The Ball Review

By Rob Manuel - Posted Nov 15, 2010

Starting out as a mod for the Unreal engine, The Ball has developed into a full game with physics-based puzzles, angry mummies, and one giant ball. Players navigate their way through a series of dark tunnels and abandoned underground cities to discover the source of power behind the ball.

The Pros
  • Very clever and unique puzzle game
  • Creative environments
  • Easy to pick up and play mechanics
The Cons
  • Poorly implemented platforming
  • Games doesn't really get going until halfway through
  • Could have pushed the idea further

The Ball Review:

It had all the hallmarks of a Cinderella story. Every year, Epic holds a competition to find the greatest Unreal mod in the virtual world. A small three-man team from Sweden entered a game unlike your typical mod. Instead of creating a first person shooter, the men who would later form to make Teotl Studios, created a physics-based puzzle game that involved the player rolling around a giant ball. While it only came in second place, The Ball caught the eye of indie publisher Tripwire who let this small crew of developers expand on their original idea to create a full stand-alone title.

As the first game from the competition to ever hit the store shelves, The Ball is a unique puzzle game in the vain of Portal – using simple mechanics to overcome complex puzzles. While not entirely perfect, the three-man team behind this budget title proves that sometimes you don’t need a lot of balls to make it in this industry, just one really big one.

The Ball

Like a Rolling Stone

While trying to not to make the game sound like a Sisyphus simulator, you roll a giant bolder through the lost Aztec catacombs and solve puzzles with said large chunk of rock. There are switches to press, walls to break, and other bits that can only be accessed by a large chunk of granite. Okay, that part didn’t help as well but it’s rather remarkable how many puzzles and situations the good gents at Teotl Studios created under the simple mechanics of pushing, pulling, and the physics of a giant rolling ball. And that’s the part that makes this whole game work. The main concept is simple but devious. You instantly “get” how everything works or should work in this world even when there are changes to gravity or new abilities are thrown at you. No matter how complicated the puzzle gets later on in the game, you still understand that a body in motion will stay in motion.

Your skull gun – yup, that’s what it is – controls all of your interaction with the ball as well as everything else in the environment. One button instantly pulls the ball towards you. Holding down the right button while attached to the ball turns the giant sphere transparent. This is how you’ll spend a good quarter of the game – looking through a mostly transparent ball. Once you get the hang of it, little details like the golden ring around the ball remaining opaque don’t matter nearly as much. A left click produces a bump which can propel the rock forward, push around marked cubes, or push around ancient mummies. I would have liked to interact with more objects in the environment but the game kept it to only dealing with pieces of the puzzle. Again, it’s the simplicity of the design that allows for complex puzzles not to become overwhelming.

This is an advertisement - This story continues below

We Got the Biggest Balls of the All

Speaking of puzzles, there were a number of times I thought I’d seen everything that the game was going to throw at me. And then, it threw something new at me like oil that coats the ball, darkened mazes that can only be navigated by the light of your ball, or nearly unstoppable creatures. Tricky, varied, and sometimes ingenious; the traps and tricks that make up this physics puzzle keep you on your toes. With that said, you can almost see the separation between the new and old content. When given the chance to make a full game, the development team expanded the game with larger open section, almost creating little puzzle cities in this underground cavern. They experimented with different abilities that they could apply to the ball such as changing the gravity around it or heating it to super high temperatures. Even the environments vary to show off pipes snaking their way through factories, fountains springing to life in small towns, or even vehicles to zip you between giant pyramids. It would have been great if that reinvention and experimentation started sooner.

If there is a major misstep in the all these puzzles, it would be the platforming. Like every other first-person platforming, it falls into Heisenberg’s theory of jumping uncertainty. You can see where you’re going but not where you land. Likewise, you can keep an eye on your feet but not see where you’re going.  And where you’re going is going to be in a pool of lava. There’s no need to throw your mouse just yet. The game spawns you back at a save point at the beginning of a stage and doesn’t require you to re-solve puzzles you just went through. Thank goodness for small favors.

The Ball

What Comes Around…

Story hits the bottom of my laundry list when it comes to The Ball. It’s the next puzzle and not the suspense of an ancient power falling into the wrong hands that keeps me going in this game. The developers could have cut out the cutscenes entirely and I would still be rolling a giant ball around darkened mazes. It’s the environment from the abandoned houses to the monoliths just over the horizon, the designs stretching out across broken floors, and just a hint of a larger someone pulling the levers in the distance that really tells the story. If anything, the stuff written and recited in cutscenes only builds up a rather disappointing ending.

Much like the gameplay, the world you explore opens up in the second half of the game. Dug out corridors give way to vast open areas where volcanoes loom in the distance. The feeling of puzzles lined up in a row change to small cities covered with tile and broken bodies. Switches become apart of the world rather than apart of the next puzzle. Again, there’s a lot of creativity in these later levels that could have easily spread to the earlier stages. When you’re rolling around in a ball driven chariot crushing floes underneath your wheels as a giant bird drops exploding eggs on your head, I wonder why I wasn’t doing this a couple of hours ago.

The Ball

It’s Still Rock N’ Roll To Me

There’s a lot to learn from pushing around a rock. It’s a lesson in evolving gameplaying, applying simple mechanics to complex situations, and how three guys beat the odds in creating not only a game but a vision. For anyone interested in game that takes you off the beaten path and into a world unlike any other, The Ball delivers an experience that’s both challenging and refreshing. After seeing the evolution of design that this team can accomplish within a single game, I can only believe that the sky is the limit for them when it comes to their next game. Until then, we can keep pushing this rock up the hill.