Review: INKS.12 May 2016 3
Released 04 May 2016
When I come home on leave from the trenches, all shell-shocked and dazed, or upon returning from a particularly gruelling dungeon crawl, my back aching from all the loot and my fingers charred from casting fireballs, I sometimes need to unwind and do something completely different. I usually go down to the local arcade hall for a game of pinball or two, or I clear my troubled mind by putting the brush to the canvas. From now on, I can combine the two and fire up INKS, the latest game of State of Play Games, who you’ll remember as the creators of the miniature world of Lumino City.
In some respects, INKS continues the trend of zen-like games which are visually stunning and offer a relaxing gaming experience. All of them elegant offerings with minimalistic design, suitable music and/or sound effects which enhance the overall experience and provide the player with a sense of accomplishment while putting him or her in a relaxed state of mind. And experience is the keyword here, drawing the player into little self-contained worlds and taking full advantage of the touchscreen interface for which they were designed. Some of them are puzzle-based and others focus more on action-oriented gameplay, but generally speaking they all have their own unique visual style with distinctive gameplay. In many ways, INKS has managed to place itself squarely into this category, if it weren’t for a few tiny details.
As you might have guessed by now, INKS is all about pinball, but with a twist. While playing a table, you get to paint it as if it were a canvas and in this way create a visual representation of that particular session. Each table has a certain amount of blocks or circles filled with paint which explode when you hit them with the ball. The harder you hit them, the more paint comes splashing out, covering the surface of the table. The longer you manage to keep your ball in play, the more colorful the canvas becomes, all the more so because the ball also leaves a trail as it rolls through the painted areas. The color effects are quite nicely done: as with real paint, the colors mix to create secondary colors and become darker every time the ball (which takes on the color of the mixture as well) passes through. It all looks wonderful and I think it’s a great concept, even if it’s only aesthetic and doesn’t have any impact on the gameplay.
To clear a table you need to pop all the colored blocks, whereupon a giant black hole opens up near the bottom of the table and automatically swallows the ball. You have to aim carefully and find the right angle to reach all the blocks and sometimes it almost felt like I was playing Peggle or a Breakout clone (which is not a bad thing, mind you!) There’s really no pressure because you get an unlimited number of balls to complete the level, although if you want to score the gold ball, you’ll have to clear the table on your first try. After losing the gold ball, the next one is of silver, then bronze and then various shades of black. Apart from this reward, there’s no scoring system and scoring gold balls will not win you anything tangible like unlocking new tables or power-ups (apart from personal satisfaction, of course.)
Things got a lot more interesting the moment I figured out how to win the gold star for each level. Each table displays the minimum amount of shots needed to complete it, and here lies the real strength of the game in my opinion, because this is where things finally get challenging. Like I said earlier, you’ll have no trouble completing all the tables, even if you’re not a whiz at the pinball machine. However, if you want to earn the gold star on each level, well, that requires a lot of practice in some cases and and considerably more skill. And when you do finally pull it off on a particularly difficult table, you’ll get that sense of satisfaction I was referring to earlier.
The tables themselves are a mixed bag. Some of them are quite cleverly designed and need to be “figured out” before being able to solve them, while others can be completed in less than two seconds, without even using the flippers (I’m not kidding.) The base game includes 72 tables, divided into three level packs (with elusive names such as Dawn, Melody and Campfire,) all of which are accessible right off the bat. Because of this, there’s no real sense of progression throughout the game and I think it would’ve been better if you had to unlock these through playing (by winning gold stars for example.)
Though generally well-designed, the tables offer little variety regarding their visual aspect, not even from one level pack to another. They all look pretty much the same. On the one hand I can see why, I mean the whole idea of the game is that you create your own masterpiece by using it as a canvas and so create a unique table with each playthrough. But still, I can’t help thinking more could have been done in this regard. Why not include a black table with fluorescent paint for example, or use different types of paint, or “filters” to create a retro look or different patterns… The possibilities are endless and it would have brought some aesthetic variety to the overall experience.
Another minor quibble is the lack of gameplay elements. I’ve mentioned the likes of Breakout and Peggle, which, aside from offering different layouts and backgrounds and themes, also included a ton of “powerups” or abilities to alter gameplay and enhance the overall experience and replayability. Apart from the standard bumpers and ramps, the only features the tables offer are small black holes and secret tunnels. That is, unless you count the two power-ups which are available as consumable IAP’s… Uh-oh.
I’ve already mentioned the level packs you can buy, and although they offer more of the same, I’m cool with that. But there are also consumable “cheats” which can help you beat a level or get that perfect score. There are two: one will slow down your ball and help you aim your shots and the second will create a stopper in the outhole so you won’t lose the ball. These cost credits and the only way to get credits is to buy them with real life cash (ranging from $1,99 for 350 credits to $11,99 for unlimited credits.) As far as I’ve seen, there’s no way to earn credits in-game. And I’m not OK with that. It doesn’t sit well with the zen-like nature of the game and frankly, with unlimited balls for each level, you don’t need them just to win a gold star with which you can do nothing. It would be cool to have more of these “power-ups,” but then give us the opportunity to unlock them in-game. But that’s just my opinion.
Phew, that’s a load off my chest! And maybe I shouldn’t be overanalyzing things here, because there’s a lot to enjoy, so let’s focus on that. If you’ve ever found yourself even remotely attracted to pinball but feel daunted by the complexity of the great pinball tables, or you think you don’t have the reflexes, give this one a shot. You’ll get plenty of enjoyment out of it. And who knows? It might even help you become better at it and serve as a springboard to full-blown pinball simulators such as Pinball Arcade or Zen Pinball. And if you enjoy visually appealing, relaxing gameplay experiences, or you’re looking for a well put-together lighter game in between two heavier gaming sessions, this one will do very nicely. As for me, it’s back to the trenches and down into the dungeons once more.