Review: Lili (iPhone/iPad)–The New High-Water Mark for Mobile Gaming Graphics

LiliOnStageReleases don’t come much bigger in the mobile world than BitMonster’s debut title, Lili . Pictured onstage at the unveiling of the iPhone 5, Apple’s calendar girl for the platform’s “Great gaming experience” has a lot of hype to live up to. Is Lili the latest pint-sized powerhouse to put predisposed Playstion prudes in their place, or is she just another pretty face?

In Lily you’ll take control of the titular lead as she sails out to the abandoned ruins of Geos in search of mystical flowers to complete her Vegi-Magical finals project. Much to her surprise, the isle of Geos is neither abandoned nor in ruins. She must have been using Apple’s new maps app. Soon after arriving, Lili is befriended by the wooden Constructs of Geos and joins the underground movement to overthrown their tyrannical creators, the Spirits. Fortunately for Lili, bumping off Sprits makes use of her expertise in magical flower picking as removing the Spirit Flower from atop the Spirit’s head will banish it. Thus Lili sets off on the adventure of her lifetime to deflower the Spirits and free the wood. Why are you giggling?

Lili outsideThere is no doubt that Lili sets a new benchmark in terms of graphical fidelity for phones and tablets. Powered by the Unreal 3 engine, the isle of Geos drops jaws from its very first frame. Waves lap upon the sandy beach, sunbeams streak around the mast of Lili’s ship, characters cast long shadows across the ground, and every tree and leaf of the island’s lush foliage stirs lazily in the seaside breeze. Our heroine’s character model alone is filled with more than a half-dozen moving details with shifting locks of hair, bouncing bottles of magical ichor, and Lili’s ever present flower bag swaying with her movement.

Even if it were not for the technical prowess of the Unreal Engine, Lili would still be a beautiful game. BitMonster has created a lovely and believable world that oozes style at every corner. Each of the masked Spirits and wooden Constructs are unique and memorable. Every home you break into in your quest for collectables is detailed with personal accouterments. I’m not sure why or how a Spirit needs to use toilet, but in the traditionally bathroom-less world of video games it is a wondrous sight to behold.

Lili NPCWhile the main plot doesn’t amount to much more than the typical ‘kill the foozle’ game plot, the writing is charming and clever. References to landmark gaming titles like Zelda, Minecraft, Fruit Ninja, and Ico add a plethora of inside jokes for fans of the medium. Likewise, the dialog between Lili and the strange denizens of Geos reveals a delightful character arc in the protagonist herself as she transitions from obedient girl to independent woman. This tale of Lili’s blossoming into adulthood may very well be more involving than the plight of the Constructs. Like all good fairy tales, there is also a subtle air of darkness throughout many of the proceedings. These are pulled off with great subtlety, never rubbing the player’s nose in it nor feeling out of place in Geos’ bright, light-hearted world.

Lili battleUnfortunately, Lili’s gameplay is not as nuanced as its writing. Your time on Geos will consist of two main activities; Wandering around the game’s lovely environments chatting with the charismatic locals while picking flowers, and hunting down Spirits.  You’ll occasionally be tasked with finding an object or switch, but these are rare and frequently optional circumstances. Lili’s only real action is the chasing and pruning of Spirits. And I do literally mean chasing. Upon seeing our plucky protagonist Spirits will begin running for cover while dropping smoke bombs to cover their escape. Lili must sprint through the city’s streets in pursuit, using speed buffing sandwiches to catch the wiliest ones. Upon reaching the unfortunate victim, Lili will leap onto the creature’s back. Thus begins one of gaming’s most gloriously strange battles as Lili clings to the Spirit, plucking flowers and avoiding thorns, as it careens through the streets. While the visual spectacle of these monster rodeos never grows old, the gameplay begins to run a little stale after the first dozen times. Worse, rather than adding a new wrinkle to re-engage players later on, Lil’s flower picking Spirit battles simply ratchet up in speed and duration past the point of enjoyment. The lack of new gameplay hooks is a common trend in Lili. From the skimpy three stat RPG system to the purposeless collectable objects, every facet of Lili’s gameplay feels just one mechanic short of being truly great.

Lili indoorsSadly, running Lily on your iDevice is not always a bed of roses. Game Center support is surprisingly absent and we experienced many technical issues throughout our time on Geos. We had multiple occasions when picking a flower happened to coincide with a triggered cutscene and led to missing character graphics during conversations. Switching off the music worked until we exited and restarted the game whereupon the overworld tune would loop non-stop regardless of circumstance. One particularly nasty resume led to debug code being displayed across the display. While all of these issues could be resolved with with a restart, taking care to kill the task first, one other problem was much more severe.

Lili features a single, auto updating, save slot and no means to restart your quest. Considering that the game’s story gives you the option to completely abandon the main quest, all the while encouraging the player to explore freely, this causes quite a problem. Even after completing the game’s finale, it is not unreasonable to expect a player may want to experience Lili’s adventure again. A complete uninstall and reinstall of the app was required before we could start the quest anew.

Lili ipadThere was also one additional problem that we’re not sure is a bug or bad design. After opening up Lili’s fourth and final section of Geos, gamers will run right smack into a truly monstrous difficulty spike. The required five spirit battles in the Mill Hill area are VASTY more difficult than anything else in the game, including the final showdown. We were only able to proceed past these battles by spending a large amount of extra time gathering coins to buy flash bombs to spam at the slightest hint of a Spirit’s bomb frenzy where a single missed gesture will result in a one-hit do-over. All of the game’s technical issues pale in comparison to this horribly frustrating section.

There is no doubt that Lili is a fine example of how far the technology, art, and style of video games has come on mobile platforms. It is unfortunate that final product feels like it was rushed out the door in the home stretch to make its debut alongside Apple’s latest incarnation of its flagship Jesus phone. Even with her technical complications and bad habit of constantly being one idea short of a good time, Lili is a girl iOS gamers should make time for.

Lili is available as a unified app via iTunes for $4.99 for iPhone 4 and iPad 2 or newer devices running iOS 4.0 or higher. Reviewed on iOS 5.1.1 iPad 2.

Reviewer Rating : 4/5 Stars – An Unforgettable, if Temperamental, Summer Fling


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