Spheroids Review

By Sam Quirke, 2 years ago
Who here remembers 1989's Pang, known in the U.S. as Buster Bros? I don't, because I'm not quite that old, but I do remember many remakes and rip-offs of the bubble-popping platformer from the early 2000s, a blissful time when the internet was full of free browser games and my school hadn't yet worked out how to block any of it. The basic idea was fun if a little repetitive – certainly enough to entertain for ten minutes while my IT teacher was busy, but nothing I would consider worthy of a full console release, even 15 years ago. Spanish developer Eclipse Games clearly does not agree as their reinterpretation has bounced onto the Xbox One and Windows 10 as a Play Anywhere title.

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Spheroids is very similar to Pang and all of its descendants in terms of its core gameplay. For the majority of this short game, you will be shooting a harpoon-like weapon directly up or down in order to burst alien bubbles – sorry, spheroids – that are threatening to stomp you and the population of Earth into a fine paste. Larger enemies split in two when hit and continue to split in two on each strike until they reach the minimum. Burst these little enemies and they will disappear for good. You can burst an enemy with the arrowhead, but it'll also burst if it hits anywhere along the length of the 'rope'. The harpoon disappears as soon as it comes into contact with an enemy or the environment, and you can only shoot one at a time unless you grab a power-up.

That's really about all there is to it. In order to inject a little more substance, Eclipse has fleshed out two other aspects of the games to which it pays homage. One is to give it an 80's-style goofball adventure feel – according to their press releases, the humour was inspired by everything from Rick and Morty to Spaceballs. The other is to expand on the platforming elements so that we end up with segments similar to that other oft-emulated classic, Super Mario Bros. Unfortunately Spheroids falls flat on both counts.

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The story of the game is straightforward. You are a little Canadian guy, and a stereotypical mad scientist enlists your help to halt the invasion of the alien spheroids. You'll be teleported to various locations around the globe to defeat the troublesome bubbles, with short interludes back at the lab in which you'll be introduced to some new mechanics. Throughout these sections, the two characters will share some text-based banter. It's a good thing that you can skip through these cut-scenes as the jokes are so bland that they won't even elicit a groan. The sequences add absolutely nothing to the tiny scrap of story this game has. It may have been better off dropping any semblance of a narrative altogether.

Once you are out in the world, your job is familiar. Head all the way to the right to complete the level, jumping between platforms and defeating enemies along the way. While you can dodge several enemies in a level, some areas are gated, meaning that once you enter them you need to defeat all enemies on screen before the way out to the right is unlocked. Destroying enemies and certain breakable blocks may drop power-ups and items. This runs the classic gamut of options. You might just get an extra block of health or a shield, but you might also be able to slow or freeze time, blow up several spheroids at once with dynamite or pick up the ability to shoot two harpoons at once instead of one. You can purchase or upgrade these power-ups at the beginning of each level as well if you have collected enough of the square coins found around the place. While the setup is hardly original, at least you'll be instantly familiar with it as soon as you get hands on the controller, making you a master bubble-popper in no time at all.

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The harpoon-shooting element of the game is actually quite fun. There are a number of different types of spheroids that are introduced gradually throughout the game, as well as a grappling hook and anti-gravity boots for the protagonist in the later stages. Some enemies are simply unbreakable and must be dodged. Blue spheroids move fast and low, while orange ones descend more rapidly than they rise on each bounce. Grey spheres need to be hit twice, while green spheres will re-attach after splitting if two of the same size come back into contact. It all leads to a pleasing amount of chaos, particularly in some of the later levels where several different types have to be dealt with at once. Tactics occasionally play a part, particularly using the environment or your gravity boots to deal with one group of enemies at a time. For the most part, though, running back and forth and mashing the attack button will get you through.

The game is a little too forgiving when it comes to player death. There is a near-constant supply of health pickups from smashing enemies or breakable blocks and there's a checkpoint before most major battles. If you do perish, the enemies you defeated don't reappear. Quite often my tactic was to simply spam the attack button and get as many spheres down as I could before dying, respawn nearby and mop up the remaining targets. There's really not much point in being tactical when the game doesn't punish you for death and that's disappointing. The game is already too short and bereft of any narrative or challenging gameplay, so a little more punishment for running and gunning like a fool might have added balance.

