Creatively, the world of Ballpoint Universe: Infinite possesses an enchantingly bizarre kind of beauty that sets it apart. It truly feels like a tribute to the underappreciated act of doodling, where both mind and pen wander to create wide, rolling swaths of who knows what. This is only the visual part of Ballpoint’s design, however; its design as a game is not as brilliantly crafted, unfortunately, and may rub out the overall experience for some players.
Ballpoint Universe’s gameplay is divided between side-scroller shooting and basic platforming action. As the main character — a simple, bird-like doodle freshly birthed from the Idea Spring — you quickly get drafted into a war against the more measured and way less whimsical Logicians. While traversing the land through the short main story, other fellow doodles will provide missions where you’ll pop into a paper fighter plane and crinkle some butt.
Again, the scenery throughout this trip is uniquely gorgeous. While a slight feeling of familiarity with the Paper Mario series is nigh unavoidable as your character travels between layers of the foreground and background, Ballpoint Universe’s style still feels truly its own creature. Everything is crafted by simple pen, but there’s variation between locations and characters ranging from psychedelic to ornate. One battle section may be occupied with more cartoonish-looking owls and seedlings (with guns), while another leans toward a fancy playing-card look. It’s all fun to witness, and the music often blends with visuals well enough that you might forget there’s a fight going on.
When it comes to the platforming, though, you’ll be seeing some areas more than others not by choice, but because you’re attempting a series of jumps for the 17th time. The platforming controls are not well-tuned, and the aforementioned jumping feels especially awkward. Why, then, the game would make you go through sections that are nothing but ledge climbs or hops between rotating contraptions is beyond comprehension.
Besting these areas is not impossible — it's just frustrating. You always get set back to an adjacent checkpoint after falling, and the GamePad helps by providing a zoomed out view that’s much better for platforming. Still, these sections feel repetitive and near-torturous, with no substantial reason for them to exist; the way your doodle doesn’t always respond to a jump command adds even more to grumble about. Your doodle is a little floppy by nature, sometimes running down a hill only to fall face-first on the way --it’s cute at first, and adds some character, but loses its quirkiness when it interrupts what you actually want to do.
The shooter sections prove much more fun, even if they too aren’t perfect. Your ship, which looks cool enough to honour the inside of any Trapper Keeper, has slots for top and bottom weapons, a nosepiece for special attacks, and side-decorations for extra boosts and effects. There’s a good selection of all these products that can be purchased and upgraded with ink, the game’s currency, and it will take quite a while for completionists to build the full arsenal.
Weapons are divided into guns and melee, with the option to one of each or two of either. While the guns are controlled entirely by the player, the melee weapons (swords, spears, chainswords, etc.) activate automatically when an enemy is within range. The fact that melee weapons tend to be much stronger than guns, combined with the way ink quickly disappears after emerging from a defeated enemy, adds incentive to get up close and personal. Balance that with a special attack meter that fills as you vanquish foes but resets as soon as you’re hit and now you have some good tension.
Or you’d have more of it, anyway, if most of the guns weren’t so weak that you’ll often end up resorting to close quarters just because it’s more effective. The ranged weapons in Ballpoint — at least those reasonably available as you first play through the game — feel weak and inaccurate, almost like you’re shooting straws. There’s not much satisfaction in spraying baddies with bullets as there is in hacking at them directly, which feels odd for this kind of game. If and when you do pick up a better gun, however, blasting through waves of enemies feels a lot more like a whole experience. Conversely, there’s no reason the game can’t be a fully melee-based experience if you want to ditch the lead altogether.
The main story of Ballpoint can be completed in just a few hours, but the Infinite mode can provide lots of replayability for those who enjoy surviving wave after wave of increasingly swarm-like hordes mixed with bosses. There are also Golden Sketches and other items to collect, but whether you want to take a side jaunt in a platforming section to grab some of them is a matter of personal patience.
Ballpoint Universe: Infinite has so much going for it as an aesthetic experience that those who greatly appreciate art and style in games could very well accept the game’s flaws and still walk away perfectly happy. Strip away the pretty covering, though, and players who highly value mechanics might not find as much pleasure. This is a game that depends on one’s personal tastes, but it’s hard to deny there’s potential here; it would certainly be pleasing to see more ideas from Arachnid Games’s notebook in the future.