Ride eternal, shiny and chrome on the Road to Ballhalla.
Road to Ballhalla, developed by Torched Hill, is the latest release from the indie publishing house tinyBUILD. It is a simple “Roll Playing Game” where you are charged with rolling a small marble sized ball through various labyrinthine levels in an attempt to reach the end. I know that sounds simple enough. But trust me, it isn’t. Ballhalla is a punishingly difficult game that rewards patience and true mastery of the game’s mechanics to in order to complete.
What makes Road to Ballhalla immediately unique is the way it seamlessly weaves its incredible synth-heavy soundtrack, created by Emmy-nominated composer Nicholas Singer, into the levels and gameplay. Seriously, this soundtrack is absolutely fantastic, and I was immediately taken by the opening track that guides you through the tutorial level.
The idea behind Ballhalla’s gameplay is that certain tiles on the floor will flash red in accordance with the beat of the music. Your job is to avoid the red tiles, and the lasers, and the pitfalls, and the orbs of death, and the war balls, all in an attempt to reach the end of each level while the game’s narrator taunts and laughs at your feeble attempts to complete them. This simple gameplay loop quickly drew me in and had me eagerly awaiting the next stage, just so I could hear the next track and see what new jokes were in store. The music is that good. Unfortunately, Ballhalla’s gameplay was a bit harder to get used to than its wonderful music.
As I stated before, Ballhalla is hard, and this is coming from someone who completed every Dark Souls game multiple times. This fact, coupled with the game’s hilarious unreliable narrator (at least he thinks he is), makes most levels in Ballhalla more frustrating than fun. Just when I figured I was getting the hang of things the game would trick me, either through its unreliable narration or inversion of the main controls.
There are many instances in Ballhalla where up becomes left, down becomes up, right becomes down, and so on. It is the frustrating equivalent of picking up a friend’s controller at their house and not being able to properly play the game because they prefer to play with inverted controls. Maybe some people will enjoy this mechanic. However, for me, it became quickly frustrating.
There were times when I would get into a groove with the music and feel like I was really starting to make progress. This was when Ballhalla was at its best.
Unfortunately, that feeling never lasted particularly long as the game continued to insist on making me fail, an exercise it seemed to revel in.
Perhaps I just need to “Git Gud”, but that feat felt impossible when the game appeared to be trying its best to throw some unnecessary trick at me last minute, just to make me fail. This, in turn, means replaying frustrating sections of levels over and over again until you finally get it right, or you just get lucky. And that’s the problem; I never really knew if I was “Getting Gud” or if I just simply got lucky when completing a level. Furthermore, spending so much time retrying sections of levels meant that I was forced to listen to the same track loop over and over again for what felt like an eternity. I know I said the music was great, and it is, but hearing the same loop for minutes on end quickly became maddening.
As far as the story goes, there isn’t much on display here outside of the narrator constantly poking fun at you. The ultimate goal, I presume, is to reach Ballhalla. I must admit that I never actually made it there. The game tells me I was 66% there, but I just didn’t have the patience to press forward.
Even though I never made it to Ballhalla, I did try out a few of the game’s “Rush” challenges. These challenges have you racing through previous levels as quickly as you can in order to post the best time. That time is then represented in the game’s online leaderboards. For many score attack and speed running gurus, this is a mechanic that will encourage replay value and is a credit to the game’s design. Also, there are many hidden areas and secrets within the game. I managed to find a couple and hunting these secrets down will surely add another layer of depth to Ballhalla’s gameplay.
As a whole, Ballhalla is an intensely challenging game with a remarkable soundtrack that will appeal to hardcore fans of the puzzle platformer genre and music lovers alike. It wasn’t for me, but that doesn’t mean that it’s a bad game. I’m sure Ballhalla will find its audience. For everyone else, do yourself a favor and pick up the soundtrack.