The Ancients AR

The Ancients AR – Game Review (iOS)

The Ancients AR is a real-time strategy augmented reality game (developed using ARKit), although it can also be played in regular mode as well. In this game,

The game tells the story of a young heir who inherits who become a king of one of the three kingdoms, Shindao. The three kingdoms have been locked in perpetual war, the player plays as a king whom his kingdom, The king was far from being peaceful and he wasn’t about to change his plan until his devastating future was shown to him. It’s only then that the king has devoted to change his fate

Overview

Amazing home screen in AR
That’s how you design an amazing home screen in AR!

The Ancients AR gameplay follows a 16-chapter story-based campaign, where the player command fleet of diverse ships and ancients creature to defeat the invaders who invaded his kingdom.

The Ancients AR is a real-time strategy game wherein each level, players will need to control multiple naval units and mythical ancients creatures in order to complete an objective.  These objectives can be, for example, destroying an enemy’s catapult unit, escort a ship safely to a designated location, eliminate all enemy units on the map, etc.

As the player progresses, he or she will be able to unlock new naval units and ancients. Naval units can be upgraded both before the match using points and also during the battle by collecting upgrade items. For ancients, players can unlock new abilities, upgrade them and also upgrade the ancients stats which includes attack speed, health, and attack damage.

Ancients are powerful creatures that once deployed, can support the player in obtaining his objectives. For example, Ataju is a samurai looking giant that can deal massive damage by either slashing enemies with his katana sword or when leaping towards enemies. He can also heal nearby units or in predesignated location.

Restoring ships health using the ancient healing ability
Restoring ships health using the ancient healing ability

Yamar is a freezing ancient that can freeze enemies, strike enemies with lighting bold or invoke rain of ice shards that deal massive damage. My favorite is actually Ahir, that can call a fire-spitting dragon that flies across the battlefield and deals damage to any enemy in his path.

Upon level completion, players will receive blue shards which they can use to upgrade their ancients. Furthermore, as they progress, they will be able to have more default unit/upgrade points which they can use to assemble their fleet. The player has a total of 8 unit slots and can assign the same or different unit to each one. Each unit cost coins, upgrading a unit increase its cost. The player needs to decide how to spend the available coins to be able to achieve the level objectives.

Gameplay

Before each level, players need to assemble their fleet. Once ready, the game begins. At the start of the game, you’ll be given the option to choose the size of the game board. You can move it and resize it and overall I found the AR initialization process to be very clear and easy to use. A second later I was already in the game.

Two upgrades ships surrounding an enemy ship
Two upgrades ships surrounding an enemy ship

When the game starts, you get to see your fleet arranges in a line in one of the sides of the map. Controlling the ship is straightforward. You need to either tap the ship unit or its card on the button left to select it. To move a ship, you select it and then tap a location on the map where you want it to move, and it moves automatically to that location.

Let’s check out some gameplay action before we move on.

Each ship has its own unique attacks. For example, the Falcon ship (Shinado Kingdom) can travel very fast and automatically attacks nearby enemies. The Turtle ship (Sindao Kingdom) has the ability to activate smoke screen that slows down the enemy. The Manticore (Alzahir kingdom) is a powerful ship that can shoot exploding missiles but requires aiming. To aim, the user needs to hold and drag the cannons towards a certain location. Most of the ships require a manual action to trigger its dedicated mechanic.

I found the controls to be quite uncomfortable. I’ve played the game on the table in the living room. When the ships were crowded, I found it troublesome to accurately select a ship and I incorrectly tapped on another unit instead.  I didn’t like the unit selection tabs either, because, in the hit of the fight, it becomes uncomfortable to tap, look at the highlighted unit, choose an action and repeat that process over again for several units. I The large sea level design is indeed impressive, and I can understand that the developer wanted to deliver the feeling of a large open sea space. However, because of that, the size of the unit turned out to be relatively very small, therefore making controlling the unit a quite annoying task.

Another problem I’ve noticed is that when ships are cramped together in a tiny space and blocking each other, they can’t automatically maneuver themselves out. For example, when I assigned a target location to a ship, if the straight path was blocked, the ship would just stay in place until the path is cleared, instead of just taking an indirect path. This is very annoying when you need to quickly manage many ships and apply actions to them. I found myself spending a lot of time trying to move the ships out from the situations they were tangled in.

The good news is that the game features a slow down button that can slow down the game pace until almost a complete hold. It is there to make it easier for players to make a smart tactical decision in the hit of the battle.  So I use it when the ships got into a mass and I needed to manually override their navigation path in order for them to be able to sail to a certain location.

As the battle progresses, you’ll notice different items spread on the map. Some of them are placed before the rounds start. These are coins which you can collect and the ship that collects it can be upgraded (depends on the cost, some require more coins than others). Furthermore, a ship can be upgraded a few times, improving its stats.

