Recently I’ve lauded a few developers for taking the match 3 genre “back to its roots” and finding new ways to make the base concept interesting instead of mashing genres for the sake of diversity. In comes Steamballs from IDW which not only follows this same trend, but then goes and turns the genre on its head with unique game play. The difference here is that Steamballs really adds an element of strategy to the match 3 concept, so for those who like the fast pace of games like Bejeweled, you might not be so thrilled with the mechanics. For me, however, it is a noteworthy departure from standard game play that still manages to retain the flavor of match 3 and makes it fun for a different mindset.
The object of the game is to make matches of three or more balls of the same color. Sound familiar? That’s about where the similarities between Steamballs and regular match 3 games end. Instead of some sort of playing field filled with objects, the game board is comprised of a series of tubes at the top of the screen that contain the balls, and a series of scales at the bottom of the screen. Your job is to swipe the balls from the tubes one at a time to rest in the scales below.
Furthermore, you have to balance out the scales such that three or more balls of the same color line up in a row in order to make a match. Each regular ball has a weight, and as you drop the balls on the scales the total weights for each arm are displayed under the scales. The cool thing is that as long as three balls of the same color match at a given point it counts, so as the scales are adjusting to balance the weight at any given time you could make a match. This is the only way to get points for your matches. If there are balls touching the matching row that are of the same color, they will disappear as well. There are no diagonal matches in the game, and vertical matches must consist of at least 5 balls of the same color, which will disappear but not award you with any points.
In addition to the normal balls there is a variety of power up balls. Some balls will get rid of other balls when they are dropped. One ball changes the color of all balls on an arm to the color of the ball underneath the power up. Another ball gives you bonus points when you make a match with balls that are touching the power up. There are a number of different power ups at your disposal, each having great merit when used wisely. Overall this game is much more strategy based than most match 3 games, and has a slower pace as a result. I find it to be quite refreshing.
The controls are real simple in premise – drag the active ball back and forth to move between tubes and swipe downwards to launch the ball towards a scale. Seems simple enough, but I often find that due to the relatively narrow tubes my ball is not in the right spot when I launch, which I don’t realize until it’s too late. Ideally an undo would be nice, but if nothing else maybe an alternate way to drop the ball so that you can move your hand out of the way and be sure you’re in the right position. On the other hand, I do like the fact that you can tap on a ball to get the details about what it does. This feature seems a bit sensitive, though, as it tends to pop up a lot more frequently than I ask for it.
While not as slick as certain other offerings like Gold Keeper or Jump-O-Mania, the visuals in Steamballs definitely have a charm about them. The whole steampunk atmosphere is cool, and the effects correlating to some of the power ups are pretty sweet. One thing I will give them credit for is that so far I have not had any issues mistaking one color for another, which seems to be a common problem with matching games that rely on the same objects with different colors.
The sound effects actually suit the game quite well. The power ups that emit steam or electricity sound pretty good, and there’s a useful if not potentially annoying alarm when you’ve got at least one column too close to the top. The noise made when rows or columns are match is rather interesting as well. The music for both the menu and in-game are nice, but I think I like the menu music a bit better. The in-game music sounds a bit like the background to a detective mystery, while the menu music is just cool. I don’t even know how to describe it, but I could listen to it for a long stretch without getting bored.
There’s no question that Steamballs ups the ante as far as what’s possible for a match 3 game without resorting to mixing with other genres. The game still feels like a match 3 game, yet there’s enough strategy involved that it’s also something completely different. If you’re a match 3 fan that’s not afraid to try something different, or someone that isn’t necessarily into match 3 games already, you definitely need to give this game a try. For everyone else, try it anyway. You might just like it.