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Bumballon Review

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Did you know that there have been thirty recorded deaths of human cannonballs? These are people who have willingly clambered into a cannon and fired themselves into the air for the amusement of other people. Apparently, it’s not the cannon that kills the majority of human cannonballs: it’s the landing. That’s not us being facetious: genuinely, faulty safety nets are where most of the deaths happen. 

What does this have to do with Bumballon? Well, while you might not be a human, you are most definitely a cannonball. You’re a rotund duck, stuffed into a cannon, and fired out like an Angry Bird. And you’ll be lucky if you keep it down to thirty deaths. Because this duck dies, over and over, exploding in a puff of downy feathers. And much like our fact about safety nets, it’s not the cannons that will kill you, it’s very definitely the landing. 

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There’s some story that clothes all of this. The magical Princess Moon has been captured, and you are being fired from planet to planet in an attempt to recover her. It’s not abundantly clear why being fired out of a cannon helps, and why you are dodging the enemies that captured her rather than killing them, but you can dismiss it all with a wave of the hand. It’s all an excuse to set the fuse and aim for level after level. 

You start each level in the cannon, locked into position. All you have to do is press A to explode out of it, and you are on your way. Your Bumballon hurtles towards pinball-like bumpers which fire you in a variety of directions, and you might miraculously land in another cannon. Then you are timing your explosion again, moving onward through the level and hoping that, at some point, you might whistle through a keyhole which represents the end. 

Bumballon’s first few levels are in this mold, and it would be incredibly short and simple if it carried on this way. But, from the second world onwards, there are extra things to think about. Enemies like spiders, bees and squids sway back and forth across your flight lines, so you have to time your cannon for when the path is clear. Sometimes, the cannon itself moves, so you have to wait until you have a chain of cannons in a line, or otherwise tumble into the abyss. 

This would be impossible, or at the best incredibly random, if it wasn’t for that A button again. While mid-flight, you can slow down time for a period by holding A. That time-slowing is purely for Bumballon. It allows you to apply bullet-time while some flamethrowers block your path, and then unapply it as soon as the coast is clear. There’s a cooldown so you can’t slow-mo through the whole thing, so knowing the best time to use it is paramount. 

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Get things right, and levels can zip by in moments, soundtracked by the blip of achievements. But more often than not, they are punctuated with plenty of death. A helpful tally lets you know how many Bumballons you’ve worked through on the way to saving Princess Moon, and it increasingly becomes shameful. We’ve tossed dozens of Bumballons on the pyre in a single level, cursing and spitting like a rabid duck. 

On the odd occasion, the levels introduce a fancy distraction. Bumballon can find himself sitting in a minecart, and the levels become something like an endless runner, as you tap A to jump out of the way of obstacles. On a space level, things go a bit Solar Jetman, as you land in a flying saucer and tap A to jet through caves. A hot air balloon does much the same. Bumballon has a fine line in interrupting the normal gameplay with something new, and the worlds come so thick and fast that you can guarantee that a new theme, enemy and vehicle will soon be landing in your lap. 

I couldn’t help feeling that Bumballon was a labour of love. Someone truly believes in this little indie title, and has lavished an inordinate amount of care into it. The graphics, at least for a budget pixel-art game, are stellar. It bursts with colour, fireworks, and animations that could grace a Saturday morning cartoon. And there’s a surfeit of ideas here, with levels taking radical left turns that you have to very quickly accommodate. 

Which makes it so much harder to criticise it. Because as lavish and beautifully prepared as Bumballon is, we never truly enjoyed it. We found it to be a frustrating game of trial-and-error: a series of traps dressed up as a game. It’s something that sounds so good in theory, but once we fired out of the cannon, we found it ignited and crumbled to the ground like ash. 

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As it turns out, being fired out of a cannon doesn’t leave you much in the way of control. You’re left to watch helplessly as you plough into enemies and flames. Already, you are at a disadvantage: there’s not much you can do about the fate of little Bumballon. You have the time-slow of course, but Bumballon doesn’t have any cues about when an enemy is about to appear. Most of the time, you find out a hazard is coming by plowing face-first into it. The alternative is to slow time constantly, taking baby steps for the fear of dying. But that’s hardly fun: if you’re a human cannonball, you want the action to be fast, not slow. And there’s a cooldown anyway, so you can only take this approach occasionally. The result is that gameplay is utterly random. You are tapping A based on gut instinct. You think there’s an obstacle coming. 

Without much in the way of checkpoints and some reasonably long levels, we can only suspect that Bumballon wants us to learn the levels, and work through them via a kind of muscle memory. That’s a big shout, as you have to rely on the player wanting to apply that kind of patience and persistence. On our count, that simply wasn’t there. Once we unlocked all the achievements on the second world, we found our motivation draining away from us. A breadcrumb trail of some unlockable skins and an increasing number of fun mechanics just wasn’t enough to lead us away from frustration. 

Our time with Bumballon was something like being fired out of a cannon. At first, we enjoyed the sights and marveled at the speed. We were flying. But then we realised where we were heading. We came crashing down to earth in a mangled mess of frustration, impatience and a complete lack of control of our fate. 

Bumballon, like a human cannonball, is fun to watch, but – alas – the same isn’t true for those participating.

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