Game development is a mystery to me. For all I know, Teotl Studios produced this game by sacrificing virgins to the feathered snake god. Yet I feel pretty confident in guessing that the cool gameplay mechanic came before the story in the Ball. I mean, the clue is in the title, right? It isn’t called Archaeo-Spelunk Quest, or Quetzalcoatl: Redemption, is it? It’s about what one man and his giant ball can achieve. And it’s not about Lance Armstrong.
You’re cast as an archaeologist who becomes trapped in a vast cave complex somewhere in Mexico. He finds a strange ball and proceeds to explore the remains of a lost civilisation. The motivations of the protagonist are never clear; I was left to assume that the grunty fellow I was controlling simply had a pathological need to play chicken with ancient and terrible powers. Numerous dire portents about what should befall mankind if our hero progresses are simply ignored. This isn’t a seamless blend of a compelling narrative and an unusual gameplay concept. This isn’t the new Portal, in other words.
So it’s a good thing that the ball in the Ball is such fun to use. The sphere looks large and unwieldy at first—I felt irritated that I’d have to cart it around everywhere to solve puzzles—yet I soon became attached to it. The gradients of the many ramps, the occasional drops into pools of water, and the machines that imbue the ball with various effects are all handled in a way that feels right. I never felt frustrated by the control system and I wasn’t confused by what my tool could or could not do. The thing is also festooned with gold engravings, skulls, and helpful light panels, so it doesn’t ever get boring to look at. All in all, it’s a likeable companion on our hero’s journey into the underworld.
The only other item that we use in the game is the impact ha—actually, I don’t know what the tool’s called, so I’ll just refer to it as the hammer from now on. Anyway, it has two functions: it whacks and it sucks. A left click will cause it to “hammer” the ball. A tap nudges the ball and a longer press can wallop it forward with deadly speed. The right mouse button will draw the ball to you. This doesn’t always work so well, since the ball will always try to travel in a straight line. Sucking the ball back can sometimes feel like winding the lead back into a hoover. These are the only effective ways of interacting with the ball, and you’ll use them in almost every puzzle.
The beginning levels act as a naturalistic tutorial. Puzzle elements like colour coded player or ball specific switches, crates that must be moved onto their own buttons, lifts, lava, water, electricity, and spikes are introduced one at a time. Gradually, these are added to combinations where you’ll have to apply what you learned in the earlier levels to figure out what works. I didn’t have to hit H to summon the textual hints very often. The Ball is rarely tough, but the smooth ramping up of complexity is something that I, someone who doesn’t frequently play puzzlers, appreciated.
I was getting a bit anxious, though. Hadn’t I seen screenshots of monsters? Where’s the action in this action-adventure-puzzle game? There were hints of danger, of course. Corpses here and there. Ominous sounds in the distance. Doom laden messages. I was getting suspicious of every new room and I knew that something horrible was going to jump out at any moment.
When the mummies did arrive, heralded by rasping moans that I soon came to dread. I just swung the mouse wildly. The ball squashed them flat. More attacked, and I found that any fast movement from the ball could kill them. This makes most encounters pretty easy. I later found that a strong hammer blow can knock monsters back, preferably into lava, but the potential presence of enemies made me feel naked without my ball. The bosses in later levels are all overcome by simple environment related puzzles, such as flooding a chamber by hitting switches and the encounters aren’t as dynamic as I would’ve liked. The combat isn’t nearly as fun as the puzzling, yet it does add to the game. The urgency and tension of certain puzzles just wouldn’t be there without it.
However, the platforming is completely unnecessary. There may be no fall damage—thank fuck—but I’m pretty sure that I died more often falling into lava than at the hands of the incompetent enemies. First person platforming doesn’t work: not even being able to see your character’s legs (that helped a little in Mirror’s Edge) was especially irritating in the lava areas.
I may have dismissed the story a little, but I can’t fault the atmosphere. This is a colourful, unusual looking game with more ambition in its design than most A list titles. The underground ruins and caverns are vivid, detailed, and occasionally huge. They’re always true to the “feel” of a lost meso-American civilisation. Admittedly, I’m a sucker for this lost civilisation stuff, so my imagination ascribed thematic meaning to the glyphs and architectures that isn’t necessarily in the game itself. I took far more screenshots of giant underground waterfalls, looming pyramids, hellish lava landscapes than I needed to, just because there are so many great set pieces and gorgeous sights.
I have to applaud the Ball for doing something different with an engine that has become synonymous (in my mind) with juvenile shooters with dull concepts and dull graphics. The few weaknesses in conventional narrative, combat, and the presence of platforming don’t really detract from the experience. The current price might be somewhat off-putting for an “indie” game, but the singleplayer campaign took me about 7 entertaining hours to complete, which is around the depressing average of most titles these days. Teotl Studios have a lot of potential on this showing and I’m looking forward to see what they summon next. How about Atlantis?