PEGBRJE: JUMPGRID and Witchball

Oh I’m going to lose this round aren’t I. Damnit I just started.

JUMPGRID is a fast paced action puzzle game by Ian MacLarty, an indie dev from Melbourne who has done quite a few other titles alongside this one. In here, players are a tiny circular object stuck in a grid-like hell surrounded by cube pellets that look especially appetizing. Unfortunately, while collecting them does look like fun the game slowly introduces new ways to make the experience of collecting these little point pellets a frustratingly lovable nightmare.

Advertised as a ‘white-knuckle speed-Pac Man’ I was a little confused at first as to what that meant, seeing as the only apparent similarity was the pellets being the win condition. However, upon further playtime the slogan does ring true for just how it takes a Pac Man adjacent style and cranks the frustration to 11. Players are given 1 life, similar to the other PacMan-like title from earlier in the bundle, to collect all of the pellets on screen and return to the initial starting point that now looks like a vortex sucking players into the next level. Pac Man’s lack of full movement returns, but the grid itself is the restriction rather than being within the grid spaces, with initially 9 spaces in a 3x3 grid. Players can go out the right side and return on the left, as it is with all looping levels, to quickly traverse back over to the other side if need be. Which will be a requirement, because it is when the game starts to add obstacles that JUMPGRID starts to become terrifyingly brutal.

See, players cannot ever be on a grid space that an obstacle is currently on, or the entire level automatically resets as if it had never happened. Any progress made is destroyed and remade. There is no mercy for the tiny colour cube. Players can dash through these obstacles to get from one to another no problem, but staying on that junction of the grid too long will eventually kill the cube. It becomes a game of repetition, learning the patterns that the obstacles follow while constantly dying and restarting from the beginning to relearn once again. The only penalty for death is losing that level’s progress, instead focusing on death as a learning tool to understand how the patterns work and going against as soon as possible. It’s thrilling to narrowly dodge flying pillars as they move across the map to collect the final pellet, only to rage that we must return to the start, and our position is already compromised. We restart again, and go again.

JUMPGRID is beautifully done, visually and musically, and creates this atmosphere of excitement and rage to an electronic beat quite similar to Super Hexagon. I almost felt it was a rhythm game at one point due to how much I was responding to the music as my cues to move between grid points. I got so wrapped up in the atmosphere that I didn’t even realize how poorly I was doing — upon taking a small break, I thought I was surely about 1/3 of the way done. Turns out, I was 18%.

Quick maths tells me that if there are ‘over 100 levels’, and I’m at 18%, at maximum I’ve completed 18 levels. I… have a long way to go. If frustratingly simple and simply frustrating titles are your favourite ways to spend an afternoon, JUMPGRID should be on your radar. There’s even customization options to assist those of us not doing so well, and an endless mode for you scary people that have consumed the regular mode with ease.

I am scared, yet I cannot waste time being scared. I must hit ball.

Witchball is a bizarre future racing sports game made by S L Clark, an indie dev and educator out of New York whilst also curating a video game gallery called Babycastles. Players are in a post-reality, so to speak, in which distances have exceeded current standards of ‘far’ yet feel relatively close which gives the basis of the game’s setting. At the game’s start, players are simply in an empty space, wandering towards the thumping of a drum and the flash of a symbol. Upon reaching it, the post lights up, the initial credits roll, and the racing begins.

Witchball is a blended fusion of two major gameplay mechanics that players may recognize as soon as they jump into a match or test out the tutorial. While at first it appears that they are attempting to simply fuse the two together, in reality the racing aspect of the game is the focal point, and all other mechanics and design choices are built to sustain player’s ability to race. However, the game does not initially introduce it this way as it wishes to help players understand the scoring part first: Pong. Instead of paddles, players control a circle (which then attaches to a character later) that can activate its force field to grab the ball. During this moment, time is slowed and players are given a few seconds to angle and throw the ball back at their opponents. Players can just spike the ball back by tapping the button as well for some dramatic punch to the ball. This makes up the initial understanding of how players score points against each other, with a mild twist thrown in since players have an avatar on the opponent’s side of the map too. It is controlled at the same time as the player’s avatar, moving in the same direction and being the same colour. What it can do, however, is send the ball back to the player’s actual side and shoot it from the original avatar, as a way of not allowing the opponent to score or control the ball.

So once players get a grip on this ping-pong like gameplay, the tutorial fades into the first race and players begin the actual game; running. Each track is littered with random obstacles in which players must avoid for fear of losing points while also watching the ball to grab and score. It becomes a balancing act of ensuring the ball is sent back as often as possible, while determining which times to just let it score as losing points to obstacles would be more detrimental. Each race is split into laps, so that players can store their points gain per lap so that if they have a particularly bad second lap, it won’t bother their other lap scores. Points also increase in value if players are consistent enough, so trying to avoid errors is not only encouraged but necessary to win if in a slump.

By now some may have noticed my lack of conversational points about the general aesthetic, which is quite honestly the largest drawing point to the title, that which captures the eye almost instantly. The world has a certain digital haze to it, where edges are sharply pixelated yet blurry as if they cannot be focused on. Players are running through a post-reality society, after all, where we may have discovered hyper-speed like transportation, so who knows how any of this works. Regions have familiar aspects, such as bridges and trees and fancy house columns, yet their washed out colours and dark backdrops make them feel as if they may only be silhouettes of their former selves. This doesn’t even mention the sound design, specifically the thumping of a kick drum (or floor tom, couldn’t really decipher it if I’m honest) after every attack. It began to feel almost rhythmic in a really spooky ways as it slowly began to get faster while I was just trying to dodge and weave, yet it was always present. Always there to give some kind of grounding in this bizarre, confusing world.

Witchball is not what I was expecting when I first booted into it. A brilliant fusion of local multiplayer racing and pong-sports game, yet with an artistic tone that suggests a world that we don’t even get to see nor actually learn more about. It’s amusing to think that I felt more intrigued by a world that barely exists outside of a ping-pong racing game is one I’d get so oddly sucked into thanks to the visual and audio design, and the hints that the developer left on the itch.io page. If you are looking for a multiplayer game that brings together Lethal League’s pong style with infinite running in a dark world, then Witchball is definitely one to look for.

Links to both below

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Jacob Vorstenbosch

Jacob Vorstenbosch

Just a Game Dev who decided to take on the monumental task of giving an overview of all 59 pages in the bundle for Racial Justice and Equality. We keep going.

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