Friday, May 08, 2009

Obulis Review

Obulis, developed by IonFx and published by Meridian4.
The Good: Plausible physics, simple controls, non-linear campaign with tons of levels
The Not So Good: Almost always only one solution, can be very difficult to time things correctly, solutions only available for easy puzzles, repetitive strategies, redundant control scheme, no puzzle editor
What say you? This physics-based puzzle game is hampered by its limited correct answers and a small margin for error: 5/8

One of the nice things about reviewing games for the PC is that titles from other systems usually find their way to the preeminent gaming platform. Some of these ports end up being better than others, but the gaming smorgasbord (yeah, I can get my Swedish on) that the PC offers cannot be matched. Enter Obulis, a physics-based puzzle game that first appeared on mobile devices and has finally made its way onto the platform of choice for discerning gamers around the globe. Obulis can be thought of Rube Goldberg-light, where you must maneuver balls into pots (a nightly event for me) by setting up a chain reaction of events, usually involving balls hitting other balls (again, a nightly event for me). Let's attempt to wade through the remainder of the “balls” jokes and evaluate how Obulis stacks up in the ever-crowded puzzle genre.

Though generally bland, Obulis offers some clean graphics. The game looks like it was optimized for a mobile platform with a minimalist presentation: static backgrounds and few animations apart from the puzzle elements themselves. There is absolutely no abstraction here like you see in, say, Crayon Physics Deluxe and World of Goo: purely utilitarian. You get the 2-D objects and that's all; they look fine and all, but a little more flair is always appreciated. The sound design is nothing special as well: your basic realistic sound effects and unmemorable music. Obulis clearly favors gameplay over style, which is fine for most people accustomed to the puzzle genre.

Your goal in Obulis is to place colored balls into the correct color-coded container by setting up a series of events in real time. The game features a high amount of content: 151 levels spread across three maps. The campaign is setup so that you almost always have a choice as to which level to complete next, allowing for careful navigation around troublesome puzzles. The puzzles increase in difficulty along your journey from “trivial” to “essentially impossible.” Despite the high number of puzzles that comes with Obulis, the lack of a map editor in any puzzle game is a notable omission. Obulis is also purely a single-player affair, offering nothing in the way of online competitive play or scorekeeping.

Each puzzle in Obulis is populated with the aforementioned balls attached and near various force-inducing objects: chains, poles, catapults, cannons, trampolines, lifts, gears, and rubber bands. Interacting with the game is straightforward enough: just point, click, and click again to cut or activate. This extra “click” actually becomes quite annoying after a couple of puzzles; it would have been a lot more efficient to simply hover the mouse over a chain and right-click to cut. I guess this limitation is partially induced by the game’s mobile platform roots (and single input method). Obulis is one of the most challenging puzzle games I have encountered in quite a while, and commonly frustratingly so. Solutions can be tough to figure out, especially since almost all of the puzzles have only one proper answer that you must use. This solution will typically involve interacting with the objects in a set order at the appropriate time; even if you know what to do, setting things into motion at the right time can take a number of trials to execute correctly. Obulis offers animated solutions, but only to the easiest puzzles that you can figure out on your own anyway. I suspect that only the most stalwart players will be able to hang with Obulis once the difficulty is increased, as the margin for error is quite small once you get beyond “easy.”

Obulis clearly is behind physics-based puzzle stalwarts Crayon Physics Deluxe and World of Goo. The basic premise and general execution of the game is fine, as the physics model produces believable results and there are lots of levels to play. Of course, the lack of an editor reduces the longevity of the franchise as a whole, but 151 levels is nothing to be easily dismissed. The mouse-driven control scheme means learning the game is intuitive, but I would like to take the simplification a step further by allowing for selection without needing to click the mouse, a seemingly superfluous step. The problems arise when you start talking about the difficulty of the game: while the easier levels always come with illustrated solutions, the harder ones (where you really need the help) require precision that is frankly too difficult to execute. Now, difficulty can be debated, but when you know what to do but simply can't get the timing down, then the game treads into the “annoying” classification. The fact that most (if not all) puzzles have only one proper solution, usually with multiple steps, raises the frustration bar even higher. The “sameness” of the puzzles begins to wear on you as you'll be utilizing identical basic strategies to solve each puzzle: causing things to run into each other. Obulis transitioned too quickly into “frustration” for my tastes, which is why I can only recommend it to veterans and fans of the genre.