Rock of Ages
In what’s only their second attempt, Ace Team has already created a game that defies clean classification. In their combination of relatively common conventions, each one incompatible by definition, the Chilean developer draws deeply from the dramatic style of the Theatre of the Absurd. Their assertion seems to be in-line with the class of theatre; by refusing the value of things like art, reason, and representation of actual life in favor of the absurd, their game will be all the less monotonous for it.
Over the course of the game, players direct boulders through gauntlets of obstacles, making their way down the tracks with the objective of crashing through the enemy’s castle gates and crushing the leader on the other side. Everything’s stylized, set in some kind of nonsensical baroque period which interconnects unrelated groups of people and ideas and is reflected with the dynamic of clashing concepts and general design. There’s a significance given to the mass of each boulder, allowing the feel of complete control over the rock’s momentum. It’s in directing the boulders through the increasingly complex stages that Rock of Ages excels and makes a case for being accessible to anyone.
It’s after the rock’s either failed to crash through the gate or has been whittled away into nothing that the hook pulls away. In each race, there’s a symmetrical, mirrored image of the track and your own tower which requires defense near the bottom. Through a wheel of emplacements, you’ll have to sort through all of the options and get them situated within a minutes time and the game just never allows for the precision it demands. The difference between a troop of war elephants and a mine which provides extra cash flow may just be enough to clinch the lead. This portion’s devalued by the feeling each game eventually comes down to a straight race. This part’s all secondary. There’s no feeling of balance or any equality between the play types and it feels like something tacked-on, where it could’ve been so essential. This is far better in multiplayer, where players routes often feel more predictable, and while it’s good fun in local play, the online’s been fading quickly since release.
Each single-player level’s given neat animated theatrical intros, making clear allusions to the body of work that likely inspired it and sometimes drawing more heavily on the futility of things without ever really presenting a clear statement, or any objective, exactly. Oddly formulaic in its linear structuring, we’re given rounds of gameplay mixed with boss battles against the embodiment of each age; hulking pieces of art that we must destroy. There’s a couple ancillary modes – skee-ball and time trials challenges for each course, and while they’re fun in multiplayer, they lack the whimsical, cheaply made asides on art history and context that make the game fun, in its own absurd way.
There aren’t many games that fully embrace this brand of absurdity, where the cultural highs of classical sonatas and art history meet the lows of internet culture. But here it is – against all odds – Rock of Ages found a release. And there’s something good about that.
It’s not something that will attract most people and is not familiar to any individual game but strikes a resemblance to several. The feeling is that if at any point Rock of Ages made an appeal for anything beyond a niche audience, the concepts were quickly scraped and replaced with something aggressively weird. In trying to differentiate themselves, Ace Team have created something special for a select audience who’s able to fully embrace its peculiar nature. That it doesn’t appeal to everyone will likely only strengthen this appeal.