Obulis: Finished

It turns out that Obulis makes it completely clear when it thinks you’ve won, announcing it explicitly in a pop-up and then playing a credits sequence. This is a bit of a relief, because I wasn’t entirely clear on which levels were necessary for winning and which were optional bonus levels.

Just one puzzle left, and it's an UltraThe game is organized into three chapters, each of which contains multiple “paths”, or sequences of themed levels with their own graphical style, background music, and, in some cases, path-specific gameplay elements: Clock Tower levels have steadily-rotating gears that can carry marbles in their teeth, Pond levels are built out of flowering plants that are a little springy and never completely straight, etc. The maps show the individual levels as squares in a sort of board-game layout that visually differentiates between the levels you haven’t reached yet, the levels you’ve completed (which are still available for replay), and, most importantly, the levels you have access to but haven’t completed, which have a jagged nimbus so they really stand out. Paths sometimes branch a little, so that completing one path can open up access to two others. It’s all pretty typical of the superstructure in modern puzzle-games, particularly puzzle games that imagine themselves to be casual. (I personally have doubts whether a puzzle game with designed solutions can ever really fit the “casual” mold, but that takes us to the question of “What is a casual game?”, and that’s not what I want to talk about today.)

And occasionally the paths branch into optional bonus levels. Some of these levels are harder variations on levels in the path proper. These are easily identifiable by name: every level has a name consisting of its path name and a roman numeral, like “Dungeon III” or “Windmill VI”, and the harder variants just append the word “Ultra” to the end of that. Ultra levels have the same architecture as the levels they’re based on, and usually have a similar layout of balls, but are altered enough to require completely different solutions. I kind of assumed that these were optional, because they just seemed like extra content for people who want more challenges. (DROD, to name one precedent, has a few rooms that are harder variations on other rooms, and they’re invariably optional.) Looks kind of outdoorsy for an inner sanctum, if you ask me.But there was another sort that I wasn’t at all sure about: the Inner Sanctum levels. This is a “path” consisting entirely of single levels reachable from other paths. The unique presentation for these levels is inky silhouettes; the gameplay gimmick is that the silhouettes have paths through them that you can’t see, and have to find by experimentation; the background music, rather incongruously, consists of traffic noises. And each Inner Sanctum level you complete gives you a piece of a special artifact for that map. Each artifact, when completed, unlocks some of the Ultra levels — or were the Ultra levels unlocked by collecting the medallions at the end of the normal paths? I’ve forgotten already. This stuff isn’t where your attention falls while playing.

At any rate, because I didn’t look at the manual until after winning the game, I wasn’t sure if the Inner Sanctum levels were optional or not. It turns out that they are. I went back and completed them all after winning anyway, and in the process discovered that the game is rather insistent about playing the credits sequence, which isn’t interruptible, every time you complete a level after winning. Ah well. I probably won’t finish all the Ultras: they tend to be challenges of the “get things to collide in midair in just the right way” sort, rather than the “figure out the clever tick that makes it easy” sort. If I even make the attempt, it’ll be for the Achievements. Every single Ultra level has a Steam achievement associated with it.


The tricky one here is that red ball on the left.I don’t seem to have any big-budget titles for 2008. Just as well — I tend to think of the last few years as typified by the triumph of the indie game. Obulis is a 2D physics-puzzler of a general sort that I mostly see for free on Flash games sites. But in fact it was originally designed for mobile devices, and consequently has a simplicity of interaction well-suited for touch-screens. The goal is to get colored marbles into their matching color-coded receptacles. Some of the balls dangle from chains (or, in some cases, rigid rods). You can select chains to cut them, allowing the balls to drop. And that’s all you can do. That’s the sole means of interacting with the game.

In the simplest of the puzzles, you basically just decide on what order to cut the chains in, allowing the balls to come to a full stop before releasing any more. More advanced levels require you to cut chains while the balls are still in motion — for example, there might be a ball that drops onto a flat surface, where it needs a nudge from another ball to start moving, and the only way to apply that nudge in the correct direction is to release it in the interval between another ball rolling up a nearby slope and rolling back down again. The trickiest puzzles, the ones that I find myself having to restart over and over, are the ones that require collisions. One of the repeated patterns is to have a ball suspended by two chains in a V configuration, so that cutting either chain starts it swinging left and right, after which the exact moment that you cut the other chain makes a huge difference to its trajectory. So, it’s not just puzzle-solving in the sense of figuring out a solution, but involves precise timing as well, with small differences having large effects, the multiplier effect of an angle over distance. Solving levels like this involves more fidgeting and adjustment than problem-solving skills. Sometimes winning a level looks miraculous, the bodies in motion moving past or into each other perfectly. But then, the levels are all set up to make the solutions possible. Just knowing this, that everything was placed by the designer for a reason, helps a lot in figuring the puzzles out.

Knowing the physics helps, too. Collisions between balls here are perfectly elastic, like in a Newton’s Cradle: when a moving ball hits an unmoving ball on a horizontal surface, it’ll transfer all of its kinetic energy, coming to a full stop — but in a slightly different place. Slight differences of placement can be important if you’re about to drop another ball on top of that spot.

After less than a day, I find myself more than halfway through the game, and with more than half of its Steam trophies. I suspect that I’ll either finish this game very soon or not at all.