In some ways, it's almost too easy to pick a high-quality port when assessing the cream of the iOS crop, even when limiting the choices to iPhone. Finding a mobile exclusive that fits that category is a little harder.
For that reason, my next recommendation for people who hate iOS games is an old favorite. First released in 2011, Battleheart doesn't look that much better than a mid-2000s flash game, but it still manages to exhibit a degree of panache that can be difficult to find on iOS. And sadly, there are few mobile games like it.
The premise: An action RPG in which you battle waves of monsters coming in from either side of the screen. Battleheart features ten classes, all of whom can be equipped with a weapon, armor, and up to two accessories. Each class can also carry as many as three abilities, the last of which is a super attack with a lengthy cooldown.
Battleheart's gameplay is structured around building an optimized party consisting of up to four characters, then completing a succession of missions, at the end of which is a difficult boss. Being an RPG, there's a good deal of loot, with weapons being upgraded through a merchant and later an arena. There is a grind to Battleheart, but the progression curve is overall quite pleasant until the end of the game, at which point it gets really hard.
The pitch: Battleheart is a throwback to the old-school of iOS design. Lacking either microtransactions or online play, it is a pure single-player RPG. And despite its relative simplicity, the "dungeon crawling" being limited to only one screen, it's a lot of fun.
Battleheart's biggest strength is the simplicity of its touch-based interface, which is used to guide the four characters around and activate their respective skills. On the face of it, managing four party members seems a bit overwhelming; but in practice, the action is surprisingly smooth due to the melee characters attacking automatically, making it easy to focus on the spellcasters in the rear. The interface is also helped by fact that most of the skills are of the fire and forget variety, lessening the need for intensive micromanagement.
The importance of the interface is magnified later in the game, when the screen is filled with enemies attacking on all sides. If you're not careful, it's rather easy to get overwhelmed by sheer numbers, particularly if you lose your healer early on. It's the interface that is often the difference in being able to quickly fire off a life-saving spell and getting ground under the weight of orcs and goblins.
The enjoyable combat is aided by customization that proves surprisingly robust with its ten classes and limited skill trees. As I've mentioned elsewhere, there's nothing I love more in an RPG than optimizing my party, and there are plenty of opportunities to do just that in Battleheart. My only reservation is that the Cleric is a bit too strong. With her group healing and her ability to become immune to damage, she's practically a mandatory addition, outclassing both the Paladin and the Bard.
That being said, there are plenty of ways to up the challenge in Battleheart. For example, it's possible though quite difficult to beat the game with a single character. And if you're an experienced player, you can deliberately ignore the Cleric and still be quite successful. It'll just be a bit harder.
I ended up spending many happy hours with Battleheart; and for a bit, it even managed to hook my girlfriend, who much to my chagrin ended up monopolizing my iPod for long periods of time. I've since kept my eye out for more games like Battleheart, but a worthy successor has been hard to find. I was excited to play Team Monsters, which was pitched to me as "Battleheart meets Pokemon," but I was disappointed by its shallow strategy and comparatively high number of microtransactions. Pocket Heroes likewise caught my eye, but its focus on co-op play was a major turnoff. Even Battleheart's own sequel has failed to grab me, mainly because it's so different from the original game (people love it though, so I may give it another try).
Four years after its release, there just aren't that many games like Battleheart. At the risk of stating the obvious, mobile development has largely shifted away from full-blooded single-player games, with the result being that few studios have followed in Mike Mobile's footsteps. But that's all the more reason to play this little gem of an RPG, which can be had for only $2.99 and runs on practically anything. In this case, being a throwback to an earlier era is definitely a good thing.