I love a good arcade experience and SEGA’s Super Monkey Ball remains one of my all-time favourites. Its simple idea of rolling a sphere-imprisoned monkey around a multitude of obstacle course filled environments is one that’s easy to pick up but tough to master especially as its level design grew more devilish. While I might still be patiently waiting for the Switch to receive its Super Monkey Ball fix (a wait that I slowly grow more optimistic with each returning SEGA series such as Streets of Rage and Shenmue) it appears developer Torched Hill could potentially fill that void with their rhythm infused ball roller, Road to Ballhalla.
Played from a top-down perspective, Road to Ballhalla sees you rolling a small ball around a series of levels whilst avoiding their obstacles and making it to the finish in one piece. With no real story to carry you through the campaign, the game instead relies on often-humorous text placed sporadically throughout the levels themselves. Some might offer words of advice while others may be intentionally trying to screw you over – a lesson I learned very early on that ended in a swift laser death. The game feels like it’s almost mocking you with its teasing and while some may find it a little frustrating, for others it at least adds a little personality to what is otherwise fairly generic presentation.
Unlike the Super Monkey Ball series, you’re free to take your time in each of the game’s main twenty stages – a nice change of pace that allows you to think about your approach rather than rush and panic. Also different in Road to Ballhalla is the addition of a health bar meaning you’re able to take a couple of knocks before the ball explodes. It’s this mechanic that allows you to be more adventurous with your actions since mistakes don’t always punish the player with an instant death.
To test your rolling skills, you’ll face a range of obstacles either deadly or merely just making your life more difficult. In an interesting twist, a lot of them are also timed to the beat of the music, sprinkling a little rhythm-based action into the mix. What sort of evils will you need to contend with? Red panels on the floor will sap away at your health bar for example while blue ones will instantly kill you unless you unlock them with orbs of the same colour. Lasers are as unpleasant as you might expect and panels with arrows on will force your movement in that direction. The game introduces you to these new problems at a rapid pace, levels proving especially tough as you journey past the halfway point.
Stages are fairly lengthy but also house checkpoints to help counter frustration setting in (there’s nothing worse than having to repeat the same areas over and over again). Little yellow orbs are scattered throughout each stage – something completionists will no doubt appreciate collecting – while death count is also tallied at the finish line too. Manage to find every collectable and limit your failures and you’ll be awarded eight tokens, the number dropping the worse you do. With 160 tokens in all to earn there’s reason to replay stages in which you may have missed out on a couple, however it turns out this is only half the battle.
Once a stage has been completed you’re able to retackle it, collectable orbs removed, deaths ignored and the player able to focus on simply getting the fastest time possible. With three stars up for grabs, chances are you’ll need repeated attempts to shave off those seconds and achieve the maximum reward.
Controlling the ball takes some getting used to, and as stages grow in complexity you’ll need to be very precise with not only where you move but your timing too. Using the ZR button will allow you to boost however get caught on a red panel and its instant death for you – offering a neat risk/reward element to the mix. Do you gamble and go for speed or play it safer and opt to use the boosting ability only when it’s absolutely necessary?
Road to Ballhalla’s difficulty won’t be for everyone, the constant failures even eventually getting to me, someone who loves a good challenge. Gating off latter stages with token targets doesn’t help matters either and may result in some less experienced players being blocked off from seeing the entirety of the game. The total number of stages also feels a little slim with a couple more worlds really helping bulk out the campaign. Even with a small handful of unlockable bonus stages and various palette swaps for your ball and the trail that follows, you can’t help but wish there was more. The presentation while clean also lacks style, a problem that no amount of comical writing can fix. The empty backgrounds and neon effects grow old quite quickly.
Road to Ballhalla is a simple idea with enough neat additions of its own to keep you engaged throughout its twenty-plus levels. Filling that Super Monkey Ball sized gap nicely, this fiendishly difficult ball rolling experience may be a little on the short side but should please those after a challenge they can easily jump in and out of.
Version Tested: Nintendo Switch
Review copy provided by tinyBuild