Having A Ball!
It was difficult to know what to expect from Road To Ballhalla after watching its pre-launch trailer: a video which, while having all the wrappings of some epic Scandinavian saga, appeared to show a ball being rolled towards a hole. As it turns out, this is a game about rolling a ball into a hole. Thankfully, it’s also every bit of the ramped-up, high-octane, ludicrous treat that its bombastic trailer would suggest.
The very first level acts as a succinct introduction to what you can expect from Ballhalla. As a ball unceremoniously dropped from above, you have the ability to roll around. Following the path, you’ll notice that there is text appearing in the floor, following your progress and guiding your way. Towards the end of the level, you are told by the floor to ‘avoid the huge red laser beam’. Then this happens:A few important things are learnt from this brief foray: firstly, the basics of movement; secondly, huge red laser beams are dangerous; and finally, the floor is a dick and should not be trusted.
One resurrection later, we have our hub world. Each area of Ballhalla’s world contains a selection of ‘trials’ – levels that you must complete if you wish to prove yourself worthy of the fabled Ballhalla. At the end of each trial you are awarded a certain number of tokens, based on the number of respawns used and the percentage of glowing orbs collected in the trial. Collecting a certain number of tokens opens up the gate to the next area, and your journey to the promised land is that much closer.
What is there to say about the gameplay? Well, I’m not going to say that Ballhalla is going to win any awards for innovation. (Although there are a surprising number of mechanical twists, some more enjoyable than others.) What it can boast is wonderful execution of an existing formula – namely, ball navigation – that is sure-footed and bold in its level design, unabashed about subverting the player’s expectation, and has great aesthetic appeal. Where Ballhalla could have ended up stale and formulaic, it has been crafted with such gusto and aplomb that it actually ends up as a vibrant, refreshing, even downright exhilarating romp.The ball can be controlled with keyboard or controller; while both work adequately, I preferred the more dynamic control that the analogue stick offered. Rolling around feels, for want of a better word, authentic – at least, there is nothing that ever feels palpably wrong about the ball’s physics. There’s a boost function too which, used in tandem with the ball’s natural momentum, can be mastered to get through certain situations unscathed. While this boost is active, however, any damage taken is lethal.
There are myriad enemies throughout the trials, all with the express purpose of ruining your little sphere’s day. (Apart from one particular instance where you need to use a giant smashing orb to your advantage. The orb’s name is Mrs. Marble; it’s adorable.) Some adversaries, like the lasers and massive orbs, kill you instantly. Others, like the red floor tiles and projectiles, only do a little damage, sometimes deeming it necessary to take a limited amount of damage in order to get to the end. Getting deeper into the game, there are blue tiles which are lethal if you’re not carrying a key, jump tiles which can bounce your ball over small distances, and directional tiles that propel your ball in a certain direction. (Think the Silph building in Pokémon Red sans the utter tedium.)Ballhalla’s simple premise belies an astounding amount of depth. Calling it a ball-roller – or worse, a ball-rolling simulator – ignores the puzzle, rhythm, and action-packed segments wrapped up in the experience. Two levels in particular exemplify this: illuminating the way Ballhalla introduces new mechanics, alongside providing a nice counterpoint of the great with the not-so-great.
First: a level in which the ball pops in and out of existence in time with the music. The ball is invulnerable on every beat other than the fourth, meaning movement is mandated by the soundtrack. Up until this point the world has always acted in a music-responsive manner, particularly the moving red floor tiles, but this is the first time the game is exclusively rhythm-based.
Second: a level which changes your perspective, but not the control scheme. Undoubtedly the most frustrating part of Ballhalla, this level does everything from awkward shifting movement diagonally, to literally removing your ball from the camera’s vision, to flipping the screen and suggesting that the level is far easier if you flip your controller, too. Lo and behold, it was. What was the point? Mercifully this mechanic doesn’t appear again; there’s even a joke later on which mocks the mechanic and predicts that no-one liked it. Bemusing, sure, but ultimately not enough to put a downer on the experience.These are both ideas which were visited in one level and never again: an odd quirk, but one which I actually enjoyed. These levels acted as intriguing snippets, diversions which helped explore the possibilities of level design without outstaying their welcome. There’s already a Steam Workshop option, and it will be very exciting to see what other little niches can be found within the level design.
Even beyond completing the main campaign, replayability comes from many sources: perfecting each trial, thereby collecting enough tokens to open up all areas; a ‘rush’ mode, or time-trial, which allows you to compete on global leaderboards for each trial; and a number of undiscovered ‘secrets’ that the game promises.Before I wrap up, a few words on the dickish floor text and the writing in general. There are some puns, some jokes, some misdirections and, crucially, a whole host of genuine laugh-out-loud moments. Admittedly I am a sucker for in-game jokes that utilise the environment, but nonetheless, even the most hard-nosed, jaded player would find it hard to resist the onslaught of one-liners. It has to be said too that, towards the end, I was actually invested in the plot – a feat damn near incredible for a game about rolling a ball across a floor with a clear superiority complex.
There’s a lot to love about Ballhalla, even without mentioning its art style that’s gleaming with colour, or its foreboding electronic soundtrack which is evocative of Frozen Synapse’s. What could so easily have ended up as a perfunctory effort bolstered only by inventive marketing, as I feared was the case, has actually turned out to be an inventive and joyous ride.
Or should I say… Roll?
No? Well, just thought I’d ask.