Atari and Cyparade invite players to get the ball rolling in Ballance. An action puzzle game, somewhat in the vein in Marble Madness, Ballance requires gamers to guide a ball through the nebulous sky along metal tracks, wooden roads, concrete paths, and over and around mechanical obstacles. The goal is to reach the end of each level without falling off the course. Players compete against a clock, but gravity and inertia also come in to play as each level contains transformers that change the ball's physical properties. As the material changes from wood to paper to stone players must adapt to the ball's new mass and rolling abilities. For example, the paper ball is highly maneuverable and can be rolled over fans to float, but it is too light to affect seesaws or move obstacles, whereas the stone ball obliterates obstacles but cannot ascend steep slopes. Each of the 12 levels is filled with time boosters and extra lives to help when gamers inevitably drop the ball.
Remember the mid-1980s Atari game from the video arcades named Marble Madness? It gave players unbelievable fun, controlling the progress of a marble up, down, and around perilous paths. Success required quick reflexes as well as a sense for when to make strategic, but high risk, moves. Since that time, there have been many variants produced on this theme, such as Marble Blast and Hamster Ball on the personal computer, and Super Monkey Ball on the Nintendo GameCube. Now the German company Cyparade has developed a new offering Ballance, which tries to raise the bar in this subgenre. Does it succeed?
Ballance is a level-based arcade offering with puzzle elements. In this single-player release, you steer a ball over complicated mechanisms and tortuous passages of all sorts through a tranquil cloud world high in the air. While undertaking this task, you need to overcome all sorts of mechanical obstacles, such as seesaws, wooden suspension bridges, jumps and drops, pendulums, sandbags, tilting ramps, ventilators, twisting steel rails, swings, push-blocks, and trap doors. Your goal is to get to the end of each level without having the ball fall off the structure and into oblivion.
The developers treat you to twelve increasingly challenging levels, each quite lengthy and intricate, presenting more complex puzzles and mechanisms than its predecessor. What is immediately apparent is that, unlike many offerings of this type, Ballance demands at least as much in the way of intellectual puzzle solving ability as it does in the way of quick reflexes and hand-eye coordination. Although you do indeed need to be extremely physically careful in guiding the ball through the maze-like structures, you find you need considerable strategy to solve the navigational puzzles you face. A fun example of the interesting decision making occurs on level seven, where you end up dropping onto a circular platform with walls with seemingly nowhere to go. A solution comes only after you realize that you are on an elevator and need to knock the walls over the edge to lighten the platform so you can rise to a different level.
In the process of moving around the labyrinthine structures, a sound knowledge of the laws of physics would be a real asset. Friction, gravity, inertia, velocity, and acceleration make all the difference between success and failure. The developers incorporate an absolutely precise and highly realistic physics model. For example, if you knock a pile of crates situated in a given position off a ledge, the manner in which they fall off is exactly a function of the speed, angle, and construction material of the approaching ball. You need to constantly calculate what the limits are on your ability to overcome predicaments that on the surface seem physically impossible.
Perhaps the single most innovative feature in Ballance is your ability to transform the ball into different materials with very different physical properties. Three transformations are possible: paper, which is light but unstable and lacking force; stone, which is powerful but heavy and unwieldy; and wood, which is a compromise between the two extremes. To change the ball's composition, you steer it onto transformers located at various places on the structures. Successfully controlling and steering each type of ball requires major adjustments on your part. Often at any given spot you have a choice of readily available materials for the ball, and you have to think very carefully about which material to use in what situation. You may find out after rolling along for a bit that you made the wrong choice, such as when you encounter a ventilator but do not have a paper ball (the only one light enough to rise on the air flow); in this case you have to retrace your steps to the closest appropriate transformer to make a switch.
Not all of the elegant components of Ballance are immediately available from the outset. When you begin, only the first level is open, and each succeeding level becomes available only after you successfully complete the preceding one. You may replay a completed level any time you wish, and given multiple possible strategies, you may find you wish to do so frequently. You begin the gameplay with three extra lives, signified by little silver spheres in the bottom right corner of the screen, and you may find you need all of them to get through the harder levels. Multiple checkpoints exist within each level, so that if you make a mistake you do not always have to go back to the beginning; but you cannot save your progress mid-level, quit the game, and then return to continue from there later. You lose a life each time you fall off the structure, and if you have no lives left you cannot go back to the last checkpoint, but instead have to start a level completely over again.
Two types of colorful pickups are available to help you out: life extras and point extras. Life extras are the more important of the two, as by picking one up you can increase your extra lives by one. Nicely, if you have to replay a section of a structure from the last checkpoint, any life extras that were there before will show up again and be available in case you need them. Point extras, in contrast, appear only once. Picking up point extras increases your score by 220 points each time. Interestingly, when you pass through point extras tiny silver spheres are unleashed that pursue you as you roll along; you need to slow down to let them catch you before you reach the next checkpoint or you will not receive the full score bonus. There is no requirement that you pick up either of these two types of pickups, as many are located in extremely precarious locations, but their presence provides a continuous challenge for daring players.
