Choices is a hub app containing multiple choose your own adventure novels that range at launch between detective, romance and fantasy tales. The Crown and Flame, the fantasy novel in this opening line-up is the subject our our particular attention.
Whilst Choices acts as a hub through which different stories can be accessed episodically on a chapter by chapter basis (with more content dropping at regular intervals) the games within its line-up thus far have all used the same general rules and engine, which means that playing The Crown and Flame in addition to multiple introduction chapters of its other launch titles gives us the benefit of being able to comment in confidence on the play style of Choices titles. The trapping surrounding these foundations are vastly different between books however and later releases may be able to make considerably more of the framework.
Graphically the Crown and Flame features some lovingly drawn western artwork that has a painted style to it, featuring detailed character portraits and beautifully illustrated location backgrounds. Artwork is 2D and static throughout, but is moved across the screen and interacted with in such a manner as to feel dynamic. Graphically this title isn’t a powerhouse, but it does adequately illustrate its world and cast in a likable manner. The trappings of the menu and user interfaces have some small animated elements (a glimmer to portrait frames when they appear, etc) and are well spaced so as to not overlap important images on screen or break immersion whilst being easy to tap with a finger on even smaller screens.
Musical interludes are quite rare and used for dramatic emphasis rather than painting a picture of the mood in a scene, these are short, looping instances that hammer home events such as horrible decisions made by the villain or moments of heart-stopping terror for the heroine. Sound effects are almost non-existent, with dialogue unvoiced (which is never a bad thing on a mobile title as it keeps the file size down and allows you to imagine the inflection of scenes for yourself) and decisions largely go unmarked by tones, which can occasionally be disconcerting. That said the game quickly leaps into action to show you the ramifications of any decision you make on screen, so you always know which option you’ve picked.
The Crown and Flame is a light epic-fantasy story in the vein of David Gemmell novel with additional layers of romance stirred into the mixture to help appeal to the usual visual novel crowd. These elements are played up at the games start but quickly fade into the background once a tale of political intrigue and war begins. Without spoiling any details, as the story is the main draw in an interactive experience of this kind, the game takes the player on two parallel journeys by splitting the narrative between two characters. A princess trying to retake her kingdom and her childhood friend and potential love interest, who remained behind and has untrained magical powers. Both sides of the story progress quickly and remain interesting throughout, with player input often called for, which leads us neatly into gameplay mechanics.
The game alternates between lengthy character dialogue, descriptive text and player choices in order to tell its story. Choices are presented as dialogue options or visual aids, which the player can quickly tab, and some of these decisions must be made under strict time limits – especially those related to combat actions. The game makes use of two key stats that influence decision possibilities assuming that you have made choices to boost them high enough to meet certain threshholds. These are displayed as bars on the top of the screen and correspond to a character each, acting in essentially the same manner for either character. Additional conversation options and actions in scenes that make for more game-changing events are unlocked in this manner. These are supported by a number of hidden stats that also effect outcomes, such as the number of troops at your command, weapons at your disposal, romance points with a certain character and levels of trust. For the most part it does feel like there’s a very direct route through the game that a player should be sticking to. This is illustrated best in moments where one of three answers is correct to forward the plot and the other two lead to character death. Luckily the game always resets back to your last choice moment to allow you to continue forward, and these are few and far between. Completing chapters will give you an option to replay in order to better your scores as all stats build towards a final conflict and you’ll want everything at hand when the time for your decisive action arrives. A key will then unlock the next chapter and a small amount of premium currency will be dropped into your pool. This is where the games free roots begin to become apparent as some story content is locked behind a pay wall that premium currency is necessary to unlock. I had enough on a playthrough to unlock an optional scene that gave my princess an alternate and more powerful weapon for combat, but had to skip a later optional flashback scene that would have detailed more about the connection between the two leading characters. Ideally a pay-once title in their vein would have everything available to the player, but having to pick and choose what you decided is important enough to spend that premium currency on and what you can let slide makes the story more personal to the player in a way. Those who want to see everything can of course buy extra currency as they need it, though this could end up as a pricey venture for a completest.
Overall this is a well written and deftly handled entry into the genre and the Choices framework manages to keep the balance between game and novel fairly well handled. As a free install on iOS and Android we’d recommend anyone with an interest in the genre, or wanting a soft entry into it, pick up the app immediately. Be warned however, the game does require an internet connection in order to play which can be counterproductive to where you are when you want to read.