Ever since Breakout debuted in arcades in 1976, there has been an entire subgenre of games that followed in its footsteps. For the uninitiated, Breakout games have you playing as a “bat” that you can move back and forth along the bottom of the screen while trying to keep a bouncing ball in play and destroy blocks using the ball. If the ball falls past the bat then you lose a life.
There have been a lot of variations, but one thing that always bothered me about every game of the Breakout-style was that there were long dead times where you had no control over what was going on. You hit the ball back into the fray, it bounces around destroying blocks, and you don't interact with it again until it falls back down to the bottom. Shatter’s greatest quality is the elegant way it solves this issue with the genre.
Shatter is the latest of this type of Breakout-style game, and strangely enough there is even a story of sorts. None of this is ever explained explicitly, but apparently you are a bat that was kidnapped and taken to a factory to farm your kinetic energy. Here you endlessly smack a ball into a pump that takes the energy, but at some point your ball becomes supercharged and breaks through the tiny cage you were housed in. Now, you are on a quest to get back to your homeland where you and all the other bats will play Pong and live happily ever after. Each level is a wave of blocks who are trying to keep you from getting home.
It is a fairly ridiculous story when you take it at face value, but it is presented well and works for the gameplay. Not to mention that it’s the first game in this genre that I have played to even attempt at a coherent story, so it gets some credit just for trying something different.
At the surface the gameplay is much like any other Breakout-style game. There are blocks in your way, and you have to use your trusty bat and ball to break every block in the level. The bat is convex so you can bounce the ball at different angles depending on what part of the bat you use, and levels can put the bat on either the bottom or left side of a box shaped level or the bottom of a circular level. You will be surprised how much variety this adds to the gameplay and how differently a circular level plays compared to a square one.
What separates Shatter from other Breakout titles is your ability to push objects away as well as pull them towards you. The game explains this as the ability to suck and blow, and because I know the internet is a lot like a high school sexual education class I am sure someone out there just giggled. By holding L1 or L2 you suck in objects, including the ball, and by holding R1 or R2 you can blow them away. This ability gives you some control over the ball when not hitting it with the bat and allows the levels to require much more exact target hitting. Boss battles rely on this tactic since it would be next to impossible to hit some of these bosses in their weak points without the ability to control the trajectory of the ball. One nice feature is that the ball projects light in the direction it is traveling and you can see a little mark on the next surface it will hit. This makes it easier to tell how much you should suck or blow to change the ball’s path in order to hit your target. Pressing X releases a new ball. You can do it as many times as you have lives, so technically if you start out a level with six lives you could release six balls all at once, but if you lose them all you are done.
Blocks come in a number of varieties. There are your normal blocks that don’t move, blocks that move towards you but are light and can be easily blown away, and blocks that are heavy and are much more difficult to push. There are also some less common blocks that take a few hits to break, triangles that shoot forwards when hit and explode on their next contact to take out the blocks around them, or are constantly sucking things towards them or blowing away in a single direction. A common motif of later levels is to have a horde of moving blocks held back by a few stable blocks. This adds a bit of strategy to the game since shattering those stable blocks will send a reign of blocks down towards you and it would be best to avoid that. If one of these blocks hits the bat, it will be unusable for a second and you may lose your ball. Breaking apart blocks releases shards, which you can gather by sucking them in and use to fill up your shard meter. Pressing the Square button brings up a shield around your bat which makes it invincible and eats up your shard meter. If you fill up the shard meter completely, you can press Triangle to slow down time and shoot out all of the shards you have collected to help destroy blocks in the level.
All of these abilities make for a Breakout-style game that is inventive and a lot of fun. Story Mode takes you through a set number of waves in each “world” before fighting that world’s boss. The boss fights each had an easily-figured-out trick behind them as well as some simple pattern recognition, but having to control the ball to defeat them kept it interesting, as did how unique each boss fight was. There is also a Boss Rush mode, which is a time attack mode pitting you against each boss in succession, with a bonus round in which you have three balls and you try to keep from losing them as long as possible as they slowly increase in speed.
The visuals in Shatter are nothing earth-shattering from a technical standpoint, though they do try for a mindblowing type of psychedelic art style. Each level is presented as a two dimensional wave of blocks on top of a three dimensional backdrop. As you complete each level, you move through the three-dimensional space as though you are the bat trying to get home, and then you are presented with another two dimensional wave of blocks. This sets the stage of the story very well as you travel through fields of space crystals in your homeward bound journey. Little touches like how the walls bulge when hit by the ball are also welcome. There is no voiceover to be had, but the sound effects are appropriate, with a few sounding like they came straight from the original Breakout. Music is the star of the show, with each track being a bumping techno theme that fits well with the visuals and the gameplay.
Sadly, Shatter is another one of those PSN titles that is amazingly unique and fun, but over far too quickly. Playing through the Story mode’s ten worlds will take you around two hours if you are anything like me, and then once you have beaten that the only other content available are the boss rush mode and bonus modes which will only take 20 minutes and 5 minutes to get through the first time, respectively. Luckily, the game only costs eight dollars which makes the short playtime easier to swallow. One way that Shatter tries to increase its replay value is by having a prominently displayed scoring system for each mode and each world in story mode and a comparison of how you have done compared to everyone on your Friend list (by the way, I would like to let everyone on my Friend list know that I am severely whooping you). This gives the player some incentive to replay levels, but more importantly it also forces them to play in a different way if they want to go for a higher score. Letting blocks get past you decreases your score multiplier, which you gain by collecting shards. So, while it may be alright to dodge incoming blocks when you are just playing for survival, if you want to get the high score you need to be much more proactive and either destroy them or use the bat’s shield to take them out.
Shatter is an inventive take on the Breakout-style gameplay that was in great need of evolution. Being able to control the ball makes for much more interesting gameplay, and allows the developers to make level and boss design decisions that would be incredibly difficult or impossible to deal with using normal Breakout controls. I only wish there was more to the experience to be had, but what is there is definitely still worth the price.