Rock of Ages Developed by ACE Team and published under Atlus PC (reviewed), Xbox 360, Playstation 3 Released in 2011
For the last week of indie month I wanted to do something extra, so I opted to play two indie games that are even more special than the others. This Wednesday you can enjoy our review of one of the most recent and beloved masterpieces of the indie scene and today I am reviewing the first indie game I ever discovered. Ladies and gentlemen: Let’s Rock… of Ages.
Butchering all of history
You play as Sisyphus, a character in Greek history who was punished for his egotistical behavior by being forced to roll a boulder up a hill for all eternity. As he works on this task, watching his boulder roll back down again and again, he decides to take revenge by smashing the boulder into the temple below and freeing himself, and other captive Greek, from their eternal limbo.
After a quick tutorial stage you begin a quest through all of world history, battling famous war heroes and rulers as you cross through their countries. Why does a Greek king want to do this? I dunno, it’s not important.
Each level is preceded by a silly cut-scene setting up the next opponent. While some of these will be easy to recognize, it does depend on you having a broad understanding of history, as otherwise jokes about figures like Emperor Justinian of the Byzantine Empire or the Medici family are likely to go over your head. If you’re not a history buff, then these will just come off as a series of Monty Python-esque sketches mixed in with pop-culture references.
Story score: 7/10
Siege tactics 101
Rock of Ages is a competitive… something. The game is pretty hard to fit into any one genre, taking elements from puzzle games, platformers, racing games, and tower defense. You control a boulder rolling down a maze-like hill with the the enemy fortress at the end. Your goal is to ram your boulder into the door with as much force as possible, avoiding all sorts of obstacles and pits as you go. Your enemy does basically the same, and after hitting the door once you return to an overhead view while the next boulder is prepared.
From this overhead perspective you can see your side of the field and use currency, which you acquire by breaking stuff and rolling over enemy troops, to place new obstacles like explosives, war elephants, and catapults. You have different levels for each category, so you start of with a catapult, but if you pay some more you can get a ballista or trebuchet, all of which have different uses. If your enemy is still rolling, then you can also manually click on the field to request an airstrike there, which requires a lot of timing.
Both sides of the gameplay are equally enjoyable to do. It feels great to plan a gauntlet of traps for your foe and see them fall for it, but it’s just as fun to undermine your opponent’s defenses and get your boulder to the gate unscathed. With leftover money you can also buy upgraded boulders that have extra armor or other upgrades.
Camera controls are on the wonky side, however. As you thunder downhill at ridiculous speeds the camera tends to sweep at the slightest nudge, sending you in unintended directions. On later stages I also frequently found myself losing track of where I was going because of this, and it takes a little too long for the game to pop up the helpful message that you are going the wrong way, especially in a game where speed is of the utmost importance.
What I do appreciate is that Rock of Ages is full of clever design choices that make each run unique and opens it up for a competitive crowd. For example, money is earned by causing destruction, but that in turn harms your boulder, making for an interesting trade-off that could potentially mean you earn lots of money, but never make it downhill as your rock is wrecked. I also really like how each object has a zone around it that becomes permanently used, even after that object is destroyed. It prevents players from rebuilding the same defenses over and over again, forcing them to relocate and adapt their traps each time a boulder plowed through some of it.
While there are plenty of details like this that elevate the game beyond a fun, gimmicky indie title, I do have to admit it doesn’t quite carry the campaign for as long as it wants to. The story missions vastly outstay their welcome and while each stage is completely different and has its own challenges, you soon find yourself looking for the same solutions each time. Rock of Ages is fun in short bursts, but don’t feel bad if you feel like it’s starting to drag on by the time you leave Italy.
Gameplay score: 8/10
Character design by Wikipedia
Being a comedy game, Rock of Ages is presented entirely as some sort of historic, paper cut-out epic, wherein armies are represented by flat, 2D soldiers eagerly bouncing about the field. Similarly, each leader, including Sisyphus himself, is also a flat sprite that looks like the portraits you’d see in musea. It’s a fun art-style really and the developers mixed it in with a ridiculous soundtrack and tons of gibberish to turn it into a big parody.
The silly music is surprisingly entertaining to listen to as you send dozens of Spartans flying, but I do wish there was more variety to be had here. Despite moving forward in age as you proceed, most levels use them same few assets over and over again, so you are fighting in the French revolution in a stage filled with statues intended for the ancient Greek setting. While most of it is just there to be rolled over, it would have been nice to see something different from time to time.
Presentation score: 8/10
Plenty to do
Besides the historic campaign mode you can hop into the multiplayer where you duke it out against others as opposed to the AI. While the AI isn’t that bad in the story, they place their traps very logically and play well, it’s also very scripted and it really fails to patch up any holes you punch into the defenses. A human player is a much better match in that regard and due to the game’s complexity there is hours of fun to be had if you go down that route.
You also have the option to play skeeball, take on obstacle courses or try your hand at some time trials. While basic and not that different from the core game, these are fun little extras if you find yourself wanting a slightly different session with the game. It’s just a shame that the obstacle course is not multiplayer compatible despite having you race against an AI opponent.
Extras score: 9/10
I first heard about Rock of Ages on a video by Extra Credits advertising overlooked games and it has to be said that it earned its place in that video. This is a fun and oftentimes hilarious title that has some serious potential for competitive play if you can get a few friends into it. The story mode, while a bit too long, also has some good laughs to it and allows you to hone your skills in a series of increasingly complex maps. Give it a shot if you can appreciate the historical humor or just want a crazy puzzle/platforming game.