Thursday, July 19, 2012

Art of Balance TOUCH! (3DSWare) Review

A new banner is here, but I don't care for the construction kit-esque logo. As always, if you think you can do better, I'm open for new designs. With that out of the way, we venture outside the realm of Retro Review Month and look towards Shin'en's Art of Balance TOUCH! for the Nintendo 3DS's eShop. (You can read my interview with Manfred Linzner of Shine'n here.) As for the review, you need not go far or to another link. You can scope it out right here, right now.

An Enjoyable Balancing Act

Shin'en is a company known for its technical prowess when it comes to the games it develops for the platforms it commits to. We have seen this in the past with the Game Boy Advance's Iridion and its sequel, the Nintendo DS's two Nanostray games, and the WiiWare service's Jett Rocket, FAST Racing League, and Art of Balance, the latter of which's 3DSWare sequel is the subject of this review. If the popular party game Jenga has shown us anything, it is that trying to balance a tower of blocks and the end result of them all toppling over can certainly hold some entertainment value. Art of Balance TOUCH! is a game where this principle holds true.

The main aim of Art of Balance TOUCH! with regards to gameplay is to build a steady tower using the blocks provided. When you start each level, you have a starting pedestal (usually shaped differently for every level) on which to place the blocks you are given. When there's more than three blocks to work with, you have to use some strategy as you can only pick from the starting three blocks available to you, and not the ones awaiting you in the queue. The blocks themselves have all sorts of dissimilar shapes like L blocks, rectangular blocks, round blocks, barbell-shaped blocks, and more. 

Three seconds can seem like an eternity.
Art of Balance TOUCH! doesn't just rely on the same old, same old vanilla block types. No, there are several unique types that are slowly introduced to the player throughout the game. For instance, glass blocks can only hold the weight of two blocks. Put any more on them and they shatter. World C showcases timed blocks. Once they are set, they disintegrate after a short period of time. Even owners of the original Art of Balance of WiiWare will experience new gameplay elements and concepts showing up to their delighted surprise. One example appears in a later world where there are gravity blocks that when used literally flip the level on its head. There are two starting pedestals in these levels, and achieving the proper balance for your tower of blocks is an even greater challenge posed by this constantly clever game.

Those timer blocks really have a short fuse.
Once you have placed the final block onto your personal assortment, you hold your breath and hope for the best so your tower doesn't tumble over into the pool of water below as the timer counts to three. If no blocks hit or go below the water level, you have successfully completed the stage. At some points, Art of Balance TOUCH! is an almost zen-like experience while at others it is an effort of anger as you once again fail to satisfy the conditions of the level.

The terrific part about how Art of Balance TOUCH! is structured is that each world has its own map, a series of blocks connected in a nonlinear fashion. There's multiple paths to choose from, so if you are finding one level impossible to solve - constantly seeing your hard work fall to the wayside and go crashing down into a pool of your own failure, you can opt to go around it and try to solve an easier path of puzzles. Special orange blocks are unique levels where the approach you must take differs greatly from the normal pace of the game. For these, you might have to clear a level within a strict time limit, balance a series of blocks on a balancing beam, or have a block tower that reaches a certain height. These orange block levels give you more rings than a normal level as they are harder to complete. The rings you earn from them are used to unlock new worlds - each of which is set in a distinctive environment, from World A's pink flowers to World B's bamboo background.

Having trouble with one particular level?
Go around it and try another path.
After World B has been cleared, the Endurance mode opens up. This essential score attack mode takes levels you have cleared within the main game and assigns them to you in a random order. You get three retries to finish off as many puzzles as you can. After this you are ranked on a leaderboard to see how your overall score (determined by time and how many levels you completed) compares.
Regardless of the bevy of block-placing fun that Art of Balance TOUCH! bestows on the player, there are two glaring omissions that I would have liked to see the game possess. The first of which is some kind of local play for two friends with their own 3DS systems to play either competitively or cooperatively: trying to solve a level before the other can, or working together to deduce the solution to a given level. The other omission is some form of a level creator. Imagine the replay value of designing your own creative concoctions and sending them to friends Pushmo-style.

All we need now for this pool of water
is a rubber ducky to make things even more fun.
That's not to say the content you're getting with the game is too sparse. Nothing could be further from the truth. You have over 200 levels of honing your balancing act with as well as awards from satisfying certain in-game conditions like reaching a specific point total in Endurance mode or beating a given number of total levels. This is one meaty game, and it is so perfect for pick-up-and-play sessions. You might want to sit down with the game with the intention of playing for five minutes yet wind up unknowingly playing for over an hour.

Art of Balance TOUCH! can be played with touch controls (my preferred method) or with the Circle Pad (this is much slower as you must drag the cursor to each block you wish to place down). The shoulder buttons of the 3DS are used to rotate each shape to the left or to the right, though the degrees you can actually rotate each shape are predetermined to make the process simpler on the mind and less agonizing to place each block. I did have some trouble with the camera zooming in and out at times. When I was trying to have a steady hand to place a block delicately, the camera zoomed out and messed up my subtle approach, causing the tower to be imbalanced and - you guessed it - fall over. This only seems to happen when your tower is exceptionally high. It's a small problem, but one that can annoy just slightly.

Gravity can be your greatest friend or your worst enemy.
The presentation of Art of Balance's 3DS debut is overall quite good. The music is soothing and not distracting whatsoever. Sound effects come off as apt to every situation such as when your tower of blocks topples into the water. After playing the game for so long, the "plop" sound of blocks falling into the water taunts me at night as I lay awake in bed. Seriously though, speaking of the water, this is the one of the worst visual portions of the game. It looks more like shimmering tin foil than a liquid with any amount of depth. And speaking of depth, the 3D effect works decently, however, when the timer shows up to count for three seconds after you've assembled all of the blocks, it appears 2D while the wooden base of the pool it is set against is 3D. This looks unsightly and off. Regardless of my two aforementioned visual beefs with the game, Art of Balance TOUCH! continues Shin'en's impeccable record with technical artistry and quality in its games.

While Art of Balance TOUCH! obviously isn't a game that will get 3DS owners to run to get their handhelds online and to the eShop to download the game, it is one that will pick their brains, is extremely capable, is mostly relaxing, and is definitely worthy of some of their hard-earned dough. For those who already own the WiiWare original, this 3DS version adds virtually double the amount of levels, has phenomenal physics, and has much more precise controls thanks to the use of the stylus (though camera problems do arise as do some visual errors). For those who haven't experienced the WiiWare game and enjoy a lovely puzzler, Art of Balance TOUCH! is delightful and worth checking out.

[SuperPhillip Says: 8.5/10]

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