Level Design

Each level has its own objectives. Sometimes it’s protecting a ship or a bunch of ships, in other levels you’ll just need to eliminate all enemy ships to win the match. I like having different objectives, it actually made the game more interesting but also demand different fleet setup in order to finish the level.

Beautiful open sea level design
Beautiful open sea level design

For example, in one of the levels, I had to protect a spy ship. I the first attempt I was using slow-moving powerful ships and by the time my ships were able to get to the spy ship, which was on the middle of the map, it was already eliminated by the enemy. What I did was to change to fast-moving ships, like the Falcons and I was able to reach there in time and eliminate the enemy ships that attacked it.

One problem that I’ve noticed while playing is the relatively long gameplay session length. I can estimate about 5 minutes gameplay session length on average and the last level took me 9:30 minutes to complete, almost 10 minutes. I definitely felt my hand aching and felt a great deal of discomfort playing with my iPad. It might be less prominent using a phone and I personally do recommend taking a break every few levels.

Although I didn’t like the boats looking quite small on the big map, having a large map allowed me to maneuver far from enemies when I needed. There are also islands which act as obstacles, which you can use it in a tactical way, in order to avoid direct fire or to evade enemies while collecting coins upgraded your ships.

One of the levels, the once with the glaciers, had a huge glacier positioned right in front of my face, which was very annoying and should have been positioned elsewhere.

That being said, I found it that on most levels, I opted for my ships to stay in a group and it worked well in almost all cases.  So as a game that supposes to promote strategic thinking, I found myself just making sure that my ships are all stack together so they can deal massive damage and quickly eliminate any enemy that comes close. Still, the game did pose some difficulties, but the main reason it was hard for me to deal with them is not that of a very smart AI, but because of the awkward controls and making it easier to easily move a ship that is tangled with other ships.

Playing The Ancients AR reminded me of naval combats in the game Sid Meier’s Civilization. However, Civilization is a turn-based game, so it was designed and optimized for turn-based gameplay. However, it seems that The Ancients AR needs more pathing AI and control tweaking to make it easier to control units, especially in the hit of the battle, and that slow-down button helps but doesn’t solve the core problem.

Game Difficulty Level

This is one of the areas where I felt like the game failed to impress. I took me about 3 hours to finish the game with a few breaks while writing some notes. Overall, seems not bad, however, the game didn’t felt challenging and strategic as I imagined it to be. As a Civilization fan, I probably have my own expectations. I do also understand that the developer already stretched the limit to how long a game session can last in AR (although the game can be played without AR, it’s still the same game).

Ancient leaping towards an enemy
Ataju unleashing its Leap Attack towards enemy naval units.

IThe game session length is roughly like 4-5 minutes on average if I am getting it right.   The thing is that the pace of the game is relatively slow. Although the level isn’t limited by time, the enemies force you to react fast. Due to all that, there isn’t any too much time nor any unique gameplay mechanics to promote a balanced and satisfying strategic gameplay. In almost all levels, I was just making sure that my ships are in a group with a mission to make as much damage as possible to charge up the ancients and use them as fast as possible. I wouldn’t mind them getting damaged, because I could just deploy  ATAJU ancient and heal them really fast.

Once I unlocked Manticore ship, I just fill my fleet with those type of ships, even without upgrade (I win by the numbers) and start easily winning every level and even easily beating the last boss.

The game doesn’t boast any difficulty levels, it’s just one run and that’s it. You can continue playing the levels after you finish the game to complete all challenges, but there isn’t any meaningful challenging task that motivates you to continue playing,

Spoiler here (skip to next paragraph if you don’t like spoilers), so just skip this paragraph if you don’t like spoilers. I wanted to last boss fight to be epic, but it turned out to be so disappointing. Yes, the boss character looked nice but once I stormed my 8 manticore fleet towards him, spawned two ancients quickly, heal my units and spammed damage. It took me 9:30 minutes to complete it. It was probably one of the less unexciting final boss battle I’ve played. If it weren’t for the music, it would have felt much worse.

Graphics and Sounds

Detailed sea level designI liked the overall design of the game, starting with the beautiful AR campaign main screen to the large open sea.

Having said that, I am not a big fan of this type of large square-ish gameplay area design. The main problem I have with it is that I am usually required to play the game while pointing my device down and because of the large game size, I don’t get to fully enjoy the game as an AR game should, with virtual content mixed with the real world environment. If it was like Twilight  Pioneers: Dragon Arena it might be a different story, but it’s the same as I remember playing Tower AR (at least in its first iteration) and I remember not liking it even then.

Having said that, The Ancients AR does manage to keep it look better compared to Tower AR due to tall mountain peaks and islands that are spread in the environment.

I think that the choice of an ocean was limiting in that regard. If it was land, the designer could have more creative freedom in designing the environment. I also do understand the choice of using a square area, because the developer probably wanted to make use of every single square inch to deliver an open sea kind of feeling to the virtual environment.

