IonBall breaks out of the Breakout mold

Review of IonBall on XBLIG: Try
Power-ups (and -downs), ability trees, boss fights, and new block mechanics keep this Steampunk-style game from being just another Breakout clone.

In the course of trying new releases for our weekly show, we’ve played several Breakout clones. It’s a difficult genre to expand upon and still have the right pacing and gameplay, so most of them have gotten a mixed reaction. However, there’s always the exception—Ionball is an excellent entry into the genre.  In fact, it wouldn’t be fair to call it a Breakout clone at all.

Most noticeably, there’s a compelling visual style. It’s steampunk, but it’s not a heavy-handed approach—you don’t have to be a fan of steampunk to appreciate that graphical polish.

While gameplay is loosely based on the basic Breakout mechanic, it isn’t quite as fast-paced. Control is smooth, especially with the auto-assist option which slows the ball’s speed as it nears the paddle. The overall speed feels a bit slower than what’s typical for the genre; however, the overall game pacing is good and I never felt that levels took too long to complete (at least if approached them with the right strategy).

Mutators, which are dropped at random when bricks are broken, temporarily affect gameplay (for good or bad) by changing the ball’s speed, shrinking the paddle, etc. This is a great system—the variety is good, color-coding helps to identify mutators as helpful and harmful, and the effect on gameplay is significant. I couldn’t find a listing of all of the mutators, which is the only missing piece—most have obvious effects, but I still have no clue what a couple of them do.

Experience points can be spent between levels to unlock more permanent abilities. Ultimately, I found myself pouring points into the two or three skills that were absolutely necessary (which can be maxed out early in the game’s 35 levels), then dumping points into some of the one-trick-pony attributes. Because of this, I found little advantage to experimenting with different “builds.” To the game’s credit, a few of the abilities turn out to be strategic trade-offs. For example, extending the length of the paddle means it’s a bigger target for projectiles. The “force projection” ability makes it easy to maneuver the ball with extra precision, but also harder to catch after a quick bounce.

The game builds on basic Breakout gameplay by offering a variety of special block types. In addition to the basic bricks, there are unbreakable blocks, blocks that move around the screen, blocks that are breakable only from above, and blocks that send shrapnel towards the paddle when broken. The variety of blocks and their effects add a puzzle element to each level. It’s only a minor element, however—precise control of the ball isn’t easy, and the puzzles aren’t extremely diverse (many involve feeding the ball along narrow gaps along the edge of the screen).

Boss fights, which occur every 5 levels or so, provide the most challenge. Each boss has a unique attack pattern and mechanics. This provides challenge and variety, but it also means that putting XP into anything other than Shield Enhancer followed by Hit Power is usually a futile strategy.

Ionball gets a Try. It’s an entertaining game, and three difficulty settings make it a suitable challenge for a wide variety of skill levels. The mutators, XP system, and block types make it deep for a game in the Breakout genre. If you’re not a fan of Breakout games, though, it likely won’t be enough to grab you.

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