When Ski Lifts Go Wrong seems like the perfect recipe for a good time. It’s based on a unique premise (ski lifts), it’s a physics puzzler that will strain your brain, and even if you fail you get to watch the customers at your ski resort get flung about in hilarious ways. And on paper, the game gets a lot of things right. Unfortunately, something important in this game just… didn’t go right. (Sorry, I’ll leave.)
The premise of the game is pretty straightforward; you are the one responsible for creating the ski lifts for your ski resort, along with ski jumps, tow cables, and snowmobile jumps. Each level offers you a new, bizarre terrain to overcome, along with a limited set of building materials to use that changes from level to level. You’re responsible for getting your patrons from point A (the bottom of the ski hill) to point B (the top of the ski hill), and along with avoiding obstacles and drops, you have a handful of extra goals that you can achieve: obtaining the medal, staying under budget, and your ski lift not collapsing while the riders use it. (Surprisingly, it’s okay if the ski lift falls apart, so long as the right number of passengers survive the journey.)
The UI is fairly intuitive and easy to use. You control a cursor floating around the level, able to freely place building materials where you like, at least to a degree. To place materials such as wood, rope or posts, you can hold down the A button and drag it where you want it to be; the game will automatically create other pieces of wood or what have you, creating more secure connections, which I found to be a big time saver. Even when it wasn’t exactly what I wanted, adding more boards or removing them was easy as 1-2-3. You can’t place things wherever you want, of course; physics and gravity play a big role in this game. Most of your construction materials need to be properly anchored, and the placement of those anchors provides a lot of the restrictions in each level, forcing you to construct your ski lift in certain areas or certain directions.
Once you’ve placed your support materials and strung your tow cable, it’s time to test your ski lift in a simulation, and this is where the real game starts. Every piece of your ski lift is subject to the forces of tension and compression, and the first time you try out any ski lift, some part of it is bound to break under the stress, sending your patrons flying into a chasm. Once you’re done watching the hilarity, the game will show you exactly which piece was the first to fail, giving you the opportunity to give it additional support, or to redistribute the weight of your structure. The UI really shines here, giving you all the information you need without giving too much; if you could instantly see all of the stress every piece was under during construction, it would take away a lot of what makes the gameplay engaging.
The game is set up pretty well for you to do what you need to do in order to build a ski lift. The problem, and I really hate to say it, is that the core gameplay loop just isn’t that fun or satisfying. Due to the strong influence of realistic physics in the game, there isn’t a lot of freedom to have fun with your ski lift designs. More often you have to follow a bunch of rules about creating proper support structures, which leads to restricted designs that, at least in my case, all really look the same. Plus, when there’s a problem with my current ski lift and a piece is breaking, I don’t feel the urge to re-evaluate my approach, because deleting so many pieces and starting from scratch is so much of a pain, and it feels like I’ve lost a lot of work. More commonly, I just slapped on some more supports, hoped for the best, and said “forget it” to the budget goals. When I completed a level, I never felt a strong sense of satisfaction, just relief.
Aside from ski lifts, you can also create jumps, which introduce another wrinkle into the gameplay: you can actually control a skier/snowboarder/snowmobile rider during the simulation. Similar to something like SSX, you can control the boarder’s jump timing, jump height and landing angle; this adds another element to jump design, as you can maybe skirt by on something substandard with some skilled jumping. Unfortunately, in pretty much any of these levels, I ended up getting wrapped up in controlling the patron mores than creating a good ski jump, and that ended up being another vector for frustration. Perhaps it would have been better to fully automate this patron like everyone else.
The presentation, overall, is pretty good. The game has a cartoony art style to it, which is perfect for watching the simulations and their ridiculous crashes (though seeing the actual blood when a customer gets hurt is a bit off-putting). The UI is pretty nice and clean, with all of the menus pushed to the edges of the screen, where they can be clearly seen and understood without being distracting. The sound didn’t really catch my ear at all, but it wasn’t offensively bad either, so I guess that’s a plus. It’s very frustrating, because everything about the game’s packaging is very well-considered, but the core gameplay itself ends up being more of a frustrating exercise.
I really wanted to like When Ski Lifts Go Wrong, and it does a lot of things right, but the game’s small number of flaws really do leave a disproportionate impact. It’s hard to say if some quick fixes could improve the gameplay experience, but I’d be willing to try out any patches the developer might put out to make things better. For right now, though, I would only recommend this game if you’re a big fan of physics puzzlers. If this is your preferred genre, you’ll probably have a good time with this; for everyone else, though, you might want to look elsewhere.