Bang On Balls: Chronicles
Reviewed by: Joe Cabrera
Bang on balls! Yes, bang on balls. You read that correctly. I'm going to be totally honest with you here. As I punched my review code into steam, knowing the game was titled Bang on Balls: Chronicles I didn't enter the digits in with a sense of urgency or excitement. I mean, it's called Bang On Balls for god's sake! Who knew what was waiting for me on the other side of the 3GB download? I certainly didn't expect to find myself playing it on my Friday night... Or my Saturday morning, or my Saturday afternoon. You see herein lies the issue with Bang on Balls. It's actually pretty good. I mean, it's not without its issues and it's certainly not going to be your new favourite game, but with a little perseverance and a lot of patience, this game actually sheds its layers, and what lies beneath is a pretty unique and charming experience.
Anyway, before I get into my thoughts, let's talk about the game itself. What is Bang On Balls Chronicles? Well, contrary to what the name suggests you won't find this game listed under Steams NSFW section. In fact quite the opposite. Bang on Balls Chronicles is a colourful, comical and charming 3D platformer. The concept is simple, you are a ball, your enemies are also balls, the NPC's, they too are balls, the in-game currency, you guessed it. Balls. The game follows the old school classic system of having an overworld hub with portals where you travel to different levels each with a different theme. The game has been heavily influenced by 3D platformers like Super Mario 64, Banjo Kazooie and Spyro the Dragon. But none more so in my opinion than Gex 3D: Enter the Gecko. Like all of the above, the levels are non-linear and objectives are focused on exploring the environment and completing objectives. The levels are as comical as they are charming if not kind of random and lacking any real context. Why am I collecting movie reels and travelling through portals on TV screens to get to different levels based on different historical events set in different times? Wouldn't it have made more sense for the portals to have been clocks? And you collect watches or clock pieces or something? Trivial as it may seem I bring this up because that kind of undercooked thinking and lack of proper consideration is unfortunately commonplace within this game. From small, unimportant considerations (like the one I've just highlighted above), right through to the build of the game itself. Yet, this game has all the hallmarks and ingredients of a fantastic 3D platformer but unfortunately, it's just not put together very well...Yet.
So let's get into that. Now, I want to preface this next section by saying that; whilst I am going to talk about the things I think are wrong with this game, let us not forget that Bang on Balls is still an early access game, meaning 'technically' it's in its alpha testing phase, which 'technically' means there's much work left to do on the game before it's officially released. I say 'technically' because more and more we are seeing the lines being blurred with early access titles. Some of them take years and years to reach their official launch and bear mostly the same resemblance to how they were when they entered early access. Whereas others take less time and we do see significant improvements before their official launch. So it's hard to say which type of early access game Bang on Balls will be. Anyway, I say this because some of the issues I go on to highlight may well become history as the game rolls out updates and improvements. Others however are more fundamental.
Firstly, and hopefully, this is something that will be ironed out, is that the game (on PC anyway) is really poorly optimised. Now, I'm no developer. But I have played a lot of games and my understanding is that in terms of programming there are many different ways to do the same thing. Out of these different ways, the one that is the fastest and the least taxing on your PC or console memory is the 'optimal' way. A game that is poorly optimised is one that is inefficient, and so runs poorly for what it's doing. This game, on maximum settings, runs like I'm trying to play Red Dead Redemption 2 on the Nintendo Switch. I mean, I don't have the best PC in the world. But I am running a GTX 1080Ti with 32GB of ram, and based on what I'm looking at on my screen, this game shouldn't be struggling. But it does. The frame rates are poor, the animations are jittery and in moments of busy gameplay such as explosions and combat the game is literally unplayable. However, on medium settings, the game runs much smoother. But then again, on the same PC, I played the beautiful Resident Evil 2 remake and the immaculate Halo Infinite on high settings and they both ran smooth like butter. Yet here I am turning the graphics settings down so my PC can keep up with Bang on Balls: Chronicles.
My second gripe with the game and this one is the more fundamental one, are just some of those undercooked considerations I talked about earlier. Exit Plan Games (the developers) are a delightful little studio made up of some veterans of the gaming industry. Veterans that have worked on AAA franchises such as The Witcher 3 and Gears of War. As we touched on earlier this is a 3D platforming game that has taken heavy influence from some of the titans of the genre. Super Mario 64, Gex 3D, Banjo Kazooie, Spyro the Dragon. Now when you look at those games. What do you see? In fact, what is one fundamental feature that every single successful 3D platformer has? The main character, or characters. Mario, Gex, Banjo, Spyro. A unique and strong playable main character is a fundamental and key feature of all great 3D platformers and a massive oversight from Exit Plans veteran developers in my opinion. You play as a ball. A seemingly different ball in each level as well. Yes, you could argue that the customizable hats and masks give your character a unique look, but it's still just a ball. With no name. If you want fans of this genre to be excited by what you have created then you have to adhere to the things that made them fans of these types of games in the first place. It could still even be a ball! But who is this ball? Why should I love them? Why am I on a movie set travelling to different historical events? What's the end goal here? Where is the narrative? I'm not asking for The Last of Us levels of storytelling or Final Fantasy levels of lore. Just something to make sense of the randomness and give us, the players, a good reason to keep playing. An actual character, with a personality and a concept to tie this game together would have done absolute wonders for Bang on Balls and it's a shame because once you find the patience to fiddle with your settings til the game runs well, and you persevere with the games general haphazardness. Bang on Balls: Chronicles is jam-packed with moments of sheer brilliance and excellence.
The levels on this game are incredible both thematically and in terms of gameplay. The maps are open and sprawling, yet cleverly divided into sections that contain enemies and puzzles you must defeat before progressing to your final objective. There are mini-bosses, and at the end of each level, once objectives are complete, there is the main boss and these bosses are just fantastic. To say how little imagination went into the main character and concept of the game the absolute opposite can be said about the ambition of the level design and bosses. Each level has quite an astonishing amount of replayability as well with so many nooks and crannies to be explored in every level. There are weapons and cosmetics to collect, there's even multiplayer! With its own unique set of challenges. If that wasn't enough there are even some quirky minigames you can dive into that are based on some arcade classics from eras gone by.
The best thing about all of this though, as someone who loves video games with all my heart. Is that when you play this game you can genuinely feel the love and passion that has been put into it by its team. You can feel that ultimately despite its flaws this games only intention is to bring joy to those that play it.
In the end, I had a wonderful time playing Bang on Balls Chronicles and as I came to the end of my 8 or so hours with it I had the same joyous feeling I've had with some of my favourite 3D platformers of all time. "That was a right adventure!" I thought to myself. However despite the loving care and the best intentions of Exit Plan Games. I had to wade through some off-putting waters before I cracked the shell to reveal the gem that was hidden inside and I fear that many who do try this game will be less patient and less forgiving of its flaws. If I could say just a few sentences to the developers of this game they would be. Take yourselves more seriously. You have some fantastic ideas and level design to rival some of the best in the genre. Yet the loveable charm of the game is juxtaposed by odd decisions like the games title, the lack of a strong concept or main character and poor optimisation. Watching the trailer and reading the descriptions of the game there is an air of "don't take us too seriously, this is just a bit of fun." Yet the brilliance of the themes, the level design and the bosses just scream for this game to be one that does take itself more seriously. One that delivers a well-rounded experience for its players. And for a game about Balls... Well rounded is exactly what it should be.