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Powder Monkeys offers challenging fun for young gamers

Powder Monkeys from XMG Studio (US$0.99, universal) is a big, varied game for the iPhone and iPad with enough going on to entertain kids and adults alike. Its good looks, many quests, game mechanics and upgrade opportunities increase longevity and keep players coming back for more. Plus, who wouldn't want to help monkey pirates battle enormous bugs on the high seas? Here's our look at Powder Monkeys.

Way back in the 17th century, a "powder monkey" was a member of a warship's crew. It was his job to deliver bags of gunpowder to the gun crew, and keep the fight alive. XMG has had a bit of fun with the term, casting animated monkeys as its seafaring heroes, sworn to defend their turf against evil, enormous bugs. As the player, you must aide the monkeys by completing quests, surviving battles, upgrading your weapons and more. Before we get to that, let's take a look at the game itself.

UI

Powder Monkeys features big, chunky "cartoonish" illustrations that look fantastic on the iPad as well as a less detailed overview of your character's position on the sea. Other elements are easily identified, like treasure chests, islands of interest and enemy ships. There's not a lot of reading to be done, either, which benefits younger players (both my 6-year-old and 8-year-old tested out Powder Monkeys for me).

As you sail around the environment, seeking adventure, a large ship's wheel appears, though you only really need to drag to move. If you're on a quest, an arrow points you in the right direction.

Other elements, like the store (for buying ammo, coins and upgrading equipment) repair shop and quest log are also attractive and legible, and a badge identifies the number of open quests you've got.

Finally, two badges in the lower right-hand corner of the screen monitor your inventory.

Gameplay

The real advantage here is the variation. This could easily have become a game of repetitive shooting, which gets old fast. Instead, XMG has included asset management, travel and some puzzle solving, which keeps the games interesting.

You begin by sailing into a cluster of islands and receiving a quest to visit one in particular. Of course, the bugs are waiting! Engage in your first battle.

Battle mode begins as two ships line up side-by-side. Each ship has four canons and various "bullets," including watermelons, darts and, if you're desperate, cutlery. Load a canon by tapping the type of ammo you'd like to load and then tapping the desired canon (bullets will destroy incoming bullets mid-air). A shot is fired and health decreased. The first player to run out of XP loses.

Fortunately, you've got powerups at your disposal. These special, upgradeable attacks will slow down the action, erect a defensive shield or increase your rate of attack, among other things. They're all handy when your enemy's vessel is superior to your own. If you win, a barrage of coins appear. Pick them up with a tap.

Pick up additional quests by traveling from island to island. One required me to navigate a maze filled with superior ships. Another had me escort a companion across dangerous seas. Again, the variation keeps it interesting.

Other elements

Gather coins by winning battles and completing quests. You'll also need wood, iron and special Banana Coins. These can be obtained by completing quests, opening treasure boxes (found floating in the sea) or spinning the wheel! Some treasure boxes contain goodies, while others offer a Wheel-Of-Fortune type spinner, lined with various assets. Tap anywhere to stop the spinner and see what you've won.

Coins are used to buy additional ammo, powerups and upgrades via the "store." Additionally, changes to your ship's hull, canons, rigging and armor also require wood and iron.

The all-important Banana Coins can be found in the game or purchased with real money via an in-app purchase. My 6-year-old was tempted to put dad's hard-earned cash down on a pretend coin, but I put the kibosh on that (big meanine). Plus, the app required my Apple ID (as you'd expect) which he does not have.

Conclusion

My only complaint is with the overhead map. You can zoom out at anytime to get an overview of your location, but must zoom back in to move. This probably defeats the sense of adventure, but I'd like to be able to move while in the distant, overhead view. Plus, the tiny island icons are tiny indeed on the iPhone.

Other than that, Powder Monkeys is a winner. It feels much deeper than you'd expect from a 0.99 app, with all the questing and upgrade options. Game Center achievements are also supported. It's just as comfortable on both devices and just plain fun. Plus, I dare you to get that Caribbean theme song out of your head.



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Gaming Software iPhone iPad

Powder Monkeys from XMG Studio (US$0.99, universal) is a big, varied game for the iPhone and iPad with enough going on to entertain...