Shortly after the Unreal Development Kit was released to the public for free, The Ball brushed fame as a finalist in the Make Something Unreal contest. The competition and ensuing award had significance, because it showed what could happen when some of the barriers between gamer and developer were removed. Unfortunately, The Ball also shows just how beneficial it can be to have an experienced game designer at the helm.
Mexico. 1940. You are part of a mountainside archaeological dig and take a tumble down the proverbial rabbit hole. Trapped inside a rocky and strangely well-lit cavern, your coworker yells down, encouraging you to, “Go on and explore the area.” Sounds like workers compensation lawsuit in the making. That is the gist of your motivation, even though waiting for someone to throw a rope would have been the smart choice.
You are introduced to the ball almost immediately, along with the gun-like device that controls it. Much like Twin Sector, among other games borrowing liberally from Half-Life 2 and Portal, the ball can be attracted and repelled from the controller. A high-tech subterranean world reminiscent of Mayan civilization spreads before you like a giant labyrinth. Your goal is to get to the end, or maybe it’s to deliver the ball, or complete levels as fast as possible. The purpose is never clear, but in any case, you shouldn’t have much difficulty.
The Ball bills itself as a puzzle-game, but I disagree. “Puzzle” implies a problem that requires logical ingenuity to solve, whereas The Ball operates mainly on Pavlovian responses. Any switches you find can and should be immediately activated. Moveable blocks always have a purpose in the vicinity. Unlike the loving bond between Chell and Companion Cube, your relationship with the ball is that of the chaperone, and you will grow to despise its constant need to be pulled along.
The story does a very poor job of incentivizing you to keep moving forward. Early on, as you approach a massive and ominously lit pyramid, you are greeted by the words, “He who attempts to break the seal will make a wasteland of his home and those of his brothers.” Let’s see, magical ball, mystical caverns, reanimated mummies – that’s one warning I would be tempted to heed. The Ball offers the gameplay, but not the carrot. You will dutifully activate switches and move platforms, but you won’t likely care why.
Despite my complaints, the developers of Teotl Studio have reasons to be proud of their baby. The Ball is a beautiful game with textures and lighting that truly capture your attention and provide subtle clues. Small details, such as your characters dusty footprints, are generally useless, but dramatically enliven the world. With a few adjustments, many of the game’s tasks hold potential as genuinely challenging puzzles.
Survival mode is an enjoyable alternative to the campaign mode, and transforms the ball from a rolling burden into an instrument of death. Each stage is filled with hazards, including spike pits, blades swinging out of walls, and explosives tumbling from ceilings. Your job is to survive against nine waves of increasingly difficult enemies, beginning with giant ladybugs and moving up the food chain of mummies. Crushing enemies with the ball is awkward and cumbersome, but functional enough to stay entertaining for all four stages.
The Ball is a technically proficient game, but plays more like a storyboard than a final product, much like a film made only by crew members and no director. The concept is solid and appealing, while lacking the mysteries, challenges, and rewards that players crave.