The Ball Review
2010's been a good year for indie developers. Indie games have been doing an impressive job holding their own against the big budget titles and have given us some truly provocative gaming experiences. Hoping to join the ranks of those successful indie offerings, Swedish developer Teotl Studios gives us its unique action puzzler, The Ball. The result? While there's no question The Ball is well put together and has an intriguing premise, in the end it's weighed down by an awkward combat system and a gimmick that eventually grows tiresome.
In The Ball, you're an archaeologist working on a dig in Central America. Of course, you must be the clumsiest scholar of all time because seconds into the game, you fall down a hole and into a deep cavern. Amazingly, you come away without breaking both legs so while your compatriots figure out how to rescue you, you decide to explore. You find that you've fallen into a vast network of rooms and tunnels created by an ancient race who once shared their technological expertise with primitive humans, then seemingly vanished. You also discover a couple of strange artifacts – a tool that's something like a cross between a magnet and a jackhammer, and a huge metal Ball covered in strange carvings. Once you pick the first one up, you realize it works in two ways—to attract the Ball to you and to launch it away from you. Both of these actions become very useful in navigating the treacherous environment, which is full of Indiana Jones-like traps and switches.
Most of what you do during the game is walk through spooky stone corridors until you encounter doors that must be opened in order for you to proceed. It's here that The Ball adds a fresh twist on the push plate puzzles we're all so familiar with. The Ball itself is more than an artifact; it's a useful tool (and later on, a weapon) that can press buttons, drag heavy objects, destroy walls, act as a step-ladder and even crush slow-moving monkeys. Puzzles are designed to be solved cooperatively, with switches that can only be tripped by you or the ball and oftentimes, you'll need to activate two switches at once by standing on one and rolling the ball onto the other. Repeatedly you're presented with areas that can be accessed by either you or the Ball, but not both—and it's up to you to figure out how to manipulate the environment and get you both through.
For puzzle solving, it's important that you keep the Ball with you and as you move further into the game, it's even more critical when crazed zombie/mummy-ish things come pouring out of the woodwork. The only way to defeat them is to roll your bigass Ball over them (Don't try using your jackhammer on them; it just makes them mad.) which when you're being attacked from all sides, can be a difficult trick. Although the Ball makes an interesting, unconventional weapon, the actual mechanics of using it quickly becomes an exercise in frustration. Then again, it's not all the Ball's fault. The camera's also to blame since the first person point of view makes it hard to tell where enemies are coming from. Making matters worse though, in order to control the Ball, you have to roll it in front of you which means you're looking through it the whole time. This obstructs your view during critical moments and makes your main defense tactic spinning around in frantic circles, hoping you hit something. Boss fights are somewhat better, set up as they are like big environmental puzzles, but fending off the low level enemies isn't as much fun as it could be.
While combat isn't the best, The Ball gets a thumbs up for clever level design. Even though you're underground, you get to experience a lot of different locations like abandoned villages and waterfall-bedecked temples. The pace is changed up nicely too as you ride mine carts, fall suddenly down long shafts or get pulled by the current through underground waterways. The art is professionally done, if a bit dated looking. As such, the mostly non-interactive environments are polished and provide a somewhat nostalgic experience reminiscent of some of the great single player PC games of let's say, a decade or so ago. Sound is minimal (in fact, you hardly notice it) with voice acting consisting mostly of your character reading ancient signage out loud. Sadly, the story is minimal, too, and the few secrets and signs you find don't do much to fill you in, provide narrative interest or move the story along.
The Ball has a lot going for it but in the end, the clumsy combat starts to grate, as does the Ball itself. What seems at first like a cool co-op mechanic becomes a chore as the Ball starts to feel like a big, bulky hitchhiker who accepts a ride but won't engage in conversation. As you move, you constantly have to activate your magnet to make sure the Ball is following you and later in the game you have to roll it in front of you all the time for protection and so endure the irritation of constantly looking through it. In the end the damn thing feels like a burden, making you wish you could toss into the nearest lava pit and go on without it.
The Ball is good effort with some interesting ideas. Unfortunately, the good things are undermined by some questionable combat mechanics, a bothersome, half-obstructed first person point of view and a half-baked story concept. The game retails at $19.99 and a full playthrough takes five or six hours (depending on your puzzle solving skill or willingness to use the hint system) with the extra survival challenges providing a bit more (albeit quite similar) gameplay. Flaws and all, if you're a puzzle fanatic, the game might be worth a look. Otherwise, the annoyances probably won't make it worth your time.