Puns and balls.
If you asked me to describe Road to Ballhalla quickly it would certainly be that – and in that order. Rather, Road to Ballhalla is a ball puzzle game, you’ve almost certainly played a game like it either from the old days of Newgrounds or on a mobile device. Put simply, you roll a ball around towards the end of the level; as the developer puts it, a roll playing game. You see? Puns.
It may not sound like much – and really, it isn’t – but the delivery and presentation here is second to none. The first thing you’ll notice is the colourful, crisp and almost Tron-like graphics which somehow seem to accentuate how smooth the game plays. Road to Ballhalla is also a rhythm game. The wonderful electronic soundtrack – composed by Emmy-nominated Nicholas Singer – is tailored to the style and rhythm of each level. Although not quite as dynamic as, say, Queasy Games’ Sound Shapes, the gameplay and music work together to both improve enjoyment of individual levels and the nature of the overall game.
You will quickly learn to use audio clues in tandem with the visuals to make your way past dangers. Can’t figure out the timing for making it past the dangerous flashing red light? Pay attention to the music and you’ll soon realise that the synth plays during danger and you can make your way past. On the much more challenging later levels you have to use a combination of both to succeed making that satisfaction of completion all the better. In fact, the last few levels, the final in particular, brought a sense of accomplishment that wouldn’t be amiss in Dark Souls. This may however have been partly due to me using a keyboard over a controller – making the acute directional movement all the more difficult.
Though that’s not to say that you should back off if you are worried that Road to Ballhalla will be too much of a challenge. Pacing is something many indie developers struggle with, often throwing you in the deep end too early or taking too long (or never at all) ramping up the challenge. Thankfully developer Torched Hill seems to have understood this and introduces new mechanics at a good pace. Furthermore, any annoyance that would come from dying over and over early on in the game is alleviated (although sometimes amplified) by the humorous messages left on the floor.
There isn’t any story here per say – bar the overarching goal of reaching Ballhalla – but the floor texts left from the narrator add some great personality to the game. Whether giving you a tip, taunting you or just making some terrible pun, the narrator’s wittiness shines through. All this from a game with only five buttons – four of those directional! You can also press a button to speed up your ball allowing you to gain momentum and get through dangers quicker. This does however leave you much more vulnerable and you will often immediately die attempting to boost through something that does damage.
Much like the soundtrack, these small mechanics work with one another to create a much more impressive package. For instance, in one of the final levels you have to make your way through a very challenging section of lasers and damaging balls (bullets?). During this you are also being shot by an off-screen laser which will kill you instantly if you are boosting when it hits. The only way you have of knowing when it will fire is the soundtrack, which also indicates when the balls are being fired and at the same time still sounding enjoyable. Making it through this requires a combination of timing and paying attention to both audio and visual cues. These sections are sublime, but unfortunately all too few with Road to Ballhalla only having 20 levels.
The main game can be completed in around three hours – depending on how much difficulty you have with it – and there is not much reason to replay levels. You can retry to get more points which unlock more customisation for your ball, but that’s about it. Although every five levels, once completed, can be redone in a speedrun-type mode if that is more your style. In a way, it’s actually a shame that every level is so well made, in terms of visual and audio presentation, that it means there are so few levels overall.
I usually don’t have much fun with challenging games that require you to do something over and over or do something perfectly, but I thoroughly enjoyed Road to Ballhalla. It’s not for everyone but it’s short and sweet and looks and sounds damn good. Unfortunately it’s at its best when it’s at its most challenging which doesn’t last for very long; I can’t help but be disappointed that they didn’t keep the ball rolling just a little longer.
Hey, I can do ball puns too, you know!