Don’t Dodge This One
Dodgeball video games are having a bit of a renaissance this year. While games based on the terror of small kids in gym class across time have thrilled fans as far back as Super Dodge Ball on the NES, getting two dodgeball games in the same year certainly hasn’t been common. Yet earlier this year, we got the very good Knockout City (Our Review), and now Dodgeball Academia is here.
What Dodgeball Academia nails most of all is the actual dodgeball. Taking inspiration from everything from Mario sports titles to Pokémon, it creates a dodgeball RPG that has a lot going on. While some parts of the game work better than others, the combat feels great.
A Great Destiny
You play as Otto, a kid from a long line of referees. He dreams of being a dodgeball player, though, so when he gets a letter inviting him to enroll in a prestigious dodgeball academy, of course, he runs off to do so. Upon arrival, he finds students having their true potential unlocked and getting ready to compete in a big tournament.
That tournament is the biggest ongoing storyline in Dodgeball Academia, though each of the game’s eight chapters has a story of its own. You’ll help Otto put together a team and get strong enough to take on the big shots of the school.
Navigating the Academy is most reminiscent of the Pokémon series, as strange as that may sound. Battles aren’t random. They happen when you walk into the sightline of a competitor. The game’s infirmary looks an awful lot like a Pokémon Center. Even the musical cues when starting a fight are reminiscent of Pokémon.
Will You Be #1?
When a battle starts, though, all that goes out the window. This is a sports RPG like the classic Camelot Mario sports games with gameplay similar to Super Dodge Ball. You’ll fight either one on one or with a team of three. The playing field is split in half for the two teams. You can cross that line, but you’ll move far slower if you do and have trouble hanging onto a ball. It might be worth jumping across briefly to grab a ball just over the line, but you don’t want to get stuck there.
Characters control great with a wide variety of moves. You can use a charge shot, or throw a slow one. Every character can either jump or roll, though this varies by character. So does the feel of moving and throwing. As your party grows, you can pick your favorites and build your best team. At the end of each battle, you’ll earn rewards such as healing items and money, which you can use to upgrade your equipment for stat boosts.
Keeping Things Fresh
Each character even has a special move that can turn the tide of battle. For example, Otto throws a super throw, while another character shoots balls from the sky like lightning. Another will heal your party. Watch out, though. Your opponents have super moves and aren’t afraid to chain them at times. Enemy AI is mostly solid, though you can exploit the way they move and the timing of their throws without too much trouble. This gets harder, though, when the game throws huge waves of enemies at you.
There’s plenty of variety beyond the characters as well. Dodgeball Academia consistently looks to keep things fresh. Battles without any delineation between sides, where wild grass covers most of the playing area, a wide variety of different balls which varying behaviors, mini-games where you have to practice a specific skill or use dodgeballs in different ways. Not everything they try lands. I wasn’t a fan of the grass in battles, but none of them are common enough to ever be an issue, and this variety kept me interested in the combat through all of the game’s eight episodes.
Never Slows Down
While there’s a lot of places to explore, from the school itself to a spooky forest, and even an illegal underground dodgeball circuit, the deeper the game went, the harder time I had caring about these characters. While everyone has a ton of personality, everything is also very one-dimensional. At times Dodgeball Academia features some genuinely funny moments, but it’s very superficial and not as clever as it thinks it is. Too much of the humor consists of breaking the third wall to comment on how ridiculous everything is, which doesn’t make it any less ridiculous.
Dodgeball Academia would have benefited from giving the characters a little more depth. Giving us a reason to care about them and being willing to take things a little seriously now and then. As is, things too often feel like the worst sort of Saturday morning cartoon, giving you no time to catch your breath. There are definitely laughs to be found, though, just perhaps not as frequently as would have been ideal.
While the combat is great, I would have loved to see more options to enjoy it. Dodgeball Academia features local multiplayer, with additions unlocked throughout the single-player game. It makes for an odd fit though, when to get ready for it, players will likely need to play through this full-fledged RPG. Unfortunately, unless your friend has also done so, this is going to lead to lopsided matches. Playing against others with experience online would have made a lot more sense here, but there is no option for online play.
Fun For All Players
There are also some strange difficulty swings throughout the game. You’ll be cruising along just fine destroying everyone in your path, and then run up against a battle far harder. Death isn’t a big deal, you can retry as many times as you like, but each retry puts your characters back at the health you started with. That means if you get into the wrong battle without enough health, you’re in trouble. If you can’t handle the fight, the only option is to reload a save. Well, or turn the damage off.
One option I love seeing, especially after my recent piece on just this sort of option, is the ability to alter damage. Both the damage you take and what you dish out can be modified anywhere from 0% to 400%. Stuck in a spot and want to push past? Turn things down or even turn damage off. Finding things too easy? Pump the damage you take up and see if you can still handle things. Dodgeball Academia does warn you that they mostly recommend the option if you really need it, but that is ultimately up to you.
Dodgeball Academia is a joy to play with hard-hitting, balls-to-the-face action. The tone of the story may be a bit too hyperactive for some, a shame when we’re talking about an RPG, but there’s still enough joy and genuine laughs to be found to be worth your time.
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: Switch (Reviewed), PS4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PC; Publisher: Humble Games; Developer: Pocket Trap; Players: 2; Released: August 5th, 2021; ESRB: E10+ for Everyone 10+; MSRP: $24.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a copy of Dodgeball Academia provided by the publisher.