Review by SneakTheSnake
You'll have a ball, despite its flaws.
The tile puzzler is certainly the mecha of puzzling game archetypes. So many puzzlers come from that category, from Tetris, to Dr. Mario, to Meteos, to Lumines and so on. The examples are so rife, and the games of that category are so ubiquitous that it comes as a surprise sometimes when a puzzler that is not a tile puzzler comes through the ranks and becomes a success. Lemmings comes to mind, and Bust-a-Move; Roll Away also belongs to that minority. Roll Away is a strange beast in that it's in a minority category on a console that was brimming with potential for these kinds of games but was sorely lacking. There's really nothing quite like Roll Away on the PSX.
The game places you in the role of a beach ball, whose design is much akin to the classic rubber ball from the Toy Story films. The player must navigate each labyrinthine level, gathering all the keys in a level, and then make it to the exit. Levels are made entirely of cubes and elongated platforms, and players can rotate the world around them by rotating along the sides of a solitary cube or from the edge of a longer platform. To reach a platform that was originally "above" you in space, for example, simply roll to the opposite side of the platform and jump downward.
How platforms will relate to the player in 3D space depend on which side of which surface you're on. In a simple 180-degree flip, what was above you is now below you, and platforms seem to be on opposite sides when flipping around to the opposite side of a surface. Players can roll "up" walls, that is, they can hit a 90-degree intersection and continue along the upper line making the angle, and platforms bisect very often. Think of these levels as miniature M. C. Escher designs; it can be a lot to wrap a player's head around.
There are also many different hazards and obstacles to avoid. The ball could get popped by spikes, overheated to the point of popping by hot coals or destroyed by roaming enemies. In addition to that, ice blocks (which prevent you from being able to rotate the ball), arrow blocks (restricting your movement), invisible blocks and the like populate the later levels. The game works on a fair learning curve, introducing new elements very few levels or so, and the environments change too, leading to new aesthetic and theme-appropriate differences.
For Roll Away, the puzzles are where it's at. It can take several tries to, first of all, come to grips with the way players can flip the world. Secondly, each level has a very different construction to it; there are certain tricks involved that players can acquire over time, and the controls - as well as the camera - are serviceable most of the time. The mechanic of flipping the entire world is an intriguing one, and the developers leak the idea for as much as it's worth. The game requires great precision from the player and, while the game allows for mistakes, the results can be very costly.
There are no "lives" in Roll Away - not in the traditional sense. As in most old-school games, players rack up a score based on successful level completion, doing so in a timely manner and collecting bonuses along the way. Every level contains a fruit, usually hidden someplace or put in a hard-to-reach spot, and nabbing five fruits nets access to a bonus level, where players can go for an all-or-nothing bonus coin extravaganza. Touch all the blocks in a bonus stage, and you'll be rewarded with great riches. Fall off the bonus stage or run out of time, and you'll leave with nothing but the opportunity to save. Players can only save every five levels or when they encounter a bonus level, whichever comes first.
Failing a level can mean running out of time, destroying the ball somehow or, most commonly, falling off the level. This can result in a major points deduction; any bonus points you accumulated before you die, in addition to a score multiplier based on the level you made it to, will all be taken away from your total score. Run out of points, and you run out of lives. Even harsher is that, every time the player saves, the amount of your overall score is saved as well. It can be a gamble, then, when you save: you have the choice of either saving with the total you have at that time or trying to complete the last few stages again for a higher overall score. Roll Away doesn't mess around.
I can forgive that, however, for the sake of challenge. There's always the opportunity of replaying a string of levels if you're dissatisfied with your overall score. Funnily, the game keeps track of your score progressively over a bar graph; the graph always tends to spike when players encounter the tougher levels, whereby some players lose time after time after time, wasting away thousands of points.
What I don't understand in a game like this, in a game in which the perception of the 3D world can make or break your ability to play it, is that there's no option to free-rotate the world and get a good grasp of your surroundings. You're either playing the level, immersed in the world, exploring every nook and cranny on your own until you win through trial and error, or you're slipping up. Before every level, players are treated to a strange wraparound segment, showing the level somewhat, but it zooms and rotates wildly, almost as if it's being filmed by an inebriated camera operator. It is very difficult to get a feel for a level when players have no control over viewing it at a glance, and players will be at a loss sometimes when trying to navigate one of the less straightforward levels. I think the lack of this feature is detrimental to successes later on in the game, and it could have saved players a lot of frustration - and a lot of points. Perhaps, just like the "points, no lives" system, it's there for the sake of challenge.
The game is pleasant on the ears and eyes. The interface and in-game graphics are very clear and colorful. Environments are varied, the worlds are fairly easy to read (except for a few levels with an abundance of dark colors) and the worlds exude a feeling of fun and excitement. Nothing about the aesthetics or sound are there to distract players from the puzzles. The music has a Middle Eastern / techno vibe to it - the tunes are rather obscure overall. The level start-up "magical spell" sound effect is a little annoying, but not much else proves bothersome.
If you're ever on an old-school puzzler kick, I would wholeheartedly recommend Roll Away. Game Design Sweden took a simple concept and really hit it out of the park. The game design flaws are small drops in the bucket in comparison to the dozens upon dozens of puzzles the game has to offer, coupled with its fun aesthetic and clear interface. The puzzles in the game can border on devilish, so the game will take a great deal of time, concentration and pure meddle to complete. If only the game would come out on PSN...
Rating: 3.5 - Good
Product Release: Roll Away (US, 11/30/98)
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