With their latest game, it seems that State of Play are intent on building a name for themselves as pioneers of unusual and distinctive visual styles. Lumino and Lumino City both featured gorgeously constructed and videoed miniatures to provide the backdrop, Kami took inspiration from origami and the art of folding paper, and now Inks, their latest iOS game, features gorgeous splashes of colour as the visual reward for its puzzling take on pinball.
And puzzling is the operative word here, because while it has the outward appearance of a pinball game, you’re not really chasing a high score, but trying to figure out how best to trigger the pockets of coloured ink on the surface. Of course, as the levels get progressively more complex, that’s sometimes easier said than done and comes to require a lot of good timing and just a smidgeon of luck to pull off the precisely timed flip of the paddle and send the ball hurtling to your target.
And it really does reward you in a most gorgeous fashion. Every time you play a table, the result is slightly different, the colour blocks that the ball hits spurt out a jet of ink – Indian ink, most specifically – that starts to blend and mix with the neighbouring colours. The ball is coloured at the same time, and starts to leave a trail behind it as you keep trying to hit those last few blocks of colour and complete the level. Alongside the pinball table sounds, tuned percussion and plucked strings that punctuate your successes, there’s a delightful minimalist look and feel to the game that really stands out.
Initially, the tables are notable for their simplicity and ease with which you can complete them in just one or two taps, triggering all of the ink blocks before a central hole opens up to swallow the ball and end the level. However, it’s not long before they start to ramp up in complexity. Bumpers are placed to ruin the path of your ball, sink holes will gladly steal it away from you, then there’s the rail chutes, blocks that will temporarily disappear, and just some generally more awkward layouts that demand precision from your play.
If colour is your reward, then it’s black ink that is a sign of your failure. You can absolutely perfect a table, using as few flips as possible to receive a star, but it’s an exceptional achievement on some boards. In fact, just keeping the ball on the table can be an accomplishment, with no way to jog the table and try to rescue a ball that is heading straight for the gap between the flippers. Finishing with the first ball still nets you a gold, the second ball a silver and third bronze, but fourth and beyond tarnishes your efforts with a ball that is already daubed in black ink.
There’s more than a few of the tables that had me effectively capitulate and accept a black ink result, needing absolute perfection to weave the ball past some of the perils, hit a small ramp, or simply hit the wall at the right angle to gently roll through the curves on the way back. Perfecting a table or spotting the cunning trick brings a smile to my face, but it can also be quite infuriating when you just can’t quite get the right angle or the ball seemingly refuses to go to the side and the flipper that you want to be using. This most definitely is not a game that can be played with a single thumb, as you need the poise and timing to be able to tap the respective corners of the screen in a split second.
The game does briefly outline one or two techniques to help you on your way, but there’s also a pair of optional assists. One simply places a block so that the ball can no longer escape the table, while another significantly slows the game and shows the ball’s path when it is in contact with the flippers. You start with 100 free credits to spend on these – they cost 30 and 15, respectively – but microtransactions are there if you feel compelled to buy more.
It’s an option, but you’re better off simply playing the game and trying your best or accepting that you’re not good enough. You’re always welcome to skip a level and come back to it later, as none of the tables are locked behind progression walls. There’s 72 to play across the first three themed collections, while the fourth and fifth are 79p unlocks beyond the game’s initial £1.49 price.
The game’s pricing model is all perfectly fine in my books, if a little convoluted, but what I find a tad disappointing is that an iPhone 6 and an iPad Mini 2 can both judder from time to time as ink blocks are triggered and colours blended together on the fly. It’s hardly a game breaker for me and almost never gave me an excuse for letting the ball then run out of play, but a little more optimisation or a “low power” mode would be nice to see, even if it means letting people turn off some of the randomised ink elements.
But really, Inks is just a lovely game. It once again shows off State of Play’s unique flair for creating eye catching visuals, but there’s also an awful lot to like about how they’ve turned pinball away from its high score chasing roots and turned it into a reflex puzzle game.