Review: Doughlings: Arcade

Somewhere in another dimension, a race of culture appropriating doughballs with arms and bulbous, expressive eyeballs has become infected by poison gas after the crash landing of a meteor on their home planet. The lives of these infected beings, the titular Doughlings, are now left in the hands of Doctor Morpheus, a heroic Doughling who has discovered the cure to save his toxic kin. The catch is that this remedy must be administered in the form of a ball that gets smacked up against their multi-colored noggins. Sounds like a silly enough setup for a brick-breakin’ good time, no?

Doughlings is a freshly baked hybridization of traditional Arkanoid brick busting and bubble-shooting puzzlers like Bust-a-Move (aka Puzzle Bobble), plus some winks and nods to other classics like Peggle and Dr. Mario. Each level consists of a configuration of Doughlings clinging together in the play area hanging over the open bottom edge of the screen, where the paddle, in the form of Morpheus, is slid side to side by the player to protect the ball from dropping out of play while simultaneously ricocheting it back up at the ailing Doughlings. As a timer bar displayed across the top of the screen ticks down, the stack of sick Doughlings creeps another space down toward the bottom, limiting the room you have to safely ping the ball around. Unlike a true puzzle game, though, should any of the Doughlings reach the bottom of the screen they simply drop off rather than cause the game to end. The only way to fail a level is to blow through your pool of lives.

Doughlings come in different colors, on a range of red, yellow, green, and blue, which indicates the severity of their infection as well as the number of times they need to be hit in order to be cured and removed from play. For example, a red Doughling turns to yellow on the first hit, then to green, and then blue. As the game progresses, new types of hostile Doughlings are thrown at poor Doctor Morpheus. Doughlings sick with the flu periodically spit gooey green germ wads down at the paddle. Psychos move side to side, displacing hapless Doughlings so they drop like stones at Morpheus’s head. Killers attack adjacent Doughlings, causing them to turn into petrified stones that are no longer able to be cured but can be broken after a few hits. Then there are the Ghosts which randomly teleport around to fill in open gaps and cause spontaneous deflections.

More than just different types of Doughlings, various obstacles and prop elements are steadily introduced to keep you on your toes over the course of the game’s 75 main stages (plus another 15 bonus challenge levels). Wooden totems withstand all ball damage and can only be dislodged from the board by severing connections to overhanging spaces. Meteorites leak poison gas when hit, further infecting adjacent Doughlings until they eventually become petrified. There are also exploding mines and even portals that warp the ball to other areas.

The game’s primary distinguishing characteristic is its Show Off mechanic. Once a blue Doughling has been hit and cured, it flies off the screen and leaves behind a cascading thumbs-up collectible called an Excitement. After catching enough Excitements to fill the spotlight meter, Morpheus charges up a show off move, which varies depending on his current persona. Yes, as it turns out Morpheus is something of a jack-of-all-trades superhero among the Doughlings thanks to his ability to transform into different personas. Each level contains different DNA helixes hanging amidst the clusters of ill Doughlings, and by hitting and catching them Morpheus rewrites his DNA to embody one of his alter egos, temporarily becoming augmented with a unique passive trait to go along with a special show off move.

Smash juices Morpheus up like The Hulk, enlarging the paddle and becoming impervious to falling objects while allowing you to charge up for a Thunderclap strike that heals all Doughlings on the screen. Morpheus’s Robo persona adds a magnetic field to the paddle, causing the ball to stick on contact so you can manually aim every time, while his show off is a Cyclops-style eye beam laser blast that shoots straight up to clear away everything in its path. Morpheus does his best Max Payne impression as Gunner, gaining a bullet time slow-mo show off while packing a pair of pistols that can manually fire healing bullets upward from the paddle. Then there’s Webster, Morpheus’s attempt to assume the role as your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man by lobbing two balls into play at once and spinning a protective web that seals the bottom of the screen so the ball can’t be lost.

In addition to Morpheus’s standard form, there are six different personas in total, unlocked at predetermined points in the level progression. For some RPG skill tree flavor, each persona can be upgraded to gain evolved perks using special tonics that are accrued like skill points. Each level rewards a number of tonics upon completion based on a scale of one to three golds stars, which are a form of collectible found during live gameplay just like the Excitements and DNA helixes. Getting caught in situations where a star is falling at the same time as the ball and you can only react to one brings in a fun element of risk versus reward. Do you sacrifice a life heart to catch a star and reduce your margin for error moving forward? Or do you prioritize completing the level first and then come back later to replay for a 3-gold-star rating and the full tonic payout?

