I’m more or less known as the “gaming guy” at MobileSyrup, but that comes with a big asterisk: I primarily play on consoles. I don’t have a PC, and I don’t usually enjoy gaming on my phone or MacBook.
For that reason, I seldom explore the world of smartphone gaming and have, admittedly, been somewhat ignorant of the quality of some of those experiences. With that in mind, I’ve recently been using Apple’s iPhone 13 Pro to see how games run on the 2021 handset.
As it’s done every year, Apple is emphasizing the gaming capabilities of its phones, with the latest flagships’ sporting the powerful A15 Bionic chip. It gets even better with the iPhone 13 Pro and Pro Max, which get a five-core GPU compared to the four-core found in the iPhone 13 and iPhone 13 Mini.
The tech giant says the four-core GPU is 30 percent faster than rival chips, while the five-core GPU is up to 50 percent faster. What’s more, the 13 Pro and Pro Max feature ‘ProMotion,’ which offers 120Hz support. This proves especially important in games that can go up to 120fps. In a recent briefing I attended, I checked out three titles that prominently show off these features: miHoYo’s Genshin Impact, 2K’s NBA2K22 Mobile and Mighty Bear’s Disney Melee Mania.
That’s a lot of tech jargon, so naturally, I wanted to try it all out for myself.
All told, I’m pretty impressed.
Disney Melee Mania
Because this game doesn’t release until December, it’s the only one of the three highlighted titles that I haven’t been able to play. That said, it’s definitely the one that intrigues me the most. That’s because it’s a multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) that features Disney and Pixar characters, ranging from icons like Mickey Mouse, Buzz Lightyear (Toy Story) and Elsa (Frozen) to appreciably deeper cuts like the Manticore (Onward) and Bing-Bong (Inside Out).
Players create teams of three and face off against one another in various game modes. Naturally, each character has their own unique abilities, like Elsa using her ice powers or Buzz having his handy laser. Now, I’ll confess that I’m not a fan of the art style, but its simplicity also likely helps enable ProMotion, which Mighty Bear promises will be available on launch day. Getting 120fps gameplay should make the combat even flashier and engaging. With the game coming to Apple Arcade and promising new playable characters over time, this could be a hit among families.
I’ve heard a lot about miHoYo’s popular action-RPG, but I had never played prior to getting my hands on the iPhone 13 Pro. Now that I’ve gone hands-on with the game on iPhone 13, I can certainly say it’s a real looker.
One of Genshin Impact‘s many similarities to 2017’s The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is its cel-shaded visuals. However, the base Switch’s LCD screen quite simply couldn’t do full justice to the stunning art direction. That’s not a problem with the iPhone 13 Pro’s OLED screen. The painterly aesthetic absolutely pops on the device, and I frequently found myself spinning the camera to soak it all in. Even a more recent similar game than BOTW, like last year’s Canadian-made Immortals: Fenyx Rising, had comparable crisp visuals on my PS5 to what I was seeing on the 13 Pro. The game also supports ProMotion, which makes the visuals only more appealing.
Admittedly, knowing that the game features a ‘gacha’ system — the unsavoury practice of spending real money to earn a randomized virtual item — pretty much guarantees that I won’t ever play much more of it. But if that’s something that doesn’t bother you, the experience is definitely really solid on iPhone 13.
NBA 2K22 Arcade Edition
While I’m not a sports guy at all, the first game I ever played on the Xbox Series X was the next-gen version of NBA 2K21. With that experience, I have a frame of reference for how NBA stacks up in comparison on mobile from a visual perspective.
My biggest takeaway with NBA 2K22 Arcade Edition is just how good the character models look. Sports games like NBA now regularly push photorealistic visuals, and that’s still true on iPhone 13. It’s a strong showcase for the phone’s graphical capabilities, with the athletes featuring well-realized details like glistening sweat, wavy, trimmed hair and pretty life-like animations.
Further, the game features a simplified control scheme that automates many of your baller’s actions, like ‘Steal’ or ‘Block/Rebound.’ As an especially nice touch, you can also customize where the buttons are laid out. It’s a great way to make the game accessible not only on mobile, but to someone like me with only a casual familiarity with basketball as a whole. All the while, the ProMotion tech ensures a consistently high and smooth framerate.
Really, the only thing that took me out of the experience was the extremely annoying and repetitive callouts that my teammates made. I couldn’t even make it across the court without hearing “C’mon, get it goin’!” several times — an issue I don’t remember experiencing in the console version. In general, though, I’m just not the audience for this kind of game, but I can definitely see how it would be a lot of fun to take on the go for NBA fans.
Those were the three main games that Apple was promoting with the iPhone 13, but naturally, I wanted to try a bunch more.
Read on for thoughts on those:
Alto’s Odyssey: The Lost City
Co-developed by Toronto-based Snowman, this is an expansion of the acclaimed 2018 Alto’s Odyssey endless snowboarding game. It’s also the perfect showcase for ProMotion. Adding to the stunning minimalist aesthetic is support for 120fps, which feels quite impactful in a game where you’re going down hills extremely fast.
The Alto’s series really benefits from a higher refresh rate, making all of your stylish tricks look and feel oh-so satisfyingly smooth. Best of all, it’s included in Apple Arcade, making it a must-play relaxing experience on mobile.
Fantasian, the new Apple Arcade JRPG from Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi’s Mistwalker studio, is one of my favourite games of the year. However, I’d previously only played it on my 2019 MacBook Air. For that reason, it was a great title to play on the 13 Pro and compare. While not overly graphically intensive, the game features stunning hand-made dioramas that are especially gorgeous on the 13 series. But where I was particularly impressed were some of the combat sections.
