This time I think I’ll skip the token rant about the greatness of indie games, and how they're the only source of true originality and creativity nowadays, as I believe all of it is well known by now. No, they are not without their faults, but even at their worst they still manage to dodge the harsh criticism that big budget releases often attract, if they fail to deliver. I'm not exactly sure why, but all I know is that I wouldn't be too enraged for having spent ten or fifteen bucks on a game made by someone with a passion for the art and not my wallet.
Long story short, or rather a short story shorter, as the game is about 5-6 hours total, you become trapped in a cave somewhere in rural Mexico, and decide to explore the tunnels while waiting for a rescue. Each level is preceded by a quick introduction, but you're otherwise left to your own devices and those of the creators of the cavernous world. Said devices get progressively more challenging to conquer, as you go further in, but the introductory portion was a bit too easy especially for a game of this length. Zombies and mummies eventually make an appearance as well, but thankfully in small, not irritating doses, as they are neither exciting to kill nor do they play any major part in the puzzles. In other words the game wouldn't have been worse off without them, but they do change the pace a little bit, and the boss fights are actually pretty entertaining.
"…the game remains enjoyable until the end and never feels like a chore."
The Ball is one of those puzzle games where the challenge lies not in figuring out what you need to do but in actually doing it. It’s more skill-based than a game like Crazy Machines, where you spend most of your time thinking and making a plan. It depends on the kind of gamer you are, and if you’d rather rely on your brains or on your skills. The Ball nailed it here, because the puzzles are geared towards people who are not into having their intelligence mocked by a computer program and who most likely skip the puzzle section of the newspaper. I occasionally delve into some hardcore puzzle gaming, but eventually I'm always forced to retire with the realization of my mental inadequacy. It’s not the best feeling in the world, and I’m glad The Ball kept it more casual. The choice of a first person perspective puts players at ease and in familiar territory, and the inclusion of enemies is a sign that the developers have tried to attract members of the FPS audience. Thanks to all of that the game remains enjoyable until the end and never feels like a chore.
The Ball follows the true and tested formula of puzzle gaming, a simple main mechanic with complex situations. So even though the only thing you can do is push and attract the ball, thanks to magnets, low gravity, water, steam, monsters, elevators, trains, and of course buttons, you rarely have to do the same thing twice. Despite the good puzzle variety I still believe there's untapped potential for many more interesting maps and challenges, and I hope the developers get the chance to make it happen.
Along with the single player mode there's also Survival which takes you away from solving puzzles and into a first person shooter – only without the shooting. Similar to Unreal Tournament 2004's Invasion game mode, you need to stay alive as long as you can while constant waves of enemies try to make you do the opposite. The catch is you don't have any weapons, only your ball and a certain amount of traps you can set off to dispatch the enemy. Surprisingly this was a lot of fun and showed that the game can work well even without the puzzle solving. Adding a shotgun or a rocket launcher to the mix would certainly make things more interesting, but I think it would take away from the flair of the game, and it would be difficult to make it all work with the puzzle elements that are already in it.
"You do feel like the first person to ever set foot into these forgotten tunnels…"
Visually I was left with the impression of an old engine updated with a few modern tricks in an attempt to bring it back to life. In reality the game uses the Unreal Engine 3, but the giveaway is the lack of native AA support and generally unimpressive visuals. It’s not that the game looks bad; it’s just that the level design is a bit archaic and doesn’t make full use of the engine's capabilities. The standout consisted of the underwater sections; I was quite underwhelmed with the look of the game until the point I first fell into a basin and thought, “Well well, I guess it IS the year 2010 after all.” The visual presentation is solid overall with some great texture work and a good distinct art style, but the game fails to make a big visual impact save for a few nice effects to remind you that you are, in fact, playing an UE3 game. Despite this the game successfully creates an atmosphere of mystery and a good sense of exploration and discovery. You do feel like the first person to ever set foot into these forgotten tunnels and try his wits against the unknown machines within them. I completed The Ball on a CoreI5 2.8GHz PC with 4GB RAM and an ATI HD5770 1GB card with Windows Vista installed. At maximum detail, minus ambient occlusion, and 1600×900 resolution there were no slowdowns or issues whatsoever. I checked Fraps once and was pleased to see a constant 60 on the counter, and since all of the levels are more or less identical in terms of graphical load and intensity, I would wager that this was my frame rate for the duration of the game.
To be honest pushing a ball around may not seem like such an appealing idea, but when it's neatly packaged along with great puzzles and fun gameplay it quickly turns into a very appealing game. As with most indie releases The Ball sticks to the roots and keeps its focus on gameplay rather than on narrative. In fact I will take a wild guess here and say that the percentage of time spent watching a game rather than playing it is probably far greater in the mainstream releases than the indie ones. Couple that with the price tag, and it becomes obvious which offers better value for your money or time. In reality, price is not a reflection of quality, nor am I against story-driven big budget games (far from it), but gaming wouldn't be where it is today without those that are in it for the right reasons. The guys from Teotl certainly are.