No New Leaf Left Unturned // Rock of Ages Review

german lung ashtray

I’m going to quit smoking tomorrow. Well, no — tomorrow I’m going to start the painful process of quitting. Past experience predicts a cowardly campaign riddled with retreats and pleading treaties with Future Me. But he’s a traitor, and just as weak. Within one month or two I’m at the 7-11 waving dollar bills like so many white flags.

But now my ultimatum is Online, and I’m hoping that might keep me honest. It’s in that same spirit that I’ll vow, with comparable solemnity, to post here once a week. In the next few days I’ll do a sort of Lightning Round with paragraph reviews of the various little indie gems I’ve been mining. Soon enough I’ll bring you up to speed on my collaborations with the PIGSquad folk — it looks like I might write a feature for Portland’s first (presently nameless) chiptune zine, so look forward to that. I’ll also pump out that KOTOR “After Pressing Start” and post it here if Nightmare doesn’t want it.

I won’t die a slow death if I lose this war, but I’m starting to think creative consistency will be just as important to good health. So here goes.

This post is maybe too short and too personal, so here’s some game stuff — an old review for Rock of Ages, a game I thoroughly enjoyed playing through a second time. The article was originally published by The Trail, our student newspaper at the University of Puget Sound — hence some formatting issues, a semi-academic style and such references as “semester” and “major.” Cheers.


It is possible, however unlikely, that as the semester progresses an all-too-familiar feeling of B.A. bitterness will begin to take root, a cynicism that inspires daydreams of traveling back in time to squash those over-hyped icons of art, philosophy and science with something very, very heavy—a boulder, maybe.

If this is beginning to sound familiar you will be delighted to hear that independent game developer ACE Team has recreated this fantasy in their imaginative, Aug. 31 release, “Rock of Ages,” a game of heavy things and suddenly flat historical figures.

Sisyphus—that famed king of Greek mythology who, if Classics majors will forgive my paraphrasing, was condemned to roll a rock up a hill forever—takes his fate into his own calloused hands and, strangely expressive boulder at his side, escapes the Underworld to take art history by storm. What follows is a light-hearted “Super Monkey Ball/Tower Defense” hybrid, a satisfying race from ancient Greece to Napoleonic France that sports a cerebral sense of humor and plenty of castle smashing.

Matches consist of somewhat imbalanced phases of attack and defense: players hurriedly build up their own defenses before rolling their respective big rocks down opposite slopes of a symmetrical map, veering past or blasting through elaborate resistance to raze the enemy gates and end the round with a squish. Defensive rounds give the impression of tactical depth (particularly as later levels grow intricate and diverse) but the brevity of set-up time restricts any serious strategy, feeling wasteful in the end. It really is tragic: defensive units are colorful and inventive, including tower-bearing mammoths, balloon-buoyed airships and cow-powered wind turbines.

If nothing else, defensive units are great fun for your charging boulder. On your way to reduce Louis XIV to a fine paste, expect to waste plenty of time demolishing trebuchets and wrecking flimsy towers. And thoughtfully, R.o.A. rewards your cartoony sadism with gold—use it to arm your boulder with spikes or flames to up the anarchy.

It turns out that sending massive stones screaming downhill has a certain universal appeal. But while core gameplay lends the game its heft, it is almost certainly the pleasantly ridiculous treatment of dry subject matter that transforms R.o.A. from an enjoyable distraction into a memorable diamond in the rough.


Cultural context informs the aesthetic of every level, and it is done so effortlessly that R.o.A. can afford to mess around a bit, producing a tone perfectly conducive to era-appropriate wit. The game’s humor really clicked with me during a battle with a gargantuan incarnation of Michelangelo’s David (hint—go for the groin).

Encounters with Europe’s cultural luminaries are strung together by a series of animated shorts that closely resemble Terry Gilliam’s work for Monty Python—perhaps too closely. Regardless, seeing the deified superstars of history speak gibberish, prance about and be flattened by immense bits of granite is pure pleasure—for this simpleton critic, at least.

It is not all nonsense and violence, though: ACE is acutely aware of R.o.A.’s position between high and low culture and gleefully toys with the resulting tension, tipping its cap to a handful of pseudo-historical pop-culture gems—Sisyphus goes toe-to-toe with 300’s Leonidas, and Gandalf the Grey makes a tragic cameo—while acknowledging its own role as cheeky cultural mediator with a subtle allusion to MST3k in the main menu.

ACE even manages to cash in on a couple trendy gaming tropes: Leonardo da Vinci stars in a painfully meta, Matrix-inspired commentary on the hapless role of the protagonist (à la Bioshock), and the resurgence of Reason at the dawn of the Enlightenment is embodied, hilariously, by the rampaging zombies of Plato and Aristotle—Dead Island, eat your rotting heart out.

The existence of “Rock of Ages” should “be celebrated,” Ludwig Kietzmann of Joystiq said, and he’s got the right idea—the creative work done by indie games in legitimizing the medium is invaluable, and minor technical imbalances are easy to ignore in the face of such vividly rendered imagination.

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