Comparing a game to Portal isn’t necessarily a positive act. Very few works from this or any other generation can stand next to Valve’s masterpiece and not wither in its intense brilliance, but while Teotl Software’s The Ball might not serve as a paragon of design and storytelling for years to come, we can think of no more suitable analogue to prepare you for the experience. The Ball won’t be your favourite release of the year, The Ball won’t change the way you look at videogames, but you won’t regret a single second of the time you invest in its bizarre concept and elegant design.
You assume the role of a guy – possibly an archaeologist – who falls into the interior of a mountain while on an expedition in Latin America – presumably to recover ancient artefacts – only to discover a network of temples, tunnels and fiendish traps, with no option to find a way through. The general wooliness of the game’s set-up and narrative is just one of the ways The Ball could be significantly improved, but such concerns quickly fade into the background.
You have two tools at your disposal: a huge, intricately carved metal ball, and a mechanical device that can hammer the ball away or attract it with magnetic force. At first, the puzzles require nothing more than simple combinations of these tools to reach high ledges, push buttons and navigate mazes, but Teotl Studios constantly drip-feeds new ideas and objects to keep the gameplay fresh, while never descending into unnecessary complexity. If one of The Ball’s puzzles seems particularly challenging, it’s generally due to an ingenious combination of familiar concepts rather than the abrupt introduction of something completely new. The puzzles don’t bend the mind or require lateral thinking in quite the same way as a game like Portal, but the subtlety and skill Teotl displays here is all the more remarkable when you consider that this is its debut.
There are moments of frustration, largely due to sporadic attacks by mummified tribes-people and murderous creatures. The limited number of interactions is a great strength during puzzle sections, though when your only reliable tactic is to crush enemies with a ball, combat becomes tiresome. This is exacerbated by the fact that every hit does significant damage and health is only regenerated at checkpoints, but suggesting that this in some way spoils the experience would be disingenuous.
At its best, The Ball is a welcome reminder that high production values really are no substitute for good design, and that first-person games can be used for so much more than shooting people in the face. Despite its flaws, this is one of the year’s true surprises, and an absolute bargain at the price.