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Infinity Blade: Game Design Review

Infinity Blade was the #1 paid app in the App Store a few days, and deservedly so. As a player, I have to give it a grade of A because it's entertained me more than most games do these days, including games costing literally ten times as much. I'd rather give you opinion as a game designer than a player though, and from that standpoint, I rate it even higher. What's most notable is how much the designers did with so little. A simple combat mechanic and a small map go a long way.

Infinity Blade is "Punch-Out with swords, combined with stat optimization and a hidden object game." Skip the next couple sections if you already know how it works.

Description of Combat

The basic mechanic of slashing with your sword has a good visceral feel on the iPad's touch screen. The combat itself is kind of like Punch-Out. You can dodge the enemy's attacks and after you dodge a big one, you have a chance to hit back. You can also sneak in other hits before dodging the big one, but they do less damage. You can block so that no timing of dodge is needed, but the number of blocks is limited by how strong your shield is. You get an XP bonus if you don't break your shield, so it seems best not to use it. Parrying is more fun than dodging or blocking, and it caries higher risk and a bit higher reward. To parry, you must slash at the right time and angle to match the enemy's attack. Very cool.

You also have two meters, kind of like super meters in a fighting game (simply touch them to activate when they are full). The one in the upper left always stuns the enemy, letting you hit them a few times for free. The one in the upper right lets you do a magic attack (based on which ring you have equipped) that requires you to do a gesture to cast.

Description of Stat-Game

As usual, you defeat enemies to get money and items, which make you stronger, which let you beat more enemies. The not-usual part is that the items themselves are what level up, and your character's XP only goes up as the items gain XP. Once an item has its max XP, it no longer contributes to your character's XP when you defeat enemies. The dynamic that results from that mechanic is that you want to constantly swap your items around, making sure you have decent stats, and also a decent XP gain rate. This might sound annoying on paper, but giving you something to manage between fights is, I think, a big reason why the game doesn't get monotonous nearly as quickly as you'd expect. You get to go back and forth between combat and stat-optimization often, and each gives you a break from the other.


This is really one of the main ponts I want to make. You cannot walk around freely in Infinity Blade, you can only click on the note you want to go next, and a canned animation takes you there. On paper, this sounds bad. Really though, I think it was a very smart decision. Part of the reason they did this, I assume, is for the technical reason of ensuring that the environment always looks good. The game is pushing iOS graphics further than any other game so far, and if had to have every nook and cranny have a high res texture when you walked right up to it...well that's probably just not going to work. But there's more to it than that.

Many years ago, the PlayStation2 games Urban Reign and Spikeout came out at about the same time. They are both "fight a bunch of guys" games (Spikeout is not a volleyball game, fyi). I think it's pretty clear that Urban Reign had a much better combat system. It even had a Guilty Gear-style burst! But Spikeout allowed you to walk from one battle to the next, while Urban Reign's combat took place in what was basically a box, then a loading screen, some story text, then another box. You didn't actually smoothly transition from one fight to the next. I looked on fighting game forums to see players discussing the games, and to my surprise at the time, more of them preferred Spikeout. Being fighting game players, I think most of them agreed that Urban Reign's combat was better, but "there's just something that feels nice about Spikeout in comparison," I saw again and again.

I think Infinity Blade captures that same feeling of travelling from fight to fight, but it doesn't bother with making you actually manually walk there. It probably wouldn't feel great to navigate a 3D world between fights (especially on an iPad or iPhone), so they cut straight to the point and have you automatically walk there when you tap the next node. This whole thing is subtle, and not something you probably think much about, but I think it contributes to the overall experience quite a bit.

StarCraft 2's single player campaign is a somewhat similar example. You don't actually see an animated walk sequence of your character going from the bridge to the lab and so on there, but the point is that you don't have a fully manual, free-roaming world there either. In both cases, the free roaming would add nothing so it's not even there and the "click to go there" method is used instead.

Fast Forwarding

A common tension between artists and designers is how fast things are. Artists tend to like elaborate and awesome animations, and designers don't want to slow players down with that stuff. We were just talking about walking from fight to fight, and that could get real old, real fast. Especially if the artists want a long shot, then a slow and dramatic walk with a closer shot. Also, artists are going to want awesome cutscene animations of finishing off your opponents when each fight is over. More annoying waiting for players?

Infinity Blade has all the goodness that art side would want (great finishing animations, dramatic walk animations with multiple camera animations) and with none of the downside. There's a fast forward button in the lower right corner of the screen, and it's really responsive. I expected it to be a "skip" button, but I'm much happier with the fast-forward button. It's very responsive in that you can fast forward for a moment, then let go, then keep fast forwarding, etc. It's totally up to you how much of the various awesome animations you want to watch.

