I’ve been waiting for months to have a go at TransGaming Studio’s  upcoming title Kula Blox , in part because the studio staff have been taunting me mercilessly with each new iteration and character reveal. They haven’t been playing fair, to say the least – but I got my chance to try it on not just one, but two platforms at Casual Connect Seattle. Was it worth the wait? Most definitely. I really didn’t want to put it down, and I feel that this will be one of the top Canadian-made casual game titles of the year.
My first go-round with the game was on TransGaming’s GameTree TV  platform, which puts games right on your smart TV . We don’t have a smart TV (we just got an LCD HDTV a few months ago – can’t rush these upgrades), so I was also getting a first look at this interesting new way to play. GameTree TV gives players the option of trying, renting, or purchasing casual game titles. Adding to the challenge was using the uWand  controller, so this first play-through was a trifecta of new things to wrap my mind around.
I am impressed with the GameTree TV interface, which works via a set-top box to offer gamers a wide variety of titles. I watched many Casual Connect attendees pick up the controller and easily figure out how to pick and launch titles, as well as play them – no previous experience required. While I did get to spend a fair bit of time playing Kula Blox on GameTree, the title is still in development so the GameTree version was not yet fully optimized for the platform. Even still, the game has an over-all high appeal – the graphics are crisp and clear, the music is not annoying, and the sounds, while somewhat repetitive, were original and fit in well with the game’s environment.
When Kula Blox is released, it will be available for GameTree TV, Mac, PC, iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad. Not that a release date has been confirmed as of yet; TransGaming Studios’ Creative Director Jason Azevedo would only commit to “late Summer but definitely by Fall” no matter how many times I tried to reword the question and get a confirmation from him. Unfortunately, if we go by this year’s west coast weather patterns, “late Summer” could be virtually never. Although, it does appear to be summer today. Tomorrow could be a different story.
Kula Blox is an arcade-style game with a diverse cast of characters who have a habit of falling to Earth from some unknown skyward region. Perhaps they’ve been evicted from the Cloud. I’m not really sure. During this losing battle with gravity, players will use their animal character to eat up the other animals who are also falling through the air. There is a catch to this feeding frenzy, though. The player’s animal can only lunch on those animals which are smaller in stature while carefully avoiding those which are bigger. The bigger animals are rather persistent though, shadowing the player through the air, hoping for an easy meal.
Watching out for the big bullies isn’t the only obstacle, either. That would be too easy. There are branches and rock outcrops (depending on which map you’re playing through) to avoid – and while the developers were nice enough to put arrows on the screen to let you know that an obstacle is forthcoming, we gamers have been trained to believe that arrow paths are where we are supposed to go. Wrong. Don’t go there, you’ll get splatted and lose health.
There are also power-downs in addition to the traditional power-ups. Each animal has its own special power that you can use once it’s charged up, giving you a distinct advantage over the enemy. The universal power-ups give you things like a turtle shell helmet to keep the big bullies from turning you into a lunch entree while power-downs such as bear poop (yes, you read that correctly) do things like make your animal character smell. If you are unlucky enough to have fallen through the bear poop, the smaller animals will avoid you, making it harder for you to consume them so that you can grow big enough to take on the bullies. However, in my mind, this is somewhat illogical because poop is a fertilizer…
When you do finally reach ground you will land with a resounding crash, breaking several (or at least one) wooden crate. These crates contain different types of prizes such as gold coins to reward you for losing your battle with gravity. These coins can then in turn be used in the game’s store to purchase unlocks, which can also be accomplished through micro-transactions. None of the price points have been announced yet, which includes the purchase price as well as those for the in-game upgrades. I considered torture but I have a feeling TransGaming Studio’s Managing Director has ensured that the creative staff have a high tolerance to such measures, so I let that idea go.
Kula Blox gives gamers of all types and ages a challenge that is fun to pick up and play, whether it’s just for a few minutes or a few hours. The controls are very intuitive and allow the player to use either tilt mechanics or side-to-side pinball-styled touch controls. With GameTree TV, you could use either the controller’s side-to-side buttons or motion detection in place of touch control; they work in the same way. I found the pinball touch controls on the iPad easier to use, but that is just because I am rather inept with tilt and motion controls. Yes, I am one of those players; I prefer the Wii’s classic controller over the Wiimote.
I asked Jason where the concept for Kula Blox came from, and he told me that it actually started out as an entirely different game that was pitched during one of the studio’s “Pitch Your Game Day” events. These pitch days are often held at the end of a development cycle, and Kula Blox has retained some of the original ideas from that initial introduction. The quick, fun casualness of the concept stuck with the creative staff, and like their recent Garage, Inc. game release, Kula Blox feels fresh and new. It definitely has some of the characteristics of a casual game that I like – scores to beat, things to collect (or not collect, in the case of bear poop) and many levels to unlock and revisit.
I also tried to pin Jason down in trying to get him to choose between Garage, Inc. and Kula Blox, naming one of them as his favourite, but he wouldn’t commit to that either. He stated that the titles are like children, and he likes them both equally, but for different reasons. Not hard to tell he’s a parent – and he was a real trooper, too – he’d endured probably one of the worst flights from Toronto to Seattle ever, with a long flight delay and late luggage, but that didn’t put a dent in his humour or enthusiasm. In fact, everyone I met from TransGaming was very friendly, and as some of us had been conversing back and forth on Twitter for some time now, it was much like meeting up with a long-time friend. My only regret (aside from not getting away with the iPad & game) was that I couldn’t have stayed at Casual Connect for longer than one day, because I really wanted to play more Kula Blox and talk with everyone more about the studio and all of its aspects.
At launch, Kula Blox will have three distinct map areas – The Forest, The Jungle and The Savannah, each with its own characters, prizes and themes. I did pry a little bit of information out of Jason – there will be post-release updates with more items and levels. The only other pre-release information I could get out of him is that they are still working hard on some power balancing as well as polishing sounds and mechanics. Through my incessant pestering, TransGaming is also working on a video trailer for the game, which we will be showing in our booth (1018) next week at SIGGRAPH 2011 in Vancouver, along with trailers from several other Canadian studios.