Review: The Ancients AR is an Ambitious Mobile Game

The Ancients AR by developer Immersion VR is a surprisingly robust mobile naval combat real time strategy game. In it you'll lead a fleet of ships across the sea to fight an army of foes, with the help of some fantastic mythical friends—the Ancients, who can help you best your foes and advance your journey to peace in the realm. You can play the game two ways—either as a standard mobile title, or as an augmented reality title, where all the battle action can be 3D projected to your nearest floor, table, or other flat surface. The Ancients AR aims for epic story, engaging gameplay and immersive augmented reality, and while it's not entirely smooth sailing, with some rough edges and a steep learning curve, it's definitely still something special.  Screenshot: The Ancients AR. Your goal in Ancients AR is fairly simple—keep the peace. Your kingdom needs protection and you will provide it with naval support, fighting off invasions and mythical beasts, guiding spy boats to safe haven and protecting fishermen from an onslaught of enemies. Sounds simple enough, right? But there are some obstacles to overcome. Some of these are by design, but others are because of design choices made by developer Immersion VR that don't quite hold water.  Screenshot: The Ancients AR.   There's a full level's worth of tutorial to get you started in The Ancients AR, which shows you how to choose ships from the deck to take out on your missions and how to upgrade those ships. In the tutorial you'll also get acquainted with the titular ancients, and learn how to navigate the levels. It gives some essential information, but it misses on some other important topics, like breaking down how ship movement works and explaining how to properly aim ships' weapons. I wish there was a little more help with strategy here too--once I got into the game itself I didn't feel prepared enough to fight a rubber ducky, let alone a fleet of hostile ships. Screenshot: The Ancients AR. The difficulty curve in The Ancients AR seems so high as to be impenetrable at first, and I found myself very frustrated with the game during the opening missions. There's a lot you need to be able to manage right away, including manipulating the game board by rotating it and zooming in when necessary to get a better look at the action. Managing the board is  a challenge in itself, as the board sometimes seems to snap back when it shouldn't, and there's only so much rotation you can do—especially in the AR mode. There is a mechanic that allows you to slow down time, and I found myself using this a lot for many reasons--but it seems like you have to use it just to give yourself time enough time adjust the board to get a better perspective. Screenshot: The Ancients AR. There are a good variety of ships to choose from in The Ancients AR, but most will be locked to you at first, with more ships available as you play the game. This leaves you with a fast ship, the Falcon, and a ship with a pretty good special called the Turtle that throws smoke grenades which stop enemy ships in their tracks. Win some more missions and you'll get ships that drop mines, shoot missiles, send out homing boats that'll kamikaze into enemy ships, and even zap your opponents with lightning.   Screenshot: The Ancients AR. In order to win battles you'll need to think about positioning and work dynamically toward collecting treasures, which give you money to spend on ship upgrades in the heat of battle. The more you attack, collect treasures and move about the sea, the more points you'll build up toward being able to summon your Ancient--a powerful mystical ally. This Ancient will be a world of help when you find yourself in trouble, and can turn the tide of battle. Screenshot: The Ancients AR. There are three basic Ancients, all with different powers available to use. One has a mighty katana with a deadly sweep and forward slash that'll send enemies packing if they don't get cut to tiny pieces, another deals fire damage and allows you to summon a directional fiery dragon strike, and the last uses ice to freeze and kill your enemies. The Ancients are clutch in battle and can turn a defeat into a victory if placed properly (using a drag and drop motion) and with properly timed strikes. In some cases, and with some upgrades, they can do even more impressive feats like heal your ships or literally jump across the map to another location to meet oncoming enemies. Of course, they too, have hit points and can die, so it's helpful to fight together to ensure that your Ancient sticks around as long as possible.  Screenshot: The Ancients AR. The story of Ancients AR is fully realized and beautifully told, with cutscenes in between missions that lay out the narrative. The Ancients AR is set in a land perpetual war between three kingdoms. You play as someone who hails from a land that has recently lost its king called Shindao. As the kingdom is restored and your battles are won, you'll power an ancient amulet and ally yourself with other kingdoms against larger foes. It's not a particularly original or memorable story, but it's certainly not without its moments.   Screenshot: The Ancients AR. Combat in Ancients AR was initially very frustrating. When I first set out on the battlefield, I have to admit, I hated the game. It felt impossible to win early on when I didn't have many resources or much experience, and despite my most strategic decisions, I kept seeing my poor ships sunk and Ancients defeated. I found the controls initially frustrating, and I didn't know how to properly aim my ship's attacks. I just felt overwhelmed in the beginning. The more time I spent with it though, the more I learned how to overcome. Also, the more I played,  the more resources became available allowing me to build a more powerful fleet as my skills grew. In time, I found myself truly enjoying my adventures on the high seas.  One of my biggest complaints in The Ancients AR is the setup itself, and lack of usefulness for the marquee feature: augmented reality. If you're playing the game using augmented reality (the "AR" from the title), you'll find that you need to set up and reset up your board and get used to navigating it to get anything done at all.  And while you can scale up the board size, your playing field doesn't change much. Despite your best efforts to open the map on a larger surface--like for instance, your kitchen floor--your ships remain ant-sized, not much different from if you play the game without AR. Playing without augmented reality enabled  saves some battery life and a little bit of frustration. AR doesn’t add as much to this game as I hoped, or even as much as it appears to have in the beta, when the bounds of the board weren't present and ships became much larger in response to the size of the space you set aside for them. It does, though, add the ability to sort of peer from behind mountains and the edges of islands, and see your ships in 3D, which is neat, doesn't add much to gameplay and ends up being just a novelty. Screenshot: The Ancients AR. Chief among things that need to be addressed, in my opinion, is the scale. I constantly found myself wishing my ships were more visible, and that I didn't have to zoom in and out so much, wasting precious time when I should be minding my fleet, not my perspective. This game would be fantastic with a mouse and keyboard on a bigger screen, or if larger AR playspace allowed for bigger play area in practice. Some critical things remain a bit clunky, or at the very least under-explained, like dynamically aiming weapons at moving enemies and targeting them, which seems hit or miss--and not for the proper reasons. In addition, I found that pausing the game would freeze it up entirely, meaning my entire mission progress was lost—more than a little frustrating for a mobile game. It's vital to be able to pause your game, and resume normal use of your phone without fear of losing progress. Screenshot: The Ancients AR. Still, I feel like The Ancients AR is something special in a mobile gaming landscape packed with story-light, transactionally heavy junk puzzlers. The Ancients AR shows that this doesn't have to be the case. Mobile phones are more than capable of delivering narrative driven games, or at the very least, games with fantastic mechanics that make you come back for more. I'm glad to see The Ancients AR strive for so much, and I feel like they pretty much got there with decently good story, beautiful artwork, atmospheric music, and fun (if occasionally frustrating) gameplay. With a little more attention to mechanics and scale, and a little more balance for players unfamiliar with real time strategy games (especially on mobile devices), I feel like this already strong game would be even better.    The Ancients AR is available on Apple's App Store now.  A copy of this game was provided to us for review purposes.   
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Marielle Bokor