App of the Day: Async Corp.

A game of two halves.

Did you know that BP gets angry if you call it British Petroleum? Because, get with it grandad, that company is now Beyond Petroleum! This new marketing line and the accompanying sunflower logo in crisp green and white is typical of a large-scale corporate branding exercise; where a company that doesn't want to change its planet-ruining ways instead does the equivalent of slapping a smiley face on its HQ. Perception, rather than reality.

Async Corp has more than a whiff of this, being a puzzler that's gently themed as a corporate box-ticking exercise: it feels almost prophetic, to the extent you expect a popup congratulating you on "service excellence" after an especially good run. The game's all about making 'packets' out of two grids filled with colour squares. You can switch any single square with one from the other, and when four of them form a cube, or even more make up a rectangle, they pop together instantly into a single packet.

These can be tapped to be 'sent', which is how you score, or left in an attempt to add to their dimensions, the ultimate size being the eponymous Async. Simply doing this for its own sake is a pleasure, both for the way squares instantly gloop together into bigger packets and the satisfying chunk as one's sent off and the replacement squares fall into the new gap. It's all about how well your thumbs and brain work together, as you work out future switches and coax the grid into the kind of setups that a few quick changes will turn into packet heaven.

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Switching two squares to create two packets rewards you with a 'Sync!' shoutout, but even when nothing much is going on the packets sneeze and whistle in an adorable way.

Async Corp's smartest feature is how this basic mechanic is divvied across four modes that neatly slice the challenge different ways - well, three modes really, plus freeplay. These also tie into the cutesy corporate aesthetic, with Quota mode making you send packets to keep an ever-ticking bar from hitting the top of the screen and ending the game.

Zoning mode inverts this by having your packets fill the bar, which doesn't sound like much of a change but turns responsibility for hitting the game's fabled level 20 directly onto you. As the levels increase, things get faster and the bars begin to drop more quickly, meaning it's possible to undo all your progress in a few lean minutes.

The most strategic is Async mode, which is all about turning either grid into one big packet. Here it's all-too-easy to lose focus on the grid you're not building up, and create a position where it's impossible to continue without resetting some of your own work. It's a more sedentary and taxing game in this manner, and where I ended up spending most time.

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Emails periodically praise your work, and offer hints as to how to approach each mode - and sometimes, they tempt you into semi-impossible challenges.

Beyond its well-executed modes Async Corp keeps the charm going with an email inbox that fills up with messages from your anonymous bosses, as well as increasing your employee level every so often (which unlocks a new colour scheme). It is slightly feature-light in terms of the structure, with no Game Centre support and an annoying absence of multitasking, but there's a reason for that.

There's an unfortunate irony to Async Corp's aesthetic - its developers were laid off by their studio, Powerhead Games, around an hour after the game was submitted to Apple. In such bald terms that may sound terrible, but no-one likes firing people and Powerhead doesn't seem like the kind of villain who'd do something like that without reason.

According to one of those affected, many were half-expecting it and have since set up new projects of their own or found other work. It's a sad context to such a cheery and enjoyable puzzler. But the best thing to do is pick this up for 69p, and show the folk who made it that creating innovative and fun things will work out in the end. After all, they may work under a different logo in future, but talent like this always shines through.

App of the Day highlights interesting games we're playing on the Android, iPad, iPhone and Windows Phone 7 mobile platforms, including post-release updates. If you want to see a particular app featured, drop us a line or suggest it in the comments.

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