There is something undeniably charming about Balancelot. There is also something unfortunately shallow too. But how much can style over substance carry a game for? That Balancelot style is firmly planted in a medieval setting. As a jouster without a horse, you need to find an alternative method of transportation to be able to compete in the knight’s tournament. The best thing available is however… a unicycle. I’m not sure they were around in medieval times, but let’s put that down to poetic licence.
Balancelot is a 2D physics platformer, in a similar vein to the Trials games or all those Flash games you used to play in IT classes in school. We all did it, don’t deny it. You will need to rock and roll on your unicycle, whilst keeping your balance across treacherous terrain.
There will be numerous obstacles in your way: vast chasms, hills to climb up and down, giant snails and six-legged lions amongst many others. Thankfully, when finding your unicycle you didn’t lose your joust and can still utilise it. It can act as a balance aid or a weapon to prod enemies with. But just as it can help you, it can also hinder you as it gets in your way. You have no way to directly control the direction it points, which can get frustrating on parts where a bit of precision is required. Sometimes it can also get stuck on an obstacle or bit of terrain, causing you to lose any momentum. For the most part though, it’s this joust mechanic that helps separate Balancelot from many other physics-based platformers.
And for the most part, the physics side of things is quite reliable – nothing feels too floaty and movement and momentum typically works as you would anticipate it to. Some obstacles can be a bit too sensitive and will slide across each other like they were made of ice, but for the most part you shouldn’t be left wondering how things will react.
Levels are played sequentially and there is a major difficulty curve to proceedings, though trial and error usually wins the day in the end. There is a death counter and timer also present on the screen to indicate how well/badly you are doing. Some levels also contain stars to find and collect throughout the lands; you start in lush countryside levels, but it isn’t long before you have to contend with water and even fire caves. A small amount of new obstacles will appear in new areas, but they play largely similar to each other.
Balancelot is separated into two sections: the main section under the Play option on the main menu, and Spooky Island. In the main section you will travel through somewhat different areas traversing largely the same obstacles. The same goes for Spooky Island too really, just with the odd pumpkin thrown in to give things a ‘spooky’ feel.
As things differentiate after the first level, the actual look of Balancelot is arguably the main selling point. Being 2D, Balancelot looks like a moving tapestry depicting a tale unfolding before your eyes. It is instantly recognisable as a tapestry as it feels spot on, with accurate character faces, models and colours.
I’m not sure how many historical tapestries depict unicycles and giant snails, but that is by the by. But there is definitely more than a hint of Monty Python about how the game looks, and indeed in the silliness of the concept itself.
Style is thrown completely out of the window though when it comes to the cutscenes. For some reason they look like they were recorded on a really old camera phone and ripped into the game. There’s macroblocking, sound distortion and just a general blurriness to them. I’m not sure if this is due to the developers AnvilBird or Jestercraft, or publisher/porter Ratalaika Games, but they really are quite bad.
Further to that, some of the middle levels that also feature water lapping at the bottom of the screen will have a line right across the screen expand and contract with the waves, again showing a lack of polish. These water levels do however feature sea shanty music, which is what all the cool kids are listening to in 2021 apparently.
But yes, this is a Ratalaika game, and that does mean easy achievements are a given, and Balancelot is no exception – perhaps being even easier than most. There are 11 in total, and all can be unlocked within 20 minutes.
Balancelot on Xbox has over 50 levels to play through, but there isn’t anywhere near enough differentiation between them to keep players entertained. The tapestry style and Monty Python cues can only carry Balancelot so far, especially when things such as the cutscenes and water effects are so badly ported over, which has to be said is unusual for a Ratalaika game. Balancelot is just more achievement fodder, and that is all it is really good for.