Gadgetorama reviews Spb AirIslands from Spb Software House

 

Introduction

Imagine a world that has fractured into thousands of fragments called AirIslands that orbit around an ancient castle. Once that world was whole thanks to gravitators, towers that controlled the integrity of that magic world. When one failed, it caused a chain reaction, causing the other gravitators to fail and triggering earthquakes that ripped the world apart. At the end, the only building left standing was the Castle where the Elders lived. Around the island it stands on circle thousands of smaller fragments of that world. The Elders have decided to rebuild their world by restoring the gravitator network. To do so, hundreds of volunteers have stepped forward. Each was given an island where they had to restore life and repair the gravitator. You are one of these volunteers in AirIslands by Spb Software House.

Spb AirIslands brings together elements from a number of different game genres. First, it is a simulation game where you develop your island by collecting resources that you use to develop your island. It adds an element of arcade games with its supporting games that you play to collect the resources. It also connects you to the Spb AirIsland online community where you can contribute to the reconstruction of the entire world.

Title screen Introduction New game
Figure 1: Title screen Figure 2: Introduction Figure 3: New game

Installation

I ran into a small installation problem the first time I installed the game. The installation process froze towards the end, leaving a dialog box open that told me that the game was writing information to later allow for the removal of the game. After five minutes of inaction, I closed the dialog box. The game ran without issue when I started it up and I could see it in the list of installed programs that I could remove.

Sometime later, a hard reset of my iPAQ forced me to reinstall Spb AirIslands. I had no issues installing the game to an SD card this time around.

The installation will provide a shortcut to the main game as well as the supporting games that it comes with.

The QVGA version requires almost 20MB of storage space and the VGA version needs almost 30MB. This is not a small game by any stretch.

Building our AirIsland

When starting a new game, you will get a quick background history (Figure 2) that sets the story.

Now, it’s time to start work on our island. When the game begins, the interface is dominated by your island which takes up most of the screen. At the top of the screen, you have a clock and calendar day, a summary of the resources available to you, your inbox and summary button. On the bottom, you have three tabs. The Build tab contains all the structures that you can build on your island and the Earn menu is used to trigger the mini-games and the Resource Exchange. On the far right, the Menu tab gives you access to the control menu. It is a simple and intuitive layout; it’s unlikely that you will not find what you are looking for. And if you do, there is an excellent help file to help you along.

Your AirIsland will be completely barren except for the ruins of the gravitator in one corner (Figure 3) when you start a new game. In the distance you will see the castle of The Ancients lost in the clouds and some other air islands. Already you will see the level of detail that has been put in this game with the moving clouds.

First house
Figure 4: The first house
Repairs
Figure 5: Repairs
Mailbox
Figure 6: Mailbox

You will to start by getting some Little Island People (LIPs) as they are referred to at the Spb AirIsland website. To do so, your first structure should be a house. To build any structure, you select it from the Build menu. Each type of structure has some resource requirements and some are not be available until late in the game. If you’re short some resources or have not achieved the minimum level required for that structure, the game won’t let you build it.

In Figure 4, you can see the resources required to build a house. The house will also blink dark blue to indicate that it is possible to build it where it is located. If I put it on a spot where it cannot be built (for example, over the Gravitator), it will not blink. You can get information about what a house will bring to your island (by clicking on the blue i. For example, houses increase island population and allow LIPs to perform jobs like cutton wood and sweeping to earn gold. Structures can also influence your overall Pollution, Economy and Happiness scores (more on that later). The building of structures is animated and it is fun to watch your structures get built up as time passes.

As soon as your first LIP appears on the island, they will get to work and start earning gold for you. You will need that gold to repair the Gravitator as well as buy new structures. Gold is also used to perform maintenance on structures as they wear down over time (Figure 5).

You will find that there is a variety of structures that you can build. Some will allow your LIPs to earn more money than they would working in a house, others will affect your island’s happiness, pollution and economy scores. Remember that the goal is to repair the Gravitator. For example, the first level of repair requires 3000 pieces of gold. It only gets harder from there.

Gold is not the only resource that is available. To build and maintain your structures, you will also need water, bricks and wood. We’ll come back to those a bit later.

Spb AirIslands is a great simulation game. Aside from juggling your needs with your resources, you also have to contend with the effects your construction has on the island and its population. The structures you build also influence your economy, happiness, pollution scores. Higher economies will cause your LIPs to earn more gold. Happiness, as the name implies, measures how happy your LIPs are. The happier they are, the more work they will do each day. Pollution is caused by man-made structures. The higher the pollution, the faster your structures will degrade, needing more repairs. You will find that each gravitator repair introduces more pollution that will need to be carefully managed.

