While on an archaeological expedition in Mexico, you experience a bit of bad luck and fall into a hole in the side of a volcano. Fortunately, you're not injured. Unfortunately, and inexplicably your team doesn't have a rope... so while you wait, you do what any rational archaeologist lodged in a hole would do: go spelunking.
And so it begins, your own adventure into the bowels of the mountain and Tetol Studios' foray into game development.
The Ball tromps into a relatively underexplored genre: the first person puzzler. Frankly, it can't be that easy to craft original puzzles in three dimensions and then you run the risk of creating a game that is completely disorienting to the player due to the first-person perspective. Then there's the problem of having an absolutely masterful game like Portal as the benchmark. It's got to be a tough cookie to crack.
You find and control a ball through the use of a handheld device picked up as you begin your trip. Teotl wisely keeps the core game mechanics very simple. One mouse button draws the sphere near and the other repels. As you delve deeper into the mountain you uncover more and more abilities and uses for your ball. A stroke of the action key allows you to do things like summon a rope that can be used for dragging objects or powering ancient chariots. It can also take on environmental properties like lightning, fire or even an anti-gravitational field.
Since BeyondUnreal caters primarily to a community filled with Unreal Editor users and consumers of custom levels, I feel it's appropriate and even beneficial to mention that there's some real level design talent on display here and Sjoerd 'Hourences' De Jong leads the charge. There just aren't many indie games that can match the collection of 3D levels that are featured in The Ball. Half the fun is soaking in the unreal vistas and marveling at the gargantuan machinery that you set in motion. It's a visually very stunning game.
Most of the levels require you to use the ball as a trigger to set an immense mechanism in motion, nearly all involving several steps. Others require you to kill a guardian. The variety is reasonable and it keeps things interesting. I would have liked to have seen the difficulty ramp up a little sooner as the challenge really doesn't hit until you're an hour or so into the game. Only a few really made me scratch my head but nearly all are entertaining and progress always feels rewarding.
One of the obstacles to your puzzle-solving merriment are the various fauna and creatures. Though some are a little stiffly animated, the texture quality makes them quite pleasing to the eye and some of the larger creatures are downright impressive. The entry level enemy AI is effective, but transparent. They do avoid your attempts to squash them with your ball, but more in the way a bar of steel dodges a magnet.
The main campaign is advertised to run its course in a matter of six to eight hours and I managed it in about seven with a fair amount of exploration. Through Steam a heaping of achievements and level leaderboards are available and a number of in-game secrets give you plenty of reasons to go back. I will say that some of the secrets are possibly hidden too well. I'm definitely one of those people that likes to go places I shouldn't and I only uncovered approximately a third of them, but I won't lodge a complaint about hidden totems that offer only achievements and story snippets. It does definitely add value.
Once you've enjoyed all the campaign has to offer, you can always turn to Survival mode for a bit of entertainment. A handful of newly crafted levels serve as the backdrop for an onslaught of various baddies and each is littered with devilishly clever traps. Survive a set number of waves and you and your ball live to tell the tale. Overcome them all and an achievement is yours.
I do have a wishlist for a sequel, however, should Teotl Studios choose to go that route: A difficulty ramp that steepens more quickly, even more ways to alter the ball, and a little more object interactivity within the level. The storyline could use a bit more personality and a few twists to help you empathize with your avatar, but that's not why I want to play the game.
The Ball offers a tremendous value and the level of polish is admirable. This game is going for $19.99 (US), folks. The indie gauntlet has been thrown and The Ball is the new de facto Unreal Development Kit poster-boy.