App Reviewed on: iPad Air 2
User Interface Rating:
Replay Value Rating:
Mana Balls feels like an arcade game that was lost to time. To the best of my knowledge, the game's mechanics are completely unique, even though they feel like they'd be right at home in a 90s era arcade cabinet. If I had to rate Mana Balls based on originality alone, it would earn some high marks. Unfortunately though, the game is rife with free-to-play design that feels tuned to generate the same level of frustration you might feel from playing a money-grubbing arcade game from back in the day.
In Mana Balls, you play as Miki, an unlikely hero on a mission to save the world by collecting scattered mana. You control Miki as he floats at the bottom of the game screen by tapping on the sides of the screen to make him move from side to side. Your ultimate goal in a level is to collect balls of mana without letting any of them get by you. If you miss any balls of mana in a level, you lose. This may sound extremely simplistic and punishing, but you have some tools beyond maneuverability to make Mana Balls's gameplay a bit more interesting and dynamic.
At any point in a stage, Miki can fire a beam of light across the bottom of the screen which prevents mana balls from falling off screen by bouncing them back up into the air. As you get further into the game, Miki gets elemental powers like a wave ability that can save mana balls even after they've made their way past you. These tools allow Mana Balls to create interesting challenges that feel like action-oriented physics puzzles, as opposed to an experience that is purely twitch-based.
In addition some variety in Miki's powers, Mana Balls also builds levels around different kinds of mana balls. Some mana balls can't be collected unless you've bounced them using Miki's beam of light on them first, while others may spin at random, causing them to shoot off at odd angles when bounced. There are also dark mana balls, which hurt Miki and must be avoided.
Each stage in Mana Balls presents a different distribution of all these balls across several waves, and you need to clear every wave before you can advance to the next level. You don't need to be perfect in clearing all these waves, but if you run out of your three lives in a level, you have to try it again from the beginning.
Given this setup, it's easy to see how Mana Balls could work as an arcade game. You insert a quarter, play through increasingly difficult levels, and pay more to keep going if you run out of lives. This is basically how the game works on mobile too, though instead of paying, you exchange different currencies to enter levels and continue in them.
This might not be so bad if Mana Balls had a more randomized level progression and/or didn't ramp up its difficulty too quickly. Unfortunately though, Mana Balls has set levels that get intensely difficult almost instantly. As a result, it's very easy to get stuck on levels and be tempted to spend premium currency to keep trying to pass levels, only to then feel the urge to buy more currency just to keep playing the game.
To be fair, this monetization scheme on its face is not so bad. There aren't pop-up ads, you can play it offline, and you aren't spending the premium currency on a virtual slot machine. Still though, the way Mana Balls really ramps up the challenge in a set level progression feels intentional, and not in a way that makes me feel good about playing it.
The bottom line
Mana Balls has an amazing and unique core, but it has an annoying free-to-play layer draped on top of it. It feels like it is designed to be so hard that you have to engage with its monetization, not because it wants to give a satisfying challenge. If you want to check out the cool concept that is Mana Balls, there's nothing stopping you from downloading it. Just know that the game itself will put up roadblocks to your enjoyment pretty early into it.