I wanted to like Combo Crew. It’s a beat ‘em up brawler for iOS and Android that features cartoony graphics and is a little reminiscent of Streets of Rage and games of its ilk. It uses a touch interface to its advantage instead of creating a virtual d-pad and buttons. But in the end, it has some problems that it just cannot dodge.
Finicky controls are something that can be patched out very easily, especially on platforms as update heavy as the iOS and Android ecosystems — design choices not so much. The main problem with how this game plays is also the main feature of how the game plays. The main feature is the combat.
The “story” mode of Combo Crew has you climbing a tower and beating up henchmen on each level before eventually facing Mr. Boss. The levels consist of a single room and various groups of enemies dropping down to be beaten up. There are other modes, but they all follow this same formula. You swipe over an enemy to attack them. The character that you chose will move to wherever they are on the screen and punch that enemy. Taking two fingers and swiping them at the same time will execute a special attack. The special attack or combo you create will depend on which direction you swipe your finders: up, down, to the side, or diagonally. Build up enough points from consecutive hits without being hit yourself and you build up a meter to execute a big combo that lets you fly all over the room hitting everything that you swiped over as many times as you can. Pulling that off can truly be a cathartic moment when it happens, even if it isn’t as always effective as one would hope.
Enemies can block your punches or combos, but you in turn can break through by tapping to charge up a special punch and then swiping to send them flying across the room. An attack on an enemy will cause an icon to appear in different colors, depending on your ability to stop that kind of enemy, progressing from green, to yellow, and then to red. Red means too late. You can hit them to prevent them from attacking or get out of the way.
Have you spotted the problem yet? The game is a fast action brawler and there is no block and no dodge. There are no move controls whatsoever. All you can do is attack. The only real way to dodge an attack is to swipe over an enemy that is far enough away that the attack misses. But you aren’t guaranteed that there will be such an enemy. They all crowd around you, so that changing your target often means little more than pivoting to face the opposite direction. Then there are the enemies that attack by charging from far enough way that you can’t attack them when their icon is red. Their attack takes away a huge chunk of your health and knocks you down. In fact, I don’t think I ever saw an enemy that didn’t have their icon already in the red no matter how far away they were. The only way to stop them is when they walk up alongside another enemy and get hit by an attack already in progress.
Early on, I didn’t notice this tendency because in the beginning levels enemies come in small waves and are easily dispatched. But as you beat more levels and advance, the dynamics of the fights begin to change and what was once a negligible or unnoticeable design flaw becomes exacerbated.
The game is frustratingly hard, and it isn’t helped by the fact that the swiping doesn’t always register (which when it happens in a tight spot, like those described above, makes the game seem especially unfair). Enemies get tougher, mostly as their hit points increase and their damage output does likewise. But you can counter these issues by buying upgrades to your power, hit points and damage resistance, using the coins you earn by defeating enemies. You can also buy dozens of new combos and swap them in for your old set. This mitigates some of the issues of difficulty, but still the outcome of fights usually comes down to the problem of that design choice of not giving the player control over their movement. The player then ends up unintentionally grinding in order to make fights that could be conquered through skill more manageable.
Another issue that plagues the game is that because of the overall difficulty of the game the fights can really drag on. As enemies become more prone to blocking and more apt to attack you while charging your block break, the fights lengthen, or another enemy will walk up to you while charging and will punch you, interrupting your attack. Initially each level fits neatly into the quick mobile time frame that a play session on such platforms should, but they can easily lengthen beyond that manageable tie frame later on. The game can be paused easily enough by turning the screen off, but you leave a power draining program running in the meantime And this may just be a nitpick on my part, but the review version that I played decided to override my phone’s back button in its menus and insisted that I use theirs — except on the home screen, where it would simply close the program.
The game does have its positive points. The early portions of Combo Crew can serve up the experience of an enjoyable brawler featuring a quick intuitive control system, and it has a great fighting soundtrack. It’s just that it can just as easily degenerate into a frustrating mess, which is counter to the reason for the easy pick-up-and-play-style that it’s aiming for. It’s not terrible by any means, but it’s just not good either.