To me, The Ball felt like a Half-Life 2 / Portal crossover. It’s a first-person puzzle / action-survival game by Teotl Studios set in the depths of a dormant volcano somewhere in Mexico in the ’40s. You’re a miner who’s unlucky enough to get stuck at the bottom of a mineshaft you just fell in, and while you’re waiting for the surface crew to fix the crane to get you out of there, you think it’s a good idea to explore the cave a bit. Right at the beginning you uncover a mysterious artifact, something that looks like a ancient handcannon at first. When you pick it up and take a closer look you discover that the barrel end of the gun actually holds a hammering device. You decide to go a bit further, and it doesn’t take long until you activate some mechanism that uncovers the matching artifact. An oversized gold and metal plated ball drops to the floor before you, and you quickly learn that your hammer device can not only hammer away the ball, but also attract it magnetically when put in reverse.
The main reason The Ball reminded me of Half-Life 2 is because the game makes you progress through puzzles utilizing mostly physics. The eerie environment of the volcano with badly lit areas and “it’s quiet, too quiet” tension added to that reference. It also reminded me of Portal in some way. You need to drag the oversized ball everywhere you go, which made me think of the lovely Companion Cube in Portal; without it you’re unable to solve the puzzles.
The game features a hint system, which displays a message at the bottom of the screen. At the beginning of the game these messages play automatically, explaining how the game works, and sadly also how to solve the first couple of puzzles. After a while these hints will only show if you explicitly call for them pressing the H key. It is things like this that kind of make me sad, because when was the last time you got completely stuck on a game? Although getting stuck in itself is not fun, do you not remember that extremely satisfying feeling when you finally figured it all out and could continue? I vowed not to use the hint system a single time during my playthrough, as I generally get more enjoyment out of solving the puzzles that way.
While solving puzzles, you find out very soon that you are not alone in this volcanic cavern. You discover that not only are you bringing ancient mechanisms back to life by the presence of the ball, you’ve also awakened the dead. A test of survival is upon you and since you have nothing else but the artifacts, you need to attract and repulse the giant ball to crush every mummy in your path. The game is nice and gory, blood splattering several meters through the air, the sound of skulls being crushed beneath the weight of the ball, grinding them to a pulp. There is an option to turn off the gore if you feel you can’t take that.
I’ve had a great love-hate relationship with the game during my playthrough. At first, the killing was exciting and gave me a few goosebumps-moments. I felt it required some skill to stay out of the hands of the mummies, who mostly all attack at melee range. There were some puzzles where you got separated from the ball for a while, and if mummies showed up, there was no way to defend yourself other than outrunning them. But as the game progressed, the killing became more tedious, and felt it was more to slow you down or just throw in some blood to keep it, I don’t know… varied? There was also a point in the game where I felt a bit like a man-sized dung-beetle, but I guess that’s just how I roll…
I greatly enjoyed solving the puzzles, though, and as you progress through the levels you learn that your ball has more abilities than you imagined at first. To name a few, your ball gets magnetised, electrified and dunked in oil. It is then up to you to find out how to use these effects to progress (or use the freaking hint system of course, but… c’mon!). I am happy to say that each puzzle is unique, and I really enjoyed solving them. Throughout the whole game I did not once have the feeling a puzzle was rehashed or that the puzzles became repetitive. They also become harder and harder. But… not hard enough for my taste. My thoughts upon completing the game were literally “What, that was it?”. I felt I was yet to encounter the hardest puzzle of them all. But then I didn’t…
The game features 8 levels, each unique in its own way. The scenery is quite appealing to the eye (well, as appealing as the inside of a volcanic cave can be) and each level takes about an hour, so roughly 8 hours go into this game. The survival mode extends the game somewhat, but only if you enjoy killing mummies wave after wave with just your ball and some traps (which I did not). I feel that this game would have greatly benefited from a similar play mode focussing solely on puzzles. So in contrast with Survival mode, be able to play something like a Challenge mode. Finish a puzzle under a certain time or just immensely hard and unforgiving puzzles. Just my thoughts on this, as I’m sure there are people out there who will enjoy killing 500 mummies in 15 minutes with their balls…
The graphics are very appealing. With indie games I personally always have the prejudice that the game will be rather unpolished. I was pleasantly surprised by the look of the game. The environment was both peaceful and eerie at the same time. There was a certain beauty to the underground world, featuring waterfalls and lava-streams, and even a lush oasis and a village. At the same time it had a creepy vibe, as by now you knew that there could be a wave of mummies after you again. All in all, the game looks very 2010, and I didn’t find the graphics unpolished at all.
I have to applaud for the audio in this game, for the music in particular. The sound effects aren’t that special (though I really enjoyed the gory blood splatter and bone crushing sounds) but the music is really immersive. Each level features different music and is nicely paced in real-time with any action you’re facing. The music is not intrusive or very repetitive so it retains your immersion rather than breaking it. The musical style is befitting the ancient Maya-like theme of the game. Props to the sound engineers!
I had a good time playing with my Ball, although I was hoping that it would be a bit more challenging. Personally I found that the game was too easy to complete, and the Survival game mode and achievements don’t really extend the value of the game by a lot. It would be a different story if the game had some sort of puzzle Challenge or Time Trial game mode. I don’t think the meagre 8-10 hours of gameplay you get are worth the £14.99 price tag (on Steam and Play.com), but Teotl Studios really had something going here. I hope we get to see more of them in the future, and hopefully they will take lessons from the feedback The Ball is giving them currently.