Though we’ve lived with mobile gaming for well over a decade now, the past year has seen the biggest push for iOS gaming to gain greater critical relevance. The impact the iPhone has had on gaming on the go (and our wallets) is inarguable, but recent years had seen the app store sink into a microtransaction led mire chocked full of too many titles that you’d never find time for. Thankfully, all of that is changing.
Pascal’s Wager isn’t a part of the Apple Arcade subscription service that has helped reinvigorate mobile gaming, but it follows in its wake. Out now for iOS and coming later this year to Android, a mobile Souls-like in and of itself isn’t a revolutionary idea, but when one comes along with production values that bring the format closer than ever to console quality, it’s perhaps time to reconsider everything you think you know about gaming on a phone.
Pascal’s Wager probably shouldn’t work. A genre that’s reliant on moment to moment control and wafer-thin windows between success and defeat is not something that you probably fancy playing with touchscreen controls and smudgy fingerprints of doom. Fortunately they’re no longer the only option, and if you’ve got iOS 13 installed and something Bluetooth enabled to hand, like an Xbox One controller or a DualShock 4, then you’re all set for modern mobile gaming. Propping up an iPad on the arm of a sofa, or using a claw to attach a phone to the controller, things suddenly don’t feel as far away from console gaming as you might think.
Part of that is due to how solid Pascal’s Wager feels. Third person controls function as you’d expect, and they’ve undoubtedly mimicked the weight of Dark Souls movement as opposed to the swifter feel of Bloodbourne. Attacks, dodges and parries are limited by the amount of stamina your character has, so each encounter needs to be thought out, attack patterns learnt, timings mastered, and you need to know when to hold back and when to weigh in.
As a Souls-like, Pascal’s Wager has the basics down. Regular enemies can chew through half your health bar in no time at all, and if you take the wrong route through the crushingly grim landscape then you could easily come up against something you’re just not ready for.
Pascal’s Wager also does a great job of imitating the multi-path set up that the genre is known, bringing things full circle on a regular basis with a newly opened gate or reachable ladder. It’s here though that imitation does little to flatter the iOS game, and at times the consistently grey landscape of the opening hours offer too few landmarks to distinguish where you are in relation to where you were. You will get by, but a few more key indicators would have helped.
The setting fits the narrative though, with this bleak, fog-covered world having lost its sun, replaced instead by the enigmatic Colossi – Ent-like beings with glowing globes clasped in their tendrils, and whose light is the only thing to keep the fog at bay. Terrence, the central character, is travelling Solas as a Courier, a tool of the Church, though he’s soon sidelined by the appearance of his estranged wife Teresa who’s tangled up in some supernatural goings on of her own.
The chunky character style bears plenty of similarities with those of Games Workshop’s Warhammer, and I could well imagine a dark tabletop campaign with Terrence and his companions at its centre. You’re accompanied on your travels by Viola, a blunderbuss-toting exile from the Church, the mysterious Norwood, and Benita, who’s probably the toughest nun you’ll ever meet outside of a preparatory convent school.
While Pascal’s Wager can feel like Dark Souls 101 at times – you rest at altars, and doing so respawns all the enemies in an area – it has enough of its own ideas to earn itself some credit. The sanity system for example affects your characters in different ways. As you engage in combat with horrifying creatures you steadily lose your sanity until you become abnormal, reducing your health and increasing your damage.
You can take potions to combat the effect, but it can still all becomes too much for you, taking you off to lunatic levels. It’s a very nicely thought out system, and beyond its gameplay implications it adds some humanity to characters that aren’t capable of simply wading through the horrific sights around them.
Once you’ve met each of your companions you’re able to take them into battle with you, essentially giving you an extra life. It’s the first softening of the Souls formula, and while it definitely doesn’t make Pascal’s Wager a walkover, it brings a completely new aspect to how you approach encounters, particularly the boss fights. Each character boasts their own unique strengths and weaknesses, as well as their own individual weaponry, which helps to keep things interesting when you might be tiring of the landscape.
Unlike any game that From Software might put out, Tipsworks Studios have included an ‘easy’ mode that allows you to enjoy the story without having to put in the time with the combat. It’s definitely nice to have the option – do you hear that From? – but the standard of storytelling doesn’t quite sell the idea, and you’re losing the real star of the show; the combat.