Games like Rock of Ages are reasons why I love video games. These days, big name publishers are playing it safe by banking on low risk sequels or reboots and this has allowed smaller, more independent developers to step up to the plate and offer up some truly original gaming such Chair’s Shadow Complex and Runic Game’s Torchlight. Rock of Ages is the second game developed by ACE Team, who made a big splash with their 2009 debut Zeno Clash, an incredibly bizarre first person brawler about people living under the influence of the hermaphroditic Father-Mother. Switching perspectives, ACE Team scales back the strangeness, ever so slighty, to deliver a game that turns history on it’s head.
Rock of Ages is the story of Sisyphus, the poor Greek chap who is doomed to spend eternity pushing rocks up hill. After being poked with a spear for the last time, Sisyphus decides that enough is enough and comes up with the idea to engage the lord of the Underworld to combat using his rocky burden. By smashing down Hades’ front gates and squishing him, Sisyphus begins an odd journey around the world, battling famous figures from history.
Rock of Ages is essentially a composite of Super Monkey Ball and tower defense games. The goal of each level is to guide a boulder down a path, dodging and/or smashing civilian structures and enemy defenses that lie in the path of the opposing enemy’s fortress all the while concentrating on placing your own defenses and countermeasures. The fortress doors for your base and the enemy’s have a damage meter and the amount of strength and momentum of your boulder affects how much damage you’ll inflict during the round.
Smashing structures and enemy defenses will earn you money that can be spent during the build phase. As you wait for your army (yes, Sisyphus has managed to inspire followers) to construct a rocky missile, you’ll choose from a number of objects via a radial menu and place them on most parts of the track. Defenses can be placed almost anywhere, but ideally you’ll want to put them in the most direct and, in some cases, indirect path to your base. Defense items include towers of various strengths, catapults, wind generators, bulls and war elephants. Although a small handful of units are initially available to you at the beginning, progressing through the game will unlock additional units as well as upgrades and bonuses such as mines that generate a slow, but steady flow of additional income.
After your troops have built the boulder, you can choose to upgrade it with spikes or turn it into a ball of fire, providing you have enough money. While smashing structures is fun and profitable, your boulder is not indestructible. Busting down enemy defenses or getting knocked around by war elephants and catapults will decrease your boulder’s strength, lowering it’s effectiveness against the opposing fort. After several rounds, ideally you will break down the enemy gates, revealing your prey, screaming as you squish him with your boulder, all to the dramatic tune of Mozart’s “Dies Irae.”
Scattered throughout each level are a number of keys that must be collected in order to open up later levels. I never really cared for this type of game design because it is a crutch for game length and I don’t care for having to replay complicated or frustrating levels to collect items in order to advance through the game. Fortunately, Rock of Ages is generous in the number of keys needed to unlock gates.
While the majority of the game is spent rolling and building, there are a few diversions that break up the action a bit. There are sporadic boss battles to fight (just look for the weak spots marked by bandages) and a few multiplayer games to play, such as head to head (rock to rock?) mode and skeeball matches. Skeeball, folks! I feel like the game deserves a perfect score for that alone.
The look of Rock of Ages is what gives the game much of its charm. While the battles between your opponent take place in a 3D space, the 2D cutscenes appear as if lifted from a Terry Gilliam fever dream. Presenting an art style not unlike Gilliam’s animations from Monty Python’s Flying Circus, the in-game character models are actually cut outs from famous artwork from various periods of art. The characters will hop around in place, emitting light gibberish instead of coherent words and phrases. The sequences that play at the start of the level are quite hilarious and reference everything from Lord of the Rings to Castlevania. My favorite sequence involves the sad tale of the Plague, who is utterly incapable of making friends because they die soon after making contact with him. Poor guy.
In a particularly neat design scheme, the appearance of each level will change to coincide with the period in which your famous foes lived in. For example, when battling Hades and Leonidas, the level will look as if it were taken from Grecian pottery. The designs for later levels take inspiration from Renaissance and Rococo art styles.
Being able to guide a boulder with a smug looking face carved into it as you wantonly destroy homes, enemies and innocent bystanders is wonderful fun, especially with the satisfying sounds of collisions and squishes. Unfortunately, the game has a few issues that sours the experience a bit, but not enough to drag the entire experience down completely.
For most of the early levels, it is easy to predict where the AI opponent is going to go because the maps are small and linear. The maps for later levels, however, are often complex and contain many branching paths and it often feels as if the AI knows exactly where to go. By the time you’ve studied the map and determined the best place to roll and defend, your opponent has already done significant damage to your home base. This can get really frustrating, especially after repeating the same stage several times because of this perceived unfair advantage.
And speaking of frustrations, the camera seems woefully inadequate. Once you’ve got your boulder moving down the track at break neck speeds, it feels like it can’t keep up. It would be nice if you could zoom out a bit more in order to take in all the curves and pitfalls of the course. Placing objects on the track is especially troublesome due to the analog stick being overly sensitive and requires a gentle touch - something that’s difficult to do while the enemy tears through your defenses.
Some niggling control and camera issues should not prevent you from playing Rock of Ages. It is an entertaining action puzzler with a hilariously bizarre sense of style. The game is a steal for 800MS points ($10) and certainly one of the more enjoyable games to come out of XBLA recently. Although multiplayer leaves much to be desired, the single player campaign is full of wacky fun. Where else are you going to get the opportunity to fight Zombie Aristotle and Plato?
Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.