Oct 16, 2007
You: a sentient marble, lonely in a world of physics. Them: magnets, air currents, ropes, cloth, cannons, helium, friction, spikes, whirling machinery and your ultimate nemesis, gravity. Your only ally as you wildly swish the mouse to roll drunkenly over Switchball's precariously floating levels is yourself, or specifically, other versions of yourself. Your ball, you see, can be switched.
Become Metal, of the family Ball. He's big and slow to get up to speed, but a heart of cold iron makes him ideal for bashing things out of the way. His nemesis is the electromagnet; that irresistible siren absolutely must be shut off before you stray anywhere near it in this form.
Air Ball is bigger still, but pink, fun and ineffectual. His party trick is to get (physically) high on helium to access lofty areas. Likes: air currents, a little too much. Hates: spikes - they're so working class. For the first half of the game that's all Switchball's ball-switching is: you can be small and normal, big and hard or big and light. But it gets extraordinary mileage out of it simply by being terribly good-looking and deliciously clever.
Well, good-looking and good-feeling - the rolling and bumping and knocking and flinging are all exquisitely well done. And physics, the best thing to happen to games since explosive barrels, has a way of making you care. Twice now Switchball has made someone passing the desk say "Oh no!" as they see we're about to screw up. There's something immediately intriguing about the little rock clanging around rails and tubes; and a fatal swerve elicits a gasp of dismay in a way that hitting zero health in an FPS doesn't.
The cleverness is stable, and a constant source of satisfaction. Every one of its 30 levels has a string of "Ahhh!" moments, after which you smile at the neatness and logic of the solution you've devised. Nudging dangling steel blocks as the metal ball, in order to hook them behind railings and keep them out of the way for your smaller self to pass by later, floating to a high ledge as the Air Ball to nudge an electromagnet down so that you can swing from it Tarzan-style in another mode; firing endless cannonballs at a critical crate to knock it down to where you need it, only to find it's blasted off the edge of the map each time, until you realise you need to fire yourself to strike it just right.
It doesn't run out of brains, but in later chapters it does succumb to that misguided urge to crank up the pressure. This goes badly. Switchball is a thoughtful puzzle game, but neither its camera nor controls are up to the dexterity-driven tasks it sets here. You gain a fourth ball that can have one of three manually-activated abilities: jump, speed or electromagnetism. These have roles in some lovely puzzles, but toward the end they're required for tricky jumps, precision balancing and luck-based fiddlery.
The keyboard controls (cursor keys) are too crude for the game, the mouse is too restrictive (you have to keep dragging it to move), and there's no camera mode that usefully follows the action without twisting through 90 degrees at the critical moment. There are still three or four hours of mind-tingling fun before the irritation begins, so Switchball does justify each of the measly 20 dollars its creators demand - just perhaps not its full promise.