Last week I posted a little preview on The Ball, an indie first-person puzzle game that started out as an Unreal 3 mod but has since grown into a full on retail release published by the good folks over at Tripwire Interactive. Developed by Teotl Studios, The Ball has garnered so much critical acclaim and won so many awards (including second place in Epic Games’ Make Something Unreal contest) due to its unique setting, creative gameplay mechanics, and sheer quantity of head scratching puzzles.
Now that I’ve had a bit more time to clear through the single-player campaign and put in some work on the survival mode, I’m fully prepared to give my opinion on The Ball. Will this game roll over the competition, or simply bounce down the hall of forgotten games? Read on to find out.
I’ve already detailed most of the story elements in the game in my preview, but for those of you who may of missed it, allow me to do a quick recap. You play as an archaeologist who is excavating some ancient Aztec ruins. While exploring, you fall into a giant hole and are separated from the rest of your team. Apparently it’s going to take some time before the proper tools arrive to help fish you out, so you start to explore this hole. As you venture deeper into hole you find some strange temple ruins. Inside these ruins you find two items: a gun-like hammer and a massive metallic ball.
The hammer is the only weapon you actually get to wield in the game. By holding down the left mouse button, you charge up the hammer, allowing you to punch the ball at various power levels. The right mouse button turns the hammer into a magnet, attracting the ball to it. By mastering these two functions you have to solve various puzzles to advance in the ruins.
At first the puzzles are pretty simple; put the ball on one switch while you stand on another to lower platforms, etc. Eventually the difficulty ramps up, requiring you to think a tad bit more abstractly. For example, at one point I came across a giant lake of lava. I had to punch the ball into the lava, and then, by jumping onto various platforms and using the magnet ability on the hammer, navigate the ball through a maze to hit a switch allowing access to the next area.
As you journey deeper into these spooky temples, you’ll soon find out you’re not alone. On top of the numerous environmental hazards (lava, spike pits, traps, etc.) there are some very pissed off Aztec mummies who aren’t too pleased with your meddling. To make matters worse, you are constantly being watched by a massive alien-looking monster who is dressed like an Aztec priest. This Priest reminded me of the G Man in the Half-life series. While you never directly interact with him, it’s safe to say he’s not to happy with you stumbling onto his congregation.
I should note that the hammer does absolutely no damage to the bad guys. In order to defeat them you have to use both the ball and the environment. Using the ball is simple enough: just roll over the mummies and go on your way. But what happens when the ball is tied up in a puzzle? Well, you can use the hammer to push the mummies into lava, use various switches to activate traps, etc. One of my favorite puzzle/fights had me trying to navigate the ball through a maze (which was above me.) As the ball hit various checkpoints in the maze, it would attract metal spikes to it. By hitting switches, which were on the ground floor with me, the ball would shoot these metal spikes in all directions, killing the mummies.
Handling the ball as a weapon is a refreshing change of pace from the usual hold-fire-shooters I’m used to playing. At first I was turned off by my lack of skill at maneuvering the ball, but by the end of the game I was doing ricochet trick shots and all sorts of cool tricks that make you feel pretty badass.
Teotl Studios got pretty creative in terms of the power-ups the ball can get. At one point, for a brief series of puzzles, the ball becomes an anti-gravity generator. You have to stay within the anti-gravity field around the ball to solve some jumping puzzles. At another part I had to use the ball to carry an electric charge to a switch that would open a gate, a simple enough task until you realize that the ground is covered in water and as soon as the ball touches it you’re getting fried.
Solving puzzles isn’t the only use of ball power-ups. A large number of the boss fights require you use the power-ups in creative ways. At one point I had to fight two giant monsters (who looked like General Raam from Gears of War) by rolling the ball into a flammable oil, spreading the oil all over the ground where the bad guys were, and then punching the ball into a torch so that the ground would catch on fire, burning the monsters.
All in all the single-player portion of the game provides plenty of entertainment to warrant the $20 price tag. It took me around eight hours to complete the campaign. That being said, the campaign wasn’t perfect.
In terms of narrative, there is some work to be done. A large part of the story comes from hieroglyphics which are translated to you via cut scene at key points in the game. The rest of the story is revealed from finding hidden “secrets” in the ruins. The problem with this method of story telling is that I couldn’t find a majority of the secrets, so I was in the dark with a lot of the back-story.
In addition to this storytelling problem, I also found the ending to be pretty anticlimactic. If ancient hieroglyphics tell you that doing something will unleash Hell on Earth and you do it, I expect a pretty epic ending. Needless to say I was a tad disappointed when something unrelated occurred.
Once you finish the single-player part of the game there is still the survival mode for you to explore. Featuring four different maps, each with nine waves of enemies, the goal of survival mode is to, what else?, survive. Besides the standard mummies, you’ll be going against giant worms, more of those General Ramm guys, and other nasty creatures.
To be honest with you guys, you know those trick shots I was talking about earlier? They don’t mean anything in survival mode. On a good day I’ll get past one wave, if I’m lucky. Maybe I’m just not as good as I thought I was at this game or the survival mode is on a much higher difficulty level. That being said, this difficulty does mean that you can pour more hours into the game on top of the eight spent on the single-player portion.
For me, The Ball was the perfect game at the perfect time. I was at a point where I just wanted to play something by myself that would be challenging as well as interesting. The Ball fit this bill perfectly. If I had to compare it to another game, I’d say it was like Portal. Besides the fact that both games are first-person puzzle-based titles, they both share a similar progressive learning system. By that, I mean that each puzzle ramps up the difficulty a little bit, causing you to think on your feet and improvise leaving you with plenty of rewarding “a-ah!” moments. For $20, it’s hard to say no to a game this unique, interesting, and rewarding. If you liked Portal (and who didn’t) give The Ball a shot. It just might surprise you.
With lush environments, brilliant lighting effects and detailed monsters, The Ball is a damn pretty game.
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Innovative and challenging, The Ball will having you scratching your head while scared out of your wits.
The creeks and groans of centuries old machinery help build the fantastically spooky atmosphere.
The single-player portion lasts about eight hours and there isn't much replayability if you collect all the secrets your first time through. The survival mode does add some extra life to the game.
For $20, The Ball is a perfect way to kill time until Portal 2.