One of the smart twists the game offers on classic turn-based mechanics is the fact that you can “bank” random encounters to fight them all at once for a risk-reward style endeavour. At times, playing the game on MacBook on higher settings where numerous enemies were on screen at once and I used a character’s cinematic supermove resulted in brief — but marked — frame rate drops. That wasn’t an issue at all on the 13 Pro.
And as Sakaguchi told me in an interview earlier this year, playing the diorama-filled Fantasian on a touchscreen does add an interesting immersive layer to the experience. “And to me, there is this interesting synergy — it’s almost poetic — that there are these handcrafted dioramas that are literally made by human hands, and through the glass, you’re touching them with your hands,” he said.
While I do still prefer playing on MacBook for the bigger screen and trackpad, one of this year’s most criminally overlooked games is still well worth playing on iPhone.
Lego Star Wars Castaways
Naturally, Lego games aren’t known for being technical powerhouses, so Castaways doesn’t offer any sort of visual or frame rate options. That said, it’s an intriguing new title from Gameloft Montreal. Basically, it’s a mobile, kid-friendly MMORPG in which you create a character, explore a tropical planet, battle enemies, play minigames and more.
Walking around a little Lego hub populated by human players was pretty neat, and it was certainly entertaining to team up for some simple missions. It definitely doesn’t require a top-of-the-line iPhone, but it’s a nice new addition to Apple Arcade.
Pac-Man Party Royale
Simply put: this is Pac-Man, but with a battle royale twist. The goal is to collect as many pellets as possible while avoiding hazards like ghosts and taking out other players. Because it’s Pac-Man, it’s not an intensive experience that would offer any such technical enhancements. Nonetheless, it’s a fine addition to the Apple Arcade catalogue, letting you play Pac-Man with others in tight, bite-sized (no pun intended) matches.
In some ways, this is the quintessential iPhone 13 experience. It’s a “shoot ’em up” (think Galaga), so touch-based control over your ship just feels incredibly intuitive. But moreover, it’s one of the few games that support 120fps, and that makes all the difference. In a genre where split-second reactions mean the difference between success and failure, the quick response time afforded by the touch screen and smooth frame rate really add to the experience.
The trade-off is that the game has a simplistic art style with static backgrounds, but ultimately, you’ll care more about how this game feels, and with ProMotion, it’s very, very smooth. There’s not a whole lot else to this game, admittedly, but the fast-paced, 120fps gameplay is more than enough.
At this point in my life, I’m tired of the same-y nature of Pokémon games. That’s why Unite being a MOBA instead of another turn-based RPG is so interesting. I didn’t really know what to expect, and after playing it, I actually kinda liked it. While some have criticized Unite for its simplicity, that’s what makes it appealing to people like me — and, I suspect, many mobile players. It’s not meant to be a deep League of Legends-esque experience.
It’s also a game that benefits well from the iPhone 13. The cartoonish character models are sharp on the highest graphics settings, which also don’t hamper the game being played with frame rate turned all the way up. Even in the more hectic moments, the in-game tracker pegged me at 58fps, which is satisfying. Unsurprisingly, microtransactions in Unite can be off-putting, but given Pokémon‘s massive global fanbase, it’s a game that overall works well on mobile, especially when bolstered by the iPhone 13’s beefier specs.
PUBG: New State
I played a lot of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG) on Xbox One a few years back, so I felt right at home with New State. Admittedly, it’s ostensibly the same battle royale game, just with a (somewhat) futuristic coat of paint and some new features like drone item purchases and the ability to revive dead teammates. Because of that similarity, New State isn’t really a looker, with the game featuring the same decidedly bland visual aesthetic of the original PUBG. As a result, playing on the highest graphics setting made no discernible difference.
However, cranking up to the highest FPS setting made the game extremely fluid. I was pleasantly surprised at how much better it made the experience feel. And because you have access to a touch screen, inventory management was far easier than on console. Ultimately, I really enjoyed my time with New State, and the accessible nature of it having it on the iPhone might actually have me playing a few matches here and there.
Sonic has always been a colourful franchise, and that carries over to this racing entry. This vibrancy is even more prominent on the highest graphics setting, giving courses a gorgeous splendour. While there isn’t any frame rate option, the game easily upheld its 60-plus frames during my time with it alongside the crisp visuals.
The auto-acceleration and lack of gyro controls (you simply swipe left or right to steer) make it a bit too simple for my liking, but I can see how this would be light and easy fun for a lot of people.
In the end, I confess that I underestimated how high-quality mobile experiences can be. With modern consoles still not able to consistently hit 60fps and high resolutions with a lot of games, it’s all the more impressive that the iPhone 13 is as powerful as it is. This is especially true for its games that are also available on other platforms, like Genshin Impact or Pokémon Unite.
Sweetening the deal is that a lot of these games are either free-to-play or, even better, are included in Apple Arcade. That makes gaming on the iPhone 13 a lot easier to just jump into casually. There are a lot of hidden gems on Apple Arcade, and those alone could keep you entertained for a while.
Of course, I wouldn’t suggest buying an iPhone 13 Pro/Pro Max solely for gaming — dedicated consoles are still the most all-around solid and affordable choice. But with so many people buying new phones every year or two, it’s definitely worth keeping the iPhone 13 series in mind for surprisingly strong gaming experiences.
An Apple Arcade membership costs $5.99 CAD/month in Canada and is included with Apple One subscription bundles, which start at $15.95/month.