As I plummeted into the abyss below me, populated by clouds and an endless blue sky, the cheerful music that had serenaded my shaky flight seemed to mock me. The square platform I’d been piloting soared upwards without my weight and disappeared. When Balloon Flight finally admitted I was a goner, the end screen popped up to display my so-called “Best Stats.”
This will be a recurring experience for anyone who spends much time playing Balloon Flight. No matter how well you master the mechanics, your runs will often end with a zooming view of the blue skies below you as you fall to your doom.
Balloon Flight is an indie first-person physics game where you use a gun that both creates and pops balloons to hurl yourself through the air. Your goal is to travel as far as possible while passing through rings in the air that increase your available time. As you get further from the starting island, the more complicated (and difficult to traverse) the islands you pass are.
Some games thrive without a tutorial. The player just explores the world around them and uses trial and error to learn what to do and what not to do – like a baby touching a hot burner on a stove. After all, aren’t gamers just overgrown babies? One easy example is the early Mario games; no one told you to jump on the Goomba’s head, you just learned that they disappeared when you did, and they could kill you if you didn’t. Other games take a light approach, sneakily teaching you the mechanics without leaving you feeling bored and led-by-the-hand. Breath of the Wild may guide you through a starting area, but it still gives you free rein over an open place and doesn’t shove every mechanic down your throat at once.
Unfortunately, Balloon Flight’s decision to omit a tutorial of any kind severely impacts the player’s first moments with the game. All you have is a sign full of instructions, like you’ve just logged into a Minecraft server in 2010. It seems to assume you’ve seen trailers and pictures of gameplay, so all you’ll need to get started is this little reminder. It’s a strange move for an indie game of this size, and if you’ve ever played a physics-based game, you’ll know that you don’t really know anything until you know how it feels in your own hands.
After a disappointing start, Balloon Flight doesn’t recover all that well either. Eventually, you’ll clue in that you need to use the large, square platform as your glider to the next island. It’s one of only two viable options for getting anywhere (despite the wide range of objects on the island), and it’s clearly the one you’re meant to use. Once you finally take off successfully and are consistently making it to the second, third, fourth islands, and beyond, there’s a pleasant feeling of accomplishment. Balloon Flight just doesn’t capitalize on that success.
Once you’re past all that opening frustration, Balloon Flight just feels mediocre. The physics are fine, but buggy. You’ll often crash into invisible walls or get clipped on things you didn’t (and couldn’t) see coming. I once had my platform swoop out from under me for no good reason when I’d stopped on an island. Your own weight is a huge factor in the direction your platform is tipping, so much so that it feels more like ‘Run-Circles-Around-A-Giant-Wooden-Square Flight’ than ‘Balloon Flight.’ It’s interesting to look at your stats – but only once you start making it a significant distance from the start. Before that, they feel like a tracker for your failures. You can’t compare them against your friends’, either. The islands are procedurally generated, so you see something new each time, but you don’t often get to see it at all – you’re just desperately trying to keep your platform in the air.
On the other hand, Balloon Flight does seem to have a sense of the whimsy that attracts players. There are fun balloon shapes and colours to unlock if you’re willing to invest more time than me. The funky music, however mocking it feels when you fall into the sky, is bouncy and engaging. It matches the trailers I saw for the game, but not so much the minute-to-minute gameplay.
Balloon Flight has struck on a rare thing – a good idea – but failed to execute it. At the end of the day, even if you can get past the steep learning curve of the controls and the physics, there simply isn’t enough content to give you a reason to continue. Only the most stubborn gamers would read the challenge ‘See how far you can get!’ and devote any length of time to this game; besides, they’re all kept busy learning rhythm games or speedrunning something. More likely, players will spend six-odd dollars on this game, fall to their death as cheerful music serenades them, and never return again.
Score: 2/5. A Nintendo Switch review copy was provided by the publisher.
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