Monday, August 13, 2007

Switchball Review

Switchball, developed by Atomic Elbow and published by Sierra Online.
The Good: Inventive level design with excellent graphics, intuitive and precise mouse controls, plentiful checkpoints, believable physics, gradually increasing difficulty
The Not So Good: Lack of a level editor is a crime, can’t save and exit in the middle of a level, can be frustrating because of the accuracy required
What say you? A very well designed marble puzzle game: 7/8

I don't think I can talk about any marble-based game without mentioning Marble Madness. That title pretty much spawned the genre, including games like Marble Blast and some console game that we can't mention because it's a console game. Rolling objects always have unique physics that require planning, so they can make for some interesting puzzle games. Enter Switchball, another entry in the marble-based puzzle game genre. Here, your ball “switches” into different forms, giving you additional abilities and drawbacks as you navigate through each puzzle. How will Switchball improve on the foundation lain by games past?

Switchball has some excellent graphics, especially for a puzzle game. Each of the levels are rendered in 3-D and they look very good. The outstanding level of detail permeates itself throughout the game: every object in each puzzle looks great and even the static backgrounds are nice. Although the basic design elements of the levels stay the same throughout the game, the different lighting effects in each of the six areas make it appear slightly different. The camera automatically switches angles in the game and your controls are based off the fixed camera angle (it can temporarily rotated). While the preset camera generally does a good job, there are some problems with circular ramps where your view is occasionally obstructed. Overall, though, the graphics of Switchball are quite good. While the sound effects are basic, the game has some pleasing background music that fits the overall theme well. The production values of Switchball are certainly very high, much more than what you would expect for a $20 puzzle game.

In Switchball, you need to navigate a marble from the beginning of a level to the end, navigating past treacherous drops, objects blocking your path, and other assorted obstacles. Control can be done using the mouse, which allows for some nice precision not possible with keyboard methods. In fact, you really need to use the mouse: since the camera angles are fixed, you’ll need to navigate the ball on some pathways that are not strictly horizontal or vertical, and doing this using the keyboard is essentially impossible. You can play each of the game’s thirty levels in free mode or with a timer; medals can be earned by completing levels in an expedient manner. The levels are very well designed and provide new challenges introduced over time that maintains high interest in the game. While the levels will keep you busy for a bit (and the ability to improve your times mean that going through certain levels isn’t out of the question), but the biggest disappointment about Switchball is the lack of a map editor. It seems like customized levels could be easy to design, but there is no option to do so in the game. This makes it somewhat disappointing when you complete the game and there is no new content to enjoy. Considering that a lot of PC games ship with editing tools to satisfy the community, it is deplorable that Switchball lacks this entertaining feature.

Switchball has a number of elements that make the gameplay more advanced than simply navigating through a maze. There are boxes, jumps, stairs, pitfalls, sideways windmills (I can’t think of a better way of describing them) and other things scattered about the level to avoid as you make your way to the exit. Switchball allows you to morph into alternate forms other than the normal marble: metal for pushing heavy objects, air for floating, and power for jumps, dashes, and magnetic properties. Additional forms have drawbacks: metal balls can go through cloth and attracted by magnets and air balls can be pushed by fans. Switchball focuses on precise, careful movement around each level, as you are normally very close to careening off the edge. Most of the puzzle elements are fairly easy to figure out, mostly using objects to move other objects out of the way. The difficulty and complexity gradually increases as you go through each of the levels, providing a good amount of challenge without being too terribly difficult. Switchball can be frustrating because of the high precision required in the game, but none of the levels are outright impossible. Switchball has abundant checkpoints that save your progress after each puzzle in a level, but you can’t save and exit in the game. Helping the game are the accurate physics: the balls go exactly where you think they should. There is the occasional issue with balls getting caught on checkpoints and the camera being naughty, but these never really detract from the fun of the game since you have an unlimited amount of time to complete each level on free mode.

Switchball has the intuitive controls and great levels required for a compelling puzzle game. The graphics are much better than the budget price of the game and the thirty levels will last you for a bit, although a level editor would extend the replay value. There are some creative portions of the game requiring reasonable solutions that will challenge without frustrating. Switchball shows how a puzzle game should be done: simple yet fun and challenging. At $20, it is a steal for puzzle fans.