Monday, January 26, 2009

Somersault Review

Somersault, developed and published by Enter-Brain-Ment.
The Good:Unique gameplay, intuitive controls, interface shows projected trajectory, nice graphics
The Not So Good: Extremely difficult, repetitive, short, score provides no bonuses, can’t skip or restart levels, no online components
What say you? A neat game concept that lacks both well-rounded features and moderate difficulty for beginners: 5/8

When I say (well, write, actually) “casual games,” what do you think of? Probably this. And this. And maybe even this. The point is (since when do I have a point?), the term usually is derogatory in nature, representing a simple game for less educated audiences. Thing is, though, there has been a lot of innovative work done in the genre producing some notable titles with unique assets, such as Crayon Physics Deluxe and World of Goo. Both of these games come with unique hooks that differentiate them from the hordes of match-3 games that typically populate the genre. Uniqueness is the focus of Somersault, a casual puzzle game (surprise!) that involves drawing platforms to direct a ball-looking thing (quite possibly a ball). Does this mechanic produce a memorable game?

Somersault features some pleasing graphics for the genre. The game is rendered in 3-D (although it is played in two dimensions) and comes with some nice outdoor environments. There is a good attention to detail with the objects in the game, creating a plausible environment in which to bounce around. The character models are also detailed, though small, and there are some very nice lighting and shadow effects present in the game. Overall, Somersault has quite a solid graphics presentation. As for the sound, it is pretty standard fare: appropriate environment-specific effects and infrequent background music. I would say, though, that you are definitely getting your $15 worth out of the graphics design.

Somersault takes place over twenty-one levels set in outdoor environments where you must guide your ball-shaped hero by placing platforms for him/it to bounce off of while avoiding dangerous objects and falling off the map. You must complete all the levels in order and the game lacks the ability to skip troublesome puzzles; the potential for frustration is there since you can definitely get stuck (like, say, on the third level). There is no level editor for Somersault, but that’s fine because the levels last a while and the intricate 3-D layouts would probably be difficult to create anyway. An increasingly large number of puzzle games, even if they are single player affairs, introduce online scorekeeping, but Somersault lacks both online scoring and any online competitive play. The inability to compare your prowess against others removes some inherent motivation in completing the game with a high score, especially since collecting rings doesn’t provide any sort of ancillary bonus.

The only interaction you have with Somersault is drawing platforms. The mechanic is very simple: use the mouse to draw. There are some restrictions to your platforms, though: you can only have one on the screen at a time and the maximum length is limited. These two things combined makes Somersault quite difficult, especially since the ball is moving (usually) fast and in real time, so there isn’t much time to draw the perfect platforms that the game typically requires. The game does indicate the path with a rainbow so you can place the next platform in the path, so this makes things a bit easier (without this feature Somersault would be completely impossible). You are given some flexibility in your platforms: you can move them around if you keep the mouse button depressed, so you can use them as launching mechanisms (sweeping them through the ball to induce some force) if you modify them on the fly. It is rewarding the first time you find out something new you can do with the platforms to successfully guide the ball to the exit.

Most people will be turned off by the extreme difficulty of Somersault. As I alluded to earlier, most of this is rooted in the fact that you are limited to only one platform at a time. Putting the game in real time allow for a lot of planning, and most everything must be avoided in the game, which requires precise platforms that frankly you don’t have time to plan and draw. Some levels come with a time limit on top of everything else, such as an alien ship or a constantly scrolling view. Getting out of a sticky situation is fun, but the game is far too frustrating to be completely enjoyable. It would be nice to alter the difficulty by allowing for more than one platform at a time, or a longer single platform, but none of these options are present. This is where the collection of the rings could be used: gathering a set number of rings could unlock additional bonuses, like multiple platforms or slowing time down or invincibility. The possibilities are many but Somersault doesn’t support any of them. I would like to simply have the option for an easier difficulty setting with the multiple platform ability I suggested, but you’re stuck with the game as it is and most everyone will find Somersault to be too hard.

I’ll give Somersault credit for delivering unique gameplay, but it loses some of that credit for not having the features you would come to expect in a modern puzzle title. I like the idea of Somersault: drawing platforms in real time to guide an object around and through dangerous places. However, the execution of Somersault is lacking for a couple of key reasons that could be easily fixed. All that needs to be done is to add the ability to have more than one platform, slow the game speed down, or something else tied to collecting coins. There is no point of getting a high score, since the coins are not used for any bonuses and online scoring is not included, so why not use them for something? Thinking that everyone playing your game has the same skill level is a serious error, so ultimately the game will only appeal to those who are as skilled as the developers (or what the developers think is reasonable). Adding in the fact that levels cannot be restarted and there are no checkpoints if you fall, and you can imagine the repetition required to successfully navigate through Somersault’s intricate levels. The difficulty is too high and cannot be adjusted, which is a death sentence for a puzzle game. Rest in peace, Somersault.