Review by MTLH
Released on the original PlayStation in 1998, Kula World (or depending on where you live, Kula Quest or Roll Away) is one of those peculiar titles that seems to be hugely popular and well remembered while still being somewhat obscure. It's rare too with second hand copies routinely fetching surprisingly high prices. It certainly took me a while to track one down. Thing is, Kula World deserves all the praise lavished upon it and is well worth the effort of seeking it out.
Befitting their age and subject matter, the visuals are rather simple. The floating structures where all the action takes place are nicely detailed and show a decent amount of variation. More importantly, it is easy to differentiate the kind of blocks each structure is made out of so spotting traps and other hazards shouldn't be a problem. The backdrops vary from jungles to Egyptian pyramids and canyons. They are a bit pixelated but, whether by design or accident, this also gives the backdrops a pleasant painterly quality. The beach ball sports various decos and is, taking into account the technology, surprisingly round and bouncy. All in all, Kula World is a good looking game.
Kula World sports a distinctive soundtrack by a Swedish group called Twice a Man. It's predominantly ambient and electronic and fits the game's relaxed mood very well. The sound effects are spot on, ranging from the swish of a couple of spikes springing up to the twump whenever the beach ball bounces on a surface. Together with the visuals, the overall presentation forms a well realised whole.
Kula World is a puzzle game with some slight platforming elements. The aim of the game is to guide a beach ball across a series of floating structures made up out of blocks. As the gravity changes relative to the ball, it can roll along all these structures' sides without falling off. Each level has an exit which must be activated by finding one or more keys. Conversely, the resulting green cross looks strikingly similar to the old DirectX logo. There is furthermore a time limit in place to complicate matters. Kula World offers two modes: arcade and time trail. Both are basically the same in the sense that each requires the player to activate and reach the exit and both use the same set of levels.
The arcade mode revolves around points. These can be earned by finishing a level but also by picking up the various collectibles. One of these, different pieces of fruit, gives access to bonus levels which can yield even higher scores. It is possible to lose points as failing a level, either through the ball getting destroyed or by letting the time limit run out, lowers the overall score. Not only is there a fine but the amount of points scored within the level at the moment when things went wrong are also deducted. The overall score acts like a healthbar of sorts in the sense that when the score reaches zero it's game over.
As you might have guessed from the name, time trail revolves around time. In this mode all those collectibles aren't important. Instead, besides the standard time limit there is also an extra one that is decidedly more strict. Complete a level outside of that limit and the extra time is noted down. After a set of levels, the game tallies how much time was used. In order to progress to the next set, the overall playtime must be kept below a certain threshold. If the amount is higher, the player must revisit levels in order to complete them faster.
Because of how the scoring system works in the arcade mode, the player must play quite carefully and considered. A mistake can cost a lot of points and when the tally reaches zero it's game over. Risks must be weighed against the possible rewards. Time trail on the other hand doesn't have a penalty for failure so the player is free to experiment in finding the fastest route. This may sound like a trivial difference but it does result in two remarkably different experiences.
As Kula World goes along, more and more obstacles are introduced such as spikes, crumbling platforms, moving enemies, lasers and pills that make the ball jump on it's own accord. These elements are introduced gradually, at first being mere hindrances before becoming a real pain in the backside. Because all the structures are floating in a three dimensional space, gravity forms an important part of the game, perhaps even an integral one. As mentioned earlier, the gravity is tied to the ball instead of the structure, enabling it to roll in any direction without necessarily falling off. Kula World makes ingenious use of this mechanism, eventually placing the ball in ever more elaborate settings. Some of these may seem simple but turn out to have a few nasty surprises while other structures may look impossibly complex but can be conquered by an easy to miss trick. All in all Kula World's level design is nearly impeccable.
Nearly, because around the three-quarter mark the game introduces nearly invisible blocks that only come to light from a distance or temporarily when collecting a pair of sunglasses. This is a neat idea in principle but in practice it can become terribly annoying, slightly opening the door to sheer luck at the expense of skill and insight. It isn't such a big issue that it really spoils Kula World but these levels are less enjoyable than the rest, slightly sidetracking the overall experience. Luckily they don't appear that often. It is also perfectly possible that others find their inclusion not a problem at all and it's just me who is annoyed.
The fact that Kula World's structures are made out of blocks does have it's influence on the game's controls. They are quite simple, essentially only requiring a directional cross to move the ball and a button to jump. Each move is equal to the length of a block while a jump equals two. This rule of thumb makes navigating the structures clear and transparent. The controls are responsive too, which is a godsend for those few levels that require a bit more dexterity. There is an issue though and that is that despite all this, the ball has all the agility of a tank. Turning around goes in small movements a quarter circle wide which makes turning around quickly, and navigating speedily in general, something of a chore. Initially at least, as eventually you will become used to it.
Kula World will not be finished in a hurry. Besides the 150 standard levels, the game also offers a few dozen bonus, hidden and, after completion, so-called final levels, bringing the total up to about 200. That is certainly a lot, especially when taking into account the two modes in single player and the added bonus of various multiplayer modes. The difficulty increases gradually, starting out very simple while becoming very challenging towards the end. What Kula World does very well, is avoiding becoming too frustrating in the process. Sure, some levels will have you pulling out your hair but there is always that sense of 'let's try this again just one more time.'
Kula World is a gem of a puzzle game. The level design is practically impeccable, the presentation is gorgeous in all it's simplicity, there is a lot of content on offer and the difficulty curve is pitched just right. Time trail and arcade mode provide for two quite different experiences which make it worthwhile to play the game again in another mode. There are a few issues though, controlling the beach ball isn't all that fluid while the invisible blocks mentioned previously fall short of the game's overall standard. In the end however, these are just nitpicks. Kula World is a perfect puzzler worthy of a perfect score.
OVERALL: a 10!
Rating: 5.0 - Flawless
Product Release: Kula World (EU, 07/31/98)
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