Switchball is what Super Monkey Ball would have looked like had it been made by Nikola Tesla – where Sega’s effort was all spinning bananas and mild simian peril, Atomic Elbow have laid down pipes, fans, circuitry, weights, magnets and steam. While this may sound more like a science experiment than a compelling videogame experience, the reality proves to be quite the opposite.
This should probably be classified as a retro review; Switchball was first released over two and half years ago on the PC, with an Xbox 360 version hitting Live shortly after. Only now are Playstation 3 owners being given the opportunity to get to grips with the game’s 5 worlds and while the lack of Switchball on the PSN roster is unlikely to have been noticed, now it’s here PS3 owners looking for some cheap gaming comfort-food need look no further than this.
Switchball doesn’t even attempt to frame the experience with any kind of plot; this is good old-fashioned marble-rolling gameplay – you start at one point on a floating maze, and must roll your marble through a series of obstacles and puzzles to reach the finish line; then it’s on to the next level. The marble-maze format is older than videogaming itself, but that doesn’t stop Switchball proving that even simple and (let’s be honest) old fashioned gaming concepts can still be engaging and entertaining when handled correctly. That it also manages to bring some originality to the genre is doubly impressive.
Where Switchball shines is in its use of physics, but this isn’t just technical showboating – Atomic Elbow have integrated a strong physics engine into the game’s many puzzles and obstacles, making the calculation of how certain materials react to certain forces a central part of the gameplay. Ropes swing, cloth flexes and tears, magnets attract metal objects and lighter objects float. Add into the mix a ball that can change state (much like the blob in Archer McClean’s Mercury) and the game is equipped with a fairly impressive range of tools with which to hew some puzzles.
Key to success in Switchball is getting to grips with controlling the ball and manipulating its form. Using the analogue stick, controlling movement is extremely simple and intuitive and (as is vital in any game of this type) mistakes that you make are purely down to your own errors rather than wayward controls. The game also offers perfectly workable SIXAXIS-based tilt controls, but we found the analogue input more preferable. Even though the controls are easy to pick up, the game still does an excellent job of easing you into the gameplay.
The traditional marble-maze gameplay is embellished with switches scattered throughout the stages that alter your balls state with the original marble form converting to a larger and heavier metal-ball, an air-ball or a ‘powerball’. Reminiscent of Metroid Prime’s Morphball, the powerball can be imbued with additional powers such as magnetism and the ability to jump or dash. The game does a sterling job of exploring the potential of these various forms and constantly throws new puzzles at you, keeping the game feeling fresh and compelling. For example, a pair of parallel running ropes are useless to the metal-ball, but the lighter air-ball can use the ropes as a rail track and reach another part of the level. Such puzzles feel logical and do a great deal to showcase the robustness of the game’s physics.
While the game does throw a fairly broad repertoire of puzzles and tests of skill at you, it never feels overwhelming. In fact, for much of the time gameplay encourages a more sedate approach, as rushing through a level can often result in your ball plummeting off the edge of the map and undoing any progress made since the last check point. Medals are awarded for speedy play, but this is purely optional. The slow pace of the game might be off-putting for some, and the game certainly lacks the adrenaline fuelled tension of Super Monkey Ball, but it is hard to level this as a criticism of a game that has such a clear sense of identity.
Presentation wise, the game is unspectacular but robust and has a degree of character. The soundtrack, on the other hand, is pretty woeful, churning out a range of ambient Euro-pop that does little more than suck atmosphere from the game. Our advice would be to turn the music off and soak up the minimal but very effective sound effects.
That’s all that can really be said about Switchball – a game that is without lofty ambitions to change the world and that is content in merely polishing and perfecting an aging format by bringing to bear some new technologies. It is, in many ways, a very meek and understated game…but under its mild-mannered exterior lies an engaging, diverting and enjoyable title that, for the price, offers a heap of entertainment. So, while the lack of spinning bananas and cartoon monkeys may make ending this review with a witty pun a little more difficult, Switchball is nevertheless more than worthy of a place on your PS3’s hard drive.
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