Rock of Ages is a weird, frustrating game, but at least its weirdness is charming. You play as Sisyphus, that king from Greek myth who is doomed to roll a boulder up a hill for all eternity. One day he has the bright idea to use that boulder to bust a hole through hell and escape, running through history and fighting various historical figures with his rock.
All the characters are taken from classic Renaissance-style paintings and jerk about with simple, crude animations. These cut scenes are wonderful, like a Monty Python skit infused with a dash of geeky pop culture humor. Sadly, all that charm can’t alleviate the frustration of gameplay.
Rock of Ages defies traditional genre descriptions. It is part puzzle, part tower defense, part racing game. You face off against one historical figure at a time, with each of you rolling your boulders down a twisty track in order to smash into a gate at the end, behind which hides your opponent. In between these rolling parts, you can build a variety of obstacles and traps and blockades to hamper your opponent. The game switches between an overhead, grid-based strategic view used for setting up obstacles and a third-person view of the boulder as you roll down the track.
The frustration begins with the strategic view and the limits placed on construction: You can only build on certain sections of the track. This is annoying because some parts of the track can be very obviously skipped over with a well timed jump, and the game doesn’t allow you to block that shortcut with an obstacle, yet you can still build in the area that’s going to be skipped over. It feels like the game is forcing me to build inefficient obstacles.
Then there’s the time limit. You only build when you’re not rolling. You can’t do both actions at once. After using a boulder, you have to wait while your minions carve another one from stone and this is when you can set all your traps, but the time goes by too fast. There’s not enough time to really think about construction, to properly strategize, so every turn ends with me feeling unsatisfied, unprepared, and gypped of time.
Granted, you don’t have to start rolling when your boulder is ready, but it’s very much in your best interest to do so. In the long run, the player that waits is the player that loses, and that emphasis on speed hurts the tactical side of the game.
It’s not hard to get to the bottom of the track, and once you get to the bottom, there’s always a long swath of space that no one can build on. As long as you get to that bottom point, you can gain enough speed to damage the gate. So, overall Rock of Ages isn’t about stopping your opponent as much as it is about delaying them. Your gate will be damaged every turn; it’s just a matter of who does the damage first. This makes the obstacles feel toothless: if they can never stop a boulder why even have them, especially when you add in all the frustrating limitations on construction?
The physics don’t help. You’re supposed to be controlling a hunk of rock, but it feels as light as a piece of paper. You can easily fall or get bumped off the track.
Additionally, this Playstation 3 version of the game comes with a new mode called Obstacle Course. You and an opponent race through a track with randomized defenses and whoever gets to the bottom first wins. This mode is genuinely fun because it removes the source of most of the frustration: the construction. The physics are still annoying at times, but since both players (or one player and the AI) face the same obstacles it never feels unfair.
In fact, the same goes for the other modes as well since they also remove the need to build. There’s a straightforward racing mode, a time trial mode, and a skee ball mode that puts a skee ball ramp at the bottom of a track. These are all very short and simple mini-games, but at least they’re entertaining.
Rock of Ages has a bizarre but clever concept and an awesome sense of humor, but all the limitations of it’s central game mode are frustrating because it never feels like I can actually play the game as it wants me to play it. In short, none of the mechanics mesh. Since the boulders always get to the bottom, the defenses seem weak. Since the tracks are hazardous in and of themselves, adding more defenses seems near pointless. Finally, the insistence on speed means that I never have time to properly set up the many possible obstacles. The game is pretty easy, yet every time that I won my victory felt more due to luck than skill or strategy. It speaks to a fundamental flaw in design when my actions feel that inconsequential.