The Ball – Review

Title   The Ball
Developer  Teotl Studios
Publisher  Iceberg Interactive (retail/boxed), Steam (digital)
Platform  Windows PC
Genre  Puzzle, Action
Release Date  October 26th 2010

Originally imagined as a mod for Unreal Tournament 3, The Ball has made the leap to fully realised retail release in spite of developer Teotl Studios being a tiny three-man operation. Two years since the original mod won a slew of awards, gamers can now get their hands on a more fleshed out, polished and stand-alone version. I realise that this is a comparatively brief introduction to the game development background as opposed to some of my other reviews, but The Ball is a true indie effort that seems to have come out of nowhere (admittedly I don’t pay much attention to the Unreal Tournament community scene these days, not since UT2004), first coming to my attention via an advertisement on Steam that I foolishly discarded out of hand, and had put out of mind until GamingLives was offered the opportunity to review it.

And I’m glad that the game made its way back onto my radar. The concept is a fascinating one, on closer inspection. You play as an archaeologist who had been working halfway up a dormant volcano in the jungles of Mexico, complete with Indiana Jones style hat, when they fall down a shaft and become trapped in a cavern underground, with even less resources than those available to a Chilean miner. Searching for a way to escape, you shortly come across an ancient artefact that looks a bit like a pneumatic hammer with a skull on the back of it, which manipulates a massive metallic ball. Using the ball to further advance into the volcano, it becomes clear that you’ve stumbled over a find of great significance to the origins of human civilisation, but one which will happily kill you to keep its secrets.

In terms of actual gameplay, The Ball is deceptively simple at first look. You see the world from a first person shooter perspective, and control the game using either the traditional keyboard and mouse combination or a compatible control pad in much the same manner as any FPS title.  Instead of interchangeable firearms however, you carry the device that controls the ball; it looks like a Mayan built prototype of Unreal Tournament’s impact hammer, with the left mouse button firing the hammer mechanism whilst the right attracts the ball to you.

The hammer has no offensive potential by itself whatsoever, bizarrely not even making as much as a sound upon impact with anything other than the ball, which it repels with considerable force. Your HUD consists of an indication of how much health remains to you before you succumb to your injuries, as well as telling you how far you are from the ball at any given moment.

Primarily, The Ball is a puzzle game. Using the control device you fire the ball into switches that you cannot otherwise reach, as well as using it to demolish obstacles and as a movable platform that you can stand on to access areas that are otherwise just beyond your reach. You can also attach the ball to certain large objects and structures with ropes, before walking away from it using the attraction ability of the control device to effortlessly move things far beyond the limits of human strength. Other useful party pieces the ball can do include covering it with flammable oil, rolling it up to explosive objects to create an oil trail, and then rolling it into a naked flame to ignite the entire affair and set off a detonation, as well as being able to hide behind it and roll it along in front of you as a shield against arrow traps built into the walls.

Successful completion of almost every puzzle requires clever manipulation of the ball, with puzzles becoming increasingly more fiendish as the game progresses. There is an option to bring up constant hints during each one by pressing a keyboard button, but even so not every puzzle late in the game is, by any means, a simple matter to figure out. This provides considerable intellectual challenge during an initial playthrough, and also helps with replay value in the form of subsequent speed runs, with many puzzles requiring you to follow a specific sequence of actions to activate.

Total reliance on the ball also applies to the game’s combat. There are a variety of enemy monsters in the game, ranging from fast moving hordes of man-sized humanoid mummies, through crocodilian looking brutes, to bosses that include a zombie gorilla beast behemoth that makes King Kong look like a bubbly and attractive lingerie model in comparison. Your only means of defence against these antagonists is the ball. This doesn’t always work too well with the basic enemies that are scattered throughout the game from the second of the five areas inside the volcano and onwards.

It is extremely satisfying to splatter mummified hordes, and the game makes good use of gore effects, but getting the ball to hit them in the first place so that you can crush them can be awkward and laborious, especially as even the most basic opponents are smart enough to dodge out of the ball’s path, on top of being remarkably fast and inflicting a large amount of hurt on the player when they get within mauling and biting distance. Boss battles are much more fun and not as randomly frustrating, taking the form of a more dangerous and time-restricted puzzle where you have to use the ball to interact with the level environment to take down the largest foes who cannot simply be mown down with the ball in the same way. At times, this brings to mind quite strongly the boss battles from the Legend of Zelda franchise since, in spite of the aesthetic and perspective differences, ingenuity and clever use of the level itself are critical to success, rather than simply trying to brute force your way past these engagements.

Speaking of aesthetics, The Ball is frankly one of the best looking indie games I’ve ever seen. Employing Epic’s Unreal Development Kit to great effect, in unison with highly detailed textures, lighting and some great design work, this game is stunning to behold running at full clip, with very little framerate drop or tearing, and impressively still very attractive even at its lowest settings and resolutions. Every monster and item and object in the game looks like it belongs there, with the sole possible exception of the ball control device (it is just a re-skinned impact hammer, I’m sorry).  The exotic Mayan setting provides quite a lot of eye candy that hasn’t been tasted often in other games, and offers an intensely atmospheric and, at times, oppressive ancient underground world to explore. Level and puzzle designs are fantastically well thought out, with a slightly retro feel, as though inspired in part from some of the great id Software and Epic developed FPS games of the past, with elements of classic Quake and Unreal Tournament sneaking into the layout of the game world and environments. The tendency of the Unreal Engine to “texture pop”, with high-res textures loading several seconds after levels start, is still occasionally visible, but much less of an issue in The Ball than in other games running on the engine, at least on my current hardware setup.

