Monday, 29 July 2013

Puzzle Games #14

Kula World a.k.a. Kula Quest, a.k.a. Roll Away (1998)
By: Game Design Sweden AB / SCEE Genre: Puzzle / Platform Players: 1-2 Difficulty: Medium
Featured Version: Sony PlayStation First Day Score: 104,770
Also Available For: Nothing
Download For: PlayStation Network

When the fancy 32-bit consoles arrived, every developer around was frantically trying to convert all the game genres under the sun into equally fancy 3D games to wow expectant gamers. Most tried but few succeeded, at least as far as some genres were concerned. One of these was that of puzzle games which probably didn't really seem like a priority at the time. However, from nowhere, courtesy of a developer no one had even previously heard of, came Kula World which, like so many puzzle games before it, seemed like such an obvious idea that it's amazing no one had thought of it before! Accordingly, the concept is a simple one: you are charged with guiding a beach ball (a 'Kula' beach ball, no less) across/around a floating geometric shape with the ultimate objective of reaching the exit. As any gamer should already know, however, it's not quite that simple.

The exit is close but there are two keys to find first...
There are two play modes to choose from - arcade and time trial - but there isn't a lot of difference between them besides an emphasis on points and time respectively. They both feature the same 150 basic stages which consist of the aforementioned floating three-dimensional structures. Your colourful ball rolls along the flat surface, staying in the centre of the path so it can't be steered off the edge, and it can also jump a short distance forward, although this includes off the edge so you'd better make sure there's something to land on! You can also roll up what initially appear to be walls, with the stage rotating the view so it remains behind your ball, and the gravity also switches so it remains 'normal' regardless of which side of the structure you're on at the time. It's only possible to change sides, however, by moving over the end of a one-block-wide platform. While on the end you can rotate it at will and emerge on whichever side you like, but it's easy to lose your bearings if you keep whirling the stage around too!

A bonus stage, complete with trippy background...
The stages must be completed within a time limit represented by an egg-timer at the top of the screen but the many and varied arrangements of platforms that make up each of them are far from empty. First and foremost, gold keys must be collected to unlock the exit (the quantity required is shown in the bottom-left of the screen) but there are also coins and gems to collect for bonus points, red & yellow pills which slow your movement and make the graphics all wibbly for a few seconds, purple & pink pills which make your ball all bouncy (must be psychotropic drugs of some sort), an hourglass which flips the one at the top of the screen over (so make sure you don't collect it when you have loads of time left as you'll suddenly have hardly any!), sunglasses which reveal hidden blocks, and there is also one solitary fruit hidden on each stage as well which, splendidly, whisks you off to one of 30 different bonus stages once you've collected five of them.

This stage marks our first encounter with springers...
Besides featuring weird, trippy graphics, the bonus stages are home to similar structures to the normal stages. The difference here is that you need to change the colour of each block by passing over it, and there are also tonnes of coins to collect for bonus points as well. Back on the normal stages, it's not all bonus items, sadly - there are also a good few hazards to look out for. The most numerous, at least to start with, are spikes which puncture your poor ball, naturally. There are also multi-coloured star things called 'Captivators' which move back and forth in a quick but predictable pattern. Touching one of these sees your ball 'captured', and later stages also feature lasers. Unsurprisingly, all these things have the same effect as running out of time or accidentally leaping into nothingness off the edge of the stage - you'll need to start the stage from scratch! However, rather than having lives, you'll instead lose as many points as you've gathered on that stage up to the point of 'ball loss' as well as incur a points penalty. If your score falls to zero (or below) then it's game over.

Things are getting a bit more complicated now...
This obviously means, if you've been doing really well and have billions of points, you'll be able to puncture your balls (snigger) a good few times, but if you've been struggling, chances are you won't have too long left. It's a great idea though, and forces you to actually try and play the game properly instead of just messing around (which is tempting at times). There is a bit of trial-and-error involved, especially when encountering new features for the first time like springers and several types of block (crumbling, invisible, icy, and goddamn fiery ones which melt your ball in seconds), but for the most part your progress is entirely down to your own puzzling abilities, not to mention reaction times now and then, and you can save your game every five stages so it's not too unforgiving anyway. I had some problems at first with the viewpoint which doesn't really allow you to see anywhere except straight ahead, but then I discovered that pressing certain buttons moves the 'camera' to directly above or lower down behind the ball which is extremely helpful for seeing where other platforms are, and for making accurate jumps.

The first hidden stage with curious whirly things...
Other than that the graphics are neat and tidy but slightly basic with largely featureless (and quite blocky) backgrounds, simple block designs and stage features. It's all fairly uncomplicated but seems to suit the game well enough. The backgrounds and blocks change every 15 stages and are loosely themed (Egyptian, Mayan, Ice, etc), and come with appropriate (and rather mellow) tunes which all helps make Kula World a rather unique and mighty enjoyable game. The masses of stages available (which includes ten that are hidden and even a set of 'final' stages on top of the 150-strong basic set) ensure that it'll last you absolutely ages. It can be frustrating (especially those bloody fire blocks - grrr!) but overall this is a superbly designed example of the genre, and a rare example of a good 3D effort too! I do think Game Design Sweden could've given the player a more appealing character to control (an amusing spherical creature of some sort, perhaps) but even playing as a mere beach ball, Kula World is a relaxing, addictive, and ingenious puzzler.

RKS Score: 8/10

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