Review: Rock of Ages (Xbox Live Arcade)

Rock of Ages
Publisher: Atlus Co.
Developer: ACE Team
Genre: Action/Strategy
Release Date: 08/31/2011

Knowing nothing about the game and just going off of the name, what do you picture when you think of Rock of Ages? A Guitar Hero/Rock Band knockoff with music spanning multiple decades? Perhaps a Brutal Legend sequel with Jack Black’s character now in a time traveling plot line? Turns out neither are correct, as the title refers to a rock in the literal sense, rolling its way through various time periods and smashing things. The end product is as goofy as it sounds, and is all the better for it.

Let’s Review

Unlike other games with the Atlus label, Rock of Ages is pretty light in the story department, but what it does have is downright hilarious. Before every stage, you are treated to a cutscene that has little in the way of narration or dialogue aside from exaggerated grunting noises the characters make when performing actions. They depict the tale of Sisyphus as he pushes a boulder up a hill but is continuously jabbed in the back by little demon looking things, causing the boulder to roll back down. When he gets to the bottom, he’s ordered to roll it back up again. Eventually, he gets the idea that the boulder could be used to roll over the little demons and his conquest for escape begins.

During the journey, you’ll travel to five different time periods spanning from Ancient Greece to Goya and confront famous figures both real and fictional such as Leonardo Da Vinci or Leonides. Each opponent you face is preceded by an introduction that humorously paints the personality of each one, sometimes using popular culture to do so. I can think of no other game that parodies 300, The Matrix, and Castlevania all at once and does so cleverly.

Aside from the story mode, there are a few other modes of play available in both single and multiplayer varieties. There’s a Time Trial mode that will allow you to roll down various stages and reach the end with the fastest time. There’s also Skee Boulder which is very much like Skeeball, where you try to gain enough momentum to sink the ball into various holes that multiply whatever score you gained from hitting targets on the way down. War is a multiplayer mode that can be played both online and off in which you and your opponent must race to knock down each other’s gate while trying to protect your own. It’s a welcome variety and makes for a well rounded package. I didn’t know there were so many ways you could make rolling a boulder down a hill so entertaining, but Rock of Ages had me pleasantly surprised.

Story/Modes Rating: Great

Rock of Ages takes advantage of the Unreal Engine 3, but maybe not in the way you’d think. The boulder that you control as well as the backgrounds and textures look great, and everything animates well. The people, on the other hand, are portrayed as cardboard cutouts, quite like the way they are in early episodes of South Park. Your first instinct may be to criticize the direction and regard it as a cop out for having to animate people that look more lifelike, but the art in its current form is downright hysterical. I don’t think I would have been amused quite as much had things looked a different way. Every cutscene has the exaggerated characters prancing about like a kid putting on a puppet show and I can’t help but crack up every time I see it.

Each time period that you travel to has its own unique visual style and atmosphere in each stage. It’s hard to really notice the backgrounds when you are so focused on rolling down a hill, but they look very well drawn and the obstacles you encounter complement the theme. Since there are only five time periods that you travel to, a number of the stages will begin to look the same in some aspects, but there are a few boss stages with a different aesthetic to mix things up. Things get to be so frantic while trying to build quickly and traverse the hill, so you likely will not get a chance to admire the scenery too much anyway.

Graphics Rating: Good

Much like the graphics, the sounds effects are what makes the presentation stand out. The random jibberish during cutscenes makes me think of the goofy language put in place for The Sims only several times more amusing. Even better is when you knock down an enemy’s gate they shriek like a little girl and I get a chuckle out of it every time. This is then followed by the whoopie cushion-like toot that occurs when you squish them. Rock of Ages is full of sounds like these and it’s absolutely hysterical.

The soundtrack is much less noticeable as a result of all the fun sound effects, but it’s at least well orchestrated and doesn’t distract you from the game. It would actually be more accurate to say that the classical style music actually helps you focus on the game as it is generally more easy going during the main bits of the game and picks up tempo slightly during boss battles.

Sound Rating: Great

The easiest way to describe the main game is that it is something of a hybrid between Super Monkey Ball and a tower defense title. You play as a boulder and must roll down a hill as fast as you can while avoiding obstacles in order to smash into your opponent’s door. Likewise, your adversary will be trying to do the same. After you smack into their door, a health meter next to it is drained, and you have to wait for your boulder to be built up again. While you’re waiting, you have an opportunity to set up traps to slow down or destroy the opposing boulder before he can get to your gate. The first one to knock down the other’s gate and squash the other person wins.

While there isn’t much to controlling the boulder aside from moving the left thumbstick in the direction you want to go, you can also jump using the A button in order to clear some obstacles. You are also given a health meter that depletes if you take any damage from catapults or cannons and your destruction will cost you valuable time as you wait to be rebuilt. Falling off the edge of the course didn’t appear to drain health any, though again, you lose valuable time waiting to be put back on the stage. You earn money as you smash things or squash people in your way, which can in turn be used to set up traps or even fortify your boulder if you’re having trouble getting down the hill. Things such as spikes or even fire will ensure temporary safety as you continue your onslaught on your enemy.

You only have a handful of things you can build at first, but after you clear some stages more items will be available to you. You start out with simple towers that will merely slow down the opposing boulder, but eventually you can build catapults to cause damage, windmills that will blow them off course, and explosives that will cause damage AND blow them off course. You can even set up cows and elephants to impede their progress (yes, I said cows) and all eight of the constructable categories eventually unlock multiple tiers.

