Mobile touchscreen games can often be accused of doing too much. Immersive storylines and complex controls are all well and good, but these do not translate well to small screens obscured by thumbs clawing at virtual sticks. As I noted when discussing my game of 2012 Super Hexagon, the best mobile games are proving to be those that run with a single refined concept with simplistic on/off controls, and Kevin Ng’s Impossible Road is the latest title to show how mobile touchscreen gaming can also be hardcore.
A word of warning, though: you might hate this game. I get the feeling that there’s no middle ground with Impossible Road, and this is probably how you’ll start out, thumbs pressing hard into your screen, willing your ever-rolling ball to just bank harder dammit. However, give it time, learn what it really wants from you, and the shiny claws of addiction soon take firm hold.
The concept of Impossible Road is simple enough: a clean blue-on-white title screen takes you straight into the game, an unbordered white sphere rolling down a twisting blue path. Visually it’s very striking, looking like a Tron universe version of a marble rollercoaster, and is underscored by a pulsing soundtrack. If your ball falls off track and far enough into the void, whiteout rushing up to meet you with the same growing audio scream from Mirror’s Edge, it’s game over and back to a screen which simply asks, “Again?”. Scoring is based on number of gates rolled through, each growing in number by one. In these first few minutes you’ll spend more time tumbling into space than staying on track, swearing at the injustice, scoring never threatening to raise up into double figures.
There’s one extra score on your game over screen, however, and it’s this that points you towards the secret heart of the game. “Total Jumped”, with “Best Jump”, seem at first to be random numbers that doesn’t seem connected to gameplay at all. The moment it clicks – perhaps when the whole game clicks – is when you work this out. What this tally counts is not really small jumps – of which there are many – but more the leaps from one section of track down to the next. If you fall off track, your whiteout death can be instantly interrupted if you make contact with another piece of track. Moreover, the “Best Jump” counter keeps track of how many gates you jump – it’s possible, for example, to go from 3 to 22 points with a carefully controlled set of tense descents. It’s here that addiction kicks in. Your focus shifts from controlling the sphere along the twists and turns to always keeping an eye below your current level, looking for an opportunity to take a short cut and desperately aiming for the score gates to make the risks actually worthwhile. It’s a frenetic, tense experience where breathing becomes secondary.
There’s definitely an element of blind luck that perhaps removes it from a being an exercise of pure skill and, more often than not, you’ll completely misjudge a fall and end up with that question, “Again?”. However, it carries that secret element where you start becoming sure of how you can drop further next time, and your slowly rising score give this even more emphasis. You could hate it, of course, but there’s a very strong chance that you might discover a mobile game that bares the same hardcore teeth as the sublime Super Hexagon. At just $1.99, that’s worth a drop.