(Bomb Shelter Games)
US: 14 Oct 2016
Ballistick is about a former assassin from a secret organization who’s drawn back into his old violent life when the organization tracks him down and tries to kill him. He decides he’s not going to run anymore and goes on the offensive. You know this story, you’ve seen it before. It’s a simple story, really more of a premise than a story, just something to provide context for the action that follows. Honestly though, the action doesn’t need the additional context.
Ballistick makes no attempt to hide its true intentions. The stick figure art style instantly warns you that this is not a game concerned with appearances. This is a game about mechanics and how badass they can be when done right.
The general arc of the game has you infiltrating various enemy compounds and sabotaging them, either by killing everyone there or by blowing up important data servers. Yet for a game called Ballistick, you can’t really go ballistic on these enemies.
You only have one attempt to complete a level. If you die, you have to start from the beginning. Your health is also limited, it doesn’t regenerate, and health packs within the level are few and far between. Each level isn’t that long, but they’re not short either. As a result, each one becomes a kind of endurance test. You’re more John Wick than Rambo, which is to say that this action power fantasy is less about you being a one man army and more about you being an efficient one man army.
The complex reloading process speaks to this. You can’t just hit a button to reload (well, you can if you’re using the simplified control scheme, but doing so would mean ignoring the very thing that makes Ballistick fun and unique, so don’t do that). Instead, reloading is more like a button combo from a fighting game: Y, X, Down, Up, Left. That translates to: open a menu, select a new clip or magazine, eject the old clip/magazine, insert the new one, and finally lock it into place. It feels cumbersome and confusing at first, but once you memorize the pattern and are able to reload mid-gunfight without missing a beat, it becomes thrilling.
Ammo is just as limited as health. You can only use what you bring with you, and your bullets don’t magically stay around when you change a clip, so reloading with half a clip left means leaving that ammo behind. This means that you have to pay attention to how much you shoot, rationing yourself, killing with a knife when possible to conserve bullets. Enemies are easy to kill, but there are a lot per level. Once your gun is empty, you can’t refill it.
All of these limitations encourage efficiency. It represents a whole new level of badassery: not just strength over my enemies, but also mastery over my weapons.
The rest of the game is smartly designed as well. The varying objectives each level prevent things from feeling repetitive. You can choose your insertion point, which drastically affects how you move around a level. Different loadouts encourage multiple playthroughs. The shotgun, for example, is strong, terrible at range, but also comes with body armor. The assault rifle leaves you more exposed, but kills from a distance. The handgun is weak, but silenced and comes with a tool that allows you to see under doors. Each feels very different, requiring new tactics to wring the most efficiency out of them, and they even have different reloading combos.
The art is simple, the story is simple, but the action is complex and intricate. In a cool twist, Ballistick it’s not an action game about spectacle, but about the mechanics of action. It’s not just about doing cool shit, but making you consider: “How do I do that cool shit?” The stick figures always look goofy, never badass, but when you make a plan of attack and execute it flawlessly, when you reload a rifle in a split second because the button combo has become muscle memory, then you feel like a badass. And that’s a much more impressive accomplishment.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong online. Please consider a donation to support our work as an independent publisher devoted to the arts and humanities. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where advertising no longer covers our costs. We need your help to keep PopMatters publishing. Thank you.