Shin'en, probably best known for their Nanostray shooters on the Nintendo DS, decided to toss their hat in the increasingly crowded ring of WiiWare puzzlers. Instead of rehashing another dumbed-down clone of an existing idea, however, they've instead taken the basic idea of stacking and built one of the most unique WiiWare titles to date around it all.
The basic premise of Art of Balance is a simple one - stack a given set of shapes up without having them fall into the water below. While this starts out simple enough, you'll soon get shapes with rounded edges to deal with, not to mention blocks with certain unique limitations on them. Some shapes have a timer on them that will start counting down once a shape is stacked on top of them: when the timer reaches zero, the blocks will break, causing all blocks stacked on top of them to fall. There are also shapes that have weight limits, which means that you can only stack a certain number of shapes on top of them until they break. As you progress through some of the tougher challenges, these stipulations can start to make for a tricky stacking process and one that will need some serious trial and error in order to complete.
There are two modes of play in Art of Balance. Arcade Mode is the story mode of the game and allows you to progress through the many levels in the game at your leisure. You can even bring in a second player to help you out in a cooperative fashion, although this can lead to arguments when the other player causes your beautiful stack to come crashing down. This mode presents you with various types of challenges: the normal levels merely require you to stack the given set of shapes up without having them fall into the waiting water below. Once you place the last block in place, the structure must stay above water for three seconds, indicated by three lights at the bottom of the screen. Some levels will also set a time or height limit that must be met in order to add even more challenge to the mix.
If you feel like a little competitive action, you can play the game's Versus Mode. In this mode, the screen is split and you'll take on an opponent in a race to complete a puzzle and win the round. You can even set the number of rounds for each match to five, seven or nine rounds, depending on your preference for the length of time you want to play. These versus matches are basically the same levels you'll unlock in the Arcade mode, so don't expect anything you haven't seen before if you've played through the main game. It does add a nice layer of intensity to the overall experience and is a great way for two players to enjoy the game at the same time.
Shin'en have done a fantastic job of taking such a rudimentary gameplay idea and turning it into one of the most addictive puzzler experiences available on WiiWare to date. The game features the same type of engaging gameplay that made World of Goo such a hit on the service. The controls are easy to pick up and perfectly implemented using the Wii Remote's motion sensors. The game also features a very smooth and gradual increase in difficulty to allow players of all ages and skill levels to get into and enjoy what the game has to offer. About the only downside to the game is that once you begin playing it, you won't want to put it down.
Visually, Art of Balance is a bit hit or miss at times. Some areas are quite polished, but some of the backdrops tend to display a lot of jagged edges in their 3D designs. The rather smooth look of the blocks and shapes tend to make this stand out even more by comparison. There's a lot of eccentric artwork in the various scenery that adds charm to the surroundings, but you can't help but wish that the developers had gone with a more 2D look to smooth things out a bit more.
The music is almost as offbeat as the surroundings in the game. There's plenty of booming bass beats and quirky sound effects to enjoy throughout the game's many levels, though most tracks tend to sound very similar in style, so they can become a bit repetitive for those who spend large chunks of time with the game during overly lengthy playing sessions. Given the fact that it's a puzzler, it's difficult to complain too much about the slightly average audio presentation.
At its core, Art of Balance is an extremely simple gameplay idea that's executed perfectly. Not only are the physics absolutely spot-on, but the intuitive control scheme made possible by the Wii Remote makes playing the game easy and fun. It might lack a bit of the visual and musical polish that World of Goo featured, but there's a similarly addictive gameplay experience that's nearly impossible to put down once you begin playing it. Art of Balance is easily one of the most engaging titles to hit WiiWare in a very long time and with 100 levels to tackle, it's well worth the 800 Wii Points it will cost you.