Waddle Home AR game screenshot
Waddle Home AR game

I do think that the ocean could have been designed in a more interesting way. Maybe by adding some transparency to the water and adding some sea creatures and wave effects. Take a look at Waddle Home AR and the water effect there and you can see what I mean. In The Ancients AR the scene does change between levels, but the water graphics, even with the nice reflection, still look quite boring to look at. Some wave effects coming under the boast and lifting them up could have created a more visually appealing experience in my opinion. Look at what the developer of Waddle Home AR did, it added some nice glaciers at the edges and wave animations to break the sharp and flat look of the game.  The designer could have added some nice lava flowing of mountains, adding more green lands areas around the islands (to some levels), maybe some flying birds flying inside the environment, a whale showing off every now and then, etc. There are some nice environmental weather effects on some levels though.

I do have to praise the game designer for epic music, voice lines, and sound effects. At some points, the music really helped to deliver some epic and cinematic naval battle action scenes and the music helped make naval battles feel much more thrilling than they actually were.

Also speaking about graphics, I must mention the stunning illustrations that follow the storyline as the player progresses through the levels. That gave me a feeling that I am achieving something more important than just winning a battle, but having a goal of saving the kingdom. The pictures are professionally narrated and getting you more moved by what’s happening in front of you.

A few words about the UI and the standard game mode. The UI is designed well and it was easy to understand what each button does. However, I found it to take quite a big part of the screen and impairing the AR visual experience. It’s not a big issue, but it was felt. About the normal mode, I personally preferred playing the game in AR.

Conclusion

I have mixed feelings about The Ancients AR. I really liked the theme, the storyline, the beautifully illustrated pictures, the gameplay taking place in an open sea, the fantastic music and voice lines, the beautiful ancient characters,  great looking game screens (especially the original AR home screen), good visual effects, the unit upgrade system, the variety of objectives in different levels.  I mean, a lot of good things going for this game.

Having said that, there are also many things that impair the overall experience which most of them are related to the actuall gameplay itself. This includes a slow gameplay that promotes long gameplay session and lead to hand fatigue (when played with the iPad) and relatively easy campaign that didn’t require too much strategic thinking to win. I find it much less challenging as I wanted it to be. Even the boss felt like bullet sponge and the fight didn’t require any smart tactical planning.

Controlling units felt tacky and inconvenient and the tabs at the bottom, especially when there are many units didn’t make it any less confusing. Aiming and moving units felt too slow at times, also managing a fleet was slow and cumbersome. Furthermore, without grouping selection, managing 8-ship fleet felt inconvenient. The AI pathing wasn’t designed well, and let to a situation where even with a clear workaround path out, nearby ships were just stuck in place.

The Ancients AR has a pause button, but this just seems to cover some of the core problems with the game design itself. It’s like the game hasn’t decided whether it wants to be a turn-based game or real-time strategy game. In real-time strategy games where you control many units, you usually have the option to group them up. It’s not a problem when you have just a few ships, but it gets more complicated to manage with a higher number of ships. Obviously, you don’t need to manage hundreds of units like in StartCraft, but I just felt the game controls just weren’t optimized well for controlling even that amount of units, especially in the heat of the battle.

Pausing the game just hindered the real-time gameplay experience. Well, it’s not actually a pause, but a very slow-motion effect. Still, everything in the game is slowed down, including the rotation of the ships and attack controls. I just felt that I would enjoy playing it better if it was just a turn-based game. At higher stages, it becomes more annoying, because you need to repeat the same action on every ship like 8 times, relocate the ships and repeat it again, and again.

The game wasn’t challenging as I wanted it to be it felt improperly balanced.

At the later stages, I didn’t even need to think about which ships to use, I just used the 8 Manticore ships and uses Ataju healing ability to keep them alive for longer.

Part of me enjoyed it, while the other part was disappointed and annoyed. I tried to point up the things that hurt the gameplay experience for me. The standard game mode might solve some of the issues that I’ve mentioned, but that mode is far less impressive than the AR one and only recommend it if you don’t have an AR-enabled device that can run the AR mode.

It’s important to note that by the time I finished the review, a few bugs fixed and improvements were released, but the developer didn’t state what’s improved or what was fixed.

The game costs $6.99, so it’s not free. Whether I think it’s worth your time and money, my answer would be, in general, yes. This is probably one of the more impressive AR real-time strategy games on the App Store at the moment in terms of artwork, storyline, level design, and music. That being said, it seems like the game wasn’t able to stand against the weight of its own high standards, not when it comes to gameplay at least, and that what was quite frustrating to be completely honest.

Overall, a solid AR strategy game that needs improvements, mostly in the gameplay section, to reach its full potential. I will be happy to revisit this game once new updates are released.

Download The Ancients AR for iOS from the App Store here.