One of the latest additions to the Xbox Live Arcade family seeks to finally settle the raging score between some of life’s most entertaining figures, namely ninjas and pirates. Of course, without the bitter rivalry between ninjas and pirates, the popularity of similar creatures of zombies and robots would certainly wane. Pirates vs. Ninjas Dodgeball wants to determine once and for all which faction is worthy of being the coolest, strongest, and all-around greatest, all in some rousing games of dodgeball.
Unfortunately, all Pirates vs. Ninjas Dodgeball manages to do is frustrate and annoy players into oblivion. The idea behind the game and the title may well be the best parts of the entire package. First things first: the actual game that you play is not really dodgeball. While it might loosely resemble the classic game we used to play in gym or in the streets while our parents screamed at us to get inside and eat dinner, the only aspect that is retained is the fact that you throw balls. Aside from that, there is nothing within the game even remotely close to the real playground battle royale.
In an attempt to make it a deeper game than it actually should be, a story mode was included. My first playthrough was as the Ninja team (I don’t actually prefer ninjas OR pirates, but that’s all you can choose at first). There are no cutscenes, just scenes with accompanying text to read as your character speaks to various acquaintances and for some reason engages in dodgeball games. I actually found the scenes to be mildly entertaining due to the humor that was implemented, but without voiceovers, scenes, or any movement whatsoever, the entire ordeal quickly turned very bland.
The first matchup I received was against a zombie team in a spooky graveyard. Cartoony, lumbering zombies were pretty sprightly, considering they’re dead and all. I discovered without reading the instructions that all you need to do is run over a ball wherever it lands on-screen and pick it up. Of course, this is no easy task. Sometimes you can be standing right on the ball and your character won’t respond. In later matches where you have multiple balls to choose from, this can be overcome quickly, but when there are one or two and your partner is holding one, this can become quite the annoyance. It happened so often that I began to wonder if I had performed some kind of misdeed so that I wasn’t allowed to make any shots.
After you manage to pick up a ball (and it will take some trying on many occasions), your next move is to hurl it at an opponent. This will whittle away at their health bars, which are displayed on the top right and left corners of the screen. The object is to knock out your rivals by tossing dodgeballs at them with all your might. To do this, you can use regular throws or power shots. Just like your character can catch balls thrown at them, opponents can do the same. Along with the ability to run, jump, catch, throw, and use a simple attack button to immobilize opponents for a short amount of time, each faction has a special ability. For ninjas, you can go invisible. It differs for each group, but it proves very useless most of the time. The time it takes to actually use the attack hurts more than it helps.
It all sounds like a very simple and fun premise, right? Wrong, and let’s not forget it is still nothing like dodgeball. To be honest, it’s more like a brawler that tacked on "dodgeball" because of the ball "weapons" your characters can pick up. Actually putting game mechanics to use requires the patience of a saint. You cannot control the camera, so whatever angle the game decides to give you, you’re stuck with. The only thing you can do is move around the arena and hope that you can still manage to get a glimpse of what is going on. Most of the time you have a bit of a tilted, almost bird’s-eye view that makes it nigh impossible to distinguish your character from your opponents. Making this an infinitely more infuriating move is the fact that when the character you are controlling is knocked out, control automatically switches to whoever is left on your team. This resulted in my moving the stick around frantically just so I could try to figure out who I was controlling and where they actually were on the map. I actually won a match by pressing the throw button randomly whenever I thought I knew where my character was, because it was just that hard to tell.
Pirates vs. Ninjas Dodgeball has a nasty rubber-band effect as well. When you kind of get the hang of how to search for your character like in a Where’s Waldo picture, things get a little easier, and sometimes a little fun, when you manage to correctly judge distance and depth. Just when you think you may have the bizarre control scheme and camera angles down, the game tosses you a curveball and ramps up the difficulty. Not only do enemy teams rarely miss, but they don’t have to worry about not being able to pick up balls. Their aim is deadly and their feet are swift, so it takes a lot of practice to get past stages on harder difficulties, if by that time you even care enough to.
While controlling your teams is horrendous and the camera angles make me want to put the game down quite promptly, I do have to give the game its dues for its cute and endearing graphics. They’re quite nicely rendered for an Xbox Live Arcade title, and very true renditions of how the legions of followers of their favorite factions often imagine them. When you can get a good look at character models, they’re adorable. Environments are fairly varied and colorful, and there are no hints of slow-down. Gameplay is relatively smooth, and without hiccups. It’s a shame that the meat of the game makes everything else a moot point.
If you don’t want to play the story mode, you can play local versus or Xbox Live multi-player matches. However, the only differences are the fact that instead of playing against a computer that rarely makes mistakes, you are pit against friends or strangers who are at the same disadvantages as you are. Multi-player is smooth and runs nicely, but there is quite the dearth of online opponents to choose from. That could stem from the fact that this game is quite the waste of time.
There are 12 Achievements to acquire, ranging from finishing story mode with the group of your choice, catching a ball, countering shots, and performing a power shot. They most definitely are achievements and should be touted as such, because making much progress at all in this game should be considered quite the honor.
Pirates vs. Ninjas Dodgeball set out to be an innovative, humorous game of dodgeball intended for multi-player parties and to poke fun at the war between pirates, ninjas, zombies, and robots. What it accomplishes is hardly worth taking a look at. The addition of manual camera adjustment and more responsive controls would have made this mini brawler a joy to partake in. Perhaps a sequel would learn from its predecessor’s mistakes, because it has quite a lot of potential. The battle between childhood heroes wages on, perhaps to resurface in a better game in the future that’s actually fun.