As I mentioned earlier, the passage of time plays a role in the game. You will see the island get dark as night falls and lighter again as a new day starts. Not only does the passage of time make the game more visually attractive but it also introduces another layer of challenge into the game (aside from the need to ensure that structures are repaired). Just how fast can you win the game? Even after your finish your first game, you will likely go back and try new strategies to see if you can win in a faster timeframe.

But Spb AirIslands is not perfect. I found that the game pace slowed down in the latter stages of the game. There is limited real estate and you will need to figure out who to best make use of it. For example, you may find that you will demolish older structures to make room for new ones unlocked at higher levels. But once your island is full and you are happy with the mix of structures you have, you will be left with nothing to do but repairs, collect more resources and watch your LIPs go through their day to day activities. Often, I found myself using the fast forward option at that point, simply doing repairs as needed and waiting for the gold to roll in so that I could complete the next Gravitator repair.

You’ve got mail

There is no running away from email. Even in AirIslands you have an inbox and you will receive regular emails (Figure 6). There is a daily email that will provide a summary of your island statisticsn and resource levels. Each time you finish a game and return to AirIslands, an email will let you know how many resources have been added to your reserves. Let repairs lapse and your population will remind you that they need to be done. Other events such as Gravitator repairs will also trigger emails.

Like your real life inbox, you can choose to keep emails or delete them. I found that this email system worked well to provide you with a brief history of your island. You can easily look back to see when you reached certain milestones or see what you did on a particular day.

Getting resources

In many strategy games, resources are secured by your population and the various improvements you add. Not so in Air Islands. Here it’s up to you to secure most of the resources you need to develop your island. Four resources exist: Money, water, bricks, and wood. Only the first is earned by the LIPs and it’s up to you to do the work to collect the latter three. Each one has a corresponding game: Spb Bubbles for water, Spb Arkaball II for bricks and Spb Xonix II for wood. The better you play these small games, the more resources your LIPs and you will have to rebuild your island.

The games can be launched directly from within AirIslands or separately. When a mini-game is launched from within AirIslands, you are automatically returned to the main game when you close it.

Spb Bubbles

To collect water, you use your crossbow to shoot water bubbles up to arrange them in groups of three or more of the same colour so that they pop and disappear (Figure 7). The objective is to clear the screen of all the bubbles. Variants of this game have been around for a long time; it’s quite likely that you have played something very similar in the past.

Some balls come with special abilities, adding a small twist to the game but none are particularly new.

Bubbles Arkaball II Xonix II
Figure 7: Spb Bubbles Figure 8: Spb Arkaball II Figure 9: Spb Xonix II

Spb Arkaball II

This Breakout variant (Figure 8) has you using a ball to demolish walls of brick to move to the next level. There are different types of bricks (eg bombs that blow up when hit to destroy neighbouring bricks, steel bricks that will need to be hit several times) as well as power-ups and power-downs.

This game is the easiest of the three and I found that a single game could take a long time to play (sometimes far too long). It also generated the most resources (comparably to the other games).

Spb Xonix II

A clone of the venerable Qix game (Figure 9), the object of the game is to cut the wood using a laser to remove enough to move up to the next level. Complicating this are objects that you cannot touch. Balls, nails and magnets among others are all lethal to your laser. Power-ups like an extra life or the snowflake help things go in your favour. And be careful for knots in the wood, they will slow you down!

I found that this was the hardest game to play, either with the stylus and the d-pad. And the speed-up power-up made the laser nearly uncontrollable; I shied away from that one!

When you finish with any of the resource games, you will be returned to your AirIsland. The resource counters are automatically updated and you will shortly also receive a Resource Income email telling you how much you earned and what your new total is.

Resource Market

Fortunately, if there is one game that you don’t like or simply are not good at, the Resource Market will help you have to play it less. As the name implies, this market lets you trade resources for others. The only catches are that you cannot trade resources to receive gold (although you can trade away gold) and the amount of resources are limited. They do get renewed regularly but you may still have to play that game you don’t like if you can’t or don’t want to wait.

Verdict: Been there, seen that, played that

None of the three games bring anything original to the table. Spb Software House has done a great job with the graphics but I found nothing new or compelling about them. If my LIPs did not need the resources, I doubt I would have played any of these for more than a few minutes. If there is to be an update to this game in the future, offering more original games would really help Spb Air Islands stand out even more.

Winning the game

You’ve won the game when you complete the repairs on your Gravitator. As you would expect, each level of repair gets progressively harder and you may find yourself having to make compromises to make sure that the criteria to allow the repair are met. For example, not only each gravitator repair requires certain amount of money but you will also need to meet happiness, pollution and economy requirements.

