Imagine playing a puzzle game where the pieces involved hated you and would just wander off while you were in the middle of trying to solve the problem. Like if you were, say, playing Portal, and you put your weighted companion cube down on a button, and as you’re going to go through the door it opened, the door suddenly shuts. You look back, and your weighted companion cube isn’t there – it's several feet away, having sprouted legs and walked off. If that happened, I bet there’d be a lot less people out there with companion cube plushies.
This is more or less what Pool Panic is like – you have a goal, all the pieces and mechanics are laid out, then as you’re about to hit a ball, it just dances out of the way. You waste a shot and have to try to set it all up again. And while Pool Panic isn't necessarily a puzzle game, I wouldn’t know what else to really compare it to. The game's closest analog is probably something like Burnout Crash or Danger Zone; action-puzzlers with multiple goals to hit in each level, which are full of moving pieces that smash around chaotically. The only difference is that you’re a cue ball, and also a gigantic jerk.
I mean, the other pool balls are just palling around, eating ice cream, skiing, riding on roller coasters, and then you come through, smack them around, drop them down a hole, and then move on to ruin someone else’s day. Each level has one main goal that’s pretty simple: sink enough balls that the black ball is available, then sink it and move along. There’s also optional goals, like beating the level as quick as possible, with as few hits as possible, without falling in a hole yourself (or hitting some other nebulous fail state), and sinking EVERY ball in a level, not just the necessary number.
As far as I could tell, none of these really gave anything new or special for doing so, and are more just a checklist of extra challenges. The only one that tended to pay off was clearing every ball from a level, because sometimes there are SECRET balls that can be used to unlock new levels. The most basic of them are the guys in the little concierge-looking hats, but sometimes you’ll find criminals or bikers or the like that give you the ability to open up new parts of the map. I made sure to get at least that part of every level before I moved on to a new one.
While I don’t have a problem with sports games, some of my favorite in the genre are the ones that are adjacent to the actual rules and regulations of the sport being used – it's why Golf Story was my favorite game of last year, and why I’ll keep my N64 hooked up so I can play Blitz now and then. And that was my hope when I saw Pool Panic get announced earlier this year; that it would be a similarly silly take on the idea of billiards, having fun with the mechanics and building a weird world where the rules of pool somehow dictate everything. While it was partly that, it didn’t come together in a way I found particularly enjoyable.
Really, the big problem with the game is that it’s just not enough in any way, and just feels like little sets for you to bounce around in for no real reason. Of all things, the best I can compare it to is Dangerous Golf. A little too much focus on just the chaos and hitting things around, with no real drive or momentum or anything going from level to level. It all feels unattached and you’re just going through the content just because it’s there, not because it's particularly engaging. It doesn’t go enough with playing around with the goofy rules of billiards, or attempting to remix them into other contexts, and the parts where it DOES do this are more a bummer because it shows what could have been.
Some quick examples are the level where you’re playing air hockey, the levels where the floor melts as you go, or the level that takes place on motorcycles. There are even some that take place on an actual pool table, limiting you to one hit to sink a certain number of balls based on their AI behavior. All of these play around with the idea of what’s possible and provide fun extra challenges on top. Even the final boss battle thing, while frustrating because you can be made to restart the whole level, provides a franticness from the stakes and presentation. But seeing as most of the levels don’t have a hook like that, these really stand out as the exceptions that show how dull the rest of the game is, and how frustrating some of the other gimmicky levels are.
Like the zombie levels, where zombie balls chase down the other ones, bite them, and transform them. They can bite you too, but you’ll just respawn. Added onto this is the fact that instead of having unlimited hits like in most of the other levels, you have to collect pool cues lying around as if they were ammo. While I get the idea that It's supposed to mimic a zombie apocalypse and scarcity, it sure does result in a lot of dodging around and going ”ahhhhh where’s a cue?!” Or the levels that take place on a cliffside, with ropes limiting how far you or the other balls can go, and only one hole you're trying to navigate them to.
Weird AI, sometimes wonky physics, and odd-feeling movement controls add to the frustration. If the game at least had more interesting hooks with the levels, I’d be able to overlook the rest of that, but just like Dangerous Golf, the good stuff is too rare and too far in between. The focus of Pool Panic is too far into the duller or frustrating aspects of the design, making me wish I was just playing actual billiards instead.
Loaded with problems, dullness, and annoyances, Pool Panic didn’t grip me anywhere in a way I expected it to. It has a good idea, and with some more interesting level ideas in place, the game would have been an easy recommendation. Instead it just feels wasted. It’s flat and wears out its welcome before you’re even close to done with the 100+ levels. The nuggets of greatness can still be found, but they’re just too few and far between to really keep up the excitement that the title suggests.