Review: Idol Hands

After interviewing lovely Tracey McGarrigan from Green Man Gaming at Rezzed 2015, we received a code for new god game Idol Hands. Is Pocket Games Inc’s first release going to be the saviour of the genre?


Title overview   |   Initial impressions   |   Plot   |   Gameplay   |
Visuals and audio   |   Replay and innovation   |
Screenshots and videos   |   Final thoughts   |   Review round-up

Title overview

Name: Idol Hands
Developer: Pocket Games Inc
Publisher: Green Man Loaded
Release date: February 2015
PEGI rating: 7
Platforms: PC
More information: Official website

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Initial impressions

According to their website, Pocket Games Inc is a ‘new force in video games’ that aims to ‘bring together some of the industries [sic] key and influential figures to create a company that delivers the very best in PC and mobile gaming to the fast-growing gaming community.’ Their modus operandi is to acquire fantastic intellectual property (IP), build brands around it and bring other companies into the fold in order to have ‘a powerful base from which to succeed’. This is what they hope to achieve with their first release: the godly Idol Hands.

Whilst at the Rezzed event in March, we had the opportunity to interview the lovely Tracey McGarrigan from Green Man Gaming. The Head of PR and Communications explained that they think it’s ‘the god game that people have been waiting for’ and even said behind the scenes that it was the title in the genre that Peter Molyneux wishes he could have made. She kindly sent the 1001Up team some review codes last month so now that all of our Rezzed coverage is out of the way, let’s get on to a proper review.

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Plot

After centuries of war over control of the land, the Furling critters found themselves on the brink of extinction. Their cries to the heavens for aid were heard by a cruel and twisted god who came to their world to rule over their scattered tribes and crush them into submission, breaking their spirit and warping them into his loyal subjects. The leader of one of the last remaining groups cried out in desperation for a kind and compassionate deity to save his people from their suffering; and it’s now up to you, a young and inexperienced god, to bring peace to the Furling’s world.

Instead of wanting to save his people, I’m sure the Furling leader has a master plan to let you do the dirty work before he goes on a killing spree and runs away with all the loot.

This is the premise for Idol Hands but it’s not explored in any great depth throughout the game: it’s displayed on a scroll before the first level and the ending is shown in the same way once you’ve completed the last, and that’s about it. You’re never quite sure why your adversary is attacking your tribe, other than the fact that it’s important to gain control of the land, and this has the unfortunate effect of making the player feel at times as if it is in fact they who are the enemy in this war. Your efforts to destroy the opposing red tribe are overseen by an aged Furling leader who comes across as a bit creepy; instead of wanting to save his people, I’m sure he’s got a master plan to let you do the dirty work before he goes on a killing spree and runs away with all the loot.

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Gameplay

Unfortunately, Idol Hands has so many limitations that I’m not entirely sure where to start. I wouldn’t necessarily say they were negatives or factors which would cause me to immediately recommend that you don’t purchase this title; but I feel it’s necessary to point out that it has a lot of shortcomings that will leave experienced players feeling as if a lot is missing. Pocket Games’ first release isn’t a bad one, but it isn’t the ‘fantastic IP’ they wanted either.

You start the first of eleven levels by learning to terraform the land, and are told that creating mountains or valleys can be a good way to slow your opponent’s advance while you concentrate on flattening the rest of the ground to make way for your village. This is kind of exciting at first and Idol Hands tries to make earth-shaping the star of the show; in fact, Tracey McGarrigan said ’it’s slick, it’s beautiful, it’s really really quick’ when we interviewed her at Rezzed. Sadly however, you soon come to realise that the only thing worth focusing on is ensuring your farms have enough flat land on which to grow; and there doesn’t seem to be much benefit in constructing peaks and craters once you’re granted godly powers such as earthquakes and volcanoes in later levels. It’s a shame, because terraforming is usually a highlight in many a god game.

The tutorial explains that up to five idle followers will wait around the Origin Stone in the centre of your village and you can use the icons depicted on this to hand out jobs.

Once you’ve gotten to grips with the first mechanic, you then learn how to assign vocations to your Furlings. The tutorial explains that up to five idle followers will wait around the Origin Stone in the centre of your village and you can use the icons depicted on this to hand out jobs. Woodcutters cut down trees to resource the rest of the occupations; Farmers create food so you can sustain your tribe; Blacksmiths mine iron to create weapons and structures; Priests encourage your worshippers to do so harder and raise your mana level more quickly; and Soldiers are the poor little creatures you either use to defend your territory or send off into battle.