There are only certain lit squares where you can place these items and once you use them up, they go dark and can’t be built on again. Being able to figure out what spots are going to cause the most inconvenience to the other player is where the strategy comes in and half the fun is just experimenting with the placement of various items. You also have to be able to figure this all out quickly, because once your boulder is constructed, the more time is spent dilly-dallying on item placement, the less time is dedicated to rolling down the hill and knocking down the gate.

Every course has three keys that can be obtained during your descent down the hill. While you don’t have to collect all of them in order to finish the game, there is a minimum in place that you must meet in order to progress, though it’s fairly generous. I was able to get well over the requirement without putting forth a whole lot of effort.

After so many stages, there are also boss battles fought using your boulder. They don’t involve busting down a gate, but rather fighting a rather large enemy such as a fire breathing dragon. These battles, while varied in their approach, usually boil down to finding their weak point and slamming into it a few times. They do provide some welcome variety amongst the slew of gate breaking you’ll be doing during your adventure, so it’s hard to complain too much about their lack of complexity.

Control/Gameplay Rating: Classic

While the story mode can be completed in one sitting, there are a number of other modes to participate in as well as other things to do. While I personally am not fond of replaying levels extensively to pick up a few arbitrary collectibles, each stage does have three keys that can be discovered and some of them are either well hidden or require a leap of faith in order to reach. Skee Boulder and the Time Trial modes offer some worthwhile amusement if for no reason other than to try and get on the leaderboards. I was really looking forward to trying the multiplayer as Rock of Ages seems like it would make for some amusing competitive matches, but I had difficulties finding a match. Perhaps it was because I played the game post launch and other players have moved on already? In either case, if you know someone locally, the game can also be played split screen if you so desire.

Replayability Rating: Above Average

The story mode isn’t all that difficult, especially since the enemy AI is relatively easy to set traps for. There were a couple stages that took two or three tries to conquer, but since you can see the path the enemy takes and how effective your defenses were just by watching the picture window up in the corner, it’s pretty simple to figure out what does or doesn’t work.

What few boss battles contained in Rock of Ages didn’t pose a threat either, since the most any of them seem to be able to do is knock you off the arena which doesn’t appear to have any consequence. You do have to master the timing a bit in order to exploit their weak spots, but the only thing at stake is your time, so I guarantee anyone who tries should be able to conquer it.

Balance Rating: Above Average

While the core gameplay is very reminiscent of games like Super Monkey Ball or even Marble Madness, the tower defense phases put a unique twist on the formula. It’s like you’re playing two separate games that while taken individually are fairly simplistic, combine together to make an experience greater than the sum its parts. Put simply, I’ve never played a game quite like this and it’s a wonder no one has thought if it sooner. The Skee Boulder mode is also quite cleverly done, even without the added aspect of having to defend anything.

Originality Rating: Classic

As soon as I started, I couldn’t put the game down until I finished. Even after the credits rolled I was craving more. I don’t think I enjoyed a title like this since the day I played Super Monkey Ball for the first time. And I use to play that game for hours. It’s a shame that the story mode is so short and that it’s so difficult to find other players online to compete against, but these are mild complaints when you factor in how much damn fun Rock of Ages is. I could see this being a very entertaining party game for two people to play when you factor in the ability to play split screen, which is a feature sadly lacking in most new titles.

Addictiveness Rating: Classic

Appeal Factor
I think people browsing the marketplace are going to be a little put off by this game’s appearance. After all, a synopsis of, “you play as a rock and knock stuff over” doesn’t exactly scream “Buy me!” for the average consumer. And the boulder with the face on it prominently displayed on the cover art creeped me out the first time I saw it, as it looks like the moon from Majora’s Mask. That said, those that do take a chance, even just by downloading the trial, will be pleasantly surprised by how fun it is. I had zero expectations going into it and walked away wondering how there aren’t more games like this.

Appeal Rating: Above Average

Rock of Ages will run you 800 Microsoft Points on the marketplace, which will equate to about $10. This is slightly lower than your average Arcade title which makes it even more of a low risk investment, but I would put this above even some of the $15 titles that are up there. The main menu has an option for additional downloadable content as well, which leads me to believe there’s a possibility for future DLC, but right now it is just avatar items. Extra modes or story scenarios would make welcome additions in the future, though it’d be nice if more people were playing this online to compete against.

Miscellaneous Rating: Great

The Scores
Story/Modes: Great
Graphics: Good
Sounds: Great
Controls/Gameplay: Classic
Replayability: Above Average
Balance: Above Average
Originality: Classic
Addictiveness: Classic
Appeal Factor: Above Average
Miscellaneous: Great

Final Score: Very Good Game!

Short Attention Span Summary
While the main game may be a bit on the short side, Rock of Ages is still a unique title about smashing a boulder into your opponent’s door before they can smash into yours with gameplay compelling enough to make it well worth the price of admission. Outside of the main story, you can do Time Trials to earn a place on the leaderboards, or take on friends in War or Skee Boulder modes both locally or via Xbox Live. Being matched with a random opponent over Xbox Live is a bit of a rarity, which is a shame, but the game contains other distractions that more than make up for this drawback. If you like games like Super Monkey Ball and Marble Madness, then Rock of Ages belongs on your download queue.



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