For those who crave something a little more old-school in their mobile RPG experience, the Gurk series provides a decidedly retro experience inspired by the likes of older ‘Ultima’ titles and replicates the trappings of a Commodore 64 game.
Larva Labs has a rich history with the Gurk series and mobile that pre-dates most current development teams. Starting back in a pre-smartphone era with the original Gurk that managed to provide over 15 hours of questing for an unthinkable 64K, before shifting attention to Android (where games one through three can be found) and finally releasing the third instalment onto iOS devices. Primarily an Android orientated company with a wide range of products, most of which non-game related (the series isn’t mentioned at all on their new website in fact), Gurk is the faux-retro trilogy that has become something of a hidden classic. We have been playing the games in reverse order (starting with the release of Gurk III on iOS and then back-peddling through the other two entries in the series) so this game will be judged on its own merits instead of as an entry into a trilogy.
Visually the title’s most distinctive feature is its HUD, which replicates the feel of a fictional handheld system called the ‘Lavatron 86’, a fusion of the classic Game Boy and Commodore 64 that has a square screen and nine face buttons. Graphically the game uses a 7×7 grid structure to create its world and features excellent sprite-work that replicates a vintage feel whilst using a more modern colour palette to keep things looking vibrant. Sprites and backgrounds are not animated, however the world is well depicted and huge in scale, giving the player the kind of freedom he/she rarely sees in a modern RPG. Characters are charming and players can select their party’s visual identities in groups of three, allowing for limited customisation in this regard. Menus on-screen are unobtrusive to the action and the nine-button setup below more than covers most tasks. If your taste in retro-games goes back further than the NES, this game will appeal to you in a big way. For other’s it’s an intriguing look at how things used to be that carries off the atmosphere with style.
Sound takes advantage of the more advanced platform to produce something that is akin to an older title’s music (Midi and Chip tune orientated) but has a little more clarity and depth to it. The opening screen has an enchanting theme that goes on longer than usually seen in this kind of title and features a surprising amount of depth before looping seamlessly. Tapping the face buttons doesn’t produce any sound, but battles use small sound effects for movement and attacks that are unobtrusive and allow an excellent battle theme to take centre stage. This title actually features a number of excellent musical tracks that stand up well on their own and each location has its own key piece of music associated with it.
Narratively the title starts out quite weakly, but in the firmest tradition of the early WRPG genre. Your custom-selected party of three adventurers are newcomers to a town in an unknown Kingdom. Upon arriving they discover that the locals are troubled by the monster population of a local cave and before you can say ‘cliché’ the team are on their way to clean it out. Much like the original ‘Final Fantasy’ or ‘Dragon Quest’ however, you’d be a fool to head straight there with a weak party. From here it’s a town to town romp that sees multiple quests undertaken and the world map explored. If you’re looking for a deeply involving plot full of suspense and character interaction then this is not the title for you, what it excels at is setting up a narrative reason to go from A to B and explore a new area of the game.
Gameplay ultimately boils down to clever use of the nine button system that the developers have put into place for this title. Everything from controlling characters for exploration and combat, transitioning through a menu and talking to NPCs works through this device. In an age of touch and controller based titles, nine buttons may seem like a lot, but this game is emulating a style of play that often required the use of a full keyboard (Apple II, Commodore 64, Amiga games, etc) and there’s never a moment that an option you’d want or require isn’t freely to hand. The games cast is always set at a warrior, archer and mage dynamic, however you select which of the three characters for each role you’d like to employ at the games start and roll their stats, generating strengths and weaknesses or having overall weaker characters with no real holes but a lack of specialism. From here you’re dropped into the game and it’s up to you as the player to explore and survive the world that the developers have created. Combat is tactical in nature, with each character allotted a single action each turn and characters taking on multiple enemies, usually outnumbering the party. Turn based in style, actions include movement, meaning that moving and attacking isn’t possible, so clever positioning for defence and offence is key to victory. Encounters are usually random on the map or in dungeons, but the game does occasionally visually denote monsters for you to tackle when grinding (and grind you will, even the first dungeon provides a challenge, there’s no hand holding or padding here) and there are a good variety of types within monster classes, keeping players entertained with a large roster of enemies. Characters can be equipped with six pieces of class specific equipment and special items and each have a limited inventory space, meaning that you’ll be micro-managing a party and unable to bulk-buy potions to power through scenarios as you could in titles like ‘Final Fantasy’. Where the game really shines is in its magic, with dull healer-inspired moves coupled with vibrant and interesting spells such as the ability to summon a rat-monster onto your side of the group for a temporary fourth party member. Imaginative use of the setting helps set the game apart from the often dull tropes of the early RPG genre and taps into the kind of imagination used in titles such as ‘Wizardry’ or ‘Ultima’. The game does however only offer a single save file, making it impossible to test out multiple party builds over the long term, and only plays in 2x mode on iPads, which can look a little fuzzy on otherwise sharp pixel graphics.
Overall, Gurk III stands alone extremely well, requiring no prior knowledge of the other two games into the trilogy and was the right choice for solo release onto the iOS market. After a slight bug on launch for older phones of over 3Gs age (where the HUD wouldn’t load properly, obscuring the screen and making the game unplayable), the title quickly saw fixing and became incredibly stable, with no apparent bugs or crashes when multitasking. It’s a great fit for mobile because of the drop in, drop out nature of experiencing a quick battle and saving before getting on with other things, and tackling a dungeon over half an hour or so makes for more gripping longer sessions. At a low sale price, small space required for install and being high in quality content, I’d advise people to purchase a copy of this game immediately.