As adventure games go, Back to Stone doesn't do much to bust out of the "fight monsters, fetch items" formula. The game's lone gimmick is that you play as a man who can transform monsters into stone blocks. Those stone blocks, in turn, can be pushed around and used as platforms or to activate floor switches. Basically, the developer has come up with an interesting way to enable the same block-pushing mechanic we've seen in countless similar games. However, while that's nice and all, it doesn't make the act of pushing blocks more enjoyable, and it sure doesn't change the fact that Back to Stone is a bland dungeon crawl with some serious shortcomings.
Story and gameplay fall into the usual stereotypical patterns. The setting is a postapocalyptic world in which magic has replaced science as the technology of record. Demons have taken over and are performing horrible experiments on the populace. Your character wakes up in a prison cell one day and soon discovers that he's been transformed into a half-human, half-demon hybrid with the ability to turn living things into stone. The story takes off from there, as you decide to use your newfound power to take revenge on the demons and overthrow them. What follows is a series of 21 missions set in isometric-view dungeons that mainly involve punching various monsters, jumping between platforms, and pushing blocks around.
Unlike other adventure games that gradually give you new weapons and abilities to use, Back to Stone doles out its entire limited arsenal within the first couple of missions. Your character has a single punch attack, which turns most enemies into stone. You can also unleash a powerful energy blast, although you don't often get the chance to do so because you need to collect crystals to recharge it. Your character turns into a full-on demon when he's low on health, but that's barely reflected in the gameplay. When you're a demon, your attacks become stronger and certain non-player characters won't talk to you. Each dungeon has its own diverse menagerie of monsters. While they all look disturbing, only a few actually make an effort to chase you or assail you with magical attacks. Most just crawl around within a small territory and dish out damage if you somehow run into them. The larger "boss" monsters located at the end of certain dungeons do have intricate attack patterns, however. Those battles are an exciting change of pace from the otherwise mundane act of turning tiny monsters into stones and then pushing those stones around to make the platforms or activate the switches that will get you through an area.
Being able to turn monsters into stone blocks is a cute gimmick, but it doesn't inject any new energy into the block-pushing mechanic that has been done to death in so many similar games through the years. Stones can be used to safely traverse electrified floors or change the orientation of rotating platforms, or placed into preordained spots to produce crystals or unlock doors. Some stones are unbreakable. Some explode and clear away any nearby monsters. Ramps and arrows in the environment let you launch stones over bottomless gaps. Back to Stone definitely delivers some clever puzzles involving the pushing of stone blocks. Regardless, pushing blocks around gets boring after a while. Instead of giving you a periodic break like other games would, Back to Stone will just keep taxing you with one block-focused puzzle after another. The game is a long one compared to other adventure games, taking roughly 10 hours to complete. Most of that time, though, is spent moving stone blocks around.
In terms of presentation, Back to Stone is inconsistent. Every good aspect seems to be tempered with a negative. For instance, while the music is haunting and intricate, there aren't many sound effects other than some punches and the demonic roar that happens when your character runs low on health. As for the visuals, the variety of enemies and environments is great, and the character animation is more fluid here than in a lot of other GBA games. Unfortunately, each enemy has only one or two different movements, and the graphics are heavily stretched. It's as if the game was initially being developed for a system with a smaller screen and then transitioned to the GBA midway through the development cycle.
The isometric view also causes problems at times. Since the environments are tilted to fake a three-dimensional sense of depth, it can be difficult to line up jumps and to position blocks properly. Too much of the game's trial and error is a result of the perspective, causing you to misjudge open air for solid ground. Thankfully, such mishaps usually aren't fatal. If you fall off a ledge, for instance, your character will reappear on solid ground with only a touch of health deducted. Or if you place a stone in the wrong spot, it'll eventually dissolve and you can go transform another monster into a useful statue. Password markers are scattered liberally throughout each dungeon, which is both good and bad. On the one hand, you can always take a break and return to your game whenever you need to. On the other hand, you have to stop and jot down a 10-character password every minute or so if you want to keep tabs on your progress.
It's nice to see that developers are still producing original games for the Game Boy Advance. Unfortunately, Back to Stone is a bland, sloppy adventure game that doesn't bring anything original to the formula apart from a novel twist on the same block pushing we've been doing for years.