Art of Balance Stacks Your Wits Against You
Art of Balance? More like the art of not chucking your GamePad across the room. Don’t be fooled by the tranquil backdrops and relaxing music of this puzzler. Art of Balance is infuriating. And I love it.
Let me tell you a secret: I’m a smart guy. Heck, I’d even go so far to say that I’m clever. So it was a big kick in my pride rump when I finally acknowledged I had to skip one of the levels and move on. “I’m just stacking blocks!” I kept telling myself. “If toddlers can do it, so can I.”
But that’s the secret to Shin’en Multimedia’s Art of Balance. This isn’t your toddler-stacking-blocks video game. This is truly an art. And sprinkled through the game’s 200 levels is, dare I say, ingenuity.
I mean, it all started swell enough. The first several levels took me a few tries, but I managed to pass many on the first go. The gameplay is identical to the original Art of Balance released on WiiWare in 2010 and Art of Balance Touch released on Nintendo 3DS in 2012. The premise is simple: arrange a series of oddly-shaped blocks in a 2D space upon a small platform without any falling into the water below. Once all your blocks are placed, you wait three seconds to see if any topple.
The first several dozen levels were like training with The Karate Kid’s Mr. Miyagi. I felt like my sensei had assigned the seemingly pointless task of arranging blocks, but I was actually gaining metaphorical insight into the entire cosmos. And boy did I make my sensei proud. For example, sometimes I felt unsatisfied clearing a level if my construction was a teetering ramshackle that would make even Picasso wince. I replayed levels until I achieved perfection, with my stack able to stand firmly resolute well past the three-second requirement. I wasn’t just a toddler; I wanted to be an architect.
But then the curve balls started coming.
The game’s levels are divided into eight “worlds,” each with a different gimmick of sorts. You’ll encounter blocks that shatter if too many are placed upon them, blocks that disintegrate upon contact with others of their kind, foundations that rise and fall based on the weight they carry, and — get this — magical blocks that reverse the direction of gravity. Yeah, let that sink in. Imagine building the perfect little tower when — uh oh — you get one of these “gravity blocks.” You better pray to the almighty Block God that your perfectly balanced stack survives the flight and still holds up after crashing on the ceiling. Good luck. With that.
But that’s what makes Art of Balance such a good game. It’s compelling. It’s addicting. When, time and time again, your triangle and rectangle and goofy clover-ish blocks decide to take a dip in the waters of loser-dom, you can’t just put down the game and walk away. When you fail over and over, you stop caring about your architect ambitions — you strive only to succeed. Then, when you finally scrape by with some funky structure that appears to defy the laws of engineering, your brain has a little party inside your skull. It feels awesome.
Every level feels fresh and innovative, with a new twist on previously learned techniques. Challenge levels interspersed within each world add excitement with timers or height minimums. Beautiful HD graphics make me feel like I’m actually standing in someone’s exotically decorated home. The touch controls are sleek and precise — effortless compared to the motion controls of a Wii Remote. And in-game achievements challenge you to excel, not just pass.
But the game does have its rough patches. Levels invoking the aforementioned rise/fall gimmick were a headache. Not because they were necessarily difficult (although many of them were), but because the concept just didn’t always work like you’d expect. The idea was if you put blocks on one platform it would sink while, like a scale, another platform ascended. But when my blocks ended up on more than one platform at a time, things went haywire. Whether my constructions would go up or down was anyone’s guess, and even having a block touch such a platform — but not put weight on it — would cause it to change behavior. The whole thing was finicky at best. The game’s physics weirded out on me elsewhere, too. Blocks sometimes bounced away after I gently set them down and, on occasion, my structures miraculously held up when all common sense said they shouldn’t. These flaws don’t ruin the game, however, as they are few and far between.
Art of Balance has additional gameplay modes that shake up the formula. You can challenge your friends to see who can place the most blocks without mishap, or race others to build your tower. The latter mode can be played over the Internet, but when I checked it out the game found no online strangers for me to duel against. Endurance mode, however, had a compelling Internet feature in the form of leader boards. You try to get through as many levels as you can with only three fails permitted. At the end, you’re given a score which determines where you rank globally and among friends. I currently rest in 336th place worldwide with 7,560 points. I’m secretly scowling at GhostDXC, the global leader, with their 148,620 points.
All in all, Art of Balance is a worthwhile game. It’s innovative, unique, addictive, and harder than a Geodude’s backside. If you’re looking for something to distract you from Super Smash Bros. and Hyrule Warriors for a while, or just need something that you can peruse at a more casual pace, Art of Balance is your game.
Review copy provided by Shin’en Multimedia.