First posted on 10 December 2010. Last updated on 30 January 2013.
The Ball, developed by Teotl Studios, was originally created as a mod for Unreal Tournament 3 that later became a winner in Epic Games' Make Something Unreal contest at the 2010 D.I.C.E. (Design, Innovate, Communicate, Entertain) Summit. Since then, the developer had managed to convert the mod from a 40-minute technical demo into an 8-hour full-fledged game, offering up a hefty dose of unique physics based puzzles.
Without a doubt, the backstory is the weakest part of this game. The narrative is underwhelming, and you are never told much information about the ball or the ruins where you find yourself to be in. The character progression is also nonexistent, to the extent that you are never even told of your character's gender. Your character does not speak at all in the game, so there is no opportunity to communicate any emotion stemming from your quest. For what it is worth, the game begins with your character (the protagonist) recovering after a fall during an accident on a mining expedition. Your group of comrades with whom you are together grow concerned of your safety and ask you to stay put while they go and search for a rope to rescue you.
This is when you take control of your character, and this is where you will quickly find the 2 pieces of equipments that will accompany you right up to the end of the game—a massive metallic ball and an ancient looking gun which boasts the ability to move it. From here, your adventure truly begins: solving puzzles, finding secret passageways, and fighting off waves of grotesque enemies that try to kill you and stop you from reaching your goal.
The visuals in the game are very good. The Unreal Engine 3 is utilized well to render impressive particle effects and expansive vistas, particularly in the latter parts of the game. The ball and gun are also rendered extremely well, with sharp texturing that shows off even the smallest details such as the dents and tiny engravings which cover both objects. The enemies look fantastic and are a joy to look at as much as to fight against them.
The sound in this game is solid. The ambient soundtracks use a combination of vocals and different percussive instruments such as war drums to create a foreboding ambience. Moreover, every time an enemy is near, it gives off a piercing scream alerting you that they have detected your presence. This lends urgency to the encounter as you scramble to cover, making sure that you will not get flanked or attacked from behind.
Just as the game's name suggests, gameplay is largely centered around a huge metallic sphere that you are coaxed into dragging around throughout the entirety of your journey. The ball becomes your greatest ally and teammate and is often used to solve environmental puzzles and save you from incoming attacks. The gun can control the ball by dragging (summoning) or shooting (hammering) it toward a target. The controls are bounded to the left and right buttons of the mouse, making them very easy to master. The ease of controlling the ball is critical, as you must be a master of these controls in order to successfully negotiate the many traps and secrets that are hidden in the labyrinth. A neat feature is that, when you move the ball, the ball will become temporarily transparent so that that your view is never obstructed by it whilst you take control. The heads-up display is also nicely laid out and not obstructing. Your health meter is presented in a numerical format rather than a graphical format. A tracker like compass tells you how far away the ball is from your current position and can be extremely helpful in determining what direction to which you have left the ball so that you can find it again quickly.
The game often makes it pretty obvious what you have to do to solve the environmental puzzles from the first moment you encounter them. Most of the time, there will be a huge square button displaying an icon telling you what you need to place on it or do to trigger it. For example, a button may show an icon of a ball, alerting you that the ball must be placed there. Another button may show an icon of a human, hinting you that you must stand there. For some puzzles, you must get access to objects such as large cubes which you need to move around as well as switches which can be triggered and destructible elements which can be destroyed. Unfortunately, the puzzles are not too varied, to the extent that these are the only types of puzzles that you will encounter throughout the entire game. Although the mechanics of solving these puzzles are technically the same, the design, setting, and placement of the puzzles are done so well that they feels different every time.
When engaging in combat for the first time, you will immediately notice the sheer intensity of the battles, especially when fighting off the first few mummies you will encounter using the ball. Taking out your enemies usually consists of dragging the ball back towards yourself and then firing it back at them. This tactic, however, cannot be used against some of the boss enemies, such as the giant gorilla or the huge worm. Instead, you must kill them by using the environment as a weapon, such as luring them into traps that will electrocute them or set them on fire. These extra tactics add some variety to the combat.
Overall, The Ball is a decent game. It has a number of unique features that make it different from other games of its genre. The mix of clever puzzles and intense combat makes for a very engaging first-person action adventure game. The game may benefit from better storytelling and more varied environments. Still, The Ball offers up enough great gameplay ideas for Teotl Studios to perhaps someday turn this single game into a fantastic franchise.