Just the weird name of "Suda51" evokes images of No More Heroes and killer7. This former undertaker is famous — in games both directed and produced by him — for a strange mix of horror and humor, quirky and unusual gameplay mechanics, and cult hits with a very strong artistic design. Only recently has his work attained mainstream playability, such as No More Heroes: Desperate Struggle and the strangely delightful Shadows of the Damned. Unfortunately, his first Kinect title, Diabolical Pitch, represents a severe return to the old form; even hardcore fans of Grasshopper Manufacture will have a hard time getting into the game.
The story is completely awesome, hilarious and strange at the same time. The player takes the role of McAllister, a baseball player who is established as his team's star pitcher — until the very throw that earns his team a World Series shot also, seemingly permanently, injures that arm. He hears about "Christine's Dreamland," a place "where all your dreams come true," and scoffs ... until he finds himself there. The greeter explains that "all dreams come with a price," hands McAllister a functional bionic arm, and sends him to face a strange, warped theme park, armed with only his baseball uniform, a lot of baseballs, and inexplicable supernatural powers.
At its core, the basic gameplay is a gallery shooter. McAllister stands at a single point while enemies pop up from hidden panels in the ground or environment, and you drop them before they can chainsaw you to death. You do this by throwing baseballs in their direction, and you control this with a throwing motion. You have a modest number of additional options available, such as a three-use kick that sends people flying, and one of several unlockable Diabolical Pitches, which are super moves that use a special motion and require good timing to execute.
As you might imagine, this doesn't work as well as it sounds. I tested with the Kinect under various conditions, and the controls do not work solidly in too many cases. The game is near spot-on with recognizing kicks and Diabolical Pitches, but it's only reasonable at offhand-based functions. Alas, it's very poor at handling the pitching motion that is the core of the game. You make pitches that match McAllister's animation, but they're not recognized by the game. In my experience, no throw type consistently worked; in some cases, wider throwing motions triggered attempts to catch nonexistent objects in McAllister's mitt, in spite of my left hand being behind my torso!
Unfortunately, the game's attempts to make up for this have their own costs. Diabolical Pitch provides aim assist, which allows you to focus on the throwing motion, but the auto-aim is highly finicky. Twisting from side to side theoretically allows you to aim at a specific target, but in practice, especially if you're aiming for the slot machine-style bonus targets, the thrown ball doesn't aim where McAllister is facing on-screen, let alone where your body might be turned. Worse, this system doesn't factor range into your aiming, so you may be forced to use a kick because your pitches keep bringing down enemies in the distance instead of the one raising his arm to strike you.
The other big problem is that the gallery-shooter format isn't exceptionally prone to variety — especially with auto-aim in place to reduce the core challenge. There's a reason the genre more or less evolved into rail shooters as consoles grew more powerful and replaced arcades. There is simply more that you can do with them in practice, and it shows here. Even as the game grows more intense and requires jumps, ducks, and catching to avoid and block attacks, it doesn't shake its core gameplay enough to allow a player to look past the control issues — and that's when it doesn't occur to them head-on.
One area that Diabolical Pitch does not skimp on, to its merit, is presentation. The theme park environment is bright, but dirty, with terrifyingly unkempt mascot enemies, sufficiently detailed environments, and a wonderful soundscape that ranges from disturbing to hilarious in a way rarely seen outside of Grasshopper productions. It's all matched to decent to solid voice work. If you can get into the motions, you will be rewarded with much of Suda51's hallmark weirdness in excellent-looking form. The game is certainly wonderful to watch, and this combines with Suda51's quirky storytelling, which is told entirely in moving cutout images. This keeps things punchy and distinct from past efforts.
Credit should also be given to the game's interface design, which keeps very strongly to its mix of baseball and carnival thematics, though not the interface itself, which uses Kinect's standard, slow "hold on the pointer" mechanic, and a bevy of collectible baseball cards. These can enhance your character in various ways, including unlocking new Diabolical Pitches, and they're paid for using coins you earn from every enemy.
Furthermore, the game does — unusually for a Grasshopper work, though not for Kinect — include two-player support for those who have sufficient space for a two-person Kinect layout. It's a significant enhancement to the game's enjoyment factor for those who are willing to tough out the finicky controls. The two-player mode even includes some unique team-up attacks. After several attempts with a friend, we gave up. The finicky nature of the controls didn't allow for performing the moves in practice. Nonetheless, like many quirkier games and shooters, teamwork really helps make things more fun.
With sub-working core gameplay, Diabolical Pitch ultimately becomes little more than an exceptionally creative example of the limitations of Kinect. On a more effective control medium, it could have been a beautiful, if small, take on Suda51's every gaming hallmark. Instead, it is an elegant symbol of the Kinect's weaknesses. Even big fans of Grasshopper Manufacture should wait until they've played the demo multiple times before buying, even at 800 Microsoft points ($10). In as many words, this was a swing and a miss.
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