I Couldn't Dodge the Wrench
Dodgeball is a game that I would expect to have some more video game adaptions. Outside of the hilariously entertaining effort of Robot Roller-Derby Disco Dodgeball there hasn't really been many modern dodgeball video games. Enter Stikbold! A Dodgeball Adventure which attempts to please everyone with both a strange single player campaign and a local competitive and co-op mode.
Yes, Stikbold does indeed have a story. Björn and Jerome are professional dodgeball players that have won first place in the big tournament every year, at least until last year when they only managed second due to Björn falling for the love of his life. The day of this year's tournament Björn's girlfriend Heidi is kidnapped by the Devil and, much to their coach's annoyance, Björn and Jerome try to find and rescue her before the big game later that night. Along the way, they have to face off against hippies, lifeguards, whalers, Greenpeace, and a whole mess of other people. It's funny, and while it does try to pass along a message of teamwork, it's nothing that you can't get from a ton of similar sources.
Every match in Stikbold's campaign takes place in a small circular arena. You'll always be paired with another character, be it either an AI or a second player. There's only a single dodgeball as well, and picking it up is as simple as running it over. To throw you have to hold down the right trigger and aim with the right stick, with the longer you hold the trigger down the more powerful the throw is. Hit an enemy and you'll put the into a stun state. They'll be momentarily stunned and can be defeated by a second hit. Even when they can get back to moving around, they're still vulnerable to being downed as long as there are stars around their heads. It's also possible to get a one hit kill stinger to make quick work of enemies by letting go of the ball at exactly the right time.
Of course there's more to the game than just throwing the ball back and forth. After throwing the ball you can curve it by using the right sticks after it leaves your hand, helping you both catch people off guard and hit people behind cover. It's a cool idea, but one that I couldn't manage to get working very often. You can also pass the ball to a teammate if you don't feel confident in your ability to hit something, or if they have a better angle than you. Don't have the ball? That's okay, as pressing the throw button will allow you to push other players. It doesn't do much, but if you push a player who has the ball then they'll drop it. Also smart is pushing someone into an environmental hazard, something that caused me and my friends to laugh on more than one occasion. It's a good thing to have in the game, as it allows you to stay on the offensive even if you don't have the ball. You can also dodge, and if you time it perfectly then you can dodge into a thrown ball to catch it and quickly counter-throw it at an enemy. It's a good mechanic, but I never felt like I was able to get the timing down to catch the ball.
It's all simple enough that anyone can pick it up and play. Within no time I was able to grasp the basic mechanics and get involved in matches. Yet there were some that I took issue with. For example, I thought it was strange that there was only one ball. It means that the game had a tendency to turn into "everyone chases after the one ball" rounds. The stinger throws aren't a bad idea, but I could never really figure out the exact timing and the game doesn't do a very good job of making that visual indicator obvious. Environmental hazards range in how good of an addition they are to each stage. Some would just slow down or stun characters which aren't too bad, and a few would either provide cover or give you something that's not a ball to throw. Yet some seemed made to just instantly kill players, and those are the worst of the bunch. When playing multiplayer it felt like some of my deaths were less because of dodgeballs and more because a cleaning lady would spawn and run me over.
Stikbold's campaign is 12 missions long and every mission can either be played co-op or with an AI buddy. The AI seems to constantly be swerving on a strange line of how useful it is. Sometimes it would actively hinder me, throwing dodgeballs into my back or standing in my way. Other times, it would be invaluable. A level where I protected a floaty saw the AI make much quicker work of enemies than I could. Most of the time, the AI would just stay out of my way. They'd keep away from both me and enemies and if they happened to pick up the ball they'd just pass it to me. It's about the most I could ask for I suppose, but this is really a game that is meant to be played in co-op.
Oddly enough, of the 12 campaign missions, the majority of them are either boss fights or unusual encounters. On one hand, this makes the campaign surprisingly varied, as no two missions ever felt the same. One level I protected an inflatable whale from waves of lifeguards, the next level I swam out to sea and battled a deranged captain on an oil rig under assault by extreme environmentalists and the following level has a boss fight against a giant whale.
On the other hand, this variety also means not all missions are equally fun. At first Stikbold is pretty good. The missions had some creative boss fights and scenarios that I enjoyed. Yet it felt like the longer the game went on the more frustrating it got. One of the late game boss fights drove me nuts, and the constant nonparticipation from my AI buddy only made it worse. It felt like I was getting killed more due to random environmental hazards and an overload of things happening on the screen. I would constantly lose myself with all the effects, characters, and hazards happening at once. Compare this to an early game boss fight against some hippies in a van, which had just enough going on that I felt like I could adapt and being just challenging enough to feel like I earned the victory without going into absurd territory.
Once you're done with the campaign, there's a local competitive mode available as well. Here, up to four players can either play in a free-for-all or a team mode. The game has five maps, and each map can be customized to turn off specific environmental hazards. You can also change things like how many points to win, if there's friendly fire, and a few other options. Stikbold can certainly be a fun party game, but it doesn't quite have the content to warrant more than a few rounds. It won't replace TowerFall Ascension or Super Smash Brothers for Wii U, but it did distract me and my friends from them for a day. Stikbold does lack any online features as well, which is a bit of a shame and feels like a missed opportunity.
Sadly, the thing that really does Stikbold! A Dodgeball Adventure in is the lack of content. The campaign is enjoyable, but it's only about 2-3 hours long. The local multiplayer stuff is fun, but there's only really two modes that both play really similar. There's little to actually return to in Stikbold, which is a bit of a disappointment. Still, for its relatively cheap asking price, you could do a lot worse.