I don’t love the flower girl: iOS game Lili is all looks
Lili by BitMonster Games is the femme fatale of gaming: She’s beautiful – one of the most beautiful games/dames you’ve ever seen – but the more you interact with her, the more things you notice that are wrong, bothersome, and unworthy of your time. It seems like something you should want, but once you have it, it’ll bring you pain and you’ll wish it was gone.
Lili uses the Unreal 3 engine to great effect, producing some impressive lighting and detailed character models. Lili herself has a cute and quirky design, with thick-rimmed glasses and an asymmetrical haircut. She’s a person, not a receptacle for sex appeal, which makes her both the kind of female character you only find from independent studios and instantly likeable.
Lili has sailed to the island of Geos in search of flowers to study for her final project at the college where she’s deeply involved in “vegi-magical studies.” She finds the island inhabited by wooden Constructs. These wooden humanoids exist at the whim of their creators, the Spirits, who rule over them for some unknown reason or purpose. The Constructs look like nutcracker soldiers, while the Spirits are reminiscient of No-Face and other Studio Ghibli creatures. The Spirits are your typical Saturday morning cartoon villains: They call people names and might threaten to poke someone, but they’re not truly menacing in any way, and the reason for this social structure is never explored.
Lili herself doesn’t seem too surprised by the fact that there are Constructs or Spirits, and soon the downtrodden Constructs are asking for her help in overthrowing their oppressive creators. Lili can explore the island’s four main areas for side quests and hidden treasure chests, or play a version of three-card Monte. Tapping the screen once causes her to walk, while two rapid taps cause her to run. Tapping once more makes her stop, and you tap a Construct once to talk to it. To look around and steer, you drag the screen as Lili walks.
Unfortunately, there are no visual cues to signal when Lili is within conversation range of a Construct, plucking range of a flower, or opening range of a chest, meaning a lot of tapping, double tapping, and tapping again to stop, hoping to be in range. Even when I was very clearly close enough to talk to a Construct, tapping the screen caused me to move instead of speak. You also double-tap to break pottery and collect the coins inside, so think about double-tapping to run toward a pot, tapping to stop, double-tapping to break it, dragging the screen to turn around, and double-tapping again. That’s a lot of taps, and that’s assuming the game reads your input correctly, which it doesn’t far too often.
[UPDATE: Lee Perry of BitMonster has clarified via Twitter that it only takes one tap to interact with pots and Constructs, and that a new tutorial is designed to clear up the confusion, as well as the distance you can be before interacting. I went back and tried breaking some pots and opening chests and had greater success with this knowledge in hand. The game still seems to not count my taps for speaking with Constructs as often as it should, but the clarification greatly helped. My initial thought that it required two taps to open pots came from the fact that, since I didn’t know if I was close enough to interact with a pot, I often wasn’t. Since tapping once caused me to start moving again, I mistakenly thought it required two.]
The grueling challenges of the adventurous botanist
BitMonster refers to the encounters Lili will have with the Spirits as “non-combat.” There are no combos to pull off or executions to perform. Defeating a Spirit only humiliates him or her; it doesn’t kill or banish them. Lili must catch a Spirit by chasing it and latching onto its back, then plucking the flowers that sprout from its shoulders by swiping fingers across the iPad screen as though Lili was pulling the flower by its stem. Once she has collected enough white flowers, a red flower will appear. Pull that and the Spirit will leave, leaving Lili the victor. Bombs and thorns also pop up, which are to be avoided.
These non-combat scenarios are easy at first, but can grow to maddening difficulty by the end of the game. The Spirits lumber forward as Lili tries to pull the flowers, and since there’s not much space on the creature’s back, it’s easy to accidentally pluck a thorn when you meant to grab a flower, or a flower when you needed to get rid of a bomb. Every so often during a battle with a Spirit, the game will trigger a frenzy where a large number of one item spring from the creature, those items usually being bombs or thorns. It’s a hectic, cluttered scene as is, and when one of these frenzies starts, it’s doubly dangerous. I played Lili on an iPad 2 and had trouble, so I can’t imagine playing on any smaller iOS device.
While this visual mess is going on, there’s what is essentially a countdown timer representing Lili’s grip on the Spirit. Swiping and missing reduces grip by a small amount, grabbing a thorn greatly reduces your grip, and letting a bomb explode will knock Lili off the Spirit and make her start from the tedious beginning, which also means catching the Spirit again. Instances where I knew my finger had touched the appropriate item yet the game counted it as a miss were plentiful, which led to a frenzied, infuriated tapping and swiping of fingers.
These problems are bearable through most of the game, but they become intolerable near the finale. Instead of challenges that add variety or new tactics to the game, Spirits just pile on the bombs and thorns at increasing rates.
In earlier fights, frenzies happened only once or twice. The final Spirits required upward of ten white flowers to be pulled from them and frenzies happened after every single pull of a white flower. It was tedious and arbitrary, not challenging or rewarding. The sense of progression is broken as well. Lili levels up as the game goes on, and you can choose to increase her grip, speed, or stealth when she does so. However, these opportunities are storyline, not experience-based.
At the end, when I was desperate for more grip, there was little I could do. There are items Lili can purchase to help her deal with the Spirits, but to purchase these require coins which are collected at a painfully slow pace. Since I couldn’t beat the final Spirits without them, the game turned into a grind for flowers. It wasn’t fun.
I am the hero and I will save you because I am the hero
The world of Lili is meant to be colorful and inviting, not dark or oppressive. While the voice acting only applies to single exclamations or mutterings like “Hey!” or “Hmm,” Lili can converse with all of the Constructs. This pops up a speech bubble and allows our would-be botanist to learn more about Geos. Unfortunately, this is where writing issues enter. Concepts are brought in too fast and then dropped almost immediately. What are vegi-magical studies? Do Constructs exist elsewhere? Why is Geos referred to with reverence if anyone can sail there and there is no danger present? How does Lili’s professor send her mail and know where she is?
None of these are answered, but various situations nonetheless bring them up, presenting lots of opportunity for confusion. You could argue that it’s meant to be kid-friendly and therefore shouldn’t be held to the same standards as other games, but at least Bugs Bunny placed an envelope in the mailbox when he needed something from ACME. That little bit of context or explanation goes a long way.
Most Constructs are extremely friendly, if a little silly, and their dialogue is written to reflect that. The most offensive any joke gets is a Construct who tells Lili of how he tainted a Spirit’s food with laxatives. The Spirit was “dropping a whole other kind of bomb that day,” the Construct says. It’s a bit gross, but it’s kind of funny and it fits. Then there’s the dialogue that isn’t funny and doesn’t fit. The Construct who slowly realizes the Spirits have been crushing up his friends and feeding them back in the form of pulp in soup, for example. To call it tonal dissonance would be an incredible understatement.
There’s a sub-plot involving Lili’s decision to go forward as a botanist or become the savior of the Constructs, but it’s not fleshed out and there’s no reason to care for the island’s inhabitants beyond a general recognition that Lili is the protagonist and they’re asking for her help. She’s the heroine because she’s the main character, and that’s all there is to it. That being said, it’s possible all of that is explained at the end of the game. I don’t know, because I never finished it; one of the final Spirits’ model glitched into the sky and never came down, making the game impossible to complete.
Lili is an all-over-the-place mess. The writing doesn’t feel unified and the controls, which require tapping for just about everything and go unrecognized far too often, are a particularly ugly part of the experience. For a game that’s so beautiful on the surface, Lili is a disappointment.