Indie Time: Rock of Ages

The next indie game on my list is Rock of Ages, by ACE Team. They’re the Chilean studio who made the bizarre first-person brawler Zeno Clash, which I can wholeheartedly recommend. Rock of Ages is a bit different though. It’s a game about rolling giant boulders down tracks in order to smash the gates of your opponent’s castle. Between rolling, you and your opponent hastily construct defenses, manned by little 2-D cut-out soldiers clearly inspired by Terry Gilliam’s Monty Python animations. Oh, and you do all this while traveling through five distinct periods of art history.

Video games are amazing.

In fact, that Gilliam-esque style pervades the whole game, including numerous silly cutscenes that introduce the various opponents. You play as Sisyphus, you see, who finally realizes that he should stop pushing his boulder up the hill and instead use it to crush his enemies. After besting Hades in the tutorial, Sisyphus is off to rampage through Europe, battling through ancient Greece, the Medieval era, the Renaissance, Rococco, and Romanticism (specifically Goya). On his travels, Sisyphus faces off against the like of Charlemagne and Leonardo da Vinci. While many games might start with a silly idea or a funny joke but then turn out to be rather tame and bland, Rock of Ages revels in its absurdity. It even has a boss fight in which you have to load your boulder into a cannon and fire it at the statue of David’s crotch.

The visual style really is top-notch. The ancient Greek tracks are modeled from the vases of that era, with a black and tan color palette and little hoplite cut-outs to run over with your boulder. The Medieval tracks are a lush green, filled with a mix of byzantine and gothic iconography. The Renaissance, by contrast, features clean, bright tracks constructed from marble. The attention to detail shines through even while hurtling past with a huge boulder.

Controlling the boulder is great fun, and the varied track design helps too. The different art periods lend their themes to the track designs themselves, and with several tracks in each art period the rolling never gets boring. The boulder can jump, naturally, so many tracks involve hopping between islands as well as simply rolling around tight corners and smashing through your opponent’s defenses. I found myself falling off the track a lot before I got the hang of things, but fortunately the only punishment is a little lost time, with a giant “hand of god” placing the boulder back on the track at the rough position that it fell.

The defense portion of the game doesn’t work as well, mostly due to the frantic pace. It’s a race to see who can smash the castle gates first, and it typically takes 3-4 boulders to do so, depending on how successful the defenses have been. But the player only has about a minute before their boulder is ready, which is not a lot of time to scout the track and build towers, war elephants and trebuchets in the right spots. Placing defenses costs money, which is regained by smashing things on the way down or by placing special revenue-generating units, and it’s easy to drain all the resources through feverish unit placement. This is unfortunate, because it’s often a good idea to save some money to upgrade the boulder, giving it armor that helps it absorb damage or setting it on fire to give an extra-hard hit to the enemy gates. Also, since both the player and the A.I. opponent roll their boulders at the same time, it’s hard to see whether the defenses are actually working. There’s a camera in the corner that shows the enemy boulder, but I was too distracted with rolling my own to look at it much. I get the sense that the defensive part of the game would work a lot better after I’d become accustomed to the tracks and their layouts; indeed, for some of the tougher tracks later in the game I was able to glean some better strategies after several failed attempts. Defensive strategy is likely much more interesting between two veteran players in competitive multiplayer. In the single-player story mode, it was a bit of a crap shoot.

But, as I’ve argued before, it’s a mistake to always judge games solely on their design. Rock of Ages is a game about rolling giant boulders through art history. What more do you ask? And I haven’t even mentioned the time trial mode or “skee boulder” (which is exactly what it sounds like) which offer alternatives to the standard “war” game mode. It’s a hoot, and I’m not surprised at all to see it win a bunch of awards for originality and general strangeness. It’s well worth the asking price, and I guarantee that you’ve never played anything quite like it.

Grab it on Steam for PC or XBLA for X-box users. Out soon for PS3, apparently.

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