Balloon Pop Remix
3DS Download | UFO Interactive | 1 Player | Out Now | $7.99 / £7.20
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24th October 2012; By KnucklesSonic8
Offering its own execution of the popular match-three formula, Balloon Pop Remix could already skate by, just on its changing of the traditional flow. As a means of consistency with the theme, board elements rise to the top instead of falling to the ground, making the floor -- not the ceiling -- an open entry point for new additions. How easy it would be for the developers to cite this change in direction as a unique twist, and simply call it a day. Thankfully, that's not the kind of approach we see here; it runs a little deeper than that. To group similar-coloured balloons together, instead of utilizing the predictable swap mechanic, you must instead draw lines with your stylus to eliminate surrounding elements so that, upon landing, one or more groupings can be established. On the most basic level, these can be formed horizontally, vertically, or in an "L" shape. But before you get carried away, there's a feature tied to the stylus-swiping that you need to take proper notice of.
As a means of bringing in a puzzle component, off to the left of the board is the Mana Bar, an energy gauge that decreases in increments directly correlated to the number of balloons you affect with your swipes. Even without actively using up energy, the passing of time will gradually result in a reduction of Mana, so there's no room for lollygagging. If this drops to zero, you'll be given one last dose of energy (two points, to be exact) as a courtesy to help you get back on your feet. From there, if you fail to pick yourself up again, the game will end. The system is easy to follow and offers reason for a very small amount of commendation, but I do have to question just how effective this is in proportion to the dominant presence of luck in this space.
Before I get into that, though, I would like to establish early on the differences between Story and Endless gameplay. Ignoring the obvious of one mode featuring a set goal and finish point while the other does not, movement during standard play in particular is governed by a special meter that relates to the distance traveled, and is affected by actions that occur on the Touch Screen. More precisely, the Mana Bar itself -- the amount of energy in it -- is what determines whether or not the alien moves at all and, if so, the pace at which he chooses to walk. This is present in Endless as well, but it's only there in spirit; there's no visible indication provided since there's no actual end point to be reached.
Upon reaching the mid-way point of the full leg, players will be then asked to focus on a specific element type on the board and eliminate these to a specified quantity for an unlockable accessory. That's about all you get in terms of mid-level variety. In the case of Story Mode, though, you will encounter a few mini-games that ask you to, for example, drag moving balloons over to marked areas, or tap on clusters to net bonuses. They're not exactly fun, but I suppose it's better than having entirely repetitive gameplay all the way through.
Getting back to that Mana Bar, though, the condition you must always meet just to progress is surprisingly not that low. And because of the combos you have to produce just to make advancement, there's a great risk that younger players will be ill-equipped to clear levels simply because of not having luck on their side. Ultimately, then, despite the system's attempt to mildly emphasize a puzzle-oriented way of strategy, the way this all comes about isn't especially strong. Seeing how it so often rubs up against the luck-based nature of the system's core, the imposed guidelines associated with the Mana Bar is a flaw in itself. To further address the point, because the only way gameplay will keep moving in a less immediate sense is by keeping the Mana within a certain range, even when you have much rope to work with, you're not completely in control of the game's progression. That automatically rules out the other extreme of having little rope to work with, as in the case when you only have two moves remaining; you're almost completely at the mercy of luck in these scenarios. On the odd times when you do start sensing that things are working in your favor, it's an awfully mechanical feeling.
Now, in discussing the matter of control in a game like this, it is understood that this is all relative. However -- and perhaps most interestingly with respect to the above criticisms -- the items provided don't offset this presence of luck to the degree that they should in the interest of a less shallow experience. Each new stage you go to in Story Mode will introduce a new element into the mix, which, to be fair, is fairly pleasing if you've come into this having been annoyed with other games in the genre that stagnate before they've even begun. Items on offer start off with simple multipliers, but this later expands to include the ability to form diagonal lines and eliminate nine units with a single tap of the stylus. Probably the most useful of them all is the Pin item, which allows you to manually select, not one, but multiple balloons within a short space of time, and it's that leniency that makes a big difference when you're in a tight spot. Unfortunately, because a lot of your success rides on items such as these (more so than normal), it's not a particularly validating purpose that these elements serve.
Whenever you're essentially left to deal with and make sense of things on your own, that's when the game becomes tedious to play. And unfortunately, instead of guarding against this with well-chosen items and supplementary mechanics, what ends up happening is that instead of enjoying the gameplay for what it is and the simplicity it carries, it becomes more of a case of your breath being held in, anxiously waiting for the right item you need to give yourself that much-needed leverage over the otherwise soft level of control. That being said, kids will still be allured into it regardless (for one key reason that I'll get into shortly) and be largely unaware of the underlying issues with this release.
