Some developers, like Graffiti Entertainment, are still releasing games on the good old GBA, a tried and true platform with a great library to peruse for inspiration. Graffiti’s latest offering, Back to Stone, offers a quality gameplay experience even late in the GBA’s life. It’s a long, difficult quest with a cool story, but also some of the oldest flaws of GBA titles.
The plot (described in a slick opening cinematic) follows an unnamed protagonist who just happens to live in a post-apocalyptic future. Humans have lost a war with a group of inter-dimensional demons, and the remaining population of homo sapiens is enslaved and subjected to arcane experiments. Our hero is one such subject, and has gained the power to turn flesh into stone with his hands—thus, the game’s title.
This ability leads to some very creative gameplay. Every enemy has the potential to become a projectile, shield or puzzle element. Jumping on stones can lead the hero to unreachable areas, and striking one sends it off at high speeds to collide with other enemies. Obtaining magic power for extra attacks is accomplished through indirect use of the stones. To make a magic crystal powerup appear nearby, a stone must be maneuvered onto an accompanying panel. As the game progresses, getting a stone to a panel becomes an increasingly complex task, which breaks up the monotony well.
A number of other panels give the stones special properties. A stone will crumble after a few seconds, and one panel fixes this by making the stones last indefinitely. I was quite surprised when I shoved a stone onto an orange panel, and it transformed into a walking creature and proceeded to kill all the surrounding enemies.
The one aspect of the gameplay that I felt wasn’t used enough was the main character’s dual nature. If he loses enough health, he’ll transform into a demon—another result of the experiments. It is important to the story, but turning into a demon only lets you know you’re getting low on health, and the hero gains no special abilities. He sprouts huge wings, why couldn’t there be some cool puzzles that required him to fly?
The downfall of this game comes not from its creative story or gameplay, but mechanical issues. Back to Stone is played from an isometric perspective, which makes the D-pad controls somewhat awkward. The puzzles require precise movement, so the problem is exacerbated by the confusing direction-mapping. I fell to my death more than once because of the controls, and had to re-start a puzzle many more times after my stone crumbled.
The visuals of this game have some issues too. The sprites are colorful and well animated, but the backgrounds are pixilated and ugly, and don’t scale too well. Text boxes are hard to read due to this graininess, but the frame rate at least stays lively. Music is much better than the graphics, with some surprisingly epic tunes that don’t get repetitive. Sound effects are a little on the rough side, but it never distracts much.
Most of these shortcomings would have been forgiven, if not for one grievous fault: a password save system. Save spots within the game are only for the convenience of restarting from a previous point while you’re still playing; turn the game off, and the only way to restore your progress is through password entry. This cumbersome and ancient system has no place on the GBA, especially not in its last wave of software.
If not for these problems, Back to Stone would have been a very enjoyable game. Its quest is long, its enemies and bosses challenging for even hardcore gamers, and its story interesting and original. I’d really like to see a sequel or remake on the DS, with new abilities involving the stones, like dragging or throwing them with the stylus. More focus on the demon/human duality would be a welcome improvement too, and of course the password save should be replaced with battery or flash backup. Even if the first game wasn’t all that hot, Back to Stone has serious potential as a franchise.
Back to Stone is an honest try at a puzzle/actioner hybrid, but its technical limitations mire it in the past. Sketchy graphics, frustrating controls and an archaic password save system kept the game from being immersive enough. Still, the story and gameplay were solid, and there is definitely room for a sequel.
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