Intrinsic Games has brought some interesting titles to DSiWare so far, with topsy-turvy platformer Divergent Shift and arctic rescue puzzler Penguin Patrol both offering respectable and fun takes on their material. With Amoebattle, whose title is much more fun to read than it is to say out loud, Intrinsic Games looks to infect the real-time strategy genre with its own distinctive formula. Overall it succeeds, but not without some complications along the way.
The story unfolds over the course of 12 missions, as you command an ever-growing (and dividing, and mutating) army of amoebas, exploring strange microscopic environments and tracking down new enemy types, from which you can extract DNA in order to create friendly versions of the same units. Your options expand in this way as the game progresses, and it instills a distinctive — and welcome — sense of forward motion into the proceedings.
You are guided through the game by AMI, who dominates the upper screen and both keeps you on task and walks you through the optional tutorials. One thing Amoebattle handles perfectly is the in-game training; the tutorials feel organic and barely interrupt the flow or pace of the mission. AMI remains unobtrusive, except to impart important information, which she does with appreciable brevity. This allows the game to feel fully underway even when you're still learning the ropes, and that's a rare quality indeed.
Your main goals involve exploring and battling. Exploring is easy, as Amoebattle has simple and — overall — reliable controls. Tap anywhere, and your selected unit or units will go there. Selecting units is as easy as tapping them, though you can double tap to select all units of a type, tap and hold to add or subtract a single unit from the group or draw a shape around whatever units you wish to command. It sounds complicated, but it really just provides you with a large number of options so that you can do whatever works best for you.
Battle is similarly easy to master: lead your troops to some hostile units and flick a quick line through the group you wish to attack. Your army will swarm, trade blows and, hopefully, triumph. You can also be a bit more strategic by choosing particular units who will be best suited to deal with the specific enemy or environment at hand, and it'll be important to do so after the first three or four missions are complete, as the game ramps up in difficulty considerably.
You swell your ranks by commanding your amoebas to duplicate, which they can only do if they display an icon that shows them to be well fed. There are items on the battlefield your amoebas can consume in order to become well fed, or they may become so after devouring an enemy. Either way, the old military adage is fitting here: divide and conquer. The larger your army, the more power you have at your disposal, and that's power you'll need.
You can also mutate individual units into other types, which you will unlock as you progress. Herbivores, carnivores and omnivores all have distinct strengths and weaknesses, so it's important to familiarise yourself with them quickly, and to keep a number of each on hand and safe.
So far, so good, but there are a few issues in Amoebattle that are worth bringing up. For starters, sliding the map around with the D-Pad can be annoyingly slippery, which can interfere with strategising as you're trying to keep multiple battlefronts in view at a time. Sliding past them and then back again will dominate your attention more than actually selecting and commanding units, and that's a problem, particularly in later levels where the enemies become less forgiving.
Additionally, the levels are long, often lasting well over a half an hour for even the fastest, less explorational players — those who wish to take time to explore every map and build up a formidable army at all times are looking at closer to an hour. This can cause missions to feel tedious and needlessly padded. In fact, we would have preferred 24 levels of half the length to 12 marathon missions, and that would suit the portable nature of the game a bit better as well. To alleviate the need to finish a mission in one sitting, though, the game offers a handy save feature that can be activated any time. There are three slots on offer, too.
Our main concern, however, is the soundtrack. That might sound minor, but it's truly some awful stuff. The tracks sound like they're horrendously compressed, to the point that you're hearing modulated static more than you're hearing any discernible melody. It's clearly either glitched in its playback or compressed beyond any level of acceptable quality, and that's a problem because you can't turn it off without muting the system, meaning you'll miss both the sound effects and warnings of approaching enemies, which are presented as speech rather than text.
It's an upsetting issue, because overall Amoebattle is a solid game. It's fun — if a bit repetitive — and its touch screen controls are superbly responsive. To plaster the experience with a soundtrack this genuinely unlistenable is to sorely restrict the enjoyability of a game that deserves much better.
As it stands, we can certainly recommend Amoebattle in its current state, but its irritating soundtrack will either drive you crazy or cause you to mute the game and miss out on the less offensive sound effects. Either way, you're not getting the full experience that Amoebattle should have offered, and that's a disservice that is visible to the naked eye.
Amoebattle is a pretty solid gaming experience that's unfortunately let down by an almost painful soundtrack, as well as a tendency to pad out levels in a way that feels artificial. If you can get beyond those things, however, you'll find a well-controlled and intuitive experience that brings out the best of the RTS genre without over-complicating it.