App of the Day: Autumn Dynasty

Fall of the empire.

Version tested iPad

As someone with all the tactical nous of George Armstrong Custer, I enjoy a mildly abusive relationship with strategy games: I like them, but they regularly humiliate me, usually for having the temerity to favour a gung-ho approach to combat. Still, it doesn't take much to tempt me back in for another beating, and being a sucker for a pretty art style, the painterly appearance of Autumn Dynasty was more than enough.

It really does look lovely. Your units are characterfully rough scratches of ink on a ragged scroll, leaving faint curlicued dust clouds as they advance. Zoom right in and you can see the uneven textures of the surface, while defeated units leave a faint watercolour smudge when they fall. Your fingers produce sweeping brushstrokes as you highlight your troops, while dragging them into position produces curving blue ribbons, weaving together as they arrow towards their target. Active areas of the map glow with a light orange tint as if lantern lit, with the rest shrouded in darkness until you expand your territory.

There's always the risk that such an aesthetic could compromise visual clarity, but it's smartly designed so you can instantly tell what's going on. Each unit type carries a flag, so even when you're fully zoomed out and skirmishes are nothing more than a swarming mass of sentient scrawls it's easy to work out who's doing what to whom. The interface, meanwhile, is intuitive and elegant: you simply select individual units by tapping on them, or draw a circle to select everything within its circumference.

As you'd probably expect, there's the usual rock-paper-scissors system in play: swordsmen beat pikemen but are weak against archers, and then there are horsemen and catapults to consider. You'll build camps to increase your unit tally, and farms to harvest gold, and gradually make use of various additional abilities. The archers' Deploy move increases their range at the cost of leaving them immobile, while pikemen can set an ambush that slows enemy units, and swordsmen can trigger avalanches in mountainous areas.

New elements - such as the ability to research doctrines that provide a range of buffs and abilities - are steadily introduced through a winningly varied campaign, though the difficulty curve and slightly excessive mission length may be off-putting to more casual players. As early as the second proper story mission you're asked to dig in with a small group of units and protect your fort against waves of rebels who attack from all sides. Its controls may be accessible, but its challenge is tailored for seasoned strategists. Thankfully, there's a Novice option for tactical dunces like me.

There's plenty of content outside the campaign, too. A Skirmish mode allows you to take on the general of your choice across a number of maps that are gradually unlocked by playing story missions. Local multiplayer, meanwhile, uses Bluetooth, while the Game Center-powered online mode even offers voice chat. In other words, a penny shy of five pounds is a small price to pay to be vigorously punished by one of the smartest and most attractive strategy games on the App Store.

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. For daily app coverage, check out our sister site Modojo.

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