Rekim, the developer behind Pool Panic, has done fantastic service to bringing the type of late-night, off-the-wall-&-certainly-not-on-the-pool-table oddball(s) cartoon that you’d expect to see under their publishing brand Adult Swim Games. The quirky charm and bright aesthetic brings out many of the wacky scenarios experienced in this game. On sheer presentation alone, Pool Panic fits right at home. The gameplay front will be hit or miss, however. It is as fun as it is frustrating and the feeling towards it will be different among everyone. For serious players looking for that perfectionist & completionist run, design choices can easily dampen the desire to do so. For everybody else looking to only play with a consistency of moving along naturally and taking it in as you go, there’s fun to be had and plenty to see.
The question must be asked. Is this really pool, even in the slightest way imaginable? I’d say it fits the bill(iards), just not bending the rules only a little bit, but breaking them into chaos that’s completely off the wall yet enjoyable. The breaking comes from your immediate drop in a tutorial that plays like a standard game of billiards and actually breaking a standard ball formation and pocketing balls on a plain ol’ pool table. What come after is a wonderful wacky direction that takes on the aesthetic of pool, but plays more closely to a physics-based puzzler. However, what is a physics-based puzzler if not pool? Pool balls with legs, faces and a mind of their own… now that’s another thing.
Players take on the “roll” of Cueball, free to walk around any setup to take shots at other balls who are often innocent yet sometimes bullies who deserve it. The golden rule of billiards remains in-tact most of the time and that is to pocket the required amount of balls before pocketing the 8-ball. This is the main goal for each level, but the amount of different scenarios which you’ll be thrown into are the main attraction here, there and who knows where. Pool Panic takes you to a variety of themed locations and sights found in in the world. After the brief introduction, Cueball is tossed onto an overworld map where players are free to explore in a semi-linear fashion. The style reminds me Cartoon Network had a take on Toejam & Earl in a way with the cosmetic design of Ittle Dew 2. While each level is interesting on its own, the world map is a tiny gameplay feature in and of itself serving as a moderately open hub. Some areas remained locked until a number you’ve met a particular requirement, but others on the map can be skipped in order. The map is all over the place and at times it can be a little confusing which area you would like to tackle next, but that’s part of the excitement. Adding that bit of exploration aspect adds a little more freedom and sense of discovery even if they’re just other levels.
More than 100 levels are found in the game to be clear here. Some are tinier billiard missions while some others require more effort in figuring out how they’re meant to be solved. Most levels are based in environments and use “real life” scenarios incorporated into the mix and other times they’re just not meant to make any sense at all. Included in style of levels are even different mini-games. Mini-golf with cannons anyone? The sheer variety of things to do in different ways in very admirable on Rekim’s bringing. There are even moments where situations could be defined as a boss fight in a way. Some irony of enjoyment and hilarity comes from entering a pool hall, challenging other pool balls to their style of game, beating them and drinking from all three of their juice box at once as they cry. It’s bizarre and is totally on the money of being absurd. Moments as such are scattered throughout Pool Panic and that alone the game excels are being enjoyable nonsense you can relax to and not have to question why.
Pool Panic is like one large carnival of oddities worth experiencing. How does it feel to participate in the actual attractions, though? Straightforward. Also off the rails at the same time. Players can move Cue with the left analog stick and complete the tasks at hand by aiming and knocking balls around in levels that have a fixed camera. Traditionally replacing the right analog for camera control is the direction of your shots. Players can freely move around and never have to remain stationary to take these shots. Similar to a slower twin-stick shooter in ways. It’s worth noting that there is an option to allow inverted aiming which is a plus for having a preference choice. What’s lacking is the option to change input configuration at all and the default input doesn’t feel as idea as it should.
There are two shot strengths, both light tap and a hard shot mapped to R and ZR respectively. “Shooting” and attacking with shoulder/trigger buttons should feel natural, but I found myself making unnecessary hand adjustments having to both hold my aim with the right analog and pressing R/ZR at the same time resulting in altering the destination of my shot during the moment of action. As it pains me to say, hitting balls actually feels fine. Physics can be a little imprecise, however. Objects and scenery which have their own physics attributes may not be in your favor during shots. Occasionally other balls may get stuck or meaningless sliding around of particular objects takes place. It’s not a grand flaw. In fact, being touted as “The least realistic pool simulator” should be taken for its word.
