A commitment to billiards insanity drives forward this wild ride of a video game.
Pool Panic is pretty much the antithesis of the sport it is inspired by. While all the puzzles and mayhem in this Adult Swim-published game involve cue balls, eight balls, and all other manners of billiards references, Pool Panic is Goofus to pool’s Gallant. It’s a manic, offbeat series of ideas and concepts that succeed far past lingering issues. While problems ranging from a frustrating camera to vague guidance hold this fever dream of a game back from brilliance, the array of crazy, funny, and interesting gameplay elements are sheer joy in the best scenario. Pool Panic is the kind of game that is far better than the sum of its parts and is also deliriously insane.
It starts off in a somewhat familiar place: a pool table. A straightforward tutorial sets up the relatively simple controls as you move a cue ball around and line up shots with the other analog stick, but after the intro, the expansive world map is opened and you’re sent off to your own wild machinations. Early levels are crazy but still on the simpler side as you have to contend with alive balls that must be guided into a gaping hole before draining the eight ball down that hole and hopping in yourself for level completion. Optional goals are available as well that require the player to complete the level in a set amount of time, only use a specific number of shots, not scratch, and hit every ball in. Further progression opens up the full gamut of insanity that is nestled in this world, ranging from a ski race and a car race to a fight with a giant spider. Each level is its own unique puzzle. A bulk of them just involve hitting all the balls into the hole, but sometimes you’re just placed in a room with no visible balls, meaning you have to engage with the environment to reveal them. It borders on adventure game design in that respect and, much like adventure games, can sometimes be too vague and verge on maddening. The world map does let you skip around if a level is tough, but while gorgeous to look at, the overworld is too open and dense for its own good at times, making it a challenge to find where new levels are.
The frustrations aren’t helped much by the camera, which cannot be controlled and instead follows the action in a way. The problem with that is objects can be obscured by each other very easily, especially since you’re regularly knocking balls all over the place destroying and altering the landscape. When combined with the puzzles, the solution might be obvious but a key part could be hiding behind a tree out of your sight. The physics can also lead to balls going out of your reach, making levels impossible to finish every so often. A simple and quick level restart generally fixes these issues and the overall freedom you have in each level is, fortunately, more or less worth the exasperation.
The ingenuity on display throughout each of the more than 100 levels is nothing short of breathtaking. Pool Panic has a fervent pace that keeps getting weirder and weirder. The levels are short and do not overstay their welcome as ideas, mostly seen in new ball types but also presented in different locales and obstacles, are introduced rapidly. The ball types are all their own little puzzle to solve, with aggressive bear balls that attack you and skeleton balls that discover stilt-like bony legs to tower high. The personification of all the balls is hysterical to boot.
The charming humor carries across the entire presentation. Everything is hand drawn but moves in 3D space, making for a distinctive look ripe with expressive characters and scenery, akin to playing a cartoon. The music is catchy and a little repetitive, but in an endearing way, like the song the cue ball sings at the completion of each level. That little stinger is an earworm that’s like the hell version of the battle ending music from an RPG (that’s a compliment, I think).
Aside from the main campaign, Pool Panic has a few other modes. A local multiplayer mode for up to four players is available right away, which can lead to some hot nonsense and good times. Panic Mode unlocks early in the adventure, offering endless randomly generated pool tables with all varieties of balls. Each one has a strict time limit, so it operates as more of a challenge mode. More modes and secrets are unlocked as you get through the stages, including a Hard Mode that offers more challenging versions of every stage. This is a game not short on content, as even an initial run through the 100+ levels is in the 5-10 hour range.
While the camera and a few other nagging issues can make things vexing at times, Pool Panic shines past the mild blemishes as it’s a dazzling display of artistic buffoonery. It’s hard to recommend for people that have to get the high score or complete every optional challenge, but if you just want to sit back and roll through a world with oodles of inventiveness and creativity, this is an acid trip worth taking.