The land can only support ten Woodcutters and Farmers, so your village is maxed out when it reaches a population of fifty and this cap has the unfortunate effect of making the game come across as small. It would have felt a lot ‘grander’ had the number of inhabitants been higher and having to manage further followers would also have provided some welcome additional challenge. In the tutorial the tribe leader explains that you must manage your resources carefully; but if this was Pocket Games’ intention, they should have provided functionality to easily swap a Furling’s profession once it has been assigned. The only way I found I to do this was to kill them off with my powers and then wait for a new follower to be created but this use of time and mana as the result of poor design was an annoyance.

Your Furlings build their bases wherever they choose providing you’ve created enough flat land for them and this automation has both positives and negatives. On the plus side, there’s no need to micro-manage your followers while you can concentrate on turning your opponent’s territory into a fiery mass; but conversely it removes some of the strategy you’d expect from a god game and which would have given Idol Hands more depth. I enjoyed the terraforming mechanic but once your fifty villagers have built their bases they won’t expand their territory any further, so there isn’t much point in continuing to shape the earth after the beginning of a level.

The artefacts do nothing but look pretty and it feels as if the developer missed a trick here.

Personally I would have liked to try to take over the entire island and make it my own. There could have been opportunity to encourage this style of gameplay as dotted throughout some of the levels are ancient ruins and statues; imbuing these with special properties to provide a strategic boost could have motivated players to capture the land around them. Instead the artefacts do nothing but look pretty and it feels as if the developer missed a trick here.

Once you’ve created your village and assigned jobs, the next objective is to amass as many Soldiers as you can to help take down your opponent. To direct your army, players place a totem in one of three areas: inside your village if you wish for them to defend it, inside your enemy’s territory if you wish for them to attack, or in another area if you’d like them to patrol the grounds. Unfortunately however, Furling Soldiers aren’t the brightest followers – or sharpest weapons in the arsenal for that matter.

Idol Hands’ artificial intelligence isn’t great. Your fighters will generally head towards and swarm around your totem but they’ll be distracted along the way, attacking buildings and enemy Furlings (even idle ones) in their path even when you want them to concentrate on hitting a particular spot. Opponents appear with hearts above their heads which gradually drain as they’re beaten; it’s therefore confusing as to why the same sort of mechanic wasn’t applied to structures, as there’s no way to tell how long it will take for a building to come crumbling down.

Volcanoes are the deadliest power and there’s a perverse satisfaction to be had in seeing balls of lava hit surrounding buildings.

To help speed up the battle, you can hit the opposition with god powers once you’ve learnt them: lightening, earthquakes (more about those later), meteor showers and volcanoes. Each cost mana and the more destructive the ability, the more of this resource you’ll have to spend in order to cast it. Volcanoes are the deadliest power and there’s a perverse satisfaction to be had in seeing balls of lava hit surrounding buildings; but they’re a little overpowered and render the rest of your abilities somewhat pointless. Stick one of them just inside enemy territory and watch it instantly shrink.

It’s strange that the opposing god doesn’t place more volcanoes inside your own land in retaliation. I think I was on the receiving end of a couple of meteor showers whilst on one island but I don’t recall being hit with exploding lava at all. And on top of that, to come back from an attack all you need to do is re-flatten the ground so it can be built upon again – so there isn’t much of a consequence when you’re dealt a blow. The lack of a ruthless opponent means that there isn’t enough of a challenge and experienced players will find themselves breezing through all levels within a matter of hours.

Each island can be beaten with a simple method: flatten the land around your fledgling village to enable it to grow. Assign jobs to your Furlings until you’ve maxed out every occupation except Soldiers. Place your totem inside your village to defend it. Hit the enemy with your powers, particularly volcanoes, and while you’re waiting for your mana to regenerate in preparation for your next attack, add a few more Furlings to your army and replace any others you’ve lost. Move your totem inside the opposing village to lead the attack. Decrease the size of your enemy’s territory, being sure to insert phrases of the ‘have some of that’ type at random intervals as their buildings go up in flames. Rinse and repeat until your tribe attacks their Origin Stone and you win the level.

You’ll be spending a lot of time waiting for your mana to regenerate so you can cast another power once you’ve maxed out all your Furlings.

There simply isn’t enough to do within Idol Hands, and as there’s no ability to speed up time players will find themselves sitting for periods with nothing to focus on. You’ll be spending a lot of time waiting for your mana to regenerate so you can cast another power once you’ve maxed out all your Furlings.

Everything I’ve written here sounds negative but as I said above: these points aren’t necessarily negatives or factors which would cause me to straight away say that you shouldn’t purchase this title. If you’re an experienced gamer, a fan of the god game genre or someone looking for a challenge, you’re probably better off sticking with classics such as Populous or Civilization; but if you just want something that’s easy to play, consider yourself a ‘casual’ gamer or want something you can enjoy with your kids, then perhaps Idol Hands is for you. With its very gentle learning curve and pick-up-and-play attitude, it’s just right for those moments when you want a non-taxing video game.

