The Ball is a first person adventure-puzzle game created by indie developers Teotl Studios. The Ball originally rose to fame as a runner-up in the Make Something Unreal competition. The Ball will make its commercial debut on 26 October 2010.
The story goes that whilst exploring the slopes of an extinct volcano somewhere in Mexico an archaeologist, whom is also our protagonist, falls into a cavern. The rest of the team is busy organising a rescue so in the meantime there is nothing to do but explore. Within moments our protagonist takes yet another fall (setting the tone for what is to become an adventure full of improbably survivable falls) and finds himself on the doorstep of an ancient (presumably Aztec) underground city.
After taking a few moments to soak in the scenery, a device known as ‘The Ancient Weapon’ is discovered and moments later, it’s counterpart The Ball makes an appearance. A nearby hieroglyphic note is deciphered, revealing a foreboding message. Uncovering the story is part of the experience, so let’s just say that the note talked about not walking on the grass and disturbing ancient mysteries best left undisturbed.
The story itself is intriguing although slightly predictable, but it serves perfectly as a hook from which to hang the gameplay. As one begins to delve deeper into the ancient city, uncovering the details becomes a serious motivational factor for exploring the gorgeous and detailed expanse of the game world. Discoverable secrets take the form of titbits of storyline which serve to flesh out the game world – once a beacon of advanced human development now fallen to mysterious ruin.
The Ball represents two and a half years of devotion from the small team of developers and this is evident in the level of polish. Built on top of the Unreal 3 game engine, Teotl made full use of the power at their disposal. The 3D world is vast in magnitude, yet believable in design – spanning five distinct areas and eight levels. The texturing is vibrant and detailed. Subtle atmospheric lighting abounds. Soaking in the environment is as rewarding as the gameplay. Sounds effects are well implemented – clear and crisp – and nothing seems out of place. Surround sound even comes into play when controlling the ball. The dynamic musical score also accompanies the gameplay nicely and even gives subtle clues that a puzzle has been solved or that danger is imminent.
The levels are each well designed and distinct in characteristics. The ancient city thrums with the mysterious power that fuelled its creation. Mechanical contraptions form large parts of the environment and puzzles, as do clever manipulations of the natural environment, with water and lava driven devices also prevalent. All these things form traps and obstacles protecting the secrets hidden deep within.
The puzzle gameplay revolves around physics based manipulation of The Ball using the The Ancient Weapon. The Weapon can push or pull the ball using the mouse buttons. Holding down the respective button charges up a powerful push or drags the ball along. The Weapon can also be used to push buttons and special stone blocks.
The Ball is quite large and occupies the majority of the player’s view when drawn in close. Thankfully The Ball automatically becomes transparent, can be made transparent with the press of a button, or can be made permanently transparent through a game setting.
The puzzles usually involve activating switches by touching them with the protagonist or The Ball and pushing blocks into activation zones. Players will also have to figure out how to navigate the ball through the environment so that it can be brought along to the next area. Although these are simple elements to the puzzles, Teotl did a great job of keeping things fresh throughout. Each puzzle is different and they become trickier as players progress. Some platform jumping skills will be required at later stages.
Things never become too daunting however – Teotl has made it clear that the game is meant to be a challenging experience without becoming frustrating. To this end, there is a built-in hint system to help players along should they become bamboozled. All in all, figuring out the puzzles was a challenging and rewarding experience.
The game also features some baddies – products of the (mysterious storyline element which must be uncovered). The Weapon can be used to push away enemies and the only real offense the player has is The Ball, which does a great job of squishing stuff. Occasionally enemies will be part of the puzzles, adding a level of tension to the puzzling gameplay. At later stages players are rewarded with awesome boss creature battles which also require some basic puzzle solving skills to defeat.
The campaign mode of the game will take around six to eight hours to complete, depending on how much time one spends soaking in the environment and, of course, how challenging one finds the puzzles. There is also a survival mode which challenges players to survive against waves of enemies and use various tricks learnt throughout the campaign to kill them off. In terms of replay value, the environments and puzzles are compelling enough to lure players in for at least a second run through, especially if the secrets weren’t all discovered on the first go. This is a fairly meaty offering for the standard asking price of US$19.99 (±R138).
There is a pre-order deal on Steam – The Ball can be bought for US$17.99 (±R125) – 10 percent off the standard price of US$19.99 (±R138). The special also grant buyers an exclusive in-game character for the co-op survival-horror, Killing Floor. This offer will be valid for approximately 24 hours from the publication time of this review – until 26 October 2010 in the US.
The Ball is a fun first person puzzle-adventure game which stands out for its great design, simple yet enthralling gameplay, and entirely reasonable price. Anyone who enjoys great single player experiences with a backbone of puzzling gameplay would be well served by The Ball.
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