Retrospective reviews are for the purpose of analyzing the successes and failures of games past, for the purpose of learning lessons for game development.
How does the idea of playing a horror game for iOS where you navigate through the darkness, using only your ears appeal to you? Creepy? Fun? Novel? If you think so, Papa Sangre may be a game for you. But let’s first talk about what works for this game, and what doesn’t.
As you might expect from a game where your character is in complete darkness, the user interface is minimal. There are graphics announcing each level, your (likely) death screen, and the navigation interface.
The navigation interface is the first area where the game is lacking, but not because of the visuals. Serviceable enough, your controls are buttons for left and right foot – which you tap with your thumbs in an alternating pattern and varying speed to walk or run – and the compass across the top of the screen to alter your direction.
The problem is, the purely audio environment you’re placed into makes you want to close your eyes to play, and the controls are not conducive to that. Playing on an iPad, I found it impossible, and confirmed with someone who had played on an iPhone that they had a similar experience. Because not all iDevices have supported the same sets of features for tilt and accelerometers, it isn’t possible to guarantee compatibility with all devices if a purely motion-based control scheme (or hybrid motion/touch), but the option would have been nice for those with the hardware to support it. In addition, bringing up the menu is erratic at best (press-and-hold), and it is impossible to skip most of the repetitive scenes (like your death). Getting eaten by hogs repeatedly gets annoying very quickly.
The story is simple: a soul is in peril, and you enter the Land of the Dead to rescue that soul. Unfortunately, the rich textures of storytelling that this backdrop provides felt largely ignored. (See Grim Fandango for the ultimate game expansion on the theme.)
Gameplay-wise, the title is interesting, but ultimately I found it lacking after a short amount of playtime. Essentially the game comes down to “walk or run through an audio environment (but not too quickly, or you will fall down and be eaten by pigs or other monsters), find musical notes, and pass through to the next level.” While I was not able to play through the last three levels due to an apparently impossible scenario, and a frequency of crashes that exceeded my pain threshold, I saw no evidence of any sort of puzzle solving or other gameplay variety which spoke to me of greater depth.
On the subject of stability, a disclaimer: this is an older title on iOS. It has not been updated for iOS 6, and I’m not even certain if it was updated for iOS 5. It may have shipped in a fully stable state, but as it plays currently, on an iPad2, it was extremely prone to crashing by late-game.
So, you may be asking, why are we talking about this game?
Because the audio is superb.
Papa Sangre uses a technique known as binaural recording to produce a realistic 3D audio environment. In binaural recording, microphones are placed in the place of the ears on a mannequin head, and the sound is recorded in a manner that emulates the audio properties of human hearing. The result is a highly immersive recording.
When this technique is applied to a 3D sound engine, you are able to navigate a world entirely by what information your ears feed to your brain. The differences may seem subtle when you think about positional sound in other games, but when you need to rely on audio alone to navigate the game world, it becomes far more obvious how much difference the technology makes.
While I may have issues with the repetitive nature of the game and some of the sound effects, they are recorded and implemented extremely well. When all the pieces are put together, you have a game that sounds phenomenal.
Which, really, is the point.
At its current cost on the App Store, I cannot recommend it for non-developers, as it is essentially a long-form tech demo. However, if you are involved in the creation, design, or implementation of game audio, it is a title you should absolutely judge for yourself, and see what lessons you can come away with for your own projects.