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Instead of balancing out the challenge of the core bubble-popping element, the developer has instead opted to put in several long platforming sequences in the last third of the game, which start off merely dull but become maddeningly awkward by the finish. Poor design and responsiveness will send you to your death many times over in the last couple of chapters and you'll never really feel like it's your own fault. It might be that the camera is zooming in and out weirdly, or it might be a glitchy invisible ceiling in an anti-gravity section. Your grappling hook may simply decide that it doesn't want to respond to the grapple point this time around. Half the time the next platform to reach was actually out of sight at the point of jumping, meaning that you basically have to kill yourself on the first attempt in order to work out what's happening.

For some bizarre reason, the most irritating and buggy sequences happen to be the only points in the game where checkpoint frequency dries up. Don't get me wrong, they are still ultimately a lot easier to complete than most platformers on the market and you will get through them all after a few restarts. It's just bizarre and frustrating to find oneself repeatedly dying on a poorly designed platforming section after steaming through two thirds of the game with barely a scratch.

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Additional frustration comes in the form of completely unnecessary switches to a background plane, as is currently in vogue amongst indie '2.5D' platformers. The only reason you ever switch to the back is to throw a single switch that activates a door up front, normally fighting through some enemies in the process. This gimmicky and pointless addition is also poorly implemented. The camera doesn't zoom into the back section, meaning that you're effectively playing in a significantly smaller screen. On top of that, the whole screen is overlaid with a translucent image of the foreground. It makes everything frustratingly difficult to see. Even the finale is affected. The boss remains in the foreground but the button that defeats it is in the back. As a consequence, you barely get to see what actually happens.

It's a shame that all of these attempts to flesh out the game fall flat, because the bubble-popping itself is at least mindlessly entertaining. Visually the game is pretty pleasing, with lots of bold colours reminiscent of PC platformers in the early nineties. The soundtrack is pretty catchy too, although it would have been nice to have more distinct tracks for each location. The sound effects are satisfying and never become grating, which puts Spheroids ahead of many of its contemporaries. Unfortunately, mindless fun and decent audio-visual design can't quite carry the game past its faults, and a total lack of alternative modes or difficulties gives this short game zero replayability.

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The good news for completionists is that this game will be a breeze, even including the irritating platforming sections. There's an achievement for completing each of the game's eight chapters, while everything else is just a matter of grinding out coin collections, bubble bursts and power-up usage. None of the grinds are excessive, with most likely popping well before the end of the game. The rest can be easily finished off by replaying the first chapter a handful of times. It's unlikely to take you more than five hours, and it'll probably be closer to three.

Summary

Spheroids is the latest riff in the history of bubble-popping platformers that started with Pang in the late eighties. The central concept is as mindlessly addictive as ever, while the audiovisual update is pleasing to the eyes and ears. Unfortunately the game is let down by being too short and too easy, while some unnecessary platforming gimmicks frustrate more often than they entertain. Attempts to make the narrative and characters funny falls very short of the mark and there are no alternative modes or difficulties to make a second play worth the bother. You'll be mildly entertained for the handful of hours you spend here, but you'll likely forget all about Spheroids in a handful more.
3 / 5
Spheroids
Positives
  • Mindless fun, for the most part
  • Entertainingly chaotic when several enemy types appear together
  • Audio-visual design is charming and inoffensive to the senses
Negatives
  • Far too short and easy
  • Maddening, buggy and unnecessary platforming sections
  • Humour and narrative both fall flat
Ethics Statement
The reviewer spent four hours busting thousands of balls, earning all of the game's 16 achievements in the process. The game was played on Xbox One, and code was provided by the ID@Xbox team for the purposes of this review.
Please read our Review and Ethics Statement for more information.
Sam Quirke
Written by Sam Quirke
Sam has been a Newshound since 2016 and is now the Editor for both TrueAchievements and TrueTrophies. He loves gaming on all devices and in all genres. He remains a stubborn Assassin's Creed and Pokémon fan.