I think we all need to take a moment and thank whatever it is we thank that a game like Rock of Ages can, and does exist. We live in a time full of seemingly limitless creativity and independent spirit in game development, and yet even in the decidedly indie realm of downloadable games, there is something of a predictable pattern for what tends to make for a successful game in that space. Nothing about Rock of Ages is predictable. Hell, it's barely successful. Essentially a hodgepodge of tower defense, bowling, and absurdist humor, Rock of Ages darts in so many weird directions at once that the whole endeavor is constantly on the verge of falling apart at the seams. And yet, by the barest of threads, the developers at ACE Team manage to keep this jalopy running--or, in this case, rolling.
What is Rock of Ages? That's a completely valid, if also barely answerable question. Half the fun of Rock of Ages is just trying to smoosh descriptors together to try and create some semblance of sense out of the thing. Yoot Saito's Odama meets Monty Python is a perfectly valid combination. History of the World: Part I meets Super Monkey Ball also sort of works. You could probably toss skee-ball, Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, Gardner's Art Through the Ages, Katamari Damacy in reverse, and 4Chan into the mix too, for good measure.
Here's a premise for the ages, so to speak: You are Sisyphus, the character of ancient Greek tragedy who found himself doomed in the afterlife to forever roll a boulder up and down a hill. In this version, he's mostly tormented by a gleefully dickish demon, who pokes him in the ass every time he gets that boulder up to a point of progress. Fed up, Sisyphus pulls a Nic Cage and escapes from the underworld into our world--or, at least, some bizarre, time-traveling version of it. Here, Sisyphus finds himself pitted against a range of personalities from history, both mythical and real. Everyone from Bacchus to Socrates are represented as opponents of varying levels of vileness, each of whom seek to fight Sisyphus with their own giant boulders, presumably because of reasons.
The whole thing feels like the result of a psychotic episode, stemming from an absinthe- and peyote-fueled night of abject debauchery that eventually resulted in someone on ACE Team's game design team chewing on an art history textbook in an effort to avoid swallowing their own tongue. Whatever pages were left undigested found themselves re-appropriated for use within this game, albeit in the form of cut-and-paste animated sketches that might as well be plucked from Terry Gilliam's earliest nightmares. Much the way Monty Python re-appropriated classic art for its own nefarious, deviant purposes, ACE Team has eschewed anything remotely resembling reverence for classic art in favor of turning Leonardo into the butt of a prolonged, fourth-wall-breaking Matrix: Reloaded gag, and presenting Louie the XIV as a prancing, farting dandy.
It's amazing, bizarre stuff that perhaps most closely resembles Microsoft's barely-playable yet fondly-remembered snowboarding debacle, Amped 3. That was a game far more noteworthy for its insane sense of humor and scatterbrained art style than for its gameplay. In Rock of Ages, you'll likely take a great deal more from the hysterical cutscenes and whimsical artwork than you will from any of the tower-defensey ball-rolling mechanics on display here--though that isn't to say you'll hate them, either.
If anything, Rock of Ages is at least modest in its ambitions as a game. Each stage is essentially a downward maze to be navigated. Your boulder, emblazoned with a face of some fashion, is controlled via the left analog stick, while the camera is assigned to the right stick. You can jump over objects, but otherwise, your job is just to roll, roll, roll. Oh, and periodically obliterate, too.
The tower defense portion of Rock of Ages involves units that you and your opponent can lay down in a boulder's path. Everything from giant turrets, meant to simply slow down and/or block the path of your boulder, to catapults, war elephants, and wind-generators meant to send you off the path (and screaming into the empty abyss below it--wait, why is a boulder able to scream?) can be placed on any colored square on the map. Many of these obstacles are best avoided, but by wrecking into them, you can earn more cash with which to buy more units and upgrades for your boulder on the next go around. From time to time you'll encounter boss fights with great figures from history, including giant dragons, and a behemoth-sized Statue of David equipped with cannons who can only be defeated by repeated boulder blasts to the fig leaf.
It's a really neat, if utterly peculiar idea for a game that, unfortunately, doesn't always quite work out. The game's idea of defense seems, at times, barely sketched out beyond the notion of, "PUT STUFF HERE I GUESS WHATEVER." There are certainly spots that seem best-suited for certain types of units, but it's remarkably easy to just blow past a lot of whatever's in your way and roll right to victory. In this case, victory involves busting through the gate of your opponent's castle, and flattening the screeching, terrified paper person with an oddly satisfying wet fart sound (set to the tune of Mozart's "Dies Arie," which is perfect, given the man's apparent love of scatological humor).
Unfortunately, the strategy for doing so always seems to revolve around whichever player manages to hit that door three times first. Purportedly, wrecking into the gates with greater amounts of speed/power-ups intact will cause greater damage, but at no point did I ever destroy a gate in less than (or more than) three tries. If you play your defensive units right, sometimes you can overcome a time deficit and come back to beat your foe, but more often than not, whoever gets their boulders rolling fastest ends up the winner.
That lack of strategic variety does hinder the game's ability to function as a multiplayer game, though it can work to your advantage against the computer, which sometimes just can't deal with turrets set in one particular corner, or a herd of cows placed just so. Rather, you and any interested friends will likely spend more time playing through the skee-ball minigame. Here, you and another player directly race against one another to the bottom of a stage while hitting targets to amass points along the way. The first player to reach the bottom and slide their boulder into one of the holes in the skee-ball target at the bottom ends the round, and the player with the most points wins. It's a game that distills Rock of Ages down to its best parts; namely, the act of rolling a seemingly sentient boulder around and destroying everything in your path for fun and profit. It's just a shame there aren't more minigame options like this. A few extra offerings in place of the relatively dull time trial mode would have gone a long way to adding some girth to Rock of Ages' admittedly meager package.
That said, this is a $10 game, and at that price, you can almost forgive some of Rock of Ages' more rickety elements. This is not a game you play for weeks on end, looking for minute strategic details to latch onto to best take advantage of the top tier boulder-rolling multiplayer competition. Rock of Ages is a curio, a weird art piece that you will instinctively want to show anyone and everyone who dares hover too close to your home gaming setup. And like most art, Rock of Ages is a perfect example of form over function, an aesthetically pleasing (if bewildering) piece of work that demands appreciation, if not necessarily enjoyment in all contexts. Put simply, Rock of Ages is kind of a busted game that I can't recommend to you enough. Play it, experience it, and laugh at the absurdity of it all. You'll get your money's worth.