Hidden Objects

As you progress through the castle, there are various bags of money and health potions laying around. There's an achievement for finding all of them on a given run through (I never got it). I soon realized that they are playing a bit of a trick on us in that some of the bags of money are actually accessible during those cut scenes. Yeah, those things you were fast forwarding through, if you actually let them play and scrutinize them, there's money bags you can pick up. I was kind of surprised to see that in addition to the combat game and stat-optimization game, there's also a hidden object game. Pretty cool.

Difficulty Progression

The castle is pretty small and you don't face that many enemies until you get to the end. So how in the world are they going to make hours and hours of gameplay out of that? The clever answer is that at the end of the castle, you fight the powerful God King. The first time through, he is crazily more powerful than you, so you are highly likely to lose to him (thought it is theoretically possible to win). If you lose, you restart the entire game on "bloodline 2" which takes place about 20 years later. You son (wearing all your same armor and mysteriously with your same stats) tries again. There is a kind of dynamic difficulty setting there, in that after more and more runs, you're getting more and more powerful, so it's easier and easier to take on the God King.

When you beat the God King, you get the obligatory cut-scene ending ("now they'll come after YOU"), and you still start the game over (now as the son of the you who beat the God King, apparently?). Anyway the real point is that now all the monsters in the castle are much harder. And if you beat the God King again, all the monsters are much much harder, and so on. This is a great way to get a lot of mileage out of such a small landscape and small number of fights per run.


I wish more information was presented to the player. Items have various icons such as "lightning bolt icon +8" but no explanation of what that means. A certain ring allows you to cast a spell called "Shock 3." Does that spell get more powerful with the +lighting bolt stat? If yes, the spell should have the lightning bolt icon next to it. If no, that's kind of confusing too. Another confusing thing about stats is that your character profile screen lists the bonus effect of your helmet (for example: item++, which means items are more likely to drop) but does not list the bonus effect of other items. This implies that you don't get bonus effects from non-helmet items, which is obviously stupid because why do non-helmet items even have them? Surely the profile screen is just failing to list all the bonuses, but it should.

The review mentions that when you master an item (max out that item's XP), if you equip it, you get an extra bonus. This appears to be false (you only get the same bonus as you got the entire time you were using it while leveling it up), but it's an interesting idea anyway because you aren't getting XP from that item while wearing it anyway. I could go either way on that, but it's worth thinking about.

Infinity Blade also lets you do 3, 4, and 5 hit combos. I'm not sure if it's intentional or that the developers just didn't get to it, but for some reason there is no explanation of how to do them. Yes I understand there is some exploratory aspect in figuring it out yourself. When I weigh the good of that versus the bad, it comes up way bad in my book. I'd like to know the possible combos, and I'd like more of them. For reference, play Bayonetta and take 0.1% of their combos and put them in the next update for Infinity Blade, please.

The flipside of that, is that maybe this "Punch-Out with swords game" should actually be MORE like Punch-Out. I'm referring to the gimmicky nature of each fighter having some pseudo-puzzle to figure out. Maybe not quite as Punch-Outy as Punch-Out, but if you turned the knob a bit that way, I think it would add more variety to the fights.


The next update for Infinity Blade will apparently have multiplayer. This will be a great opportunity for the game go completely off the rails. It does so many things right, I would hate to see the possibly inevitable decision here: multiplayer fights are based on how much time you spent grinding equipment instead of fair fights. This is an inherent issue in stat-based games, and it's a solved problem, too. The solution is to offer two modes: 1) a fair mode where you pick your equipment, and your loadout is kind of like your customized Magic: the Gathering deck. Everyone has full access to all options. And then 2) unfair fights using whatever you happened to acquire in single player. This way, the people who have fun by lording advantage over those with worse stats will be able to, while true competitors avoid any possibility of such nonsense.

That said, I'm very much looking forward to the update, more for the single player content than the multiplayer, actually.

Reader Comments (16)

the tech demo that preceded infinity blade, epic citadel, did have free movement (it had two virtual thumbsticks that worked like a console FPS, and a swipe to look/tap to move system), and it was indeed pretty unwieldy. maybe it could work for a non-action game along the lines of myst or something.

December 17, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterzem

There is actually a bonus for mastering a weapon, you get an extra point to add to your stats in one of the categories the same as you get when your XP gets sufficiently high for you to level up.

December 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterChris A

I was referring to a bonus for WEARING a mastered weapon as opposed to a bonus for crossing the threshold of not-mastered/mastered.

