In a general sense, people don’t go to video games to learn their history. Video games can offer an appreciation of a certain period of history, often even giving players the chance to experience moments of history they might otherwise never have had an appreciation for. Of course, there’s a limit to the accuracy with which history can be represented, given that gaming is ostensibly an interactive medium. You can’t, say, recreate with perfect accuracy a given battle in a given war because it’s not terribly likely that one guy blew through the area taking out 150 enemies all on his own and keying the victory for the “good guys”.
ACE Team, a small developer that started with mods and the gloriously strange first-person brawler-thing that is Zeno Clash, has chosen to embrace this inherent inaccuracy rather than fight it. Using a two-dimensional paper cutout approach to between-stage transition screens that can’t possibly be mistaken for anything other than utter homage to/imitation of Monty Python’s glorious animated vignettes, Rock of Ages rewrites history through the eyes of Sisyphus, who finally puts his mythical rock to good use, freeing himself by allowing that rock to crush those who have imprisoned him and pave a path to, well, the rest of history.
Of course, Sisyphus’s immortal status serves him well for a game like this, as we can follow Sisyphus through history as he uses his giant rock to crush various historical (and, occasionally, metaphysical) figures, each of whom wields his own giant rock.
Embracing historical absurdity allows for an animated Leonidas to yell (you guessed it) “THIS! IS! SPARTA!” and kick an adversary to . . . safety, actually, and Leonardo Da Vinci shows up to explain to Sisyphus that his entire existence is merely a series of 1s and 0s in what will eventually come to be known as a video game called Rock of Ages. Sisyphus sometimes chooses to splat his enemies out of a sense of self preservation, while other times he seems to splat them out of mere annoyance. He even gets a rematch with his old nemesis Death, who shows up halfway through the game with an appropriately skull-faced boulder.
This is all well and good, and Rock of Ages scores plenty of points for its presentation and alternately twisted and clever sense of humor, but all of it seems to be here for the sake of hiding the not-at-all deep gameplay. Rock of Ages is for all intents and purposes Super Monkey Ball, a “behind the back” ball-roller that forces the player to traverse various twists, turns, and obstacles for the sake of reaching a predefined “goal”. That goal, of course, is the fortress of Sisyphus’s enemy; in almost every single case, penetrating that fortress is a matter of smacking the door with the rock three times, no matter what powerups or buffs that might be applied to the rock.
There is a tower defense element to the game as well in that Sisyphus’s various opponents are also trying to bust open his fortress to smush him with their own giant rocks, and Sisyphus would prefer that not happen. So, in between each roll of the boulder, the player constructs various obstacles—towers, catapults, wild animals, and the like—with the purpose of keeping the opponent’s boulder from hitting the Sisyphusian fortress with any force whatsoever.
Aside from one lucky session where my own tower and bomb placement sent my opponent into a feedback loop that constantly sent him off a cliff, all efforts at tower defense feel all but fruitless—no matter the strategy or configuration of obstacles, it takes, yes, three hits for the opponent’s boulder to break down the player’s defenses. The game is less strategy than race; if the player can get three hits before the opponent, the player wins.
And there’s a fetch quest in here, for keys that arbitrarily block progress until you collect enough.
Oh, and boss battles. There are boss battles! Because what’s a video game, any video game, without boss battles?
ACE Team shoved a lot in here, but at heart (and as the title implies) this is a game about a rock. It is telling that, as the player, you never really play as Sisyphus, unless you assume that his defenses are being placed by his own command. In a surprisingly visceral way, however, the player does play as the rock. The rock, and not Sisyphus, is the avatar and very much the star of the show. This is Monkey Ball racing, with an utterly absurd historical backdrop. Taken as such, it’s actually quite entertaining. Taken as the sum of everything that ACE team has tried to put into it, however, too many of the game elements are either irrelevant or too utterly extraneous for it to feel like an unqualified success. Even so, there are worse things to be than an interesting (and occasionally hilarious) curiosity.