Diabolical Pitch review: Field of nightmares

You are McAllister, a living legend in baseball, hunched over on the mound while gripping your lifeless throwing arm one moment after throwing a record-breaking out. Next thing you know, you're in a car accident, and wake up at a demented, run-down amusement park called Queen Christine's Dream Land. There, a man in a suit with the head of a cow explains that you can get your arm back to form by throwing your way to the castle at the end of the park -- while wearing a bionic arm.

This is Diabolical Pitch, the latest XBLA title from Grasshopper Manufacture. As odd as it sounds, what's important to note is that this game is dependent on Microsoft's Kinect peripheral, and every throw by McAllister is a real-life throw by you.

Each area in the demented amusement park is brimming with doll-like animal enemies. McAllister is stationary in each level as evil tigers, elephants, bears [Oh my! - Ed.] and the like creep toward him while score-building bonus items like lucky number 7s and cherries pop up. McAllister has a fatigue gauge in the game's HUD, but the only fatigue you need to worry about is your own, as the pacing of your pitches usually won't leave the pitcher gasping for air. Each area introduces different challenging enemies with puzzling ways to defeat them. Some carry shields and require well-timed throws, while silver-bodied dolls can only be taken out with headshots.

A sore arm is a near-certainty, but the game quickly turns into a full-body experience as you progress through the five worlds. Throwing feels appropriately tiring, and using your non-dominant hand to target enemies and lock-on for headshots is satisfying. As enemies start to throw things like balls and saw blades your way, however, you'll be required to perform on-screen actions in quick-time events, such as jumping and crouching to avoid flying saw blades.

As you're nailing enemies, you'll build up power to initiate the titular diabolical pitch, one of six powerful throws that often wipes out multiple enemies at once. Each throw, much like suplexes in No More Heroes (another Grasshopper Manufacture joint), is acted out using different gestures with both hands in quick-time events. While pitches like the meteor ball and tornado ball are fun to use, I made my way through the game almost exclusively using the thunder ball (and occasionally the cannon ball, which transforms McAllister's arm into a cannon), so the effect and variety in these power pitches felt a bit lacking.


The game performs only as well as your Kinect setup. Without targeting using your non-dominant hand, Diabolical Pitch will launch the ball in the direction of your throwing arm. Even while manually targeting, I saw a number a pitches flying off in different directions, picking up power-ups instead of crushing the enemy that was winding up to hit McAllister with a sledgehammer. Trying to initiate some diabolical pitches ended in me flailing my arms, hoping the Kinect would pick up my movements accurately enough to throw with maximum power in the "good versus awesome" gauge that pops up. Often, these pitches would work only after my third arm swing. It doesn't help that while holding off on using my charged diabolical pitch, enormous graphics would cover a portion of the screen, distracting me from the enemies I was targeting. When overwhelmed by enemies, I attempted to kick them away (which you can do a maximum of three times per level), but the Kinect would rarely register that in time.

These issues carry over to multiplayer as well. You can team up with one friend to take on the same campaign as in single-player mode with a few added power pitches and gesture-based features. If one player's health is depleted, for example, he can be saved if both players reach their arms out to one another. A team-up diabolical pitch called the "union ball" is included as well, and is executed when both players hold their hands out to one another, then launch the ball forward in unison. It took a solid minute for my partner and I to successfully launch one ball. We didn't bother trying it again afterwards.

Diabolical Pitch is filled with twisted charm. Enemies explode into coins, which are used to purchase power-ups in the form of (what else?) baseball cards. Nicely fleshed-out leaderboards are made to look like classic ballpark scoreboards. Characters and environments are varied enough to never feel boring throughout the course of the adventure mode. This is impressive, considering the main single-player and multiplayer modes are the only modes available in Diabolical Pitch. Sadly, with only four areas in each world to pitch through, there's not much incentive to keep playing after completing the short campaign.

Diabolical Pitch deserves praise for trying something different, and even succeeds in some ways. For every instance when the Kinect failed to pick up my movements, there were times when it read them perfectly. Throwing a thunder ball often took multiple attempts, while calmly aiming for a headshot felt much more accurate and satisfying. Ultimately, as great as Diabolical Pitch's zany concepts are, the inconsistency of the controls dulled the overall experience -- and my pitching arm.


This review is based on the final release of the Diabolical Pitch, provided by Microsoft.

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