Why The Ball might be this year's Portal

And most important of all, it's a total hoot. I played it yesterday, and have compiled a list of reasons why you really should give it a go. Because I'm good like that.

One Weapon, one tool, immense possibilities

In The Ball, much like in Portal, you have but a single technological toy with which to do everything. And despite its seemingly limited abilities, its simple mechanics are a conduit to a whole raft of mind-bending environmental puzzling.

Trapped in the remains of a subterranean Incan-style civilisation, you immediately find a kind of clockwork-and-magic-powered gravity gun. The catch? Your new tool, a short-range energy punch aside, will only interact with the giant metal ball you find a moments later.

A right click pulls it towards you from anywhere it might be in the environment, and a chargeable left click boosts it ahead. By holding onto it you can roll it around in front of you wherever you may travel. And that’s it. Thus, the ball is the long arm of your will, able to hit distant switches, fill spikey pits o’ death with a sturdy, if unstable, walking surface, shield you from incoming fire, and squash enemies flat in gloriously messy insta-gib fashion.

From there, The Ball’s gameplay shoots off in a multitude of interesting directions. Later on, you can dunk the ball in oil and use it to paint a trail of flammable goop around the floor, trapping soon-to-be flambéed enemies and triggering otherwise unreachable explosives alike. It can also grow spikes, conduct electricity, and be tied to objects, allowing you to drag around previously immovable parts of the environment. But whatever new properties it picks up along the way, the ways in which you use them remain the same. Grab, roll, fire. That’s all you’ll ever need to understand.

It just wants you to have fun

The Ball knows it has a good concept and it doesn’t want anything to get in the way of that. Thus, it lets it shine without interference or complication. Combat always takes second billing to environmental puzzling, meaning that this is a game without pressure or panic. The real enjoyment comes from thinking your way around each challenge, and from the simple fun of manipulating your big spherical friend’s instinctive and immediately accessible physics.

In sympathy with this, the game’s pacing and ambience, despite the subterranean surroundings, are light, airy and upbeat. Puzzles play out just long enough for a sharp shot of stimulation and reward, and then it’s straight on to the next one. The environment, although enclosed, is a constant eye-pleaser, thanks to some creative clockwork steampunk design and the Unreal Engine 3’s proficiency in making caves look really rather beautiful.

And the sound design is great, the subtle Incan music providing swathes of atmosphere without ever feeling oppressive. Even the sound of the rolling ball, which you’ll hear a hell of a lot, is soft and soothing enough to never grate. A minor miracle, given the teeth shattering annoyance it could have been.

The hardest part of designing an action-puzzle game is the signposting. Making an environmental conundrum taxing enough to intrigue but clear enough to solve is an unsung balancing act of cryptic plotting and benevolent visual design. The Zelda games have it nailed. Portal has it down, in a slightly more arcane manner. And The Ball has it absolutely sorted.

Walk into a room, have a quick scan of the furniture and objectives, and you’ll be straight in to solving them. The answer might not always be immediately apparent, but the objects and signifiers will all be in clear line of sight, in a layout that draws an immediately comprehensible chain of cause and effect. Again, there are no barriers to you just getting involved and having fun as quickly as possible.

The separate challenge mode is brainy but brutal

Aside from the main story campaign, which we’ve been told should take around six hours to complete, there’s also a set of separate survival stages. These beastly buggers set you in an enclosed but large and complex environment set up for tactical combat, and send waves of progressively tough enemies after you. They’ll track you down from all angles, so it will take constant adaptation and improvised use of both ball and surroundings to wipe them all out and live.

Aside from the ball’s surprisingly versatile abilities – the steamroller approach is good, but we much preferred to boomerang it out behind the mooks and squash them by yanking it back as they made a beeline for our beautiful face – the arenas are packed with deathtraps you can trigger either directly or with the use of your big rolling deathbringer. Spike traps and explosives are all over the place in these twisting, turning killhouses, and with combo bonuses available for big chains of smackdown, this mode could turn into quite the addictive diversion, even if it is never as arresting as the main campaign.

As mentioned up top, The Ball is out today on Steam, priced $19.99/£17.99. Check it out via Valve's magical game delivery service, and take a look at developer Teotl Studios'sitefor more info and media.