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Visuals and audio

The graphics aren’t too bad, if a little dated, and the Furlings look like creatures taken straight of Lemmings with helmets stuck on their heads. The islands you build your villages on contain some nice mountains and sandy beaches, with forests and ancient ruins; it’s just a shame that you’ll end up flattening most of it to make room for your growing village. It would have been good to see some variation in the lands the levels are set on, for example a dessert or icy area perhaps.

What really lets the visuals down are the animations, particularly that for the earthquake.

What really lets the visuals down are the animations, particularly that for the earthquake. You click on the button to select the power; the screen blacks out; the animation loads and you around your targeted location while the animation jerks about wildly; the screen blacks out again before the level reloads, the building that were once standing having now disappeared. Sorry Pocket Games but it’s just a little sloppy. Take a look at the gameplay video I made below if you’d like to see for yourself.

Another negative in terms of visuals are the camera and map controls. It was only at the end of the game that I realised you could zoom in after accidently knocking the wheel on my mouse, having not been told this in the beginning tutorial – this would have made gameplay a little easier to navigate at times. You can click on the map in the top right-hand corner of the screen to quickly move to other parts of the island but this doesn’t always work and you may be transported to a location other than the one you were intending; in addition, the tutorial advised that the title was paused during this screen but I could clearly see my enemy building more farms. Ultimately Idol Hands feels like an adaptation of a mobile game, and not a particularly good adaptation at that.

Next up is the audio but there’s not much here to write home about either I’m afraid. Background music is inoffensive but unforgettable, and the ambient sound effects – particularly the birds tweeting in the trees – seem as if they’re on a loop and become quite repetitive. The only proper voice-acting implemented is for the tribal leader during the tutorials but this isn’t great either, sounding as if it has been put through a cheap synthesizer. The only other sounds are those for the Soldier Furlings as they attack the opponents or die but you can never be sure if they’re squeaks of pleasure or pain.

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Replay and innovation

Once you’ve flattened all the land and maxed out your Furlings, the only thing left to do is blow them all up with a volcano.

After completing the levels and conquering the islands, players are treated to a sandbox level in which they get to build a town and ‘look after it for as long as they wish to’. Although this could potentially add some replayability value it just doesn’t go anywhere; once you’ve flattened all the land and maxed out your Furlings, the only thing left to do is blow them all up with a volcano.

Unfortunately I can’t see myself returning to this game at any point in the future unless there are some major enhancements. For example, the addition of a multiplayer mode would greatly improve Idol Hands’ shelf-life and add some much-needed challenge as the AI isn’t a big enough opposition. Some additional and harder Steam achievements wouldn’t be a bad thing either as most of the existing ones obtainable without trying too hard; and the removal of caps within the sandbox level may give players more incentive to stay for longer. The title does include a score counter which slowly drains throughout each level and I guess this may give some gamers to retry a level for a better result, but without a leaderboard this seems a bit pointless.

As for innovation, I can’t really say that Idol Hands shows any. Sure, the terraforming is kind of nice and it’s a pleasant little casual game to pass some time; but it doesn’t contain anything which makes it stand out from other releases in the god genre. Green Man Gaming may have referred to it as ‘the god game Peter Molyneux wishes he could have made’, but when you compare it to classics such as Populous I doubt he’ll be running scared any time soon.

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Screenshots and videos

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Final thoughts

So if we were creating our very own 1001 list would we decide to include Idol Hands within it? Sadly, I just don’t think it’s ready. When you compare it other god titles on the existing list it doesn’t match up in terms of depth or challenge. It’s a nice little way to pass some time if you’ve only got an hour to spare and don’t want to get involved with a video game that’s too absorbing, but if you’re looking for the next big thing in the genre unfortunately you’re not likely to find it here.

The developer may be better off reducing the £14.99 price-tag and marketing it as a casual game, rather than Populous’ successor.

However, from what I’ve read on the Steam discussions it seems as if Pocket Games are quite active when it comes to managing both their first release and the community. Perhaps if they continue adding features and manage to release a multiplayer mode, the mixed reception the game has received so far will improve and there may be some life in Idol Hands yet. But at the moment it still has a way to go: the developer may be better off reducing the £14.99 price-tag and marketing it as a casual game, rather than Populous’ successor.

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Review round-up

Reviewed: PC
Source: We received a review code from Green Man Gaming
Positive: A nice enough casual god game that anyone can pick up
Negative: Not enough depth or challenge
Score: 22 out of 60
Grade: Disappointing
Idol Hands, video game, review, graph, Disappointing

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