Ballpoint Universe is what you get when an artist makes a videogame. Look at any screenshot. But don’t take this as unqualified praise because, at times, Ballpoint Universe is nothing but art – a doodle walking through screen after rolling screen of gorgeous scribblings, while you hold a direction. The game straddles multiple genres, but in practice is a simple thing; a leisurely ride through page after page of an exceptional draftsman’s sketchbook.
Ballpoint Universe mixes platformer-lite hub sections with side-scrolling shooting missions; in the former you talk to other strange doodles and gather up trinkets, while in the latter you customise a ship and blast baddies.
Recommending BU is on one level impossible – because the platforming controls, specifically the jump, are awful. For any other game this is probably the death’s knell, and this only escapes because it’s not really a platformer. You tumble around the scenery and jump across landmarks, but the vibe is exploration rather than challenge – there are no enemies, or lives, just things to see and do. Those jumps that are ‘fatal’ simply respawn you at nearby save gates, which rather indicates the developers were fully aware of such limitations.
And so instead you abandon the knife-edge twitch mentality of the average platformer, and focus on the scenery. It’s hard not to. And soon you come to not only enjoy the journey, but are stopping to admire the flowers. Why is that TV set sad? What’s that pyramid of crystal bowls about? Who designed a car that can drive up stairs?
As you toddle from chat to quest and onwards it’s easy to slip into a mild reverie, buffeted gently by a new area’s palette-change but sailing serenely on. In BU I tended to play the shooting sections in clumps, knocking down three or four at once before venturing onwards – and this is a nice rhythm to settle into.
The soft edges and merrily clanking parts of the world below acquire sharper lines in the skies, and have more room for the surreal – mummified camels wafting along in a purple haze, giant staring owls lifting long lines of guns, eyeballs drawn on ruled-line paper and seeds toting machineguns. There are grand papier-mache castles, knights with folded faces on origami horses, floating phantoms with exquisite butterfly wings and screen-length skulls that yawn open when defeated.
BU is a much better shooter than it is a platformer, though caveats also apply. The visual style might be exceptional, but when the action gets hectic it’s sometimes impossible to see your craft. Your ship can be equipped with a variety of melee weapons, which are amazing for dashing in and dealing mega damage, but the directional controls lack that pixel-perfect change of gear you’d want for such precision strikes.
Still, there is a winning languour to the way Ballpoint Universe approaches the shooter – a desire born, one would hazard, from wanting the enemy ships to be on-screen for a while before exploding. Every enemy takes multiple hits to down, and so it’s a good job your little ship can be outfitted with an oversize arsenal.
The basic loadout is a machinegun that rat-a-tats yellow bullets in spreading bursts, accompanied by a top-mounted sword that swings slowly at nearby targets. You earn Ink which is used to either upgrade or replace these weapons, as well as the ship’s hull (various passive boosts) and special attack. I never felt like there was quite enough Ink to go around, but then there’s an awful lot to choose from. Soon enough your craft’s weedy beginnings are forgotten as flamethrowers scoosh out great paper-consuming jets of red, a chainsaw whirrs around the circumference, and lazy homing missiles arc out before twisting to strike.
This is not a difficult game to complete, despite the screen-filling bosses and sometimes relentless enemy waves. The shooting sections are structured in small bursts that allow a generous five lives every time, enough for anyone to progress the story with a clutch of bronze medals. The real challenge lies in Infinite mode, accessible at any time from the menu, which presents an endless series of randomly-selected waves – and rapidly cranks up the difficulty.
Infinite mode may live up to the name, but this isn’t quite a score-attack. Collectible tokens let you restart at the highest wave reached with five lives, and by around wave 50 it’s a bit of an achievement just to get through the wall of enemies. If there is an area where scores intrude it’s the vanilla shooting stages, which award Gold rankings for not losing a single life – rewarding you with Ink aplenty, as well as (typically) a ‘Gold Sketch’ collectible. Nice as this stuff sounds, it’s not quite enough to make BU a more long-term proposition.
The Gold Sketches, though, are an interesting choice of collectible. They’re all over the place, and accumulated for you to browse over in a little album – something that goes hand-in-hand with another slightly odd feature, the scantly-populated ‘home’ hub that displays various trophies acquired throughout. It’s not that collectible concept work, or indeed hubs, are bad things. But given some of the fine-tuning issues with BU, it does make you wonder about whether this is a gorgeous game or merely a vehicle for a gorgeous style.
In other words, this is not a game I would recommend if it looked different. BU does not quite function as it ought, yet is a beautiful thing. This puts us in a rather timeless quandary. These days science can pinpoint beauty down to a reaction in a specific area of the beholder’s cortex. At the other end of the spectrum, we could have the Romantic poet John Keats and his talking Grecian Urn: ‘”Beauty is truth, truth beauty” – That is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” The consensus across disciplines, one could hazard, is no more than that you know it when you see it.
Is Ballpoint Universe not a beautiful videogame? Perhaps, sometimes, that is enough. I enjoyed my time in this flowing and visually layered creation so, whatever the might-have-beens, on one level that has to be enough. But for those who want a game that plays as well as it looks – turn away from this colourful phantasmagoria, be content with Gray:
And be with caution bold.
Not all that tempts your wandering eyes
And heedless hearts, is lawful prize.
Nor all that glitters, gold.