Björn’s deeply, madly in love, the poor fellow. Of course, it just has to be that he makes unrequited googly eyes at Heidi Starbrow, who happens to be on the rival team for the final of the stikbold cup – it was being so utterly love struck that lost Björn and Jerome the final last year. But as she walks into the gymnasium alongside her teammate, they’re suddenly and quite surprisingly kidnapped by none other than the devil.
As their coach is jumping for joy at the prospect of winning by default, Björn and Jerome chase after the man in the red horned onesie. They bungle their way from one humorous misunderstanding to the next, as they follow the trail of black puddles left in the Devil’s wake, engaging in impromptu games of stikbold to defeat those that stand in their way.
That’s dodgeball to those of us with English as a first language, with Dutch developers Game Swing leaning on their own language’s name for the game, to hint that this is a little more tongue in cheek than your average sports game. Another hint would be with the bright and colourful graphics or how the game’s lighthearted story is told in a jumbled up gibberish language, but there’s also the way in which it turns the sport of dodgeball into a frantic party game.
At its simplest, you’ve got two people fighting over a ball and trying to throw it at one another, with two hits in quick succession – before the stars above the target’s head disappears – knocking the player out of the game. In a plain circular arena, that can be delightfully tense, as you dive out of the way of the ball and try to get to the rebound first. But you can have six characters in the game, whether it’s a free for all match or if they’re split into two or three teams, and suddenly it’s a lot more frenzied.
That’s especially true because there’s more nuance to the controls than just dodging and throwing. Get close enough and you can bash into another player and knock the ball out of their hands, you can charge up your shots before flinging them at high speed, flicking the right analogue stick lets you bend the ball in flight and increases the chance of a one hit ‘Stinger’, and if you perfect the timing, you can dive at an incoming ball and catch it. The latter two require a lot of finesse to master and I still haven’t got the hang of them, but the good news is that they’re not that big a deal if you just want to have fun.
That’s because the arenas are little hubs of activity. One moment you’re dodging balls on a beach, while trying to avoid getting pinched and slowed by crabs, then next you’re hiding behind park benches and keeping a beady eye for a camper van that careens around the edge of the map. There’s whales that flop onto the top of an oil platform, hotdog vendors that push their carts onto the court, and on and on.
When it comes to the local head to head multiplayer, which is for up to four players locally but can be mixed with AI to have six players, some of those environmental events get put into your hands. It’s never fun to be eliminated a few seconds after a round has started, so the game gives knocked out players the occasional use of these events, letting you potentially exact revenge with a wave to stun and weaken the person that knocked you out, or have a rock pop out of the ground to give your teammate a little cover to hide behind. It only adds to the chaos on screen, but you can turn all of these things off if you just want pure stikbold.
The busy actions can be to the game’s detriment, though. One or two things you can do in the game, such as pulling off a diving catch, there’s a crude, juddering slow down that’s meant to emphasise it, but just feels like a frame rate drop. And if you’ve got six characters on screen, with game events going off as players manage to pull diving catches while squabbling over the ball, it can feel a bit unstable.
All of these events come together nicely for the story. Each of the five arenas are used a couple of times, bound together by cutscenes and then throwing different challenges at you. There’s a boss battle with a camper van, where you damage it with mushrooms, you have to protect an inflatable whale from onrushing lifeguards, and there’s plenty more silliness beyond that as well. It can be surprisingly difficult in places, and I had to retry some levels several times, and that’s before trying to go for the mission challenges. Even so, it’s a fairly short story that you’ll be able to breeze through in a few hours.
You can play through this with either a co-op buddy sat next to you or with an AI partner, and that’s an important dynamic. In co-op, you can pass between players to get a better angle of attack, but the AI buddy tends to be there more for backup, taking the occasional shot but generally trying to get the ball to you and acting as a second life. Unless you play on the hardest difficulty level, you can stand near to a downed buddy and revive them.
At its heart, Stikbold’s a fairly simple game of hitting people with balls, but it has a bunch of fun and silly ideas alongside that which turn it into a manic little party game to while away a few hours.
Version tested: PlayStation 4