REVIEW: Friendship is Magic is a popular US television show, created to spread a message of friendship and sell Hasbro's current generation of My Little Pony toys. (Mostly the latter, I'm sure.) Now, thanks to a deal between Hasbro and Gameloft, it's also the title of a 'freemium' city-builder game for iOS and Android devices.
The game is set in an alternate-universe version of the show, where villainous equine Nightmare Moon has covered the town of Ponyville in eternal darkness. It's up to you and purple pony protagonist Twilight Sparkle, to beat back the darkness and repopulate Ponyville. You do this by raising in-game currency to bring all the town's ponies back one-by-one in a brightly coloured balloon.
You raise money by building shops and putting ponies to work in them. Shops produce piles of coins at intervals of minutes to hours, and you use those coins to buy ponies, and shops in which to employ them. Each pony has a five-star rating that controls which jobs they can take. Stores have three jobs - any pony can take the first job, but the second and third jobs have minimum star rating requirements. A store with a full complement of ponies is more profitable, so it's well worth it.
The overall aim is to collect six key ponies: Twilight Sparkle, Pinkie Pie, Applejack, Rarity, Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash.
[Theoretically in that order, but as long as you raise the necessary in-game capital, the game pretty much lets you do what you want.]
You also need to uncover six 'harmony stones' scattered around the town map - one for each pony. Uncovering all six stones and returning the six key ponies to Ponyville lets you use the 'Elements of Harmony' to defeat Nightmare Moon.
A series of optional quests keeps things interesting and grants rewards of in-game currency and experience points. These are usually along the lines of 'Buy two park benches', or 'Buy a carrot farm and harvest ten carrots'.
You level up by completing objectives, but your ponies also level up individually by playing three mini-games: one where you bounce a ball back and forth between yourself and the pony, one where you direct the pony to catch falling apples whilst avoiding the rotten ones, and one where the pony is given temporary magic wings (if they aren't already a pegasus), and has to collect coins while clearing the sky of clouds. You can't choose which minigame to play - they alternate back and forth between the ball and apple games. When a pony has gained enough points to 'level up' a star, you play the sky-clearing minigame to seal the deal.
Once a pony reaches a five-star rating you're unable to play with them any further. I can't imagine explaining to a young child that "no, you can't play with Pinkie Pie EVER AGAIN", because of some arbitrary limit imposed by the game designers. Unlocking all three minigames for characters that have reached five stars would have been better.
GRAPHICS & SOUND
Even the most hardcore fans of the show will find it hard to fault the art, audio and musical direction of Gameloft's Friendship is Magic. (Okay, so DJ Pon-3's coat is grayish-white instead of yellowish-white... live with it.)
The graphics look like they could have been drawn by the original artists. In-game ponies are rendered in simplistic 3D, flattened into cartoonish 2D - this gives them natural, fluid motion and while not matching the style of the show exactly, maintains the same level of brightly coloured adorability.
There's not a lot of spoken dialogue, but what little there is comes straight from the show's voice actors (often directly from the show).
The game has a strong social element: certain ponies and stores can only be unlocked using the in-game 'social currency' of 'hearts'. These are earned by adding friends via Facebook and/or Gameloft Live, and gifted by friends who visit your Ponyville and leave 'treasure chests'.
There is no alternative means to get hearts, so if you don't want your kids signing up to Gameloft Live and/or they're too young to [legitimately] be on Facebook, then there are certain things in the game they'll just never be able to unlock.
I experienced a lot of bugs when testing out the social features, such as friends frequently disappearing then re-appearing on my list, from both Facebook and Gameloft Live. Items from other Ponytowns would 'stick' to my town, and vice versa, until the game was restarted.
The game deserves five stars for cuteness and accuracy to the television show, and 'brony' fan service. I'd give 3.5 stars for execution. However, Gameloft and Hasbro can thank the "Game Monetization Manager" - yes, said position is actually listed in the game's credits - for the two-star rating I'm actually going to award it.
I'm a huge fan of Friendship is Magic. I have a "pony budget", and happily fork over cash for tiny plastic toys. If this game had cost $5, or even $25, I'd have thought nothing of purchasing it. But no, this is a free game. Free, in the unique sense that it costs a minimum of $64 - or two years and a half of game time - to complete.
You're awarded three gems every five days for playing the game, as long as you don't miss a day. You occasionally receive a single gem when 'levelling up'. Of the six ponies needed to finish the game, two cost gems. Rarity is a 'reasonable' 90 gems, while Rainbow Dash is a staggering 500 gems. You can't even see how much she costs to purchase until you reach level 43, which represents at least a couple of weeks of intense gameplay.
So, you need at least 590 gems to finish the game. That's roughly two-and-a-half years of gameplay to unlock the characters for free. To pay? The cheapest option is 640 gems (packs of 120 + 240 + 240) for NZ$64, and the 'smartest' option is 700 gems (a single pack) for NZ$65.
If you want to complete the optional objectives and unlock all ponies and stores, you're looking at several hundred dollars of real-world currency, or 7-8 years of gameplay (assuming your device even lasts that long). It may also take much more than the 590 gems I know about to truly 'win' the game - I've read reports that at least two other high-value ponies are required, and possibly buildings.
In a game designed for adults, this would be a slap in the face. But young children will find it hard to understand why they can't finish the game or get hold of their favourite pony.
Friendship is Magic has never aired in New Zealand, so it's a bit easier to steer kids toward the four 'free' ponies unless you really want to teach them the value of patience, or you've got money to burn.
If you're a huge fan of My Little Pony and have an Android or iOS device, give the game a try. Just don't expect to finish it. Parents looking for child-friendly games to pop onto an iPad or Android tablet and hand to the kids? Avoid this like the plague, or disable in-app purchases and prepare to deal with disappointed kids.
RRP incl GST: Free