Realistically, Pool Panic is meant to be experience for everything it has to offer. Taking its challenge seriously will probably only add weight to an otherwise fun adventure meant to be taken lightly. While there’s no penalty to advancing despite the performance given (you just have to complete the levels in any way), players are still scored. Going for those perfect scores can seem like a nightmare. Simply because obtaining them on the first try is quite a long shot and repeating levels to get the score you want only adds to the aggravation due to 1) how imbalanced the difficulty is, and 2) it’s simply not a realistic pool simulator. Even taking just its physics into consideration, it’s fine and gets the job done, but it’s not perfect. As a person who likes to get the best score before moving forward, I simply lost the motivation to do so. Bummer.
Not required to be fulfilled, certain conditions are kept track of for each level: Completion time, not scratching Cue or the 8-ball in advance, pocketing all the balls (some are extra not required to complete the level), and taking a required amount of shots without going over the limit. There are several ranks within each of these and can be completed on different runs, but going for the gold rank is completely ridiculous. Shoot, even getting the perfect time on the very first level took me enough tries. Aiming works, but not reasonable enough to go for any kind of rank especially when you factor in imprecise physics and the camera not allowing you to see where you’d like to see. Luckily, the cursor changes from white to yellow when it’s aimed at a pocket, even ones you can’t see. It works. It’s just not ideal. It’s all about how the player chooses to tackles levels and challenges, but I feel that ignoring trophies reduces stress levels immensely. I found letting loose of certain aims made the overall experience of Pool Panic more rewarding; enjoyable, because it is.
Running into campsites, construction zones, theme parks, snowy areas, farms, graveyards, etc. The amount to see is the most thrilling aspect of Pool Panic. Sporting its cel-shaded, cartoonish art style with some hand-drawn 2D artwork mixed in with fully modeled characters looks clean and colorful like a modern day cartoon. The best part of having that amount of themed locations is to apply the many bizarre scenarios within them. As you further get into the map and play levels new types of balls are introduced. Player experimentation is inevitable. You simply won’t know how a ball reacts to your movement and your shots until you see for yourself. It’s weirdo factor is part of its charm. The personalities of each ball type are reflected in their mannerisms and facial expressions. Red balls that look depressed simply allow you to hit them. Yellow balls constantly look around in fear and should Cue get close, they begin to run away. Other balls have longer legs and smile with a certain cockiness that when a shot is taken at them, it’s as if Cue simply slips between their legs. Finding ways to deal with ball types is part of the challenge and when you add in different scenarios it plays out like a puzzle that you need to solve.
One such example is a boot camp level. Needing to pocket a certain amount of balls before knocking in the 8-ball, most balls seem to be hiding. As the drill sergeant, with his fine demeaning hat, stand in the middle of tents with a pole nearby, Cue is able to knock the poll a few times and raise the flag where the bell is sounded and the hidden balls sleeping in tent all create a formation by the pole. Stacked together, a nearby aggro ball who’s grilling and flipping burgers for summer time reasons, is able to direct his charged anger and create a area of effect sending balls in many direction. Seeing is play out is just bonkers, but there’s just many situations that play with this level of silliness. The creative angle in Pool Panic is simply a fun time.
What’s more is local multiplayer, up to 4 players, is a free-standing mode. Here, players can almost play a simple game of pool, but both players are on the table at once needing to knock in as many of the required balls as they can. The silliness factor is present here as well. Balls wearing different kinds of hats may be collected, allowing players to choose between many hats that suits them best. The sound, the music particularly, is also quite fitting. It feels like a blast from 90’s in both its electronic beats and rock riffs.
The game runs sharp at 1080p docked/720p handheld with an aim towards 60 fps. No great use of HD rumble or touchscreen aiming unfortunately.