With iOS gaming rapidly devolving into a disquieting mess of microtransactions and gurning cartoon characters, Call of Cthulhu: The Wasted Land is an exceptionally timely mobile offering.
A clearly passionate return to a (to some extent) bygone era of deeply tactical turn-based gaming, of the mid-1990s kind perhaps best exemplified by the likes of X-COM, Jagged Alliance and (classic, turn-based) Fallout, The Wasted Land is a full-fat videogame rather than an exercise in mere distraction or money-grubbing.
At the same time, its wry tone, knowingly silly concept and instant results save it from disappearing into a black hole of diehard-pleasing nostalgia. Some interface wobbles aside - we'll get to those shortly- this turn-based strategy-roleplaying hybrid is a reassuringly natural fit for iPhone and iPad.
The Wasted Land is set during World War 1, but the tale of stiff upper-lipped Blighty soldiers taking on the dastardly Germans swiftly gives way to a desperate defence against Lovecraftian horrors. For once, that isn't just a knee-jerk description for horror-sci-fi: The Wasted Land is officially based on the long-running and much-revered Call of Cthulhu pen and paper roleplaying game.
For all that, it's not lost to bewildering statistics - for the most part, it's about using your squad of a half-dozen soldiers and magic-wielding mystics to methodically take out invading hordes of zombies, cultists and nameless inter-dimensional horrors with a healthy selection of guns and spells. Scan the battlefield, work out what you can shoot before it munches your chaps' faces, and do your level best to manage and refresh their sanity in the face of this dark insanity.
Come the end of a level, you can upgrade your soldiers and their gear. While the interface for this stuff is clumsy and arcane - if you've not been through all the tutorials and documentation you'll have no idea, for instance, what increasing INT, POW and DEX do - it enables you to create a game that's played in the way you prefer to play it. If you want a team of magic-wielding psychics, you can turn your squad into braniacs. If you want a bunch of shotgun and heavy weapon-toting Stallones, go for it. Or, more sensibly, if you want a broad spread of abilities, you pick your specialists and carefully spend points to build a balanced team.
So, in that regard, you'll end up playing a markedly different game than anyone else who ventures into the Wasted Land will encounter. That said, it's a shame that the levels themselves are so unflinching linear. It's a standard mission-to-mission progression with fixed objectives, and by and large very samey aesthetics. The mechanics are fleshed-out and smart, but the presentation a little barebones and dated, even by iOS gaming's rarely technically-astounding standards. But it is a passion project from a small team, not an Infinity Blade-style mega-budget powerhouse, and Red Wasp have pulled off a deep and nuanced game that feels a long way ahead from most of the iOS pack in terms of realising traditional gaming values on a mobile platform.
It's admittedly a little hard to forgive the game being released in an essentially unplayable state, but that the developers were lightning quick to fix it (Apple's torturously slow certification process aside) bodes well for their fixing the remaining interface niggles in the not-too-distant. The Wasted Land can be frustratingly unresponsive, while camera controls and button feedback feel almost placeholder: The Wasted Land is certainly lacking the slickness we've come to associate with the big iOS smash hits.
Still, if that's the price to be paid for a proper, thoughtful and imaginative iOS game that doesn't bow to the dark gods of microtransactions and lowest common denominator audiences, it's well worth it.