Reviewed: December 2, 2007
Released: November 7, 2007
Switchball is the Xbox 360 version of a PC game of the same name released in June 2007. It is the first venture into the gaming industry by the young Swedish game development company Atomic Elbow. The game was published by Sierra Online as part of Vivendi Games' efforts to push farther into the online casual gaming genre. For those of you who enjoy trivia, Vivendi also owns Blizzard Entertainment. Alas, no orcs or zealots found their way into the final release of Switchball.
There is no story to speak of in Switchball. You are not a super-hero who has morphed into marble form to repel the alien invasion or save the princess or avert global thermonuclear war. You are simply a marble who is not happy with where he is in life and wants to roll somewhere else. Unfortunately, somebody has set an elaborate series of obstacles between you and your unnamed destination. Your task is to navigate through them without plummeting to your spherical death.
The single player campaign is made up of five worlds. Every world has six stages, and every stage is comprised of several puzzles which are separated by checkpoints. To solve these puzzles, the player must interact with the environment using logic and manual dexterity. The first task of every puzzle is to determine what objects need to be moved and which switches need to be flipped to clear the path to the next checkpoint and the end of the puzzle. The second task is to actually roll your way through the execution of your strategy. By the end of the game, this can be a significant challenge since many of the puzzles are extremely precarious and require absolute precision. Fortunately, if you do fail, the only penalty is that the current puzzle resets and you immediately respawn at the last checkpoint to give it another go.
The game is given a new level of depth when the Morphs are introduced. By rolling into a Morph, the player can turn himself into one of four types of balls. Marbleball is the standard, generic white marble. Metalball is essentially a ball of lead. It is useful for pushing heavy objects or breaking through obstacles that would stop any other ball. An Airball morph will effectively turn the player into a beach ball. The Airball is extremely light and bouncy and if the player rolls onto a Pump while in Airball form, he will be inflated with helium and temporarily have the ability to fly. The final ball type is the Powerball. Once in Powerball form, the player can roll into a Generator and attain one of three special powers. These powers include Dash, Jump, and Magnetic. These ball types are critical in the solution of most of the puzzles.
When I first saw Switchball, my immediate fear was that the camera would be unwieldy. Sure enough, the moment I started rolling, the camera was an annoyance. Fortunately, a quick visit to the options menu and a handy loading screen tip revealed three camera options: Auto, Free, and Chase. Auto Camera picks the best view for you, Free Camera lets you control the camera, and Chase Camera always follows right behind you. The camera controls can also be inverted if you so desire.
However, despite these efforts towards camera convenience, it still does not work quite right. The problem is that the marble is always exactly centered in the screen. By the time you reach the second or third world, most of the puzzles are too big to be contained in a single field of view. So when you roll up to your next challenge, all you can see is yourself and the first part of the puzzle.
For example, at one point I found myself on a platform with two options to proceed. I could morph into Metalball and take the metallic bridge on the left, or I could morph into Airball and take the rope bridge on the right. Since the camera would not allow me to see the rest of the puzzle, I was not able to logically deduce the most intelligent course of action. Instead I had to just pick one and go exploring. As the game rolls into the later worlds, this becomes more and more of an issue as the puzzles get larger and more elaborate.
The other unfortunate change in gameplay as the player advances through the worlds is the shift from logic to ball-control as the requirement for solving the puzzles. Thanks to the camera flaws and the large scale of the puzzles, the first several minutes with a new puzzle are spent locating all the switches and objects you will need to solve it. Usually by this point, the solution is painfully obvious and requires little thought. The real challenge lies in carefully controlling your ball through the hazards. The game tests your finger control more than your mental agility.
The Switchball universe looks delightful. The environments are sharp with bright colors and realistic texturing effects. The backgrounds and lighting are detailed and set a mood appropriate for their associated levels. This is fortunate since the five worlds (Sky, Ice, Cave, Cloud, and Lava) are only differentiated from each other by their backgrounds and soundtracks. There is no change in actual gameplay. For instance, you will not find yourself sliding down icy slopes on Ice World or rolling underground in Cave World.
The physics engine is excellent. Atomic Elbow used the PhysX system developed by AGEIA Technologies, Inc to control the motions of the objects in Switchball. The union is a delight to behold. Everything reacts the way you would expect. Whether you are rolling across a piece of cloth stretched between two platforms or teetering on a plank suspended by ropes or floating through the air filled with helium, you will see realism.
The audio quality is good, but not terribly exciting. When Marbleball is rolling along a wooden platform, you hear a ball rolling on wood. When Metalball crashes into a metal wall, you hear a clang. The level of realism is on par with the physics engine, but is obviously not as revolutionary.
As previously mentioned, every world has a unique soundtrack. These are cheerful little melodies that help get the brain juices flowing and give you something to hum to yourself while you are pushing boxes around. Unfortunately, the tunes are played on a never-ending cycle. The good news is that the player advances to the next world (and the next tune) right around the time they are getting tired of the music.
Every stage in the single player mode can be played as a time trial. The player races against the clock and is awarded a Bronze, Silver, or Gold medal depending on their finishing time. The game can easily be finished within 6-7 hours, but if a player desires to score the XBL achievement for Gold medals on every stage, they will probably have to dedicate somewhere in the neighborhood of 20-30 hours, as well as research all the hidden shortcuts. Shaving seconds off your best times will also land you a spot on the time-trial leaderboards which are accessible from in-game.
The game features a co-op mode with four stages of puzzles for you and a buddy, as well as online multiplayer races for up to 8 people. That is what I am told, anyway. As is the case with so many of the XBLA games, the multiplayer lobby feels completely deserted. The leaderboards are a testament to how little it is being played. 15 lifetime victories will land you a spot on the Top 10 Players of All-Time list.
The game does have a few glitches. There were instances where I found myself lodged between an object and nothing. Since I couldn't move, I was forced to reset the puzzle. I also had some issues with the checkpoints in the final world. Nothing is as irritating as falling off the final turn of an extremely long puzzle and spawning three checkpoints (and three extremely long puzzles) ago. That is, until you do it three times in a row.
Ultimately, this is a great game and easily worth the $10 you have to sacrifice to land a copy of it. Even though I thought the shift from logic to ball control was an unfortunate turn of events and the camera could certainly use some tweaking, Switchball is an impressive effort for a first-time game developer like Atomic Elbow. I will be keeping an eye on their future endeavors.