Despite the attention lavished on big name, AAA titles, indie games have had a pretty good run lately. The Unreal-engine-powered the Ball is about as indie as you can get. The game started as a runner-up mod for the “Make Something Unreal” contest a while back, and luckily the developers were given the chance to turn it into a full-fledged release. While the final result isn’t as refined as it could be, the Ball is still a creative take on familiar themes.
The story places the player as an archeologist in the 1940’s. While exploring an ancient Aztec dig, you find yourself trapped in a subterranean labyrinth beneath a volcano. Unarmed, confused, yet apparently with a super human ability to fall absurd heights, this Indiana Jones-wannabe trudges forth to discover the most bizarre discovery of ancient man… ever.
As the title implies, you soon discover a giant ball, apparently powered by alien technology. The ball is controlled by something that looks like a cross between a hand cannon and a jack hammer—allowing you to both fire the ball away and call it back. As expected, the game’s entire design revolves around manipulating the ball through a series of room-sized puzzles.
Puzzles usually boil down to using the ball to remotely trigger switch plates, often while you are busy triggering another in tandem. It’s a fun and clever mechanic, though nothing here feels particularly new or overly creative. This is also a mechanic used far too much over the course of the short (four or so hour) game.
The Ball finds some interesting ways to remix the task of hitting a switch, but it’s only later in the game when it really attempts to add much variety by giving the ball other properties. There are entertaining gravity-based puzzles once the ball gets a magnetic field, and some nice uses for fire. Yet, these examples should have been spread much more frequently throughout the entire adventure, instead of using level design that relies far too much on simple switch puzzles.
Just the same, the puzzle solving in the Ball is engaging enough to ride players through the sharp and attractive Central American motif. Levels look good, if a bit old school in their scope. The maps are designed to accommodate the puzzle mechanic, not any real world sensibilities. This leads to areas only reachable through falling, crazy jumps, and of course, conveniently having a giant magic ball in your possession.
Beyond puzzles, the Ball also throws combat into the mix. Here, the game really fumbles. Since the ball is your only weapon, there’s a lot of awkward ball rolling toward mindless mummies, then quickly calling the ball back to get the next wave. It all feels a bit like Aztec bowling, but the novelty of it runs out quickly. Boss battles spice things up, however, mixing the combat and puzzle solving elements more smoothly.
Once you’ve played the main story mode, the Ball also offers up a survival mode. Shipping with four stages specifically designed to task players with endless waves of enemies and one big ball to fight them, the survival mode makes the mistake of focusing on the weakest part of the game. Although fun for short bursts, these levels enunciate the flaws with the combat and are of limited use.
It would be easy to dismiss the Ball as a mostly failed experiment. Yet, this cheaply priced download is still worth checking out. It’s a clever concept that remains fun through the game, even if the developers didn’t take the design ideas nearly as far as they could have. The use of cooperative gameplay with a giant ball is great, the level design is solid, and this is a good looking game.
Blast Factor: While there’s not enough variety in the puzzles, the Ball still packs enough play value to make it a nice alternative to the much more serious first person shooters out there.