App Reviewed on: iPhone SE
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Subpar Pool is a new puzzle game from the developer behind holedown and rymdkapsel. In concept, it's a billiards game, but it also combines that with a little bit of mini-golf and a whole lot of video game nonsense. The end result is a game that gives you nearly endless possibilities for golf challenges on iOS, though some of these possibilities are more entertaining, rewarding, and functional than others.
Cues from golf
Rounds of Subpar Pool ask you to sink pool balls into pockets that also resemble golf holes. On each table, you have a certain number of shots to clear the table to get par, subpar, bogey, etc. Completing tables or hitting the shot limit moves you to the next table until you've completed a preset number of tables, or--if you go over the shot limit too many times--prematurely ends your run.
Your general goal is just to be efficient and effective at making shots, both to get some satisfying feedback from the game about your performance and to survive through the progression of tables. But this is also just the very tip of what Subpar Pool offers in terms of challenge. As you play, you also start unlocking "cards" that modify the game that include new types of balls, different courses, different rules, and a whole lot of sub-challenges that encourage and--of course--challenge you to play the game differently while still shooting efficiently.
Choose your challenge
As opposed to being a linear flow of challenges, Subpar Pool allows you to activate a certain number of cards per run, and each challenge is attached to a different kind of game modifier. With this structure, you can load up to mix and match challenges as much as you want given your card limit, or just focus on a single challenge at a time.
When you first start the game, you have just a couple of card slots and challenges to choose from, but as you get further into the experience you get a larger card limit and unlock a lot more modifiers and courses. Once this starts happening, certain challenges start having card requirements for completion that keep Subpar Pool moving along some semblance of a difficulty curve. The more varitey you unlock also leads you to learn certain card synergies that work well for completing challenges, which creates a fun meta-puzzle that allows you to find fun workarounds achieving certain objectives.
Fun when functional
All of this variability and variety of challenge makes Subpar Pool very compelling and replayable. I often find myself playing more rounds than intended to see what challenges will unlock next, and even without that incentive the intuitive control scheme and satisfying physics make knocking balls into holes feel like good, simple fun. It also helps that Subpar Pool has some charming and colorful visuals and is really easy to play on any iOS device thanks to its great landscape and portrait layouts and seamless iCloud syncing.
That said, there are definitely things about Subpar Pool that are somewhat baffling and can put a damper on the experience. There are times when playing where I really wish there was some kind of glossary or in-game resource that explained certain terminology like "long shot," for example, because there just isn't enough information to know if you are doing the right thing to complete a challenge or even know how a certain mechanic works.
It also doesn't help that Subpar Pool seems to have a few bugs that just add to the confusion. Challenges associated with achieving a certain amount of "flawless" tables in a run seem to move up and down, and certain ball types like the "splitter" that are supposed to break up into multiple, smaller balls on contact sometimes just don't, among other things. Between the lack of explanation and unexpected behavior, it's hard to tell how much of this is intentional, but in either case it can make some sessions with the game annoying.
The bottom line
Subpar Pool is packed with a ton of great ideas that mesh into a really neat experience when they behave the way you expect them to. The only problem is that this doesn't always happen, and it's very hard to parse exactly how or why this disconnect happens. It's still an enjoyable game, especially since the simple pleasure of making shots doesn't really get old, but it would be nice if the overall experience as a bit more consistent and clear.