One of the ways a puzzle game can be measured is by how it handles the moment when the player solves the puzzle. Consider Braid’s ability to make you feel like a genius for discovering that you can snag that last puzzle piece by using the puzzle itself. The best puzzle games guide you along, giving you limited information, holding your hand while you fill in the blanks, then offering congratulations for doing so. Solving Pocketball’s puzzles makes you straddle the line between feeling like a genius and someone who just made a lucky guess.
Pocketball is simple. Touching a button at the top your vertically held device triggers colored balls to fall from the top of the screen, and it’s your job to use gravity to direct them into corresponding colored pockets at the bottom of the screen. You do this by drawing lines between various dots on each level which act as hard surfaces that make the ball ricochet and bounce. Since everything’s based on gravity, it’s all instantly understandable and the game’s impressive physics make every puzzle seem fair and realistic.
Oh, I’m just sitting here playing some Pocketball.
Pocketball has a clean, delightful simplicity in its presentation that reminded us of the elegance of Apple Macintosh products. It’s just about the most streamlined, Apple Mac-ish game we’ve ever seen, actually. Touch the icon on your device and in a few seconds your playing without a start screen and no cluttered menus. And though sound is somewhat sparse, the balls bounce with the satisfying “click” of ping pong balls.
The gameplay starts to weaken when too many special items are added to the equation. The boost arrows that shoot your ball in the direction they’re pointing and the late game portals are fun, mostly because you can predict how they’re going to manipulate your ball. But when multiple “black holes” crowd a level, which draw your ball towards their center, the gameplay becomes much more nebulous and unpredictable. Completing stages becomes more about curving your balls around the black hole’s gravitational pull, something not easy to grasp or predict.
We found that when more than one black hole was present, especially the kind that change the color of the ball, the puzzle-solving became very much about trial and error. Many times we would have exhausted every logical option to complete a level with no success, only to draw a line at random and, boom, achieve perfect level completion. It’s in those times when Pocketball feels like old point and click adventure games: cycling through your inventory and using every item, one by one, on everything you can see. When you finally progress it feels less like a “Eureka” and more of an “are you serious?”
That smiley-face mocking is me.
One more thing, and this may be more of a personal preference, but we like puzzle games that have some sort of context or compelling reason to solve the puzzles. We like some sizzle with our steak. Puzzle Quest had leveling, Myst had story progression and even Tetris has the constant flow of falling blocks. Pocketball doesn’t seem to give us a reason to keep putting balls into pockets. Don’t get us wrong, we don’t need an epic story, but we would have at least appreciated some music to go with our Pocketballing, especially through some of the rougher trial and error levels.
Maybe Pocketball would have benefited from a “lives” system, giving the player a limited number of tries to get the ball in the pocket. That would have put the emphasis on planning and strategy rather than trial and error. Or by making the stages easier, but adding a time limit, the game could have picked up the pace and avoided feeling workmanlike.
As it stands, Pocketball’s premise is so clean and accessible that it’s unfortunate that its late game elements make some levels feel like muddied, trail and error affairs. Some gamers, probably hardcore puzzle enthusiasts, will love having Pocketball in their pockets, but many will not.