The point system in Ballance provides incentives for you to optimize your travel through the structures. You begin a level with 1000 time points which decrease continually at a rate of two points per second; so the sooner you reach the end of a level, the higher your score. However, you never feel intense time pressure as you navigate through each structure, for if the time points hit zero you may still continue for as long as you need to. The number of remaining lives you have left also affects your level score.
The visuals in Ballance are, quite simply, heavenly. The complicated structures rise magnificently into the clouds, separating you from mundane realities below. Each feature, from the checkpoints to the life and point extras, is portrayed in exquisite detail: at each checkpoint, you see pink flames on the sides that flip to the center once you pass; and the life and point extras are beautiful luminescent orbs. The balls you roll around are amazing, as you can see every bump in the stone balls, every scrap of paper in the paper balls, and every grain in the wood balls. The transformers are wonderful to behold, sucking the ball in, ejecting its old surface and breaking it up into small pieces, and lastly replacing it with a new skin. Some things you see are apparently just for aesthetic purposes, such as glistening domes you bounce into. The structures themselves are both majestic and multifaceted, with innovative architectural design behind every turn. The net result is a magical fantasy atmosphere, totally enveloping you in the play experience.
This title allows screen resolutions up to 1600×1200; I run it at this highest setting and it is simply gorgeous. Regardless of the resolution, the lighting and shadowing effects are particularly impressive. Although Ballance does not contain every graphical bell-and-whistle present in the latest crop of first-person shooters, what is here is head-and-shoulders above anything I have seen before in its genre.
Ballance uses both the keyboard and the mouse. You navigate the ball with the keyboard, using the arrow keys forward, backward, left, and right. You may reconfigure the keyboard settings if you wish. To change your viewpoint, you hold down the left shift key and press the left or right arrow keys to rotate everything 90 degrees in either direction. To get a broader sense of the surrounding environment, you may press the spacebar (there is no ability otherwise to zoom in or out). The control is so tight that it turns out that, contrary to my initial expectations, the keyboard is the perfect input device, far more precise than either a mouse or a gamepad could be. This is the type of offering where any kind of lag or looseness in the input system would absolutely ruin the gameplay, but fortunately such is not at all the case.
The menu system, navigated by the mouse, is both elegant and parsimonious. The play screen is similarly well laid out and easy to interpret.
If any game can put you in a sense of detached euphoric grace, it is Ballance. As you progress, the excitement and intensity becomes overwhelming. The developers are always fair in the way the design unfolds: For example, after a particularly tricky passage you almost always find a checkpoint, so you know you will not have to get through it again; and before such a treacherous section, you may often find a life extra to give you an additional boost. The design is full of such incredible innovation that you never have a sense of déjà vu, even if you had played virtually every Marble Madness-like game in existence (as I have) beforehand. The designers must have spent a lot of time devising ingenious challenges and avoiding the tendency just to repeat the same kind of predicament you had seen before.
Certain precautions become evident very quickly. You should always try to get a visual overview and analyze the situation before proceeding ahead. You also need to rotate your perspective frequently to determine the best viewing angle; for example, if you need to make a jump between two platforms, a side view is usually best. Lastly, you should never get the ball running full speed unless you have a clear idea of what is ahead.
When you finally make it through a level, the last balloon-lifted platform floats away, and you feel such a sense of elation that you want to jump in the air with glee.
The sound effects in Ballance are absolutely outstanding. This title is full of fantastic eerie electronically generated sound effects (no vocal effects are present). Each noise is delectable, perfectly suited to the action and visuals accompanying it. The sounds are so aurally satisfying that I find myself repeatedly looking forward in anticipation to taking an action just to hear the accompanying audio. Although there is no audible implementation of 3D hardware sound, after playing a while you really begin to feel as if you are there up in the clouds.
The music comes in fits and starts, but boy is it ever well suited to the action. Aside from the beginning of a level, the score usually plays right when there has just been or is about to be a critical challenge. Alternating between stringed instruments and a throbbing drumbeat, the soundtrack is ideal to heighten your sense of immersion and tension without becoming overwhelming. There are not a lot of distinctly different musical segments, but in what you hear the audio quality is consistently high.
Intelligence & Difficulty:
The designers of Ballance are very gentle and gradual in bringing you up to snuff in terms of the skills you need to succeed. At the outset, there is a rather robust tutorial built into the beginning of the first level. After finishing it, you are well equipped to make it through, and each successive level never introduces too many new ingredients at the same time. If you need even more help, the electronic manual included contains tips and hints for each level.
When you are in the midst of a level and realize that you have made an error that you cannot rectify, you have two choices available: you may intentionally drop off the side and restart from the previous checkpoint (with one fewer balls available), or you may restart the level from the beginning with the full set of balls and all the point extras available. Either one largely eliminates any sense of frustration when you are having difficulties.
Ballance has taken an old concept and transformed it with such clever innovations that it feels like a totally new play experience. Injecting puzzle solving into an arcade-action framework is not easy, but it is superbly done here. The painstaking attention to detail by the developers is evident in every aspect of the game.
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Crazy Machines: New From the Lab, Road Rash, Baktinet, Spider-Man 2: The Game, Incredible Machine, The: Even More Contraptions, Cat's Eye Chaos, Crazy Machines: The Wacky Contraptions Game, 4D Prince of Persia
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