Back to Stone
As you wake up, waves of dread and sickness overwhelm you. After spewing up some bile and blood, you try to stagger to your feet, only to stumble backwards onto the stony wall of your cell. Trying to get your bearings is pointless; the room was designed to prevent any light from seeping in. You don’t know what time or day it is. You don’t know how long it’s been since you were thrown into this stinking hellhole. In that absolute darkness, the only things you can hear are the sounds of chains clanking and prisoners screaming as their routine torture begins. Before you can wipe away the blood dribbling off your chin, the door opens. You don’t have to squint against that glaring light to know who’s come to visit you. Your demonic master steps forward, kicks you hard in the stomach, and attaches a leash to the collar around your neck. It yanks you to your feet, and leads you out of the cell, prepared to administer God knows what kinds of new experiments on you.
This is what has become of the human race.
Mankind has seen better days. Before, advanced civilizations flourished with technology, ideas, and diverse populations. At least, until some generic nameless bad guy happened to come across a book of magic spells. After a little poking and prodding, the man figured out how to contact different dimensions. He eventually came into contact with some kind of demonic lord, who decided that mankind was in need of a little wakeup call. The lord summoned all of his forces and launched a full-scale assault on the planet. There were no epic showdowns, no chances of victories, and not even any cliche RPG heroes to save the day. The human race was enslaved, and demons claimed control over the world. Instead of merely killing off their countless prisoners, the demons decided it would be much more fun to breed them and use the population for their own research and magical experimentation.
Back to Stone features such a prisoner, a man who has been enslaved so long that he can’t even remember his name. The demons have used him as one of their guinea pigs, infusing his body with magical abilities. More specifically, the ability to change beings into stone with a mere touch of the hand. In this prisoner’s case, however, his human hands have been mutated into razor-sharp claws. His soul has also been fused with another demon’s aura; should he get injured or fatigued too badly, he’ll lose control over his human psyche and morph into his demonic counterpart a la Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Needless to say, it’s only a matter of time before a prisoner like this guy slips through the cracks of the system. Through sheer will, determination, and luck, our hero manages to escape his enslavement.
Now it’s payback time.
That’s assuming, of course, that he can figure out how to do it. Considering that the entire human race got its collective ass kicked, a lone man isn’t going to be very dangerous to the demons. Instead, much of the game will focus on the prisoner’s escape from the authorities and his attempt to reconcile with his inner demons (no pun intended). He’ll wander through back alleyways, walk the decrepit ruins of mankind’s greatest cities, and flee to the desolate countryside in search of hope and help. The only thing he has going for him are his cursed hands; when he gets surrounded by demonic foes and the monstrous underlings, he can use his fists to beat them into either bloody pulps or large blocks of stone. Should he charge up his magic meter, he can fire off a devastating laser beam to take out the tougher baddies. Unfortunately, this is only a one-shot deal; once you’ve used the special attack, you’ll have to wander the level to find more magic crystals to collect and recharge the meter. Considering how underdeveloped the special attack feature is, its usefulness is limited to the rare occasions when you face enemies that can take an exceptional amount of punishment.
Luckily, the prisoner’s stone-inflicting abilities prove far more useful. Though you’ll face a decent variety of trolls, dragons, blobs of slime, and man-eating plants, the majority of them will all turn to stone once you’ve mashed the attack button enough times. Armed with a new block of stone, our hero can use it to solve the various puzzles that dot the levels. Most of the basic obstacles will require you to use the blocks as steppingstones to higher ledges, weights to hold down switches, or activate panels. Blocks can also be placed on magical colored panels, which can infuse the stones with different abilities based on the color. Some blocks will become unbreakable, others will come to life and attack the remaining demons on the fields, and others will become makeshift time bombs. Some panels will transport the blocks into other areas of the stage or simply launch them to another platform. Unfortunately, these block puzzles prove to incredibly simplistic in design; veterans of The Legend of Zelda series and other adventure games will breeze through these half-assed puzzles with little effort.
The game tries to make up for this shortcoming by focusing on platforming throughout most of the levels. You’ll frequently have to walk down narrow walkways, maneuver along moving platforms, and make timed jumps to avoid obstacles. The problem is that the controls are just a tad too slippery for what the game demands; you’ll find yourself accidentally overstepping a ledge or missing your intended target. The game’s isometric camera angle doesn’t help matters, either; you’ll frequently misjudge the distance between you and the next moving platform, what directions you have to press to get in the desired direction, and which enemies are closest to you. It’s not like the game is forgiving of mistakes, either. Instead of featuring a usual saving file system, Back to Stone relies on lengthy codes to save your progress. When you come across a save panel in the game, a line of code will flash on the screen instead of prompting you to save. If you die and choose to continue the game, you’ll start off at the save panel. But if you turn off the game entirely and come back later, the game resets itself to the beginning, forcing you to rely on that extensive code that you probably didn’t write down. Considering the countless other GBA games that use save states instead of codes, this poorly implemented saving system is unforgivable.
The game doesn’t go to great lengths to impress its audience, either. Though the game boasts a decent variety of small levels, all of them possess a kind of grainy, muddy quality. If you squint, you can almost see the cracked concrete structures of the forgotten cities, the red glow of torches and flashed of electricity, overgrown vines, and green fields. All of the enemies are shown in bright colors, making them easy to discern from the rest of the area. Try as you might, you’ll never get a good look at the prisoner; despite some fairly rendered attack animations, his body is so pixilated that you can barely make out his white hair and dark outfit. He’ll look more interesting once he takes enough damage, though; with each hit he takes, he’ll become more monstrous, grow a little more wings, and eventually burst out with a scratchy roar and into full demonic and heavily pixilated glory. Such a lacking presentation is disappointing, considering that the GBA is capable of visual splendors like Golden Sun, Aria of Sorrow, and Metroid: Zero Mission. This presentation simply doesn’t measure up.
It’s sad. Back to Stone must have sounded great when it was still an idea scrawled on some drawing board, but the end result is far from excellence. Its story is fairly dark, offering a glimpse into a world where good doesn’t always triumph over evil. The idea of changing your foes into blocks and using them to solve puzzles is an interesting, if not unoriginal idea. The painfully simple puzzles, hindered platforming aspects, cruddy combat mechanics, pathetic presentation, and a truly loathsome saving system all combine to make this one of the last great disappointments on the GBA. So much for happy endings.