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Magic Ball
Graphics: 7.4
Gameplay: 8.1
Sound: 7.2
Control: 7.8
Replay Value: 8
Rating: 7.7

Creat Studio and TikGames continue to pump out the downloadable titles, and Magic Ball is one of several that have dropped this month. The recently reviewed Cuboid was one of the better puzzle games we’ve played to date, and although Magic Ball isn’t a brain-buster – it’s a good old-fashioned finger and reflex-buster – it’s still entertaining. This is what you get when you combine the concepts of Pong and Pinball, and although that may not sound very intriguing, it’s pretty darn addictive. Most of these little games have proven fun for more than a few hours, and for only ten bucks apiece, that’s typically a pretty good deal. If you don’t feel like driving to the store and you’re saving your cash for the upcoming blockbusters, you should definitely log on to the PSN and see what you can find. You can really stock up on a bunch of great little games for far less than the cost of a new $60 title, and as far as we’re concerned, the developers can keep bangin’ ‘em out.

The graphics hold plenty of charm with the intricate designs of each level, and you’ll find yourself smiling at everything from the classic pirate setups to the Medieval-style king ‘n queen…er…dioramas. At least, that’s what most of them look like. There are also plenty of nifty visual effects, and although they can really get in the way from time to time (see gameplay assessment below), they still make for appreciated additions to the graphical presentation. We’re not really sure if we needed 24 separate levels for each Episode, though; we would’ve rather seen more in the way of different themes rather than 24 iterations of the same theme. In this way, too many of the Episodes, as well-designed as they were, got quite repetitive, especially when you have to tackle the more challenging levels. But as expected, there’s plenty of color and one has to appreciate the artistic effort involved in creating each little world. It’s nothing too mind-blowing, but for what it is, Magic Ball looks good…just a liiiitle more in the way of variety, and we would’ve been happier.

The sound lags a little due to a repetitive soundtrack, but excels thanks to solid sound effects. There’s no voice acting or anything in the way of intense music or in-your-face effects, but then again, this isn’t a big-budget production. Besides, we’re supposed to be relaxing and having fun, so we’re not about to harp on a lacking that doesn’t significantly hinder the experience. On top of which, the music certainly fits each atmosphere and we enjoyed the small changes – like when you pick up that little moon symbol and day plunges instantly into night – and the diverse sound effects. You’ll even hear explosions; believe it or not, cannons, machine guns and lasers actually exist in a game like this, and the pick-ups available quickly change what could’ve been very bland sound. There are only so many times you can hear a soccer ball bounce against random items, so the inclusion of some snazzy effects spruce up a game that is, in some respects, almost too simple. In the end, the soundtrack may be forgettable and even irritating after about 20 levels of the same thing, but everything else works out just fine.

Okay, now get Pong in your head. Take what you see in your mind and turn it vertical so it looks like a pinball game, where you can move the slider back and forth at the bottom. Now, put up a destructible level that features a gazillion different items from three different Episodes (each with a specific theme; the first one is a Pirate theme, for instance). All you have to do is keep this ball – which curiously looks exactly like a soccer ball – bouncing around; everything it hits, it first damages and eventually flat-out destroys. Your goal is to never let it get past your slider at the bottom, and erase everything from the area. When it’s just about all gone, a special pick-up will fall from the center of the screen, and all you have to do is nab it, and you’ve completed the level. As mentioned before, there are 24 worlds (numbered 1-1 through 1-24) for each Episode, and you will occasionally come across a special Bonus level. They’re not that great, though; you just have to avoid the level-ending pick-ups while snagging as many Gold coins as possible.

So yeah, that’s about it. But while the premise is really that straightforward, Creat Studios drops in a bunch of interesting features that add some spice to the experience. First of all, pick-ups will come down towards you upon eliminating certain pieces of the environment, and they can be either good or bad. Good pick-ups include expanding the size of the slider and the ball, weapons you can use with the X button (like those cannons and machine guns), an Iron Ball that rips through everything, a mini-tornado that blows everything around, a meteor that begins a brief meteor shower, and more. Bad pick-ups include shrinking slider and ball size, running boots that speed up the pace of the ball, and a Crazy Ball that just darts around erratically. All you have to do is catch them when they fall; some become active automatically while others are easily triggered with the X button. One of the more entertaining aspects of the game is piling up the positive pick-ups: at one point, we had six balls flying around (one pick-up splits the ball into three), and a cannon on our slider, and then everything got crazier when we turned all 6 balls into bombs.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t really happen that often, and one of the game’s more annoying traits kicks in during the later levels in any given Episode: not only does the ball travel faster, but it seems as if the majority of all pick-ups that come sliding down to us are bad pick-ups. In level 1-22, for example, it took us several tries to complete it because all we ever saw were slider-shrinkers, fast running boots, and even the dreaded skull-and-crossbones, which immediately eliminates a life if you’re hit by it. And as you start with three lives (designated by hearts), you can find hearts that will occasionally pop up, but in those late levels, we rarely saw them. We will add our single biggest gripe here as well: too many times, a great deal of stuff is happening on screen, and we could easily lose track of the ball. With plenty of effects going off at once and lots of stuff inhabiting the level, the ball will oftentimes disappear entirely in the mess and if you factor in the cascading pick-ups, we’d have to remind ourselves to search for the ball. Thankfully, you typically have enough time to react, but it’s no fun to deal with deadly pick-ups that are directly in the path of the ball. That’s just bad luck, but still…

Like most games of this nature, you will get better as you progress, and the good news is that it’s highly addictive. We sat playing for two hours before taking a break, and we certainly wanted to go back and finish the Episodes. The only other downside we can think of is the fact that when you opt to “Continue” after losing all your lives, you can try the latest level, but you only start with one heart. We don’t really see the point of this, because if you want to restart with all your lives, simply return to the main menu, hit “New Game” and you can pick up where you left off. It got a little irritating during the tougher levels, but hey, that’s the price of a decent challenge, right? The game is just as – if not more – fun with a friend, and many people still like the idea of nabbing as many Trophies as possible. For the most part, the game is well-paced and despite its lack of gameplay depth, the simplicity is amusing and pleasant. It won’t take you long to complete, but at only $9.99, what are you really losing? We figure it’s a decent way to pass a rainy day, and yes, we made that rhyme on purpose.

Magic Ball isn’t quite as innovative as other PSN games out there and it certainly won’t test your brain, but it’s a decent downloadable title that may deserve your attention. If this sounds like fun, and if you have a friend who would enjoy playing with you, go ahead and pick it up. We get the feeling that something like this could be great for a girlfriend or wife; someone who’s not so into video games, but might have a blast with a simple interactive game that’s similar to the Flash titles they’ve probably sampled on the computer. We certainly had a fun afternoon, and we’ll leave you with that.

1/22/2009   Ben Dutka