History has long been a playground for video games. Grand Asian epics of old have been adapted into Soulslikes, the Wild West has been realised and re-realised in painstaking detail, and we’ve stuck hooded assassins in just about every time period you can think of. Not to mention all the spins on Greek mythology. Where, then, can history be taken next? What genre of this vast medium can lend itself to an exploration of yesteryear and further beyond? The answer is simple: Balls.
From developer Exit Plan Games, Bang-On Balls: Chronicles explores a veritable theme park of historical eras, all through the lens of film and 3D platformers. I’ll clarify that later—first, the balls.
In Bang-On Balls: Chronicles, players take on the role of Bob, an anthropomorphised ball. Bob interns at a big film studio—when we first meet and customise him, he’s sitting in a rather lavish hair and makeup station. Everyone else is also a ball. Through a number of film sets, Bob must bounce through the studio’s movies and resolve their central conflict. To do that, we’re immediately thrown into a big studio hub world. This is where the fun begins.
Well, mostly. The hub world is your standard 3D platformer fare: a consequence-free series of optional challenges to jump, roll, and dash through on your way to the actual levels. The film studio is fun to take in, as each area in Bang-On Balls will have different set dressing and NPCs relevant to the theme of the movie being shot there. There are pirates, spacemen, and Soviets aplenty (sort of).
Levels themselves are sprawling. After hopping into a TV to get into the film, Bob is tasked with handling a series of missions and beating a gauntlet of bosses to complete the story. Here, Bang-On Balls shines. Each movie is a massive yet contained world to explore, with collectibles to find and foes to fight. Immediately I was reminded of Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy, and how those levels present a balance of exploration and platforming challenges. The same harmony isn’t quite achieved here, but it’s enough to get the ball rolling.
To start, the platforming is tighter and more responsive than anticipated. Given Bang-On Balls’ central conceit of… well, balls, I expected floaty movement and haphazard jumps and dashes. While that’s partially true, a speedy dash and rapid hit detection to reset moves make navigating more complex areas a fun affair. Stringing together different manoeuvres to smash a cage or just reach the next point kept me on my toes long enough to stay engaging. Yet, the same cannot be said of general traversal.
Bang-On Balls: Chronicles has large, colourful, vibrant environments, but does very little to make overall exploration of them fun. Sure, you can finagle your way to rooftops or deploy a flume log every so often, but getting from point A to point B is mostly just holding R2 to roll or spamming it to dash. Collectibles don’t have much reward other than cosmetics. Combat encounters pepper each world, but these devolve into such mindless dash-to-hit spam that they’re hardly worth mentioning. Special weapons can be equipped to add some spice to fights, but R2 spam still wins the day. Add to this arbitrary platforming routes outside of the main conflict zones, and I was left with a dull overworld experience in every level.
At the very least, generous checkpoints made the one time I fumbled a boss fight more funny than frustrating. Boss battles are sometimes clever mixups of platforming mechanics and combat, but more often than not they also end up quickly dealt with via dash. While I wasn’t hoping for too much from Bang-On Balls’ combat, it’s disappointing that more isn’t done for a mechanic so often put at the forefront.
Like any good film, though, Bang-On Balls is more than just what’s happening with its characters. The familiar adage of the setting being its own character comes to mind more often than not, as this ballad of balls takes us through various historical periods and events in each movie world. From medieval castle sieges to Soviet rocket launches to multiple eras of Japanese history in the same level, Bang-On Balls: Chronicles revels in its locations.
These time periods play into Bang-On Balls’ levels well. Even if general traversal never goes beyond rolling around till the next moment of interest, the current theme touches every element. Medieval rooftops provide useful vantage points to climb higher, while portions of a high-speed race track sent me zooming towards a whole kaiju fight. You might not learn much, but you’ll get a sense of historical aesthetic that, even so comically stylised, is marvellous to take in. It’s good, dumb fun, and I can’t deny that I had a ball in the small moments.
And therein lies the true appeal of Bang-On Balls: Chronicles. The small moments. Climbing the castle wall, flying a rocket into space, or summoning an entire mythical beast of the deep in the middle of the ocean all offer tight, set-piece platforming goodness. Boss battles add some spectacle to uninteresting combat. The view of Neo-Tokyo from the top of a futuristic shogun’s palace is gorgeous enough to put many a showcase trailer to shame. Exit Plan’s platformer is a fun time that’s worth exploring for an era or two, even if it isn’t the belle of the ball.
Sarim played Bang-On Balls: Chronicles on PlayStation 5 with a review code provided by the publisher. Bang-On Balls: Chronicles is available on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, and PC via Steam.