After all the attention paid to the game details, I expected a little more to the victory celebrations than a single dialog box (Figure 10).

You can upload your winning game to Spb AirIsland web site where a screenshot or your island and game stats will be available for all to see. You can also check out other people’s islands to see how you compare against them.

The one downside to uploading your island to the site is that it must be done through your computer. There is no direct upload from your device.

Spb AirIslands victory screen
Figure 10: Victory

Controls

The main game is played with the stylus. You will use it for everything from the management of your island to getting updates and going through your emails. For the small games, you can play with either the d-pad or the stylus. With my iPAQ, I found the same frustrations that I have with other games. This is not a limitation of the game but rather of my device. If you have had trouble with your controls with other games, chances are that you won’t like them any better for the Spb AirIslands resource games.

Graphics, Sounds and Music

The graphics are Spb AirIsland’s crowning achievement. Spb Software House has managed to cram an impressive amount of detail into a small screen and small objects. The LIPs are fully animated and you can watch them make their way to work, sweep, and enter and exit houses. Smoke rises out of chimneys, bugs dance around the house lights at night, clouds move across the sky, windmill blades turn, you can watch buildings get built and trees grow and still more. The first few times that you play the game, you will find yourself watching all that goes on. Very impressive!

If you’re lucky enough to have a VGA device, you’re in for an even better treat as the sharper resolution will give you an even better look at all that takes place.

Spb Software House has also included a setting that allows you to dial down the animation elements to ensure smooth gameplay if your device lacks the processing power to manage all the animations. Fortunately, I experienced no such problems on my iPAQ.

Spb Software House has also done a great job with the sounds. The game is as rich with sound effects as it is with visual effects. You will hear your LIPs build their structures, crickets chirp at night and sounds will let you know when gold is earned or a new email arrives.

The background music is limited and I found myself turning it off after a while. While not unpleasant, it got tiresome and unnecessary. Fortunately, you can turn it down or off independently of all the other game sounds.

Other Features

In the Spb AirIslands options, you will find that you can run the game as a screensaver. This is not just a little animation about the game but is actually your island running on auto-pilot essentially. One word of warning though, you still need to keep an eye on things as structures will deteriorate over time (like in the game) so you could come back to a bit of a mess if you’re not careful (as I did in one early game).

The game comes with a basic menu of setting options that you can control. You can name your island (A nice feature if you upload your island later). I already mentioned that you can control the level of graphic detail. Aside from the preset low, medium and high, you also get a custom option that allows you to control the level of detail in the sky, at night and can also show you the frames per second. The latter is useful to let you tweak the performance of the game. After all, pretty graphics but lousy performance can spoil a game. Nice touch!

I mentioned earlier that you can upload your completed island to a web site dedicated to Spb AirIslands. If you visit the site, you will also find forums with a wealth of information and tips.

As with other sim games, this is not a game that you will finish in one sitting. Fortunately, when you exit the game, it is saved automatically for you and the next time you start the game up, you simply resume from exactly where you left off.

The game has been extremely stable and only once did I experience a lockup. It took place while I was reading my game mail. I was never able to reproduce it.

What I liked

  • Beautiful graphics
  • Interesting story line
  • Fun and challenging simulation game

What I did not like

  • Resource games are simplistic
  • Running out of real estate
  • You can only have one island on the go

Summary

Spb AirIslands is an exceptional game. The graphics are quite impressive (I would love to have a VGA device to play this game) and you will find yourself just watching what goes on at times. It packs an impressive level of detail into a small screen. The game also strikes a good balance between being too easy and being overly challenging and you will find yourself playing it over and over as you try to get your winning game time down. Having said that, it is not without its drawbacks. The biggest of these is the resource games. While sharing the same impressive graphics as the main game, they are simply rehashed versions of some old games. Given the quality of the rest of the game, I’m surprised that Spb Software House would not have come up with something more innovative here.

Aside from the resource games, there is little in this game that I would improve. One area of improvement would be to look at how to make the latter game stages less uneventful. Perhaps the addition of random events (natural disasters for example) would add another wrinkle to the game. I would also like to have the ability to play and save multiple games. Right now, you can only play a single game and if you decide to start a new game, there is no way of saving your previous game.

All in all, Spb AirIslands deserves a spot on your mobile device if you like simulation games.

Rating

4 out of 5

Where can I get it?

You can purchase Spb AirIslands for $19.95 USD from our affiliate Clickgamer. A trial version is also available.