Developer: ACE Team / Publisher: Atlus / Played on: Xbox 360 / Price: $9.99 / ESRB: Everyone 10+ [Cartoon Violence, Crude Humor]
Self-affected cynics like to place the backs of their hands to their foreheads, let out a beleaguered sigh, and complain that there are no more original ideas in this thoroughly threadbare world. Now you can tell that pretentious douche to stuff it, because we live in a world with Rock of Ages. While this downloadable game could exist on novelty alone, it manages to provide gameplay experiences you’ve never had before.
Before I explain the nuts and bolts of the game, you should at least understand the premise behind it. The game opens showing Sisyphus constantly pushing his bolder uphill under the watchful eye of Cronus, only to have the boulder roll back downhill (like it’s wont). After a couple of tries, Sisyphus comes up with a brilliant idea: I’ve got a big ass boulder. Why don’t I just roll it over Cronus, squish him flat, and break my way out of Hades?
Only problem is Cronus is hiding in a gated room at the end of a long course. To get him, you’ll have to roll down the course and collide with the gate over and over in order to wear down its health and eventually break it down. And, for reasons that neither deserve nor receive explanation, after you break out of Hades, your target will also have a rock of his own and gun for you. Every level thereafter, while you roll down a course to break down your opponent’s wall, he’s doing the same on a mirrored course to squish you. This is more than a simple race though; you’re able to construct walls, turrets, and other obstacles on your opponent’s track.
Essentially this game operates in two phases. First, you roll your rock down your opponent’s course. Dodging his constructed walls and turrets preserves the health of your rock, which causes it to inflict more damage on the enemy’s wall when you hit. After your run, you have twenty seconds or so to construct defensive structures on your opponent’s course from a top-down view while workers chisel out a new rock for you to roll with.
If you want to put it in genre terms, the game ends up being a unique mishmash of Marble Madness, racing, and tower defense. This would almost be enough to carry the whole game based on sheer novelty alone, but Rock of Ages executes this idea really well. The buildings you can place are well balanced and can be combined in unique ways to add depth to the game. There are a few frustrating snags, though. Most of the more complex courses have built-in shortcuts that you can hit with a properly timed jump, but you won’t know these exist your first few plays. This means you’ll not only miss the shortcuts yourself, but also not properly block them for your competitor. This puts you at a huge disadvantage until you become more familiar with the course, which usually takes a couple of runs.
The rolling controls in Rock of Ages are straightforward: push your stick to go, hit the A button to jump. As you’d expect, your giant boulder has a good deal of momentum so you can’t change direction on a whim, which raises the skill ceiling in finding an obstacle-free path down the course to hit your opponent’s gate at maximum speed. Placing buildings is more touchy, as the cursor movement’s speed never feels right. When placing buildings, the cursor movement is so sensitive it’s hard to target the exact square you want to place a building. Other times, when you’re trying to aggressively target the enemy’s boulder as it rolls, it doesn’t scroll fast enough to catch up. Neither of these are game-breaking, but being able to control the scroll speed of the cursor would’ve been fantastic.
Graphics and Sound
In both graphics and sound, Rock of Ages is decidedly Monty Python-esque, which is only a good thing. All of the game’s characters are puppeteered versions of iconic paintings or drawings, which gives their motion an automatic sense of hilarity. You’ll see Napoleon riding on a coin-operated horse, bouncing jauntily as though he were controlled by marionette strings. Everyone speaks in expressive grunts and screams as well, which is instantly evocative of Terry Gilliam’s animations on Flying Circus or Search for the Holy Grail. I hate to use one reference so universally, but Rock of Ages so perfectly emulates that style there’s really no talking around it. This game is Monty Python in visuals and sound, which rules.
In an age where any game can be explained in half a sentence, Rock of Ages is a refreshing rarity. It not only attempts fantastic originality but succeeds in that attempt more than it fails. If you appreciate originality, you owe yourself some time with Rock of Ages.