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November 27, 2015

Art of Balance

Let’s see if we can finish the year with a review of another good WiiWare game! As I’ve proven multiple times in the past, a lot of WiiWare games turn out to be, well… less than stellar. It appears that a greater proportion of WiiWare titles are meh at best, horrible at worst. That’s in part why I like the idea of trying out demos of certain games available there. I would download all the available demos, try them out, and write a little post about each on this site. In fact, there will be Demo Reviews throughout all of December. However, there’s “trying” and then there’s “buying”. And one month where I had some extra bucks, I went through the Wii Shop Channel. I was looking for whatever WiiWare and Virtual Console games that looked interesting. I finally chose to buy Art of Balance, a puzzle game for which a Demo had been made available. I remembered liking the demo, so I told myself “hey, why not?” and paid.

So, what are my final thoughts on this game?

…Oh wait, I’m too early for that.

Let’s start at the beginning: Art of Balance was released by Shin’en Games in 2010. There are three versions of this game:
-The Wii one, which I am reviewing today;
-The 3DS one, adequately renamed Art of Balance Touch!
-And the Wii U version, also titled Art of Balance. Yep. Same title for a game different from its predecessor. Is that confusing enough for you? I mean, couldn’t it have been called Art of Balance U?

The full WiiWare title costs 800 points (thus approximately 8$). Sure, this can be a bad thing if the game doesn’t offer enough to justify its price (Looking at you, Pop-Up Pursuit), but from what I’ve seen so far, this is an excellent price for a high-quality game. The full game offers a hundred levels in its solo mode alone. And for a puzzle game, that’s a good start.

When the game begins, you can choose between Arcade and Versus. Arcade is the 1-Player mode, but you can play it cooperatively with a friend, while Versus is (obviously) a multiplayer mode where you play to be the quickest to solve each puzzle. Let’s start with Arcade, then I’ll discuss Versus.

Four worlds to pick from? Sweet!
What's that, the Wii U sequel has more? Holy wow!
In Arcade Mode, there are four worlds: A, B, C and D. At first, only World A is unlocked. Each world contains 25 puzzles (adding up to a hundred, as mentioned earlier), with some of the levels being challenges that award one more point, and the last level of each World awards three. As a result, you can actually collect around 30 “circles” per world. I say “circles” because those things aren’t really anything else. They’re not money, they’re not worth points, they’re just there so that you can see how far you’ve gotten. Plus, each time you collect 20 of those circles, you unlock the next World (after 20 circles from World A, you unlock World B; after you’ve collected 40 circles, which requires beating World A and some of World B, you unlock World C; and by completing World B, you end up with 60 circles, thus unlocking World D).

See? A whited out piece.
As for how each level works, it’s very simple. There’s a bowl of water, filled at full capacity, on the screen. There are small rocky formations in the bowl; those cannot move. There’s a number of pieces at the bottom of the screen, always 3 or more. Whenever there are more than 3 pieces, some are whited out, always leaving you with a maximum of 3 pieces that can be used at the moment. That’s actually pretty smart; this puzzle game would be even harder if, at any moment, you had to choose between more than three pieces.

Round pieces; the bane of the pile artist's existence.
The entire point of the game is that you must place all of the pieces on the platforms created by the rocks. You can do so by spinning the pieces vertically for all 8 horizontal and vertical angles. However, that’s easier said than done, as the stone “platforms” are often small, or round, or at diagonal angles. Same goes for the pieces; after a moment, rectangular pieces get rarer, and are replaced by circular blocks, half-circles, cross-shaped blocks, thin blocks with circles on one or both sides, triangles, L or Z shapes… Oh, the tumbling! Oh, the humanity! Once all the blocks have been placed, the game waits three seconds. That’s to ensure that your pile doesn’t fall apart too quickly. If the pile is still standing after three seconds, you win!

Please stay in place!
As I mentioned, there are some “bonus challenges” that must also be completed. Those are still following the same principle, with a few twists;
-In one type of challenge, you must reach a certain height with the pieces placed.
-In another, the stones aren’t there, and instead you must build the pile on a pre-placed piece that will sway as more weight gets put on it.
-In another, you have a time limit to place all of the objects (the three seconds at the end to see if the pile stays in place doesn’t count).
There are other examples, of course. Those award one more circle than regular levels.

Uh, give me a piece!
That’s World A. World B introduces a new concept: Breakable blocks. These blocks will break as soon as you place more than two other pieces on top of them. You’re fine as long as there are two pieces, no matter how heavy they could be, but place a third one and CRASH! The pile will fall! ...Or will it? Now, let’s be clear here, you still have to place all of the pieces, including these, but you do not need to have all the breakable blocks on the platform at the end of the level; in fact, breaking some of these blocks is a necessity in order to complete some of the puzzles. The question is when to place them, where and how.

Still not complicated enough? World C introduces breakable blocks with a timer that begins as soon as you place another block on top of them. And, for all of your greatest puzzle-solving pleasures, World D combines the two types of breakable blocks! And adds lots of oddly-shaped pieces with both flat and round surfaces, too! Taking everything into consideration is what makes this the hardest World of the game. Not only do you need to put the pieces at the right places, you also need to remember which blocks will break after three pieces are placed on top of them, which blocks will break shortly after another block is placed over them… all while trying to keep the balance of the whole construct!

