Pirates vs Ninjas Dodgeball
When I told my gamer friends that I was going to be reviewing a game called Pirates v. Ninjas Dodgeball, not one of them didn't comment about what a great idea it was. When I threw in the fact that robots and zombies were also in the mix, the level of interest raised even higher. Fortunately for them they haven't played it yet, so their expectations remain unsullied. For me, the dream is dead.
OK, I'm being a bit melodramatic, but boy is this a case of failure to execute a great concept. Take a game beloved by many for its sheer simplicity and utter barbarism, and populate it with four of the most popular fantasy archetypes around and you should have an outstanding game on your hands. Unfortunately, somewhere between the idea and the delivery to your hard drive, the idea of good gameplay was forgotten. When you're delivering the highest-profile dodgeball video game since the much-adored NES classic Super Dodgeball, you can't skimp on such things, or you will catch it between the eyes.
Such is the case with this game, which allows you to pit teams of the aforementioned types (is groups of two, three or four) in dodgeball battle, with three favors of play. There's standard, which is the game you remember, enhanced, which lets you roam the opposition's court under timing limitations, and combat, which elimates the idea of sides, creating a free-for-all. Those aren't the only changes, as you also can attack your opponent with weaponry in order to stun them, though it won't affect their health bar, which is only subject to dodgeball hits. Those hits can be enhanced with special throws (except in standard mode) like homing shots and power throws, all of which are rather easy to pull off. Unfortunately, they are also ridiculously unbalanced, as the pirates and robots boast projectile attacks that stun enemies, while the zombies and ninjas powers are mostly things like ball retrieval and stealth.
The game can be played a few different ways, including your usual exhibition matches, a story mode and multiplayer action that's available locally (for four players) or via XBox Live (for up to eight,) which let's you compete head to head or as teams. If you want to get the full enjoyment of the game though, story mode is a must, as it unlocks the additional characters. You start in 2-on-2, and defeat all your foes before moving on to 3-on-3 and then 4-on-4, with the plot explained via text exchanged between the characters before each match. The story is mainly a comedic one, as you would expect, with some funny gags included, mainly during the pirates' tale. You have to play each story completely to open up the next story, which gets very repetitive. Sure, the different characters have different abilities, but there's only so much dodgeball to be played, and when you get to the 4-on-4 level (especially during combat mode,) it's such a mess of action on-screen that it might as well be a button-masher, as all skill and strategy goes right out the window. With just four teams, there's only so many permutations to check out, so it gets old fast.
Here's where things start to go bad. The general feel is fine, as you use the left analog stick to move around the court and the right to do sprinting dodges, while you can catch throws or return fire with the face buttons, while special attacks combine jumping and timed throws. It's a pretty effective set-up, in theory, mimicking in many ways the functions of Super Dodge Ball, but in practice, it just doesn't work. First, trying to pick up the ball is hit or miss, which is frustrating when trying to set up a shot or simply stay alive. The same goes for trying to catch a throw or counter a shot, as that doesn't quite work either. But that's nothing compared to the shot mechanics, which are guaranteed to drive you insane. You can be standing almost face to face with a foe, fire off a shot and watch it go flying in a different direction. This doesn't happen once in a while either, and obviously seems to happen at just the worst time. It's not as if you really have an aiming mechanism. The shots should lock-in, especially if you're close. There's no reason to miss a person who is an arm's-length away.
This might be the single biggest problem with the game. The character models are fine, and nicely done, and the levels are really quite interesting in their design, with varying heights and aspects (though there's some issues with pixelation (the tree shadows look terrible, for example,)) but that's only if you can see them. The problem is, the camera is oddly low, and zooms out so often that you're playing with a handful of unrecognizable pixels and can't figure out how to grab a ball due to issues with depth. At several points I accidentally switched characters, and had no idea who I was even controlling, as the signifier wasn't obvious. Since playing the game, I've been trying to decide if the gameplay suffers from the graphics or if they are each bad on their own. The two issues combine though when someone's taking a power shot, as the game...slows...down...during...the...shot. Imagine this during a 4-on-4 match, when it happens again and again and you may throw your controller before you even download the game.
The audio is decent in this game, delivering music themes for the battles, along with power-up sounds and damage strikes, though the ubiquitous "Ow!" gets pretty annoying quick. There's nothing bad about the sound, and thankfully the music isn't dreadfully repetitive, so it won't make you crazy during longer matches.
The standard amount of achievements accompany the game, with 12 available for a total of 200 points, ranging from completing story modes to performing certain skills, and playing in ranked online play. Nothing all that hard to achieve.
There's hardly anything worth downloading, with a few picture packs available to pick up. The company's site shows a fifth unlockable team that they announced would be available as DLC a month after the game was released, but that never happened.
And in the End...
This game might not have caused such disappointment if the concept wasn't such an intriguing idea, but when you combine these fun elements, and the game is a) not all that fun to play and b) distinctly limited, people are going to be let down. The unfortunate thing is the fixes seem pretty obvious, which makes it even harder to understand how this happened. Perhaps the upcoming Wii version will make things right, but that's not going to make this game worth the cost to download. Give the trial a shot and you'll have all the experience you need.