Friday, July 20

Review: Pool Panic [Nintendo Switch eShop]


In the traditional video game market “different” is equated to risk so for the most part big publishers, to a degree rightfully so, avoid it. If there’s anything to appreciate the indie market for it is the willingness to thoroughly, and sometimes painfully, explore gameplay and ideas that would give executives in the old school market nightmares. That’s most definitely where an utterly unique creation like Pool Panic comes in, which may be best described as a fever dream of over 100 different scenarios loosely tied together with the idea of applying the game of pool to them somehow.


The first challenge in reviewing the game is simply trying to put a firm description on its genre. The best I can come up with is that it’s an action adventure that typically involves a puzzle to be solved, but whose goal is to knock enough balls into holes that you’re then able to sink the 8-ball to complete the level. Now just conceptually apply that idea to a trip to the circus, fighting against a biker gang, skiing, being attacked by bears, riding a roller coaster, attending a wedding, and countless other completely off-the-wall situations and you begin to get the idea. Confused? To a degree that seems to very much be the goal, the essence of enjoyment in the game is to simply kick back and enjoy the madness of it all.


The main attraction is definitely Story Mode, where you’ll navigate a sprawling overworld in search of individual levels. Curiously, the main map has quite a few of its own puzzles that will require you to find special balls hidden in some of the levels that will then open the way to getting to new areas or hidden stages. With the sheer scale of this map the inclusion of some unlockable railways that quickly take you far across the world are appreciated, though you can expect to be challenged at times to make progress. In general if you’re stuck the lesson is to simply go in another direction as many places have more than one way to get to them. As you complete stages the area in the middle of the map will continue to rise up, revealing some special rooms and even new modes.


After completing a fair number of modes you’ll unlock Panic Mode, which plays out a bit like a pool roguelike with random balls on a table you must sink while a clock is ticking down. Sinking balls will reward you with added time, and if you can sink a tricky bonus ball that will appear you’ll go to a Plinko-esque bonus board that offers a chance to get extra time. Once you’ve completed the lion’s share of the levels in Story Mode you’ll eventually unlock the game’s Hard Mode. Here you’ll be playing through the 100+ levels again but with an evil spirit that will slowly chase you around the stages, great complicating the process of completing them. To top it off there’s a Vs Arena mode that’s full of weird variants inspired by stages in the Story mode. In truth if you enjoy bonkers multiplayer games with some real variety Pool Panic delivers here yet again, taking what would normally be an afterthought inclusion and filling it with loads of quirky charm and fun as well.


While I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my trip through the somewhat mad minds of the developers I’ll admit that I can see where not everyone may appreciate it. If your approach to the game is to try to master it, insisting on trying to get all of the trophies on each level for completing them quickly, making no mistakes, using a minimal number of shots, and clearing the table you’ll likely want to throw your controller. While pool is generally a game of precision in Pool Panic everything is relative, mainly because you’ll need to make many shots on the move. Throw in balls that will avoid you, throw you around, attack you, or that have a short window of time where you can hit them and if you’re seeking perfection you’ll inevitably be disappointed. The good news is that in order for the level to count as complete you don’t need any of those trophies, simply working out the main puzzle and sinking most of the balls will let you then knock in the 8-ball and move on. In a sea of titles that are laser focused on the destination, Pool Panic is refreshingly instead all about the simple joy of the journey itself. Strap yourself in, load it up, and let the madness wash over you… there’s simply nothing else out there quite like it.


Score: 9

Pros:
  • An absolutely unique game experience chock full of moments that will make you laugh and wonder what the heck is going on
  • There are clearly stages with unique mechanics that were implemented only for that one gag, demonstrating a commendable level of commitment on the part of the developers
  • The Vs Arena multiplayer modes make terrific reuse of some of the more entertaining ideas from the main campaign and are notable in their own right
  • As a whole the music fits incredibly well and some stages had terrific throwbacks that made me smile like the classic “Hello Muddah” on the camp levels

Cons:
  • If you can’t appreciate the fun, getting stuck on some of the more wonky elements of control in some game systems, it likely won’t be a title for you
  • People insistent on trying to trophy hunt as a priority will likely get frustrated quickly
  • Though I appreciate the roguelike spin of Panic Mode the removal of the theming and fun reveals some of the cracks in the general control picture