Roll: Boulder Smash! is a new iOS game from All Things Media. It’s available now as a $0.99 download from the App Store, with additional in-app purchases available for “key” items that allow levels to be skipped.
There are two main game modes in Roll: Boulder Smash. In the “story” mode, players take on the role of a rolling boulder as it carves a path of destruction on the way to whatever large structure sits at the end of the level. Along the way, the player must use either tilt controls or a virtual joystick to control the boulder’s trajectory and cause as much damage as possible to score points while still reaching the end of the level before a timer expires. Points are scored for smashing individual objects, but bigger scores can be attained by creating “combos” — smashing one object into another and setting up chain reactions.
“Challenge” mode levels, meanwhile, are 3D physics puzzles in which the player must carefully time the speed and direction of a swipe on the screen to fling the boulder and destroy a certain number of a specific object. In this mode, the boulder may not be controlled after it has been launched. If the player completes the objective, they may move on to the next; if they fail, the game berates them with a sarcastic on-screen comment and invites them to try again.
Story mode is not a good experience. The controls are inaccurate and the game often doesn’t make it clear which objects can be destroyed and which are obstacles that will stop the boulder in its tracks. To make matters worse, the game’s unpredictable physics mean that some objects occasionally launch the boulder up into the air, usually to become embedded in the level geometry shortly afterwards. During testing, the boulder landed on top of the main level structure and became completely impossible to move, requiring a complete restart. On another occasion, it landed in the same place, but continued to roll — but its position outside of the main level made it very difficult to determine which direction was the correct one to go in — and the large flashing “wrong way” notice on screen didn’t help, either. Both of these issues occurred in the game’s very first level and again in subsequent levels.
Challenge mode provides a slightly better experience, but the inherent inaccuracy of swipe-based controls often makes it very difficult to hit the rather small target objects. There’s “challenging” and there’s “unfair” — and this game more commonly errs towards the latter, as there’s little in the way of on-screen feedback to determine how hard a swipe will fling the boulder.
Players who are struggling with a specific level can take advantage of a very poorly thought out monetization strategy. Players may purchase five “golden keys” to skip up to five levels at will for $0.99. Alternatively, they may purchase 10 of these keys for $1.99, or a “skeleton key” that allows them to skip levels on an unlimited basis for $2.99. The presence of the unlimited “skeleton key” option for a relatively trivial amount of money more than 10 golden keys makes the first two options all but redundant, and promptly also undermines the game’s structure by simply allowing players to bypass any levels they find too difficult — theoretically jumping straight to the end of the game if they so desire. Of course, these in-app purchases are optional and players may choose not to take advantage of them, but it’s clear that monetization may have been better implemented in an alternative manner — perhaps by selling additional add-on level packs, or by allowing users to customize their boulder with premium vanity items.
Social features for the game include Game Center leaderboards for each level, allowing players to compare their performance against friends and the rest of the world, and also to send Challenges using iOS 6’s built-in asynchronous competition feature. The game also features a bank of 74 achievements for players to aim for — again, iOS 6+ users may take advantage of the Challenge feature to compete against their friends to see who can earn a specific achievement first.
On the whole, Roll: Boulder Smash is an eminently unsatisfying game. While it’s worthy of a small degree of praise solely for not falling into one of the immensely oversaturated genres on the iOS platform — it’s not an endless runner, Bejeweled clone, bubble shooter, isometric-perspective citybuilder or card-battle game — the combination of its rather poor graphics, frustrating controls, appalling physics and bewildering monetization strategy ultimately make this a title to skip.
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Bland graphics, frustrating controls and unpredictable physics conspire to create a rather unsatisfying experience.