Bottom line: An innovative story-game hybrid that could easily be a Top Pick with some modifications.
I know what you're thinking. Innovative? Really? It's an app review cliché I try to avoid, but in this case it really is applicable. Spinlight Studios has used the experience they gleaned creating educational games like AlphaTots and applied it in creating a storybook app that's unlike any other I've read before, one that the developer calls a 'spintale'.
Parker is a young boy whose best friend is Pixel, a cat. Pixel is a very inquisitive kitty who runs off after a butterfly, leaving Parker to search for her so they can return home in time for bed. At this point the 'book' becomes more like a board game. The child spins a wheel and the number the arrow falls on determines the number of squares Parker moves ahead. On each square, the child gets to interact with the board. For example, Parker sees Pixel's paw prints in some wet cement which the reader then smooths over before moving on. The player gets to put up a 'Lost' poster on a notice board and play with some butterflies in a patch of flowers. On some squares Parker finds a gift-wrapped box, and when the child opens it, there's a new shirt for Parker to wear on his travels. When Parker reaches home, he is reunited with Pixel on the porch, and the best friends go to bed.
I love Pixel and Parker's look and feel - those familiar with Spinlight's 'Tots' apps will recognize the style. It's bright and colorful without being babyish. When it comes to an app's soundtrack, most parents fervently hope for something that isn't too irritating. In this case, the music was composed especially for the app and, together with the sound effects, actively adds to its ambience. The sound of butterflies in flight is represented musically and a rainstick is used to great effect when the weather takes a turn for the worse. The narrator is terrific and reminded me strongly of Stuart McLean of The Vinyl Cafe - warm and friendly, a teller of stories.
I really enjoyed this app but there were a couple of shortcomings that I think are best illustrated by telling you about going through the app with my son, Oliver.
- Oliver adores animals so he was delighted to see Pixel. He loved that he could stroke her and she would purr. Oliver also really enjoys hide and seek which brings me to the first sticking point. We only see Pixel at the beginning and at the end, not during the board game. Her presence is hinted at, and I know she's meant to be lost, but it would have been wonderful if the child reading the book saw her at certain points, even if Parker didn't. I can imagine Oliver shouting at the iPad as if he were at a Pantomime - 'Parker, she's behind you!' As it stands, having to wait until the end of the story was too long for my app tester and when Parker put up the 'Lost' poster, Oliver seemed genuinely anxious about whether the cat was safe. From my perspective as a reviewer, it seemed a shame that the app under-utilizes its cutest character.
- When the app had finished, Oliver wanted to play the board game again. He found it frustrating that he had to go through the introductory part of the app first. An option to jump to the beginning of the board would enhance the app's replay value, although I did love that if the app is interrupted, it resumes where the child leaves off.
- There are lots of visual cues in the app which lead me to believe that the app's intended audience are younger children - it therefore surprised me that there is not an option to highlight the text as read or have it read when touched.
- I like that the app's interactive elements also involve fine motor practice. Oliver loved picking apples and feeding them to Parker and giving acorns to the squirrel in the bushes. At times however, it seemed that the movements required were a bit confusing. For example, when pinning up the 'Lost' poster, we dragged the pins to the corners of the poster and they kept popping back to their original spot. Neither Oliver nor I could figure out what we were doing wrong until I realized we had to drag the pin to the middle of the poster and let go. Some form of visual cue would be helpful in order to avoid frustration.
- Oliver adores getting presents. His brother is still not really bothered, but Oliver gets positively giddy about them. So he was really excited when he found one of the gift wrapped boxes on the board. Seeing him discover that the present was a t-shirt each time was like watching a kid receiving a pair of socks on Christmas morning. I think the t-shirts are adorable but I'm not the target consumer here. Some children may well enjoy dressing Parker up, but I think most children would find a t-shirt an anti-climactic present, once already excited at the prospect of a huge gift-wrapped box
There is a Spinlight Studios logo on the bottom right side of the home page which when pressed reveals icons of the Studio's other apps together with credits for the app's music and narration. There are no links to iTunes or websites,so I didn't find this particularly problematic, and Oliver found it sufficiently boring that he didn't tap on it more than once.
In summary, I think Spinlight's first foray into a non-game app was a successful one and the price point ($1.99) represents good value. I really hope that we see more spintales from this developer. I love the concept and some tweaks could yield a must-buy app.
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This review was written by Deanne Shoyer who is thankfully not allergic to digital cats and was therefore able to review this story without the use of antihistamines. smartappsforkids.com was paid a priority-review fee to complete this review in an expedited manner.