Recommending: Dodgeball Academia
Genres; RPG, Sports
Platforms: PC, Nintendo Switch, PS4, Xbox Series X / S, Xbox One
Developer: Pocket Trap
Publisher: Humble Games
Dodgeball was always one of the more enjoyable sports we'd play in school. Starting off as a wild flurry of balls before becoming more tense and skill based as the number of players are reduced. So it's cool to see a dodgeball videogame! Not just a simple simulator either, a full on RPG take on the sport. It's a really great game that seems to have flown under the radar a bit this year.
Despite the anime-esque aesthetics and obvious influence, this is developed by a Brazilian studio Pocket Trap. Its characters, setting and story take influence from sports anime while its gameplay takes influence from Japanese RPG's like Pokémon or Final Fantasy but with a more action-sports based battle system, where you lob dodgeballs at your opponents.
So while it's easy to see where all the influences are coming from in Dodgeball Academia, the game keeps itself a joy through its fantastic presentation, tongue in cheek charm and a dodgeball battle system that has enough depth to stand on its own without the accompanying RPG story.
Dodgeball Academia looks great! Characters are well designed to look distinct, they all have great animation which is often so smooth it really feels like you're controlling a cartoon. The backgrounds and environments are fairly regular 3D spaces, but they mesh well with the 2D cartoon characters. It reminds me a bit of Paper Mario, but despite being an indie studio I'd argue that the 2D animations on show here are more impressive than in Nintendo's series. Each of the main cast and important side characters have distinct designs and even the copy paste grunts that you battle have a simple, charming look to them.
The game has really clean menu designs for an RPG, it's very accessible yet has plenty of depth under the hood to make for a more engaging experience. Its environment you explore is fairly limited but packed with detail and nice little touches. Also the amount of wandering you do is remedied by the ability to roll into a ball yourself and speed through the map.
The main attraction is the game's RPG story mode, though you can also play Dodgeball in simple versus mode or with friends in multiplayer, which is cool. You experience the charmingly silly story by roaming the school grounds and doing whatever challenges or quests the day presents for you. There is a lot of wandering and talking, though the amount of fetch quests and overly long dialogue sequences are kept at a minimum or interspersed with battles.
The battle system itself is a lot of fun. It's easy to get the hang of: you throw balls at opponents (can charge the throw up for a harder, but more telegraphed hit) and you either catch or counter balls thrown at you with a well timed button press. While you start the game with just lead character Otto, your team grows with a bunch of characters with unique skillsets. If your side of the pitch has less dodgeballs than the other, you can also charge up your special "BALLTIMATE" move, which has to be well timed as it leaves you stationary. Each character on your team has a different "balltimate" move and the opponents also get one. They're usually large flurry's of dodgeballs or something fun like Otto's Kamehameha-esque move.
As you progress I found the game to be appropriately challenging and there's constantly new ideas thrown into play, like different types of dodgeballs and opponents who have new abilities and throwing styles that make catching/countering harder to time correctly. It's a pretty accessible RPG battle system, but it's not a total pushover like, say, Pokémon is. It never feels unfair either and if you're having trouble with a fight, it's pretty forgiving on letting you try again right away or return to a quick-save before the fight and sort your team out ready. There's also adaptable difficulty letting you give your team or the opponents a handicap to do more or less damage according ot your tastes. I thought that generally the default difficulty was fine, even if aside from some big battles leaning on the easier side of RPGs. I found no particular need to grind and a lot of the skill comes from good timing rather than stats.
The core game's RPG story mode will take between 8-10 hours to complete, which at a RRP of £19.49 is solid. It also has a local multiplayer mode where you can duke it out with buddies. Though it would've also been nice to see online implementation included in this mode. Though if you were to play this on the Nintendo Switch the game usefully only requires the amount of buttons for one Joycon controller meaning by default you're able to play multiplayer without the need to purchase another one.
The game's plot is standard cheesy stuff, though the writing is enjoyable in how tongue in cheek it takes itself. Characters have distinct personality which pairs with the expressive animations and fun designs to make for a fun cast. Things end pretty open for a sequel and I'd be pretty excited to see where else they could take the dodgeball RPG concept. Go even bigger into a world that is dominated by dodgeball, have the game shift from a sports anime into a shonen. It would be very silly and fun.
I had a lot of fun with Dodgeball Academia. Definitely one of the underplayed highlights of this year. A novel concept for an RPG, always nice to play a game where instead of killing people to proceed you simply beat them at dodgeball. The game's 2D character animations are wonderful and generally the game is a joy to look at. Gameplay-wise this is simple, but effective. A quirky take on dodgeball with all sorts of RPG elements that make it a compelling mix of the sport and combat. Combined with a charmingly cheesy plot and some funny writing, it's not much else but a simple good time.