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Star Balls Review

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Where to start with a game called Star Balls? I could be really immature and refer to it as Cosmic Testicles, or completely puerile and call it Interstellar Nuts. Supernova Stones anyone? No, I am not going to be that person and will instead provide a detailed review of Galactic Genetalia. I mean Star Balls.

Star Balls is the Xbox One port of the 2015 mobile/Steam release of the same name. The game is a variation of mini-golf, set on-board a space station, complete with spherical robots that act as your golf balls.

There are three robotic companions to choose from, however only one is available at the beginning. The other two are obtained throughout the main game, and after unlocking are followed by a short cartoon strip showing the characters’ interactions. It isn’t groundbreaking, but it’s nice to see the game offer some personality, as the rest of it is pretty barren.

Gameplay is very easy to learn, at least if you are familiar with any form of golf; simply get the ball in the hole in the fewest shots possible. At the end of each hole you are given a score and a grading – gold, silver or bronze. Pickups are dotted around each level, and also the time taken comes into account. Shortcuts are available in most levels with a real risk and reward element. If you are looking for a hole-in-one these shortcuts become essential.

The criteria for earning the medals is not apparent, nor does the score screen reveal what score is needed to get the gold medals. On a number of occasions I would get a hole-in-one, only to receive a silver medal. However, three or more shots on other holes – still under par – can easily offer up a gold medal. Thankfully, more than one gold medal isn’t a prerequisite for achievements in this game. But more on those later because it is a memorable achievement list.

Power-ups are also available for purchase using the coins earned from end-level performances. And for a basic mobile game, there are a surprising number of power-ups to choose from. Not all of these are necessary, and some may only have one specific use when you are trying to discover all the hidden level keys.

Each level key found unlocks an additional level and helps boost the games tally from 35 in the main game, to 50 once all keys are found. Most are easy to find and only require a short diversion from the main part of the course.

Being a mobile game however, there are several issues with the control scheme, even when adapted to a controller. The left thumbstick is used to direct the ball to which direction you want to shoot it, but this also controls the power you put into the shot by pulling back on it. It requires intricate movement to make sure you don’t move the line of the shot in applying more power. Controlling how much power to apply is also very awkward. Sensitivity can be changed depending on your preference, but this doesn’t prevent the left stick being used for both direction and power in the same phase. Many other golf games have direction in one movement phase and then power in another phase.

It’s also worth noting that the game has no manual save option and the auto save works intermittently. There is no indicator either when an auto save is occurring so I am not sure what triggers a save, and as a result I have lost progress due to not understanding the save system.

And just in case you were still in any doubt as to whether this was a mobile port or not, the overall sound confirms this. The soundtrack isn’t too bad, but the sound effects are very old-fashioned and it wasn’t long before I was forced to turn them down. Especially when the score results screen shows at the end of each level, these are particularly annoying.

Star Balls is a game with physics involved, so it only seems fair to comment on them, and on the whole they work fine. They do not hinder your progress by throwing up surprise bounces and unrealistic movement, they just work as expected. Nothing more, nothing less. The camera however, has a hard time keeping up with the ball when it bounces around a lot.

Now, onto those achievements. There are 43 in total and whilst there are conditions for unlocking them, they really don’t apply. For example, I unlocked three achievements for finding the first additional character. One was certainly applicable, but the other two I have no clue about. Another time I had unlocked a bonus level so upon completing it, the game automatically gave me the achievement for finishing all 35 main story levels and all other progression achievements I had yet to unlock. If this all sounds like it’s an easy completion though, it isn’t.

Alongside all these unpredictable achievements, there are also some for playing the game for certain lengths of time. Bearing in mind the 35 main levels – and 15 bonus levels – should take no more than a few hours to complete, achievements are awarded for playing the game for five, ten, 24 and 50 hours. And then 100, 250 and 500 hours. There is a degree of replayability in choosing to replay levels in one of three modes – Normal, Stroke-Attack and Time-Attack – but not 500 hours’ worth. Even worse, the tracking on these times is all wrong, which means that in actual fact the achievements will take even longer!

And yet, despite all this, Star Balls has a certain charm and appeal to it. So much so that I couldn’t help enjoy myself with it. For $4.99 (not yet available in the UK) you are getting what you pay for, but could do a lot worse.

Star Balls won’t be on any game of the year lists come the end of the year. Its achievements are glitchy and/or broken, its save system is unknown, sound effects’ archaic, and it is cheaper and more suitable on mobile platforms. But it has solid physics, a unique charm and never tries to sell itself as more than a simple casual game.

Besides, if nothing else, who doesn’t want to go round telling their friends they’ve been playing a game called Star Balls?

Richard Dobson
Richard Dobson
Avid gamer since the days of Sonic the Hedgehog 2. Grew up with the PS1 and PS2 but changed allegiances in 2007 with the release of Halo 3.
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