Rollin’ Rollin’ Rollin’: The Ball

As always, you can click on screenshots to view larger versions.

Those who read my Indie Platformer Marathon series may remember my post about Unmechanical, a lovely game that turned out not to be a platformer after all. In that post I mentioned that before Unmechanical, developers Teotl Studios had released The Ball, a game I’d been wanting to play for a while. Now, a mere year later, I have finally played it.

Inspired in equal parts by Indiana Jones and Portal, The Ball is a first-person puzzle game about rolling a giant ball around some ancient Aztec ruins. Which is kind of awesome.

The Ball was originally developed as a mod (that’s a user-made modification, for those who don’t know; think new levels and such made by fans for existing games) for Unreal Tournament 3 in 2008, and was warmly received, so Teotl Studios decided to port it over to the Unreal Development Kit and flesh it out into a standalone, commercial game. This new version released in 2010, so I’m only four years late to the party.

Set in Mexico in 1940, the unnamed protagonist is an archaeologist who falls through a shaft at the dig site into a cave below the mountain. Separated from the others, he sets out exploring and soon finds the titular Ball, a massive metal sphere with strange powers. Even stranger is the device that controls it, a sort of mechanical hammer that can punt the ball away from the wielder and then pull it back again with a mysterious force. Naturally, the protagonist explores deeper into the cave and soon finds some marvelously advanced Aztec architecture that shelters its own mysteries.

Uncovering those mysteries means using the Ball to solve all manner of improbable and complex puzzles. It never quite makes sense why these puzzles were built, through what must have been a tremendous effort; there are hints that some evil or untold danger was sealed within the mountain, but just why it was made accessible again through Ball-based puzzle solving remained unclear. It’s possible that some of the secrets scattered through the levels, which reveal more backstory, would have given a better explanation, but honestly it doesn’t really matter. The puzzles are the main draw, and the Aztec setting offers a great atmosphere while solving them.

Initially, controlling the game felt awkward. Hammering the Ball can be tricky because it only works when very close to the Ball, and the Ball’s size makes it hard to see anything. Fortunately, the Ball turns partially transparent in such situations (and can be made to do so manually by holding a key), but it was still difficult at first, and all to easy to simply start the Ball spinning in place rather than rocketing down the corridor like I wanted. Fortunately, the early sections of the game are very simple and give the player enough room to learn the ropes. I soon discovered that attracting the Ball is a much more useful form of control, allowing subtler movements and even letting me “carry” the Ball with me while moving through the levels, and set up hammer shots easily when required.

Before long I was really enjoying rolling the Ball around, and the puzzles started to get more complex at the same time. The game is actually pretty long in comparison to other first-person puzzle games, with eight large levels to traverse and an impressively diverse set of puzzles to solve. They tend to be isolated affairs, however, never quite reaching the area-spanning scale I was hoping for. They’re not too tough to solve, either, which meant I never felt that same feeling of elation I got from figuring out a difficult test chamber in Portal. But the pure joy of rolling the Ball around gives the puzzles their own charm, recalling the simple fun of playing with marbles as a child. Except this time the marble is massive and can crush one’s enemies.

Which leads me to the combat, which was mostly a disappointment. There are enemies to tackle in The Ball, and naturally one’s only real weapon against them is the Ball itself. But it was in these encounters that my initial awkwardness when controlling the Ball returned. Frantically trying to hammer the Ball at a pack of charging Aztec skeletal warriors would usually just send the Ball limping off to the side while the skeletal warriors jumped me. On the other hand, having such an unwieldy way to fight back made these encounters far more frightening than usual. But in the end I would have preferred if the game had simply focused on puzzles and left the combat out of it, especially in the later levels when challenges are often centered around tough fights.

The checkpoint system used for saving progress certainly didn’t help, either. There’s no way to save manually, which is frustrating, because I couldn’t quit the game mid-puzzle without losing my progress. It also means that dying to the reanimated hordes would set me back quite a way as well, and that there was no way to go back to find secrets I’d missed (other than starting the level over from the beginning). I know there are those who defend checkpoint systems and insist they are better than quicksaves, which encourage players to save every few seconds and constantly reload whenever anything remotely bad happens, but these checkpoints were really annoying. I definitely prefer the option to quicksave at any time.

While I’m complaining, I’ll say that The Ball is much less colorful than Unmechanical, which began to grate after a while. It wasn’t long before I was growing tired of brown and grey stone and orange torchlight. Having said that, there’s actually a good variety of environments to explore as one plays through the game, which kept the scenery (if not the color pallette) interesting. And I could see the talent for world design that so impressed me in Unmechanical here as well, especially in the later areas which are far grander than the humble beginnings. Exploring these places was a reward in itself, and I reached the end of the campaign with a feeling of satisfaction.

But there’s more to The Ball than just the campaign. There are several challenge levels, which focus on fighting waves of enemies using the Ball and a set of traps in the environment. Given that I wasn’t a fan of the combat, I didn’t spend much time with these, but others might enjoy the challenge. Then there are two extra levels. The first, made by students at FutureGames class 2012, is a huge puzzle-only level, which provided some of the things I’d hoped for from the main campaign, albeit without any connecting narrative. The puzzles here are larger, harder to solve and tougher to execute, making them satisfying in a different way than the contraptions in the main campaign. The only problem is that there are no checkpoints at all, so one must play the entire level in one sitting.

The other extra level is by Teotl Studios themselves, created for the Potato Sack alternate reality game that Valve used to promote the release of Portal 2 in 2011 (which means it probably appeared before the student level, but is listed after it in the game). Valve enlisted several indie developers to participate in the Potato Sack by adding Portal-related things to their games, each of which would reveal another clue for the community to collect. Teotl Studios went all-out, creating a mash-up level where the caves and ancient Aztec buildings of The Ball give way to ruined Aperture Science test chambers from Portal, and the player must use the Ball to solve puzzles and appease GladOS. A few enemies make an appearance, but the emphasis is once again on puzzles, and several were tricky enough to feel like something out of Portal, which was great.

Both of these levels were icing on the cake after the main campaign. And while the campaign has a different feel than I expected, focusing more on exploring the underground ruins and uncovering their secrets than on pure puzzle solving, it succeeds at that admirably. So if rolling a giant boulder around while doing archaeology sounds like fun, The Ball has you covered. If you’re still unsure, there’s a demo available as well, which includes some of the earlier areas and should give a good sense of what the game is like.

The Ball is available from Steam or GOG. Happy rolling!

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