It’s probably not too much of a stretch to say that the golden days of “couch multiplayer” are, for the time being, behind us. Sure, there are still plenty of games that offer living room cooperation and competition, but with recent big-name releases like Halo 5: Guardians eschewing those in favor of online options, it seems as though their time as the dominant form of multiplayer has ended. That’s a particularly sad thing to acknowledge for anyone with memories of laughing with a group of friends in front of the TV, but thankfully, Copenhagen-based indie studio Game Swing has created a little title that captures the spirit of those caffeine-fueled multiplayer nights. Called Stikbold! A Dodgeball Adventure, it offers co-op and versus modes with pick-up-and-play sensibilities and a real sense of the chaos that makes getting together in the living room such a delight.
Two Ways to Play
You’ve basically got two modes at your disposal in Stikbold!, whether you’re tackling it by your lonesome or with friends. The first is the game’s story mode, a cooperative endeavor that pairs you with a human- or CPU-controlled teammate and pits you against an increasingly bizarre collection of opponents. The second is “Quick Match,” a competitive versus mode where you and up to three other AIs/pals can participate in free-for-all or team battles. Now, when I said “increasingly bizarre opponents” about that first mode, I wasn’t kidding. Stikbold!’s story mode is an irreverent and highly humorous journey following lead characters Björn and Jerome as they search for dodgeball superstardom, along the way coming into conflict with such weird enemies as malicious hippies, disgruntled lifeguards and even the devil himself.
These characters are all fought in a fairly predictable rhythm: first in a standard dodgeball match, then in some sort of wild boss battle that uses the game’s normal mechanics in a totally different context. For example, though you’ll initially best the hippies by barraging them with dodgeballs, the next stage sees you facing a van full of them as they try to run you over. It’s actually really interesting the way the game takes a seemingly sports-centric idea (even as casual a “sport” as dodgeball), then turns it into an increasingly wild test of your arcade-twitch skills — one later level is so hilariously video-gamey in its enormous enemy design that you’d never associate it with dodgeball at all. But though some skills will be required to clear the levels, the basic premise of picking things up and hurling them is easy enough for anyone to get the hang of in a minute or two. That design philosophy, applying a simple idea in increasingly weirder and more diverse scenarios, is perfect for a multiplayer game.
A Limited Lifespan?
I did have a few quibbles with the story mode, though. First, a few of the levels go on a bit too long without much challenge, which makes having to start over again a frustrating affair. I couldn’t believe the number of times I had to smash through two utterly mindless waves of fodder-opponents in one stage, just because I made a simple error in the boss portion that mattered. Second, while it is nice to have a story mode that can be easily completed in an hour or two with a friend, I felt the game didn’t go all the way in exploring some of its wackier ideas. Before you can get used to its groove of producing consistently weird and interesting ideas, you’ve conquered the final boss and beaten it. You can expand this mode’s lifespan a bit by going after the optional challenges in each of the levels, but that’s not really a substitute for experiencing new things.
As for the versus mode, well, that’s going to be the main draw for most groups of players once everything’s been unlocked through the story mode. This is truly the sort of game for which couch multiplayer was invented, from its pick-up-and-play ease (perfect for people who don’t even play games all that much) to its set of chaotic stage designs (I personally will never get enough of hiding behind the sausage cart, pelting people with frankfurters). I do wonder if players’ interest will be sustained by the rather simple proceedings — this is not, after all, a deep and multi-layered experience with a ton of replay value — but there’s nothing wrong with a little bit of lighthearted fun, and Stikbold! brings that in droves.
Blocky Graphics That Work
Indie games are often known for using a quirky presentation to divert attention from their lack of AAA budgets, and this one does that to great effect. Blocky, goofy-looking characters and bizarre voice clips (the sort of grunts, hoots and yelps you hear from characters in Zelda) really bring out the cartoonish appeal. I also enjoyed the fact that, despite being localized for English speakers, the game clearly retains its identity as a product of Danish developers through some original language left in and other little touches. Plus, the game’s ’70s vibe provides some great background music with excellent disco and R&B-flavored tunes.
Back to the Couch
Stikbold! A Dodgeball Adventure is a nostalgic throwback to the heyday of local multiplayer, when groups of buddies gathering around a couch was the predominant method by which people played games with others. Its wacky sense of humor and chaotic gameplay are best enjoyed through the cacophony of laughter that only good friends can bring, and the ease by which you can pick it up and just start playing will be sure to draw in reluctant living room holdouts. The appeal might not last forever due to a lack of content and depth, especially in the game’s story mode, which doesn’t fully explore all the great wacky ideas it seems to have. Even so, this is a standout indie that will bring a lot of people back to the couch — both the literal one and the figurative one of their past.
Stikbold! A Dodgeball Adventure review code provided by publisher. Reviewed on PlayStation 4. For more information on scoring, please read our Review Policy here.