It’s hard to recover from a bad first impression. That’s the story of Pool Panic, the newest title from Rekim and Adult Swim Games. From the announcement trailer, you might think you’re in for a comedy adventure game with hats, but that’s not the case. Everything from the trailer is in the game, but not in the right context. More than anything Pool Panic is a puzzle game, a spin on traditional billiards.
You play a cue ball with legs in a world of anthropomorphic billiard balls. The world feels real and lived in thanks to strong art direction and a cartoonish style packed with color and character. Of course, billiard balls don’t have arms, so they use a variety of mechanical hats to help them with basic tasks. Likewise, a network of ball rails makes for a fun and immersive fast travel system. Everything about the visuals is incredibly charming, but it’s tough to say the same about gameplay.
The goal of each level is to pocket the black ball. You do this by using a giant pool stick to send your ball hurling toward the others. It's like normal billiards, but with more concussions. Of course, you can’t just sink the black ball because some levels have them hidden and others require you to pocket a set of other other balls first, each with their own shtick.
The gimmicks are a lot of fun. Pool Panic has over 100 levels and every single one has something new and interesting to offer. Usually, there's a new feature or two to discover and a catch to throw you off. For example, one ball acts like a TRON light cycle, leaving a permanent wall of light in its wake. The catch is that pockets close after receiving one of these balls, meaning you have to assign balls to pockets ahead of time. It' a puzzle that's simultaneously challenging and visually interesting. However, most levels sacrifice the challenge for fun. There’s air hockey, fishing, wild west shootouts, mosh pits, porta-potty tipping, and tense boss battles. It's like a carnival; there are a hundred things to do all vying for your time and attention.
Pool Panic is constantly tugging at your sleeve, excited to show you it's next attraction. Unfortunately, the variation and pacing of levels feel a little too extreme. It seems like no one could decide if this is a puzzle game or a goofy comedy game. As a result, it's unclear who the intended audience is. Quirky levels aren’t challenging and challenging levels aren’t quirky.
Fans of the puzzle genre will find Pool Panic pretty shallow. Levels rarely build on previous concepts and if they do, it’s typically within the same biome. All the focus is on the absurdity of a cue ball fighting zombies and robbing a bank, rather than interesting gameplay. The only spike in difficulty comes from understanding what you're supposed to do with new balls and scenarios. While new gimmicks may throw you for a loop, it would be far more engaging to truly develop and expand upon existing ideas. There's no sense of pacing or direction to the overworld. As a result, every level is designed for someone who just picked up the controller. That design philosophy is the antithesis of most puzzle games.
To be fair, maybe Pool Panic is only incidentally a puzzle game. Still, it raises the question as to what it’s trying to do. Balls primarily use gimmicks to dress a scene, rather than contribute to an interesting or well thought out puzzle. It’s like you’re walking through someone’s diorama. You can appreciate all the hard work that went into setting it up, but your only purpose in being here is to destroy it.
Perhaps the best of these dioramas is the overworld with its varied biomes and visual gags. Thankfully, the visuals never leave you feeling fatigued because there’s always something new to see. If the grotesque textures of the birthday biome aren’t your thing, maybe you’ll prefer the silhouetted boardwalk. Most impressively though is the practical use of the overworld to visualize your progress.
Completing a level contributes to the growth of a tower at the center of the map. Interestingly, this cue-stick-shaped skyscraper has a white tip. Historically, billiard balls and pool cue ferrules were made of ivory. So the ultimate goal of Pool Panic is to literally build an ivory tower. Intentional or not, that's probably the best joke in the game.
Growing the tower unlocks the finale and other bonus goodies, one of which is hard mode. This finally offers a challenge, but for all the wrong reasons. Hard mode features the final boss on every single level. If it touches you, you go back to the overworld. That’s it. It's also buggy because the boss frequently clips through the floor, making its movements invisible. You’ll return to the overworld with no idea what happened, especially on levels without a traditional table. It feels like it wasn't playtested. The only new challenge is dodging a largely invisible homing missile. It won’t impress puzzle fans and other players probably won’t touch it. Hard mode is optional, but why include it at all?
Aside from story mode, Pool Panic includes four-person local multiplayer. These modes are OK, but nothing to write home about. Multiplayer seems designed more for the Nintendo Switch version since you need controllers to play multiplayer on PC.
Truthfully, you'll be better off with a controller. When I first picked up the game, I thought it was unplayable. The mouse governs power and aiming at the same time and it just doesn't work. The top discussions on Pool Panic's forum are all about bad controls. The developer states they’re working on improving mouse controls, but that “twin stick controls are the preferred style of play.” There was no indication of this on the store page or in-game.
Controls are just the beginning of Pool Panic’s technical problems. The options menu is very basic. You can't change control bindings. There’s no audio mixer. There’s not even an option for resolution or a windowed mode. Even the camera works against you. There’s no way to see what’s off-screen or behind a prop. It comes back to the diorama example. Pool Panic is a treat for the eyes and imagination, but it’s not all that fun to play.
Jack of all trades, master of none; that's Pool Panic in a nutshell. Its puzzles aren’t challenging because it throws every idea it has against the wall with no regard for what sticks. In its haste to build an ivory tower, Pool Panic forgot to lay the foundation. All that said, fans of Adult Swim Games will probably find Pool Panic worthwhile. Just make sure you have a controller.
While nice to look at, Pool Panic would prefer you don't touch its elaborate set pieces. It has lots of potential but suffers from the shallow puzzles that make up its core gameplay.
- Beautiful Art and Color Palette
- Fun Scenarios
- Strong Gimmicks and Ideas
- PC Controls Suck
- Shallow Puzzles
- Broken Hard Mode
- Gameplay Never Reaches Full Potential