It's often that the game is tripping over itself, and this is a combined result of the reliance just noted, the conditional advancement, and the minimally-controllable circumstances. Though it's not clearly visible, what all of this adds is a disruption to the long-term accessibility and, by extension, the replayability as well. Frankly, this should have been avoidable, so I'm not quite sure why these flaws arise. But just to go back to the point about the game's fumbles: If we're going to be completely realistic about the sort of reactions kids would have upon witnessing a similar situation in real life, what else would you expect but a person being laughed at for their lack of composure? In the end, though there's a problem that should be addressed, the prompted taunting would be enough to dismiss its level of importance to second place on a subconscious level. It is for this reason that I have trouble seeing how older gamers -- even if they might be avid fans of this style of gameplay -- could cope with some of these situations when they, quite honestly, don't have to. Far better it be for them to just stick with their top go-to fixes for match-three gameplay and leave it at that. Especially in the sense that it is unable to effectively meet to pre-existing standards and expectations, Balloon Pop Remix is thus almost exclusively for younger players only.
Furthering that sentiment, the spread of the visual presentation across the stages and menus is one of well-pleasing visualization effects that kids will no doubt enjoy very much. Underneath it all, there's a slight carnival theme that they've tried to bring out, but this takes a backseat to the ample amounts of confetti and glow effects, as well as the use of coins and paper airplanes in conjunction with relevant stage settings. Although the effects themselves aren't especially vibrant or noteworthy in figure (and also disregarding my suspicion of a hidden agenda behind the common use of patriotic symbols), I have to say Balloon Pop Remix makes use of 3D really well to give younger players something to "Ooh!" and "Aah!" about. I even found the music to be varied enough that it probably won't be considered annoying -- until you start to recognize that some tracks are reminiscent of forgotten 90's tunes.
Occasional framerate drops aside, the backdrops will be seen as attractive to young players. As for whether or not the presentation assumes a role it shouldn't, that'll be up to interpretation, but kids won't be spending time mulling that over anyway. Having said that, the game doesn't do anything purposeful with them, and this is a point I'd like to address in greater detail at this time. I feel an opportunity existed here to drive story-based interaction, and they chose instead not to play to that. To be perfectly honest, that's still preferred over a strategy to play it safe, leave things as-is, and hope that players are none the wiser. However, I noticed a number of teases here and there that suggested that they could've easily gone further and add another layer to it, and even if it wasn't entirely gameplay-related, that's something I would've liked to have seen. The best example I can give is this: Whenever you complete a mini-game, the game will tell you that you've made a new friend and proceed to add this "friend" to the Collection menu. However, this serves a purpose less than that of a sticker, and it would have been so much better if they thought to introduce these characters into the experience in an interactive way. At least that way, the game would be a bit more exciting and the "story" wouldn't have been as worthless as it actually is.
In terms of Extras, I've already covered the Story and Endless modes, and I've also gone into some of the mini-games, but there is one final offering to take note of: Puzzle Mode. As you could probably already guess, these stages have you using a confined number of moves to clear an arranged layout in full, so that no elements remain once all the sequences have taken place. There are plenty to go through if you feel so inclined, but to be honest, I do think a lot of kids will end up giving up long before they've seen the last one in the set.
At the base of it, Balloon Pop Remix is a functional execution of the popular match-three formula, but it's also a very unimpressive one. There are definitely some issues to be had with the way this package has come together, but there are also aspects to it that are surprisingly effective for the audience they've tried to get the attention of. Older gamers can get their fill through superior experiences, but in multiple senses, this game isn't really for that crowd anyway. Kids, on the other hand, will likely be amused by the match mechanics that they won't give the flaws a second thought -- until they hit one of the walls resulting from the aforementioned issues. And so, at the end of the day, I can't fault the game severely for resorting to this tactic of using presentation to do much of the work. Will it steal away young'uns who already have a match-three fix they automatically jump to? Probably not. But strictly from their point of view, Balloon Pop Remix is neither bad nor bland, and will still be viewed as adequate in spite of its flaws.
19/30 - Okay/Average
Gameplay 6/10 - System offers a nice change, has flaws stemming from control and its rules for advancement, new elements and mini-games help a tad
Presentation 7/10 - Good use of 3D and visual effects to amuse, occasional drops in framerate, overall presentation will be pleasing to kids
Enjoyment 3/5 - Relies on presentation to elevate the fun factor, can drag at times, missed opportunity to connect on a more purposeful level
Extra Content 3/5 - Two main gameplay options, Puzzle Mode is a decent yet obvious variant, collectibles that don't really do much
Equivalent to a score of 63% (percentage score is approximate and based solely on the previously stated rating) - Our Rating System