Combining miniature golf (without the golfer) with a space station setting, Star Balls is a skill based game at a budget price. The idea is simple, you control your ball robot and try to reach the goal in as few tries as possible. Things start off easy as you get acquainted with the controls, but the difficulty soon ramps up with bounce pads, pressure plates, vortexes and even enemies. I love trying out budget games because you often get much more bang for your buck, oftentimes discovering hidden gems in the process. Is this the case for developer Bolder Games’ debut on Xbox One?
Believe it or not, Star Balls has some light story elements to it. You start off playing as Orbit, the robot/ball. He has stumbled into a spaceship and our job is to help him explore and find his way out. The story is told through nicely drawn storyboard sequences, ala comic books. Star Balls doesn’t dwell long on story, after a few slides you are back into the action. As you progress you will unlock two other robots, each with a special skill and plug-in slots for equipping special attributes.
Every level that you complete earns you currency that you can use to purchase and upgrade attributes for your robot. I gravitated towards the hole magnet and brakes attributes. Brakes is self-explanatory, while the hole magnet attracted my character to the bottom of the cup as I creeped closer. Other attributes are more passive like a coin multiplier or automatic door opener, as long as they are equipped they will do their job. You can swap in and out plug-ins before each level, which is great when a perfect jump will get you a hole in one. I did find it odd that every time I did this, there was a slight hiccup in gameplay where it felt like the game froze, more on some of these quirks later. Most plug-in attributes can be leveled up three times for maximum efficiency. I was satisfied with the amount of different ways I could tweak my robot, although some proved more useful than others. After each level you are graded on total time, strokes, and score (based on pickups in each level). In addition to the regular game you can also play every level on score attack and time attack modes. There are also 15 bonus levels that you unlock in the story, typically when venturing off the beaten path.
Controlling your character is where I feel Star Balls will take a lot of criticism. You aim your shot with the left stick and then must gently pull back on the same stick to choose how powerful you want your shot to be. What makes it difficult is once you pull back your aim will sometimes move when you don’t want it to. I would have loved it if a button press could lock in your aim and allow you to focus completely on your power meter. Once you choose your desired power, the press of a button will shoot the ball and you repeat the process until you reach the goal. Although I’m not a huge fan of the controls, they in no way hindered me from completing the story mode. Depending on your plug ins you may be pressing other buttons to jump, brake or get a free retry.
Presentation is a mixed bag as well, in my opinion. When I first began downloading Star Balls, I was surprised to see that it’s 4.61 gigs. This was even more odd to me as I started playing because while nice, the graphics aren’t other-worldly and there isn’t a ton of music tracks beefing up the file size either. It was very annoying to see that there are loading times, albeit brief, before every level and after every retry. A six second load time might not sound like much, but when I really want to strive for a perfect score and retry often, it adds up. I would have much rather sacrificed some graphical fidelity to get those loading times down. Compounding this annoyance was the brief freeze that happens after changing your plug-ins. While it doesn’t ruin the experience, it does make gameplay feel slightly interrupted.
When it comes to value, you are getting a lot for $4.99 USD; featuring about 30 different levels, three types of gameplay, and bonus levels to collect. There is no multiplayer, local or online, which is a bit disappointing. It would have been cool to customize a 9 or 18-hole round and take turns, Super Mario Bros style, to see who has the lowest score. The achievement list is about 80% friendly and 20% annoying, with a few achievements tied to playing the game for up to 500 hours! Overall for a budget price you are getting a family friendly game that adults and kids could find themselves addicted to.