Marble Mountain is a puzzle/platformer from Canberra–based studio Lightningrock, and is enjoyable despite some gameplay shortcomings.
Note: Marble Mountain was playable with VR technology at PAX in Melbourne last year, earning the praise of Greens senator Scott Ludlam, and is the first addition to the VR section in my Steam library. Unfortunately, I do not have access to a Virtual Reality unit, so this review may only focus on the gameplay and not how it works as one of the first VR enabled games.
If I were to use two words to describe Marble Mountain, they would be ‘charming,’ and ‘frustrating.’
After four hours of rolling around and wearing a nifty Indiana Jones hat that miraculously stays on, my lasting impression of the game is of its design, and being annoyed with some of the gameplay quirks. Marble Mountain is attractive in simple ways. The lighting, colours, design and music are exactly what a small studio should aspire to, creating a distinct and warm character. The music was catchy and fun, even if it felt too close to a retro sci-fi arcade soundtrack than a modern indie platformer, it worked with the colours and blocky textures to create a welcoming, fun world.
The gameplay was intuitive, if simplistic. The arrow directional buttons maneuver a rolling marble through a series of obstacles and over treacherous terrain, and there really is little more to it than that. It can be picked up in seconds. The camera was where this intuitive gameplay came a little unstuck. It panned automatically and rotated to give the best view of the oncoming obstacles. The problem was that it didn’t always work. There were numerous instances, especially late-game, where the camera simply didn’t follow me and I tumbled to my doom, forcing me to start the whole section again. Figure out the button to centre your marble and use it. I would have enjoyed at least some control over the camera’s direction. Instead, as I traversed a precarious land bridge, the camera would pan automatically, forcing me to quickly change the buttons I press simply to move straight. Sure, it may have been part of the challenge, but emphasis on trickier puzzles and platforms over fighting the controls would have been appreciated.
The level design was well executed, if limited, with a fair but challenging learning curve and a reasonable variety of traps and obstacles. Unfortunately I struggled more against the aforementioned camera while scaling thin ramps than any of the animated traps. The variation in aesthetic and challenge meant that no level felt exactly like the others, yet every obstacle was approached the same way.
None of these problems would have mattered as much to me if there was some sense of narrative tied into the level progression. The story is of a marble going on adventure, across deserts and mountains to eventually find a treasure, but there is little more to it. Perhaps a few stills or cut scenes (think Lego games) of the marble and his or her little marble family before embarking on the adventure. Maybe he loses his job and must win fame and fortune, it doesn’t matter. Something like that, with a little pay off at the end, would really feed into the sense of accomplishment I achieved by finishing it. The layout of the ‘select level’ screen does a great job of displaying your journey, but the ever changing level designs and increasing challenge really gave me a sense that my marble and I had been on an adventure. At four hours (it might be shorter because I was pretty bad) the game is longer than most films, and a charming narrative bow to tie off the gameplay might have given the game a more lasting impression on me.
Technically, the game performed quite well. For such a new company dealing with virtual reality as well, crafting such a clean game is to be lauded. I did experience significant frame rate issues in larger, late-game levels when there were lots of traps moving around. I also found that some poorly lit areas combined with simplistic rendering meant that a couple of small sections were more about squinting and hoping than actually solving puzzles. Also – and this might be nice to hear for parents who complain about their kids playing too many video games – too much Marble Mountain will hurt your fingers. The first forty-five minute session I put into the game was ended with me rubbing and wringing my fingers from the consistent pressure the rolling marble demands of you. I would strongly recommend taking advantage of the full controller support, because I found the gameplay and my enjoyment improved once I switched to a controller and was able to use the joysticks.
Without having experienced Marble Mountain in VR myself, I do wonder what more can be gained from using that technology is this game. It may well create a more immersive experience, but I really didn’t feel like I was missing out without the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive. In fact, sometimes I felt a little dizzy just with my computer screen, so I imagine the roller-coaster nature of some of the sections might even lead to some nausea if strapped into a VR headset.
Finally, I personally would have liked to have more puzzles to solve, and more use of the physics of a freely rolling marble to solve problems, than the delicate finger work required to pass most of the game.
Marble Mountain is a solid game, perfect for kids. Technical issues will always be forgiven for enjoyable gameplay, except when they make you replay a part that you didn’t enjoy – and that happened to me twice. Is this a groundbreaking technical achievement? No. Is it a nice game to relax with, or play with the kids? Absolutely.
Marble Mountain released April 5 on PC. This review was completed with a copy supplied by the publisher.