The Ball Review

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The Ball Publisher: Tripwire Interactive
Developer: Teotl Studios

Platform: PC
Reviewed on PC

Windows System Requirements: 2.0 GHz processor, DirectX 9 and SM3 compatible video card, 1.5 GB HD space, Windows XP Service Pack 2 or more recent operating system

Working on an archaeological dig on the slopes of a Mexican volcano, a nameless (but acrobatic) researcher falls into a cavern, revealing gorgeously preserved ruins from an ancient, Mesoamerican culture. Those ruins have been hidden from humanity for hundreds of years for a very good reason, and the only tool that lone archaeologist has to protect him is a massive, metal-skinned ball, still as imposing as the day it came to rest in these ruins.

Kyle Ackerman

When I think about arming myself for the upcoming zombie apocalypse, I usually wonder whether I could get my hands on a shotgun, or whether that spade in the shed will be enough to keep me safe from the slavering zombie horde. It never occurred to me to face the undead with a gigantic, glowing, metal-skinned ball far bigger than I am. That's because I didn't have the skull-adorned, gun-like percussive device that The Ball's protagonist finds to control the massive, eponymous ball.

The Ball started as a mod but has expanded to become the full game downloadable from various portals for $20. Fundamentally, it's that price that makes the game so compelling. The Ball is clever, daring, and takes a new approach to play. It also reflects an occasional lack of polish and mediocre visuals that would be unforgivable in a release costing $50 or $60. But as a $20 download, the game can easily get away with a few flaws and you can enjoy flinging a massive ball around underground Mesoamerican ruins.

The Ball is really two games. The bulk is a puzzle game in which you manipulate a gigantic ball to flip switches, smash walls, and serve as a jump-off suitable for a clown or Russian circus bear. Then there's the combat. You have a massive, gun-like device adorned with a skull that can either draw the ball in or strike it like a huge hammer, sending it rolling away. The Ball eases you into combat, starting with simple mummy-like creatures, ghoulish humanoids trapped underground, and getting more difficult from there.

I loved the puzzle elements. I found most of the puzzles to be challenging enough to keep me engaged, without being so obscure as to be unsolvable. The Ball kept throwing different conditions (low gravity, sequences of switches, parallel tracks for the ball, and even vehicles) to ensure that the puzzles stayed interesting and fresh.

Despite being mostly entertaining, the puzzles had a few issues. On several occasions, they just didn't work. But when the bug involved a switch not activating, it took me a while to figure out that the game needed to be restarted, rather than that I'd done something wrong. The game's robust hint system helped me realize I was doing things correctly, so I appreciated that, but I still hated redoing complicated puzzles thanks to a bug. I'm also strictly against dying just because I have to make repeated leaps over lava. There's just no need. Finally, while I rarely had difficulty solving the puzzles, I occasionally had real trouble figuring out what door or path was unlocked once I had completed the puzzle.

I was less of a fan of the combat. With the puzzles, I could be deliberate and thoughtful in my handling of the ball. With hordes of monsters running at me, I had trouble controlling the ball precisely enough to feel confident in battle. The hammer used to strike the ball can't harm enemies. It can push them into spikes or lava, but the ball is the only real, effectual weapon. My difficulty killing enemies with the ball may be the point, but horror should keep me on the edge of my seat and acutely aware of every noise. Instead, I was flailing around madly, trying to pull or push the ball into enemies before they swiped me to death. I'd have enjoyed the game more with no enemies, or at least with a scant handful rather than hordes.

Teotl studios (once known as Toltec Studios) takes its name from the Aztec concept of pervasive divinity. Think of it this way – Teotl for the Aztecs was something like George Lucas' "The Force" for that universe's jedi. It's an ambitious name behind an ambitious project, but Teotl's hubris isn't entirely justified. The lore is interesting, but does come off more as an outsider's take on an alternate Aztec mythology than an authentically mysterious Mesoamerican experience. A macuahuitl lying abandoned in the hallway isn't enough to break that pervasive feeling that the ball is buried deeply beneath the developer's Sweden, rather than under a Mexican volcano.

I admire The Ball for stretching our first-person experience with this gigantic ball in underground ruins. The game maintains a marvelous sense of mystery throughout, with wide-open caverns alternating with claustrophobic tunnels to unravel this ancient underground mystery. The puzzles are clever, and the combat is interesting (if flawed). If The Ball has issues, the $20 price tag more than makes up for the problems.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on October 25, 2010 9:27 PM.

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