downloaded here.