(Editor’s Note: What follows is the original review written for the first version the author played. Since then, one or more major critiques have been addressed by the developer. For a list of these, see “Addendums” below the original review score at the end of the article.)
Some mad scientists try to take over the world; others are content to tinker with its deepest riddles. Certainly, few things are more worthy of a quirky professor’s time than FRED — a talking sphere that might house incredible powers if only it can conquer its phobias. To find what lies inside this Mystery Ball (Out Now, $0.99 Sale), a scientist will require the assistance of puzzle fans who are swift-fingered as they are clever minded. Expect plenty of humorous quips to go along with the logistical challenges this one serves up!
Mystery Ball has the player running FRED over Bravery Badges while making it barrel through each of thirty levels. Racking up enough badges of a particular type brings FRED out of its shell – literally – and allows it to face up to one of its phobias. Conquered fears reap immense gameplay rewards. FRED can be flicked great distances once its fear of being touched by the player disappears; flying to great heights and time manipulation are on tap once the related phobias have dissipated. Mystery Ball’s campaign may not rate player performance in the traditional three-star sense, but efficiently completing the game’s objective is its own reward because it brings FRED’s powers to bear sooner in the adventure — which is precisely as it should be!
Completing these collections, let alone getting FRED to the end of a level, offers a series of logistical challenges that fans of physics and action puzzlers should find especially satisfying. FRED’s gradually unlocked abilities still aren’t enough to make it over all the chasms and dizzying heights the player has to conquer, and then one must consider the “frenemies” that are all too happy to punt FRED right into oblivion. Bridging the gap between FRED’s abilities and the player’s goal are Doodads — useful little gizmos like springs, magnets, and speed ramps. What’s really cool about Mystery Ball is that the player plucks these Doodads out of an inventory and manually places them, making him or her an armchair level designer! Doodads are collected just like badges, giving the player an even greater incentive to explore levels thoroughly and even seek out hidden passages containing extras.
Once the Doodads are collected they’re permanently carried by the player, so he or she can always revisit a completed level and see what more can be accessed with the current Doodad supply. Better yet, objects already collected in a particular level are made transparent during subsequent visits, so players can focus on grabbing new stuff without re-treading old ground. The absence of a time constraint lets the player sit back and enjoy Mystery Ball’s great level design – you may recall that the opposite approach plagued Marball Odyssey in my opinion – but a Time Trial mode with Game Center leaderboards is also on tap.
Mystery Ball’s game design is flawless on paper, if not in execution. FRED is controlled with swipes, which has pros and cons compared to the tilt interface you might expect going into something like this. On the plus side, directional control feels more precise, and a quick backward flick makes stopping instantaneous. On the other hand, having to swipe continually for movement – and ever more rapidly if acceleration is desired – exacts more effort from the player. Basic sensitivity calibration varies how much kick each swipe gives to FRED, but I’d love to see an option to swipe and hold to move along at a constant rate. I’d also like to see an option for manual two-finger control of the game’s camera; it pans dynamically for now, and seldom offers an optimal view for high spring-loaded jumps. The player can still pinch-zoom as expected though.
Compared to the game’s great depth and breadth of content, the above-mentioned flaws are pretty forgivable. What really cut into my enjoyment at present is the fact that Doodad placement loses an important functionality once the player’s started a level: misplaced Doodads can be removed from the field before the player gives the go-ahead to drop FRED in, but the player loses this right once the level is in progress. A badly placed Doodad can interfere with a jump, so a mistake could force the player to dump out of the current level and re-try from scratch. Shifting Doodads around to dispatch roving enemies would also add an extra layer of fun. The disappearing Doodad removal function could very well be a bug that snuck into the release version, and affects my iPod Touch 4 at least.
Mystery Ball’s environments and enemies are simply modeled, but not without a certain charm; it’s especially fulfilling to watch the landscape fill up with Doodads under the player’s direction. When it comes to enemies, sound engineering helps compensate for the occasional bad camera angle by giving the player some advance warning that one of FRED’s adversaries has targeted it. The game’s music actually slows down when FRED’s time-slowing ability is used, which is pretty groovy. Mystery Ball’s 30 levels give it plenty of meat on the bones, so the player can expect six to eight hours of fun logistical challenge even without delving into its Time Trials.
iFanzine Verdict: An aesthetically simple but fantastically designed ball roller. Mystery Ball could still use some brushing up in camera control, and a very useful gameplay functionality goes missing once levels are in progress, but even in its current state the game will strongly appeal to fans of physics and action puzzles, and to Action Adventure fans more generally.
Addendum: Restriction on Doodad placement lifted