Sometimes you can’t help but form an attachment. Remember the companion cube in Portal? Remember how endearingly cute it was, and how you wanted to protect it from harm? Or maybe you have a little pet in WoW that is just the sweetest? Or a particularly sexy car in GTA IV? I was expecting the same attachment to form between myself and my very butch, manly ball. It sits there, being all shiny and lighting up with an inner glow. And we’ve been through many things together, solved puzzles, beat up enemies, diced with death on many occasions. Yet…I feel nothing. Not a single scrap of affection for my silent partner. I even gave him a name to make him a bit more personable, but Bally the ball is still characterless. He just rolls along beside me, prideful of his roundness, and I’d happily discard him at any time in favour of a small pet frog. Called Froggy.
That complete lack of a connection is partially what ruins The Ball. That and the fact that your ball has absolutely no skills apart from…being a ball. If you are expecting some revolutionary puzzle game that will knock your socks off, go and play Portal instead. The Ball seems on paper like it could be used to generate some fantastic and varied gameplay. But somehow it just never does.
As an archaeologist that clumsily slipped down a hole into an old volcano, the discovery of this mystical ball launches you into a story that is about as gripping as a doorknob. The graphical representation of a lost underground ancient civilisation is actually quite convincing, with acceptably sparkly visuals painting a vivid picture. However, this is somewhat ruined by the fact that none of the levels retain even a vague semblance to their ostensible environments, purely because they are patently designed to exist as a giant playground for you and your ball. So whilst the eyes may be fooled, your brain keeps reminding you that there is a thinly disguised puzzle game hiding under that façade.
Control of your ball is via a jackhammer, through which you can either strike your ball to propel it forward, or magnetise it to draw it towards you. So to solve puzzles you move the ball about to press buttons, or drive machinery. Then for combat you can grab your ball and swing it about like a clumsy great club, or just fire it forward and hope to hit your foe. Enemies are quite stupid, frequently committing suicide in water to get to you. They also are blessed with eyes in the back of their head, as they will deftly dodge a ball that is coming up behind them, even though they are chasing you in the opposite direction.
The first third of the game is so simple you could do it blindfolded. Run down corridors, press buttons to open doors, then run down more corridors. At some points you get to ride little trains on tracks, which suddenly cease to be enjoyable when you realise that you have precisely zero control over the train you are riding in. They are pretty much just glorified cutscenes, and rarely do anything interesting, just trundle down interminably long rocky tunnels whilst you sit doing nothing. You can’t even get out of the train until the game decides you can.
In fact, the game decides far too much for you. Some of the activities require strapping your ball to something, in order to manoeuver that something into a position which helps you progress. Then, when the game judges that you have done enough manoeuvring, it will unstrap your ball for you, and refuse to let you strap it back up again. If you want to decide for yourself where to shift things around, forget it, The Ball keeps patronisingly playing the game for you, minimising your control and input. You also fall into the water during the game, and the current rigidly drags you down a very specific route with no control whatsoever. At some points you may as well just be a spectator.
We really do applaud new ideas, and seeing indie game developers make it into the big wide world of commercial gaming is a true joy. But sadly it is simply impossible to recommend The Ball as a purchase to anyone. The game is just far too easy, too short, and lacking any real depth or imagination. There was so much potential in the idea, but that potential has not been fully realised. Any kind of gameplay variation, or any real skill required for the puzzles would have been gladly welcomed. Maybe the introduction of Bally’s good friends Cubey or Pyramidy may have helped. No, sadly the game’s fate is sealed as a mildly entertaining little puzzler that tried, and failed, at implementing a new idea. The Ball will soon be forgotten forever in the mists of time, so please allow it to sink gracefully into the mire unplayed, and let’s just salute the developers for having the balls (sorry) to try something new.