Title: The Ball
Approximate Time Spent playing at time of writing: 16 hours
Modes of play: Single Player, Steam Online Leaderboards
The most obvious comparison to The Ball that will probably be familiar to most readers is Portal – it’s a single player first-person puzzle challenge title. The basic mechanics are the normal “FPS” style movement of your character (well, your disembodied arms at least), and also your ability to push and pull the titular Ball around you. There’s also a variety of environment variables added to the puzzles, such as buttons that are activated by yourself, or Ball – but they really don’t go far enough because the challenges here are generally quite similar throughout the main story mode and you feel they are stretching things a little and don’t do quite enough as they could do, even with the same basic foundation.
The physics of the Ball itself are fantastically realised, but generally the challenges to use it are quite easy. There are also in-game hints for most of the areas should you get stuck (although I can’t recommend using them – but at least it’s a better to offer an in-game solution for a puzzle title than something like youtube!), but personally I only found a couple of the challenges in the main game truly challenging. Because of this I found play tended to drag a bit and some parts became an exercise in “busy work” (eg. walking back and forth) rather than an interesting mental stimulus. This is exacerbated by the title’s real lack of story and atmosphere at times. Sure there is a story and an atmosphere created, but it’s basically the same one throughout every level – it really misses more story interaction with some kind of NPCs. The things Portal does well with it’s storyline, humour and personalities to keep more cerebral puzzle challenges from getting a bit dull at times are really highlighted by their absence here.
The best bit of The Ball for me were a limited number of combat sequences. The only way you can defend and attack enemies is, you’ve guessed it, by manoeuvring Ball itself, and this is really good fun at first and quite exhilarating. You feel very vulnerable when Ball is away from you or you’ve become surprised or in a bad situation, yet contrastingly, feel incredibly powerful crushing enemies with ease with your Ball when you do it well. Unfortunately once you discover exactly how the save system works in The Ball, it takes edge off these segments as well. Although there’s no accursed quick-save system that mars many other similar titles, and the Ball has proper checkpoints, except that when you die & respawn at a checkpoint the enemies you’ve killed all remain dead anyway, so you can for the most part “grind” through any combat situation that was giving you any trouble. The highlight of how bad this system is is during a few of the boss fights where a boss needs the traditional “3 hits” to kill it. However since you only need to do 1 hit, die, then repeat, it might as well just take a single hit to kill bosses like this. There’s no real extra challenge or punishment added, it just takes you longer. On reflection The Ball might actually have been better off with the ‘traditional’ PC quicksave system, since the way it uses it’s checkpoints often seems to offer the worst of both worlds. However it was still nice not to have overhead of hitting F6 constantly while playing, and as it’s mainly a puzzle title rather than an action title, this didn’t have a huge detrimental effect really.
The worst bits of The Ball were when it heavily leaned on one of my pet peeves in videogames – “FPS” platforming style segments. Unfortunately most of what would have been the more interesting puzzles suffer from this.
The most egregious offenders here are probably these worm enemies (one pictured above) which you must jump & run around keeping a perfect distance at all times, even though it is extremely hard to judge the timing and range needed due to the first-person viewpoint, so it feels more like of a test of luck. Due to my hatred of this particular kind of skill test, although these segments could be described as challenging, they were mainly just annoying to me.
As noted earlier, despite being quite similar to other titles, perhaps the worst thing about The Ball is how it fails to keep things especially interesting or engaging. Due to the way I tend to play these types of puzzle challenges – in stop-start small bursts of play throughout months, and thanks to my agoneristic determination to complete it, I kept on playing regardless. However a look at the Achievements for the game is telling, especially given that it isn’t exactly the most difficult. Raptr’s stats for it are fascinating to me: 42% of Raptr players have finished the first level, yet only 11% have finished the second level, and only 5% of players finish the game! The Steam stats are a bit higher (6.5% completion rate), but exactly mirror the curve for Raptr users too. Obviously I cannot know the full reason behind why these stats are so low, but I suspect that most players just didn’t sustain enough interest to carry on, as I’d be shocked if it was too taxing for most to beat – especially given the in-game hints and easy availability of solutions on youtube etc.
The online leaderboards for The Ball offer a speed-run competitive game to play as well as a few non-game grindable “Total X” type of counting lists. Whilst it’s extremely good that these features have been included as it’s quite a rarity for PC games, even on Steam, they don’t really offer anything interesting as a game for my taste, or I suspect, the taste of many. Like most other titles with the emphasis on solving puzzles, it’s not really enticing to want to attempt a speed-run through. There are also a number of extra ‘secrets’ to collect in the main story mode of The Ball- with some Achievements and minor text-based story additions as a ‘reward’ – however there’s not nearly enough incentive for most players, myself included, to bother attempting to collect most of these. To find them it ranges from just added exploration (Gears of War COG tag style) to, in some cases extra tricky FPS-platform style puzzles and timing, or other alternative ways to get to them. A lot appear to be designed to be practically impossible to get on your first playthrough, so again, the proof of how uninteresting they generally are is in the Achievement stats with only a meagre 1.4% of Steam users even finding half the secrets, and only 0.5% finding all of them. I think the main reason for these figures being so low is due to the fact it would require large amounts of re-play through the main story mode, and just these secrets don’t offer enough interesting to re-play value, since you’ll already know how to solve all the main puzzles.
There’s another important mode of play in The Ball to mention -the so-called “Survival” mode. Each of the levels here is essentially a self-contained challenge with no in-game hints. Checkpoints are sparser but still included, but progress cannot be saved at all, so should you get stuck by a puzzle or can’t perform a tricky manoeuvre, or just cannot play for that long in one sitting, you’re “shit outta luck”. This was a big problem for me as although this mode appeared like it could be the most interesting, forcing me to play it in large chunks of time sat on my PC in a single-player game is so different to my normal “gaming lifestyle” that that I could not really get into it at all, and because I wasn’t immensely inspired by the main story mode, it did not encourage me. Once again, player stats of these modes are horrendously low; only 0.5% on Steam having completed them all. I should note though, if I am ever gripped with the inclination to come back and attempt these Survival modes more fully, The Ball may warrant a re-review.
Overall The Ball is a frustrating title. It’s not complete balls, because it’s quite interesting at times, but I feel if the designers had just had a few more & better ideas & implemented them better, it really could be a good challenge title, but as it is, it just feels lacking in just about every area except graphics. It’s a very cool concept that I think most people enjoy when they first start playing, but it just doesn’t sustain that enjoyment well enough to be recommended by me. If there’s ever a Ball 2, it would definitely have quite a bit of potential though. And don’t forget, like Gundam, Remy77077 is often found with Jim & Ball!
The Ball Puzzle/Challenge Review:
The Ball Game Review: N/A. As described, there’s really not enough to consider as a genuine competitive game here.
Interactive Story: Average to poor.
Toy/Experience: Neutral. As everyone knows it’s fun to just “play around” with your Ball… but the fun wears off after a while & you’ll find yourself wishing for a bit more interactivity.
Grind: None really, but the checkpoint system can be abused in a grind-type of way to reduce/remove most of the combat style challenges.