Like a bubble puzzler, when launching the ball into play you’re given a targeting guideline with an opening opportunity to pinpoint exactly where the ball will hit. Once the ball is in play the game unfolds in the traditional fashion of a brick-breaker. The scoring system, which is accompanied by a cumulative score leaderboard and a top three scorers spotlight table for each level, centers around a combo system whereby each hit adds points to your score, while consecutive hits during a single bounce multiply the point value for each successive hit before resetting once the ball next touches the paddle. Another risk-reward dynamic comes into play as any unstuck Doughlings drop down, because if Morpheus gets hit the lateral paddle movement slows down and a score penalty is incurred. So you’re almost always forced into a predicament of deciding when to go after collectibles and when to let them pass. Overall, though, luck of the bounce makes the scoring system feel a little too arbitrary for my tastes, so I never felt a strong draw to replay levels for the purpose of improving my score.

One of the features I am most grateful for is the automatic level completion countdown. I’m not sure of the exact cutoff number, but once you’ve whittled the board down to the last handful or so Doughlings an announcer proclaims, “the end is nigh,” at which point the timer bar at the top enters a countdown to a forced level shutdown. This gives you a last chance to score a few more points and try to finish the stage outright while also ensuring that you never get stuck in the common brick-breaker conundrum where there’s one or two last Doughlings that seem to be at awkward angles that the ball just won’t hit.

I have to applaud Hero Concept for offering robust control options, including individual configurations for mouse, keyboard, and gamepad, with the ability to adjust sensitivity and rebind all buttons/keys. The controls are on point, and the ball speed moves at an ideal pace, hitting the sweet spot between neither too slow nor too fast. Regarding ball physics, my only minor complaint is that the ball seems to be calculated for only a couple different angles when deflecting off the paddle. You can hit the ball going more side to side off the walls, or deflect it upward at more of a 45-degree angle, but there isn’t any sense of nuanced control to hit subtler angles in between.

Kudos to Hero Concept for also including a level editor with sharing functionality. The toolset allows you to build custom level designs–as small as 12 rows and as large as 96 rows–using a simple interface where the different Doughlings and prop objects are slotted into a honeycomb grid, one by one by clicking individual nodes or by clicking and dragging to quickly paint a particular object across a large area. There are only three background themes and two objective types, but thanks to the different Doughling colors there is enough leeway to get creative or replicate familiar iconography. For example one user created a level with the Doughlings shaped as the Google logo. Someone else made a cute ducky. The user community isn’t exactly booming, but so far around 25-30 stages have been created and shared in the first two weeks of the game’s availability, which isn’t too shabby.

Doughlings is by no means a cakewalk, but I never really found the game to confront me with a robust sense of challenge. Over the 90 total stages, which took me somewhere in the ballpark of 8-10 hours to complete with all gold stars, I met a full game over no more than a dozen times, and the cause of death most of the time was getting greedy in going after falling stars when I shouldn’t have. So even though the game does a splendid job of introducing new elements damn near all the way up to the last stage, there is a point where the experience flat lines just a wee bit. Maybe there could have been different objectives or perhaps even boss battles of some kind, just to provide a clearer change of pace. Still, even as it grows somewhat samey after a while, the game remains consistently fun and upbeat throughout. Given its approachable difficulty curve and infectiously cheerful personality, I would say that Doughlings: Arcade hits the spot just right as a casual, for-all-ages brick-breaker bubble-shooter mashup. Mechanically, the game sticks to the ball-and-paddle script, and yet it still discovers clever new ways to enliven a well-worn genre.

BuyIt

Game Info:
Platform: PC/Mac (also coming later to Switch and Xbox One)
Publisher: Hero Concept
Developer: Hero Concept
Release Date: 5/8/2018
Genre: Arcade/Brick-Breaker
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Players: 1 (plus online leaderboards and user-created level sharing)

Source: A Steam key for Doughlings: Arcade was provided to VGBlogger.com for review consideration by Hero Concept.

Buy From: Steam for $4.99.

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!