The in-game physics don’t quite live up to the graphics. It’s possible to fall from a large height without being damaged, and the ball always rolls in a straight vector away from you until it encounters an obstacle… despite the design of the ball clearly not being perfectly spherical, with flat edges and protrusions that should affect the manner in which it rolls across its surface. The ball can also hurtle into the player with more than enough impact force to flatten you into a thin paste and yet somehow causes no damage whatsoever, which impacts on the realistic look and feel somewhat. However, these are minor details that don’t really detract from enjoyment of the game unless you are particularly pedantic beyond the initial realisation of them.

The audio work within the game works well, with some competent voice acting and sound effects. The stand out in this aspect of the game is the music, which adds considerably to the atmosphere, and helps to immerse players into the world The Ball is portraying.

  • Excellent level design, with just enough to explore without getting lost or off-track.
  • Some of the very best environment based puzzles in gaming, making extensive use of the games unique gameplay in a way not seen since Portal.
  • Engrossing, challenging boss fights against some truly intimidating monsters.
  • Some fantastic graphics on display and great design work evident in almost every element in the game.
  • A great ambient musical soundtrack that enhances the atmospheric feel of the underground world.
  • A setting and aesthetic styling not seen often outside of Tomb Raider, giving the game a relatively fresh and appealing novelty.
  • An absolute steal at the bargain pricing.
  • The Steam version of the game has complete Steamworks integration including achievements and leaderboards.
  • Combat against basic baddies can be frustratingly awkward at times, and is a distraction from the exploration and puzzling.
  • Occasionally dodgy in-game physics.
  • The game is quite short, with just 8 levels across 5 areas, and can be completed first time out in 4 or 5 hours by experienced puzzle playing gamers.

The Ball is a really unique and challenging indie title, and proof that you can still make a great video game with just three guys working in a basement with a small budget and a lot of commitment and creativity.

Whilst there is some clear inspiration from classic games of the past, in its entirety the game is a wonderfully refreshing and imaginative take on the puzzle genre. You have to experience it for yourself because no review or screenshot is going to entirely do The Ball justice. I’ve not been this excited about a puzzle game since Portal, in fact, there is a lot more potential present in The Ball to expand upon in possible follow ups than there was in Portal, and I do realise just how big of a statement that is.

This game deserves support, it is easily my favourite downloadable game of 2010 so far, and I cannot recommend it more highly to fans of the genre, or just gamers looking for something genuinely new and original.

Last five articles by Samuel



  1. Edward Edward says:

    Another sterling review, Preacher, great job!
    The game looks fantastic and another first person puzzler sounds great to me too. Sadly, my laptop wouldn’t be able to run it, so I’ll have to give it a pass for that reason. I hope it does well though, we need more innovative and unique titles like this!

  2. Ben Ben says:

    “In the mod community we trust”.

    Think this is going to be a growing trend over the coming months, Epic releasing the UDK for free and then with some very friendly licensing terms is only going to promote this sort of thing even more.

    Is a shame that Microsoft don’t support it as much as they could (or should) as there is real potential out there.

  3. Ste says:

    I’ve seen this game popping up on the Steam store for the last few weeks now. I’ll admit it intrigued me but at the moment I’ve got a back log of games to play. Perhaps I’ll nab it sometime in the near future.

    Another good review Preach, as usual.

  4. Lorna Lorna says:

    Good review. The game certainly seems interesting and it is a great concept, though shame about how tricky the combat sounds. I love anything with this sort of Mayan-like setting, though I too have a stupidly massive backlog at the moment. It sounds as if there is potential for extra content or sequels, so hopefully this will be the case.

  5. Richie rich says:

    I used to love the UT mod community but equally I hate every game after the original UT.

    This looks like an interesting game though. Good review, Preach.

  6. Samuel Samuel says:

    Thanks for the comments everyone, they’re always appreciated.

  7. Mark R MarkuzR says:

    There’s no way I could add this to my “to play” list, as I just have far too much on my plate at the moment and the game doesn’t excite me enough to make me sit up and decide “OK, these games are being brushed aside for a while” as I did when New Vegas came out and, ultimately, what I did when TO New Vegas when the Borderlands patch was released. The concept, however, is extremely interesting and I think they deserve massive snaps for taking the engine and doing something different with it… thinking outside the box always gets my vote but, sadly, not enough to play it. At least not for some time, anyway.

  8. [...] been slowly gathering momentum, thanks to its imaginative and engrossing gameplay, as mentioned in our review a few weeks back.  The Ball has earned critical praise across the board and presents the player with a huge, [...]

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