There’s a great line in Robert Altman’s 1992 Hollywood satire, The Player, where a desperate screenwriter pitches potential projects as mash-ups of established properties, “It’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s meets Psycho”, each more ludicrous than the last. The point being that audiences crave the familiar, rejecting anything new and innovative. The game industry isn’t immune to this Reese’s school of thought – where you take two great things to make one great taste – with sequel after sequel cannibalizing the innovations that have come before to seemingly build a better game (when Sonic is employing Bullet Time, you know we’ve got problems.) It’s a notion that developer Blazing Lizard has embraced heartily – looking to meld pirate chic with ninja cool in their recent XBLA release – Pirates vs. Ninjas Dodgeball. Based on my time with the title, I can safely say, no one’s got their chocolate in my peanut butter.
Everything you need to know about this game is right there in the title. It’s dodgeball featuring assorted Pirates and Ninjas. There’s also unlockable Robot and Zombie squads but the Undead are so 2007 so the Stealth Assassins and Scallywags grab top-billing. The game tasks the player with choosing a squad and then simply button mashing to lob a ball at the opposing team. Unlike real-life dodge ball, one hit will not knock the other player out. Instead, the game utilizes a health bar for each character, essentially turning the game into a simplistic rendition of a melee combat game, along the lines of the Smash Brothers titles.
In Single Player, the gamer will choose a team and then proceed through Story Mode – which is essentially a series of loosely-tethered matches spread over four unique environments while some asinine tale of why the Pirate Captain doesn’t want his daughter dating a Ninja unspools. Success here will unlock additional opponents to play against. The beginning Easy Tier features a 2 on 2 face-off. After you complete the initial four arenas with your dynamic duo, you’ll move on up to the Medium Tier which opens up the squads to three on each side. The player will progress through the same set of 4 small levels, with things growing more chaotic due to the extra number of players on the court as well as the increase in slowdown due to the additional calculations required by an advanced Next Gen machine to keep up with 6 tiny sprites duck, dodging and whaling away across a static back-drop. By the time you graduate to Hard difficulty, which offers up a 4×4 melee, whip out the glow sticks and pacifiers – you’re in for a strobe show.
The controls are fairly simple to grasp –with very few moves mapped to the controller – however the corresponding actions feel slippery. I never felt like I had full, tactile control over my tiny avatars, which proved troublesome in a game where the only strategy employed beyond mindless button mashing is the ability to time a button press to deflect or catch an oncoming attack. Too often, the action wouldn’t register and my character would get knocked down by a power shot, leaving me prime for another salvo from the unflinching AI.
While the graphics are decent for an XBLA title, the small number of arenas grows repetitive very quickly. Each squad has their home arena (i.e. the pirates play on a Caribbean beach, the robots apparently volley in TRON, etc) but aside from differences in the placement and types of obstacles, not much differentiates the choice of backdrop. It would have been nice if each world granted the native squad with a home court advantage of some sort. That would have at least added some semblance of strategy or gameplay variety to the title.
While the visuals are nice, the game is hampered by some horrendous slowdown. A few of the levels feature weather effects that can grind things to a halt. In a game where split-second dodges are essential, playing through a stuttering slide show is killer. The title also does a poor job of tracking your player, meaning if a ball travels off screen, you are often left fumbling around outside the boundaries, hoping that you’ll magically attract the orb and get back onscreen before one of the enemy’s homing shots nails you.
Aside from the different factions (and their boring back stories), the only real variety found in the game is through the selection of slightly different rule sets to govern the contests. Normal Dodgeball restricts players to traveling only on their side of the field. Enhanced Dodgeball allows a player to cross the dividing line for 3 seconds in a bid to recover a loose ball or launch an up-close attack. And finally, Combat Dodgeball removes all restrictions and allows players to travel anywhere on the full field. It’s designed to coax a more action-packed approach (think the Deathmatch of Dodgeball) but it usually ends up more chaotic. With the character models sometimes indistinguishable due to their low polygon count and small stature, it becomes very easy to lose site of your character when immersed in the fray.
Success in the story mode will unlock the ability to go through the same routine as one of the other factions. Presumably, if you can endure all 4 campaigns, you’ll unlock the mystery to what led these pirates to abandon a life of booty calls for some rough-and-tumble backyard brawling.
On the online front, players have the option to play the same game modes in Ranked or Friend matches. While the prospect of playing against a live body is more compelling than squaring off against the aggressive AI, I found the pickings in cyberspace pretty slim. During my playtime – positioned right in the middle of prime time gaming (9 – 10 p.m. EST) – I selected Quick Match 17 times and was paired with the same opponent each time. I had to play the game for this review. What’s his story?
Microsoft capped their successful Summer of Arcade with four weeks of stellar, innovative titles including Castle Crashers and Braid. These were games that proved there is a market for digitally distributed, independently developed games to thrive and proved to be a godsend to gamers who have felt that electronic entertainment had been malnourished for far too long. At 800 to 1200 points a pop for some genuinely great gaming experiences, players dropped small coin for some very rewarding purchases.
Well, if Pirates vs Ninjas accomplishes anything, it broadcasts loud and clear that the Summer of Arcade is official over. Hang on to your loot.