December 18, 2010 | Registered CommenterSirlin

Hate to be a narc.... but, is the date right (12/12)? I was here two days ago and the Yomi double pack story was front and centre.

December 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterNarc

Ah, I'd assumed from the touch arcade review that they had been referring to the bonus for mastering, not wearing a mastered weapon. However, looking back at the article, the language used implies the bonus is for wearing the item though I doubt this was what they intended.

December 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterChris A

Infinity Blade is so much fun, I wrote a FAQ for it.

It could stand to use WAY more tutorials though. I tried it out on 3 different people, and none of them realized basic things about the game like "swipe to hit several times" or "pan the camera to find hidden objects", let alone "why all 3 shock/lightning bolt effects do different things."

A bonus for wearing a mastered weapon would be much appreciated; I understand they are including a couple new items in each category as DLC, to fill the obvious holes in the lineup (fire sword, ice sword, poison+shield ring, etc.) For multiplayer, only a couple hours of grinding gear is required if you ban the Infinity Blade itself (which makes all other weapons, and all attack-based stat builds, irrelevant).

December 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRobyrt

I think your augment about walking is anecdotal. Is a movie better when they show people walking everywhere? Pacing is important but showing people walk everywhere isn't interesting in itself.

December 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCorey Holcomb-Hockin

Anecdotal? Should I not give an opinion without doing a scientific study first? I'm saying it adds something to not teleport from fight to fight and have a sense of place.

December 19, 2010 | Registered CommenterSirlin

Great article. I really enjoyed the game, and got a few hours of play out of it. It is the first time I have desired an apple product.

I thought the swipe mechanics were really good, and gave immediate satisfaction and the feeling of really controlling the protagonist. However, I eventually was bored of fighting the same / very similar enemies. More puzzle mechanics in the fight would be brilliant, including more spells, defensive tricks (requiring item combinations), particular weaknesses (lower / higher swipes) and stances for your knight.

December 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJimmy

I played rpgs that have huge amounts of walking. I've played games like metroid with backtracking. Walking gets old.

I'd rather be playing then walking. If the walking involves actual new gameplay its fine. If it doesn't its dead time. Walking is filler. Its fine for pacing but its not good in itself.

December 22, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCorey Holcomb-Hockin

Corey, as I explained in my post (maybe you missed this??), Infinity Blade combines the best of both worlds because it conveys a sense of place without teleporting you from fight to fight, yet it allows you to fast forward through it nearly instantly. It also includes a hidden object game to find bags of money if you decide not to skip the interstitials. So yeah, it's good how they did it, and you seem to be commenting on some other type of game with unskippable cut-scenes.

Jimmy, I agree that it would be even better if there were more puzzle mechanics in different fights.

December 22, 2010 | Registered CommenterSirlin

Well the walking everywhere is a plus, instead of using a damn loading screen and having an announcer say "FIGHT" for no damn reason. The graphics look good from the pictures, but isn't playing through the exact same parts of the same game over and over for hours really boring, annoying and repetetive? I play a few RPGs and make all of my characters Ubers, I know what boring, annoying and repetetive are, for example 100+ hours grinding in Oblivion.

Also what happens to make the game more difficult when you complete it? Depending on how it's implemented the game could suffer from it, hopefully it's not the same as Oblivion's scaling.

December 22, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterThreadnaught

It would also be nice to know how the difficulty increases in Infinity Blade, but I'll just accept that enemies just get more attack and health, the lazy way of increasing difficulty.

December 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterThreadnaught

I wrote you some praise regarding your product before. Now let me praise posts like this. I'm a long time video gamer, and it's very informative and stimulating to read an open and structured analysis of a game like this. I would really like to, at one point, read a post on the rules you will work with in your own fighting game, because I seem to be frustrated by the same things as you, such as high execution requirements (I love SF but gave up on SSF4 because it seems to be impossible to have a full time job, a girlfriend, work out, party on the weekends AND learn a bunch of stupid one frame links...).

December 25, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterIJ.Reilly

threadnaught, all the enemies except the last boss are upgraded/changed every playthrough. i don't know where it caps out, i've only played through about five times, but i was still seeing new stuff from enemies the last time. higher level enemies seem to act faster, too, so even if your stats scaling would keep you at about the same match (which i don't think is the case; they level faster than you do) the fights get harder and more active.

January 7, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterzem

Thread, as Zem said, the more difficult enemies fight faster, and many have their own special attacks that you need to learn how to defend against - many feint the direction their coming from, tricking you into dodging into them; some can't be dodged, and so on. So ranking up demands more of the player's skills, which is very well done by the game.

April 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSimon
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