Sorry for the blurry image, this was pretty small.
Still, a cross with round edges. That's trouble.

Even the level-selection screen looks soothing.
Thankfully, if you ever feel stressed out due to all the difficult puzzles available in this game, you can just listen to the soothing music from each world. Art of Balance contains this ambiance from start to finish, so even with the harder puzzles you won’t usually end up infuriated. Then again, that’s probably more of a personal thing, as I never got too mad at this game. Probably because it’s not all that bad if you lose; you can try again immediately. In fact, to quit a level, you need to press the + button, then select Back. What’s more, outside of the Timed Challenge levels, you dispose of all the time you need to complete each puzzle. That’s great.

While I’m at it, the physics also work very well. The pieces act exactly the way they would in real life, if this game wasn’t on a screen. Every slight movement caused by pieces shuffling around due to the shape and weight of each can be seen, and thus every slide, every round edge, every flat surface must be accounted for.

It’s true that I never got too mad at this game; for some reason, I was always happy to complete levels, no matter how long they took me. I dunno, my attitude when playing can be summed up like this:

“Okay, I put this piece here, that piece there… OK… Now, um… This one! There, just perfect. Now, this one… right… there. Don’t move… don’t move… don’t… move… Yes! Now, this one. Okay… Don’t move! Damn… Oh? Eeeesh… Come on, don’t fall! Don’t fall… don’t fall… don’t fall…. YES! YES YES YES! I  DID IT! AWESOME!”

When you succeed, victory is too sweet to stay angry. Maybe it’s got to do with the soothing music, or the overall ambiance. Either way, that’s cool.

No, no, you're doing it wrong. Let me grab a third
Wii remote and show you... what do you mean,
maximum two players?
Let’s move on to Versus mode! To start playing, you need another player (well, unless you somehow wish to play against yourself, but who in their right mind would do that?) and another Wii remote. Before the game starts, you choose how many rounds will be played at most: 5, 7 or 9; whichever player finishes more levels the fastest (3, 4, 5) wins. Afterwards, you select one of the four “worlds” of the game (A, B, C or D). All the levels for this current match will be picked at random among the 25 levels of that world. Although, that’s really all there is to that particular mode. But hey, the guys at Shin’en were still good enough to include one such mode into the game. Nobody was asking for it, they still made it. And it turns out to be pretty decent.

So, I guess I’s time to finish this review. How’s Art of Balance? Well… it’s a pleasant surprise! I mean, I already knew it was good, but it turns out I really, really liked it!

It’s an addictive puzzle game. It’s a simple idea, but it’s executed in such a way that numerous factors have to be taken into consideration: The stones that serve as platform in the bowl, the varied (and often tricky) shapes of the pieces, the flat surfaces, the round edges, the corners, the eight directions in which a shape can be flipped, the type of challenge (if applicable), the types of pieces (breakable or not, and the two types of breakable blocks)… and that’s for all 100 levels! Now, most levels only have one right answer, only one way to place all of the blocks, but some others may have more than one answer – though sometimes it’s just a symmetric flip.

Okay, this is gonna come crashing down, quick.
The really tricky part with this game is to figure out the order in which to place the blocks, sure, but it’s also to make sure that they’re not gonna fall off, or worse even, slide off from where they’re supposed to be. Those damned round edges…

Thankfully, the relaxing ambiance, the soothing music and the pretty backgrounds more than make up for the more unnerving aspects of the game.

But of course, this wouldn’t be a review if I didn’t have any points of criticism. For starters, you need incredible precision in your movements with the Wii remote. Sometimes you cannot even make a single mistake, and since it’s not all that easy to point with the remote and place the piece exactly how you’d want it, you may end up having to try again. As an example, let’s say you need a pile to remain balanced, and therefore you need all pieces to be placed as much to the center as possible; if a sudden movements results in you placing the piece just a bit too much to the left or the right, and it falls off, you have to restart. Also, as shown in some of the later levels, you often need to act quickly to place the pieces, in order to prevent some of them from falling off due to having two sides of different weight.

Another minor point of criticism is that the first level of each world serves as a tutorial that explains the new challenges. You cannot skip the tutorial. It’s fully voiced, so you have to wait for the sound file to end, before you can start placing blocks. It’s especially annoying with the first levels of Worlds C and D, which you ARE gonna have to restart a couple times… and thus waste over 30 seconds passing through the same tutorial over, and over, and over, and over again.

A game for those who cannot sit in a yoga pose
without excruciating pain. 
But aside from those complaints, this is a great WiiWare title, probably one of the best, somewhere in a list that includes World of Goo and Jett Rocket (which, incidentally, was also made by Shin’En Games). Should you buy it? Well, it depends. I’d first suggest that you try the demo, and if you like it, then buy the full game. It’s only 800 Wii Points (8 dollars), but unlike other 8$ WiiWare games, this one has a lot of content, and will keep you busy for quite a bit. You should be satisfied with it.

And now, I officially announce the return of Demo Reviews throughout all of December! Oh, but there will be other reviews as well… in fact, I feel like looking at the two Just Dance titles I received in the past 12 months… first Just Dance 2014, then Just Dance 2015, and then a list of my favorite Just Dance levels! …and then possibly a list of the levels I hate. We’ll see.