Review: Holedown20 Aug 2018 0
Released 27 Jul 2018
You’ve probably got an image of something like Holedown in your brain already. That brick-breaker sort of layout, with numbered blocks ominously floating above an empty void. Little white orbs get rapid fired out from a point at the lower edge, and ricochet madly off of the blocks. The blocks don’t break on contact, though. Instead, every tap of a ball subtracts a number, and when that number reaches zero, the block is finally slain.
If this sounds familiar, it means advertising works. On mobile versions of social media sites, you’ve probably seen a sponsored video of this colorful menagerie, punctuated with a “click here” or “download now” option. You may have even taken the plunge down the rabbit hole and sunk some time into it. You wouldn’t be alone, Ketchapp’s Ballz was quite the free-to-play success in 2017.
There’s an amusing irony here. Ketchapp is a developer infamous for cloning the number puzzle game Threes! and releasing a free to play version of it called 2048 before Threes! could officially launch. This is among the best known examples of a trend in mobile games that isn’t going away. But where games are often cut out at the knees by imitators who create free to play copies with dubiously low production value and stuffed to the brim with ads, Martin Jonasson turns the formula around. In every single way, Holedown is the best version of this alt-brick breaker sub-genre.
Part of this is the concept. As some nameless, identity-less space explorer, you must drift to cosmic entities and mine them for their riches. From asteroids, to a sun, to an endless black hole, you must drill until you reach the core. Your tools are a clip full of smiley balls, that are rapid fired into the rocks below. The colorful rocks at the blocks you much break, which get increasingly harder to do as the numbers stretch into ridiculous amounts.
Each turn, the blocks inch towards you, slowly encroaching on your safe zone. If it crosses that red line at the top, your drilling vessel crashes, and you lose. Literally turning Ballz on its head is its own form of poetry but adding a crawling death wall mechanic really brings a sense of urgency to every shot. Blocks come in various, Tetris-like shapes and sizes, and they’re oriented randomly as they move to crush you, so every run through the six unique stages is different.
You may surprise yourself with how much critical thinking you do during any given round of Holedown. At first, it becomes simply a game of 'kill the closest block to you.' But as the numbers get bigger, you have to get cleverer. You start aiming for foundation blocks, that if you zap will cause everything on top of them to collapse, as well. There are blocks that can never mover, and must be drilled the hard way, they start becoming priority. Target blocks start being shoved behind big buffer blocks, so you have to weigh your options. Do you just blast through this as fast as possible, upgrading your ball threshold with collectable crystals to get more bang for each buck? Or do you try to work the angles and start pinging balls off of the rounded edges of near blocks in hopes that you can bounce your way to the target.
Once the wave of disgust hits you after you watch a string of balls haphazardly only hit your target once, and not the three or four times you’ve planned for, you come to realise that Holedown has drilled its way into your soul. It’s such a satisfying layer cake of simple, yet effective design choices. It only asks for such little space, input, and attention from you, and maximizes every moment of it. That’s what good mobile games are all about.
Another big factor is the look. It has a colorful, modernist simplicity that you can expect from the creator of twofold, inc. and rymdkapsel. There’s a little alien worm thing in the bottom right cheering you on for some reason. It’s awkward and ultimately just for show, but it’s got good energy, so no one is really upset.
There are a few hitches in the system that can make some play experiences inconsistent. For example, the big green line that you aim with draws reliable path to where the first ball in your string will hit. With it, you can start to use some rudimentary geometry to figure out what sorts of bounces you’ll get after the initial one. As you begin to line the aiming string up close to some bricks, things may not be as they suggest. On more than one occasion, the line told me it would pass narrowly by a block, and instead would clip it, ruining the shot.
Also, as the procedural generation of the rising blocks adds a sense of uniqueness to each game, it can get carried away. Sometimes, a level will spawn with a block that has an immense number on it, with no other blocks nearby. You’ll sometimes be left to wonder “how was I ever supposed to solve this?” This is especially true on later planets, where the biggest of blocks can be insane.
These are ultimately blips in a system that is impeccably well put together. Holedown is enjoying its time in the greater gaming spotlight, a rare achievement for a mobile game. It’s simple gameplay has an inescapable gravity. It’s charm beguiles you, and soon every train ride, bathroom trip, or lunch break has just enough time in it for block breaking. Don’t let the modest price tag scare you away from the 'it' mobile game of the summer.