Caromble! Review

Caromble! is available now through Steam early access.

Sellotaped to the cover of Your Sinclair issue 22 was one of videogame history’s little gems. Batty (1987, Hit-Pak) was one of the best games for the ZX Spectrum, one to which I still occasionally return. It was a fairly simple Breakout-like, but its wicked level design, couch co-op mode and slick presentation really made it shine.

Batty

For me, Batty was the pinnacle in a popular arcade genre that was soon to fall into decline. Bat-n-ball gameplay became a relic as new iterations became stale imitations. This was a design space that appeared to have been thoroughly explored. How refreshing then to see Caromble! from Crimson Owl Studios bravely stepping back into the bat-n-ball business, thirty years on from Batty, with a host of new tricks up its sleeve.

The standard game mode of Caromble is its campaign, in which you’re tasked with completing a series of levels to make progress. Each stage has a different feel to it. There are “traditional” sessions of brick-breaking, tests of precision and reflexes that very much root the game in its genre. Then there are more thought-provoking sections, with moving parts, fewer targets to hit, elements that are almost puzzle-like. Add to this the regular boss-fights, score- and time-based challenges, and you’ve got a varied set of levels that ramp up the difficulty nicely.

The gameplay itself boils down to ball control. You move your paddle with the mouse, which feels responsive and direct, certainly fast enough to keep up with the chaos. As long as you don’t let the ball drop off the screen you can carry on bashing bricks. In addition to simply bouncing the ball off the bat, returning it up the screen, you have the option of putting spin on the ball. This is done by hitting the ball with a moving bat, and will make the ball’s trajectory curve, allowing you to hit targets hidden behind barriers. You can also store up energy by holding down the mouse button. You can’t move while doing this so you have to choose your moment, but if you can fill up the gauge, the next time you send the ball caroming up the screen it will carry an extra burst of destructive force, and will give you a lot of nice score bonuses for anything it hits.

No Breakout-like would be complete without power-ups, and Caromble! has you covered there too. Bonuses include the usual multi-ball, expanded paddles, weapons, aim-assist and others - pretty much what you’d expect. More interesting and unusual are the downgrades you’d do best to avoid, which include some bizarre annoyances, anything from shrinking your paddle, to moving the camera to a confusingly low viewpoint, or even pixelating the whole screen down to a resolution lower than Batty.

Added to the collectibles are score drops that emanate from everything you destroy, which you’ll need to hoover up to have any chance of completing score challenges. The value of the drops increases if you use your boost gauge, which adds a nice risk-reward mechanic to scoring.

Throw some TNT boxes into the mix that detonate when the ball hits, bricks that can only be broken by boosted balls, ramps that launch the ball into the air to carom off raised platforms… there’s plenty of variability here, and the opportunity to learn and improve while the difficulty curve keeps you on your toes throughout.

Caromble

Now, I like this game a lot. I like what it’s trying to do and I like the way it goes about doing it. But it ain’t perfect, so I’ve got to raise these points, as much as I don’t want to. And I should add that I was asked to constructively find fault, knowing that the game is still in early access. So here goes.

First, the camera can sometimes be your worst enemy. It’s a 3D presentation, viewed from maybe 45 degrees above the plane of the level - think about watching snooker on TV, it’s roughly that sort of perspective. This means the ball often disappears behind things in the distance, larger obstacles and bricks blocking your view. I can’t tell you how often I’ve been hovering around the left hand side of the screen waiting for the ball to emerge from behind a wall, only to find it’s bounced over to the right, out of my view, in secret behind the scenery. This is exaggerated deliberately by one of the collectible “power-downs” as I mentioned, where the perspective drops to an even lower "over the shoulder" viewpoint. But even the default view can catch you out more than it perhaps should.

There’s also screenshake. Yes, it’s the height of fashion of course, juice up your game by having the camera wobble with every explosion. But I find it too much in Caromble! when I’m trying to maintain concentration. The screenshake goes off even when something good happens, something you intended. It doesn’t add impact to you losing, it just makes winning harder when you’re winning.

Score drops, for my money, should be easier to see. Or possibly have a setting to make them clearer and brighter if you want them to be. Points aren’t particularly important in the campaign, but if you’re trying to complete a score-based challenge you really need to collect every drop you can. I miss them. A lot. It can be hard enough to read the screen when there’s so much going on, and the score drops are the first thing to get lost in the chaos.

And finally, I don’t find the boss-fights particularly exciting. They consist of skill-shotting the ball into a large moving target, while avoiding the shots coming back at you. In practice, I find it more of a random process: hitting the ball anywhere, hoping its future trajectory coincides with the future position of an unpredictable target, before that trajectory coincides with the position of an enemy shot and stops me hitting the ball again. These fights actually only make up a small part of the game, and don’t last long enough for this to really detract significantly from the fun overall.

But hey, I’m picking holes here of course - this is a brilliantly realised example of the form, and if you think it’ll appeal to you then you’re almost certainly right.

Eight years in the making, Caromble! looks and sounds super polished. There’s no questioning the love and attention that’s gone into the art direction, and the gameplay and level design is mostly excellent. Even if you don’t hanker for the bat-n-ball glory days there’s plenty in Caromble! to enjoy. And while I can’t help but doubt it will be the vanguard of a new wave of Breakout-likes, it does show there’s still innovation to be found in this classic genre.

I was given a free Steam key for this game. All views are my own.

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