I often imagine a game designer’s most vital tools are those capable of distilling human imagination into a series of 1s and 0s–the software and hardware that assist in creation. Even as a writer of words and a composer of music, I’ve long abandoned pencils, protractors, and manuscript pads in favor of word processing and electronic musicianship. In such a world, what is the value of simple paper and pen?
The creators of Ballpoint Universe Infinite have found great value in those basic tools, crafting a surreal and striking world out of ballpoint ink strokes. Stepping into this universe is like waking in a Monty Python animation by way of Edwin Abbott Abbott’s novella Flatland. You first interact with the game in the fashion of a 2D platformer, your own character depicted as a long-beaked creature in a smock–or, perhaps, a radish atop a tortilla chip atop two toothpicks. Or more specifically, a cutout of a doodle of a radish atop a tortilla chip atop two toothpicks. You move left and right with the kind of awkwardness you imagine such a being would move: loosely and haphazardly. The clumsiness is amplified by Ballpoint Universe’s default mouse-only control scheme, which makes it all but impossible to perform precise jumps.
Fortunately, the game supports a controller, which makes it somewhat easier to navigate this weird and wonderful place. And Ballpoint Universe usually requires precision only as you near its close, though the scarcity of extended jumping sequences doesn’t make those that exist any less untoward. You explore the campaign’s overworld in this fashion, interacting with a cigar-chomping boot, a television wearing a ball cap who invites you to stare at him for a few hours, a floating cyclopic cephalopod, and a nerdy gatekeeper with a curious resemblance to comic strip character Dilbert.
These eccentrics live in a land that looks like the mad, marvelous ravings of a frustrated student manically scribbling the contents of his imagination during a particularly boring lecture. Columns, trees, and mechanical contraptions of unknown purpose have been scrawled on notebook paper and pasted onto the screen. Layered squares with drawings of skulls and skeletons depict the putrid soil underfoot. Thin lines snaking their way across ramps and walls recall the way ivy sprawls across brick facades. I wouldn’t call this place beautiful, exactly, but it demands that you pay attention to it. I couldn’t avert my eyes.
A universe is more than a planet, of course, and you spend most of your time playing Ballpoint Universe as a side-scrolling shooter, though Ballpoint Universe never approaches the kind of bullet hell associated with the genre. The imprecision of the platforming is evident in the shooting; it’s hard to tell just how closely your asymmetrical craft can approach an enemy before colliding, or even when an object is a dangerous obstacle or a harmless bit of background. But just as the overworld rarely requires exactness, the space missions don’t often test your twitch skills. Instead, they are more like raucous laboratories where you can try out different ship configurations to discover the most efficient ways of downing your foes.
Your ship’s four customizable slots allow you to outfit all sorts of upgradable guns, shields, and swords. Indeed, your craft supports melee weapons that slice up nearby attackers automatically when they draw near. Melee weapons have different attack ranges and arcs, and much of the fun comes from discovering just how closely you can approach peril before your space-sword swipes it away. The blobs of ink that annihilated foes leave behind further prompt you to fly directly into danger: this is Ballpoint Universe’s currency, and most of it evaporates away if you don’t swoop in and suck it up. The variety of weapons is one of the game’s best assets; there’s enough diversity among the various weapons in terms of range, power, and behavior that missions rarely feel stale, even if you’re facing enemies you’ve seen a few times before.
Those enemies are where Ballpoint Universe goes for broke. In one boss battle, an Elizabethan dandy with a ruffled collar and a pointy hat swings his sword and deflects your bullets, but this is no normal Elizabethan dandy with a ruffled collar and a pointy hat. No, this is a bizarre Shakespearean monster with its mirror image attached at the torso, as if someone had cut the figure of a king from a playing card and given him a massive shield and accordion arms. Your first encounters with this behemoth and others aren’t that difficult, but they can become tedious; before you bedeck your ship with upper-tier weapons, Shakespeare and friends are predictable bullet sponges that take forever to give up the ghost.
These eccentrics live in a land that looks like the mad, marvelous ravings of a frustrated student manically scribbling the contents of his imagination.
The resulting multi-minute slog isn’t very fun, but such tedium is limited to the early bosses, when you can afford only the dinkiest weapons. Even so, the initial stretches are still entertaining, with you weaving around enemy fire and swooping in close to intricately drawn angels of death so that your chainsword can soften their stings. Ultimately, you earn enough ink to power quite a ways through Infinite mode and its ceaseless waves of drifting deviants, and while Ballpoint Universe doesn’t feature the tightly controlled battles that characterize the finest shoot-’em-ups, its imaginative visuals and satisfying customization options are compelling driving forces.
I’d never visited a universe quite like this one, where polygonal beings called logicians resemble geometry problems snipped from a mathematics textbook. There’s a consistency to Ballpoint Universe’s inconsistent style: you wouldn’t suspect that walking rubbish bins and sentient isosceles triangles would occupy the same lands, yet the hand-drawn squiggles are the ties that bind, keeping the game from devolving into an unappealing mess of random images and ideas. Its action isn’t as sharp as its artfulness, yet Ballpoint Universe Infinite is too exuberant to ignore.