Review : Rock of Ages; PSN (Played), XBLA, PC

I remember once in composition class, my professor mentioned something about Rock of Ages while telling one of his old stories (the guy’s at least in his 70’s), tipping me off that there might be some other, probably more popular work that shares the same name. Sure enough, a Google search is more likely to direct you to a musical or movie. I never was into theatre, so don’t be too surprised when I say that it was the game I first heard about before the production.

While titles are shared, thematic content is not. Our game does not revolve around a timeless musical genre (there isn’t even rock in the soundtrack). Instead, the title is to be taken more literally; it’s about one man and his giant boulder traveling through different time periods and doing battle with various historical figures throughout Europe.

Any of you guys remember those old JibJab political cartoons which while slightly funny, started a trend of manipulating still pictures of people so that they appear to be talking or performing various actions? Imagine that treatment with authentic historical art styles and you have just about every cutscene in the game. While in play, units, buildings and the overall scenery on the playing field are three dimensional models. On the other hand, all human characters including the ones controlling the boulders from behind castle walls and the giant human hand that places the boulder back on track if it falls off are presented as paper cutouts.

The models look nice, and the tracks range from straightforward trails to levels with branching paths. Each different era changes the color scheme of the tracks and background music. Counting the tutorial stages, there are 19 in total along with four boss arenas. Aside from the menu screens, music includes many standard, yet also grand classical pieces including this fan favorite :

A big part of enjoying this game is an appreciation for vintage art, but what about the gameplay?

Imagine a line segment where both players have to begin at the midpoint, and work their way to their respective end point. While the tracks aren’t merely line segments, they are symmetrical and both players start on opposite sides of the midpoint racing to the castle gates at each end of the road. This is not a simple race, however. Enemy gates have a certain durability that must be overcome before the gate breaks and you can roll over the character in control of the opposing ball ending the battle.

Matches are played in two phases : The first is a setup phase where the boulder is under construction. As it builds, obstacles and other hazards can be purchased with money earned from killing enemy townspeople, destroying buildings or generated from mine units and placed on certain squares. Both players can take as much time as needed/desired to set up their defenses, and once the ball is fully constructed, they are able to send it out to assault the enemy gate. There are also upgrades to the boulder that you can purchase if there’s enough funding.

This is where units are deployed and the player can manually launch attacks on the enemy boulder.

The second phase is where the boulder, upgraded or not rushes the course in an attempt to hit the castle wall as hard as possible. The gate takes more damage depending on the velocity and size of the ball. Obstacles and attacks deal damage to each boulder which also has a certain durability. With enough damage, a layer cracks and eventually breaks off, greatly reducing the impact of gate collision. Too much damage and the whole boulder disintegrates, sending you back to the setup phase as a replacement is built.

Expect many smashed buildings and flying paper-people.

It’s very easy to exploit the cpu’s less than stellar performance when playing story mode. All I did was spam mammoth units in certain areas, and if their ball didn’t get destroyed outright, would reach the castle heavily damaged. Once I found that out, the difficulty curve became parabolic in shape : starting off easy, reaching a particularly difficult point near the halfway mark, and curving back to relatively easy at the end. It’s not like the stages are increasingly complex either, you get some pretty elaborate ones early on, and a few straightforward courses toward the end. The increase in difficulty comes mostly from the addition of new units which unlock with progress. What sucks is that you can’t keep those upgrades and use them in previous stages, so if you wanted to go back to find all the keys for instance, you’re stuck with the ball upgrades and units that were available before.

Speaking of keys, there are three of them scattered in each level after the first. They are required to open gates to each boss encounter, even though not many are needed – I was able to access the final gate having only 20 keys. They’re usually out of the way, but what’s cool is that they only need to be picked up once, and the game saves them permanently. The level doesn’t have to be cleared and it still counts as being obtained. I give the game credit, cause it could have been an asshole and forced the player to beat the level in the same match they get the key in order to keep it.

As for the bosses, they’re scary at first, but not too annoying with the exception of the second. Never has trying to hit a man-statue in the dick been so frustrating. The third boss can be taken advantage of by simply jumping high enough from the starting platform to hit it in the face instead of jumping around the other ascending platforms scattered around, and the final battle is just running the same obstacle course to the top three times in a row. Aside from that statue, they’re all pretty fun.

This dick shot is not going to be as fun as it looks…

Originally I was going to complain about the controls and the pain in the ass camera, but I noticed after finishing the game you can change camera direction settings from the options menu, and overall control gets more fluid the more you get used to it. It takes a little time and patience, but eventually it feels fine. The same goes for maneuvering around the grid while setting up. It’s really awkward getting used to navigating, especially if you’re like me and miss the part of the tutorial explaining hotkeys that automatically move the cursor either to the starting point, your castle gates or the enemy boulder’s current position.

Story mode is fun and introduces all the tracks, but I reckon the bulk of enjoyment can be found competing for gold medals in time trial mode or playing with others online. I tried getting a few matches in with my bud Prota, but generally crappy PSN connections prevented any extended play. It was certainly more fun and required more strategy than playing against the cpu. Finally, there is a ski-ball mode which I believe is exclusive in the PSN version, where the goal is to run a course hitting as many targets as possible, then jumping off a ramp into a panel with a set of holes that multiply the score from hitting targets by a certain amount. Again, it was pretty easy to exploit the maximum multiplier by hitting a certain spot and repeatedly jumping until the boulder climbs and falls into the hole.

The art, especially at the beginning reminds me a little of El Shaddai : Ascension of the Metatron, and you folks who watch the podcast know how much I love El Shaddai!

Should you try Rock of Ages? Hell yeah! Especially if you have friends to play with, as that’s where the replayability lies. If you’re into art and classical music, it helps enrich the experience.  It’s not a particularly long game, but for 10 bucks the amount of content is satisfying.

Grading :  (Gameplay is worth 70% and Aesthetics is worth 30%)

Aesthetics (Music, Visuals and Level Design all worth 10%, additive calculation)

  • I can’t knock the classical approach to the soundtrack, I sang a few of these for chorus and love them just as much now as when I was singing the bass parts.  (9/10)
  • Most of the characters pictures are taken from real portraits and given really cheap animation, but I think that’s the point.  The tracks and 3D models look great and don’t take away from enjoying the atmosphere of each era.  I do, however, think that the backgrounds could have used a little more than this weird sun thing and a bunch of seemingly astronomical circles floating in the background.  (8/10)
  • The levels are built quite well, even allowing room to cut corners if you’re good at jumping.  It’s up to the opponent to plug up these open spots so that their planned route is thwarted.  Because a lot of the level depends on unit placement, there is a dynamic factor to every level that depends on the skill of the player.  Also, 19 tracks to manipulate in different ways is not too shabby for a smaller download title. (9/10)
  • Total : 26/30

Gameplay (Worth 70 points, subtractive calculation)

  • Way too much to exploit in single player. (-5)
  • Mammoths overshadow just about every other unit because of their height, mobility and potential to damage the opponent with their tusks.  Catapults and other attack units do their damage too, but results have not been as impressive.  I wish there was an opening for the other units to shine too.  (-2)
  • Total : 63/70

Grand Total : 89/100

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