Since we were children, many of us have had our play time eaten into by simple “guide the shiny ball to its home” games. You all know what I’m talking about: tilt the little wooden platform in your hand as you try to get all the balls in the right holes. Simple and cheap, yet highly addictive and in some cases, quite challenging.
As technology evolved, so did the complexity of these games, adding more shiny balls and more complex mazes to guide them through. So now we are here with Switchball, taking this simple concept that has been used in games like Super Monkey Ball even further.
Developed by Atomic Elbow for the PC and Xbox360 in 2007, Switchball was received warmly by critics, even winning TeamXbox.com’s Xbox Live Arcade Game of the Year award. Now roughly two years later it has come to the Playstation 3, and while a lot has changed in those two years, this game still remains fresh.
Players have to guide their ball through to the end of each level using a variety of crates, lifts, levers, cannons and ball altering effects. The game has four main ball types that need to be used to solve the multiple puzzles on each level: the normal “marble ball”, the heavy bulldozing “metal ball”, the ultra light “air ball” and the multi-talented “power ball”. Mastering each of the techniques available for each ball type is what is required in order to progress the later worlds.
Initially, Switchball is very simple; gently easing the player into its physics based gameplay and relaxed atmosphere. Anyone who has ever played Bejeweled will immediately find the music here is in a similar vein. Even the background pictures wouldn’t look out of place in Pop Cap Game’s puzzler.
Split into five worlds, each containing six levels, Switchball is simple to the point where I felt as if it was holding my hand at first. It is only into around the third world that the game suddenly picks up pace and begins to really test your mental dexterity. The jump in difficulty is quite jarring, yet welcome. Some later puzzles resemble the board game Mousetrap, with the ball rolling through a series of rails and walkways.
Visually, the game pleases without pushing the hardware. The marble ball is suitably shiny and reflective, using the game’s manual camera mode allows zooming in close to admire this. Cloth dances gently in the breeze and the neon lights of cave world illuminate the ground fairly spectacularly. On some of the more complex levels there can be some background pop up, but if you’re noticing this then you’re really not paying enough attention to the ball itself.
Paying attention is most definitely advisable, as there are many pitfalls to catch out the less attentive gamer. Magnets will draw in metal balls, spikes will deflate the sensitive air ball and the power ball’s abilities can be a hazard to itself when used in the wrong situation. Planning one or two steps ahead is essential to try and avoid these, but there will always be that one occasion when concentration slips or safety is assumed, it is this moment that Switchball waits for before punishing such foolishness. In fairness to the game, death never seems unfair and can always be attributed to a fault on the player’s behalf, a crucial factor in any puzzle game and one which is passed with flying colours.
Sadly, multiplayer was something I wasn’t able to test. I tried on many different occasions (even when only starting my PS3 to reply to messages) to see if anyone was online to play, however the lobbies were dead. Just to test, I created a game and left it open while I made and then ate an evening snack, with not even a hint of another soul online to play. Unless you can arrange a game with a friend, don’t rely on another player helping you with those trophies.
It’s not just the non-existent multiplayer that raises a little ire, the soft “new age” music can become repetitive during extended gaming sessions. Would it really kill them to have a different tune for each world? Unfortunately, the level design does share some of this repetition. The “Da Vinci esque” entry platform and windmills on each level are pleasing, but its clear the physics, and not artistic level design, has been the focus of the majority of development time.
Despite the lack of community, there is also the inevitable trophy haul to play for. Atomic Games has made twelve trophies available. One trophy for each world completed and others for achieving gold and silver medal times for level completion. Finding secret paths and completing the game’s multiplayer modes also nets more digital silverware.
A special mention must also be made to the loading times, I timed them at an average of over twenty seconds per level completed. While it doesn’t sound much, the load time for Ridge Racer, for example, doesn’t even take as long: a game that wasn’t installed on my hard drive and arguably has much more data to stream. With early levels being completed with ease, load times are noticeable.
While Switchball doesn’t do anything spectacularly wrong, it actually doesn’t do anything spectacular; but for someone looking for a change of pace and a puzzler that doesn’t involve falling blocks then this is most certainly worth a look at. It won’t drop your jaw or surprise you, but more importantly, it won’t leave you regretting your purchase either.
Everything looks nice enough, it just feels a little sterile and lacks distinction.
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Really impressive physics make sure that steering your ball around each level is never a chore. There are some great fiendish puzzles too.
Only one song from the menu to the completion of the final level is there to accompany you during your journey. It's relaxing at first, but grating when stuck on a puzzle.
The single player's six worlds shouldn't take too much time to complete, unfortunately, but trophies, time trial leaderboards and multiplayer provide some extra replay time.
Switchball is a relaxing change of pace that provides something a little different on the PS3. While Switchball cannot be recommended as an essential purchase, it is most certainly worth the purchase price.