Title: Dodgeball Academia
Developer: Pocket Trap
Release Date: August 5, 2021
Reviewed On: Switch
Publisher: Humble Games
Genre: Sports, RPG
As a gamer who grew up during the Game Boy Color era, one of my favorite video games as a kid was Mario Tennis. While I had both the Nintendo 64 and Game Boy versions of the title, the GBC version was special in that it included not just the regular game mode but also an entire JRPG-flavored story adventure.
You played as either Alex or Nina, a youngster attending the Royal Academy gradually rising the ranks of the school’s varsity tennis club while earning experience points and leveling up to increase your character’s capabilities. Unfortunately, while this engaging mode would then be featured in the Game Boy Advance sequel, future games in the series largely dropped this story campaign to focus on their accessible multiplayer modes.
This change in direction always left me disappointed in the franchise, so I was delighted to hear that Brazilian developer Pocket Trap was creating an original game heavily inspired by these older titles. While I went into Dodgeball Academia expecting an entertaining but somewhat rote experience, what I instead found was a delightful and charming title dripping with cleverly used shoutouts to classic games alongside an amusing sense of humor.
Though someone familiar with the classic Camelot titles will immediately see the inspiration taken in the art style of Dodgeball Academia (though it also sports a fresh-looking aesthetic mixing goofy cartoon characters with colorful, low-poly 3D environments), the wacky tone is immediately apparent, with new students touching a magical dodgeball to gain ball-related superpowers.
The biggest difference, however, is the swift nature of the sport in question. Whereas a tennis match might take ten minutes, a dodgeball game can be over in less than two. This gives Dodgeball Academia the chance to constantly mix things up by throwing new characters, powers, patterns, and even science-enhanced balls at players.
The matches are quick but can be very intense as the number of balls and players on the field increases. Even though your characters might be stronger than your opponents, they can often shock you with tricks like having their teammates trying to hit your team members from behind or just swarming you with six players at once and a veritable whirlwind of balls to try and avoid or catch.
In turn, each of your teammates plays very differently. For example, hot-headed protagonist Otto plays a straightforward and aggressive game with his fire powers. In contrast, Mina performs counter-kicks rather than catching the ball and holding it. Additionally, Balloony has no elemental power, instead opting to throw balls causing multiple hits.
These characters are also endearing in their own ways, as they constantly butt heads with each other in ways that add to the shounen-manga feel of the story mode. In a clever spin on expectations, you even have a rival who cannot gain his own superpowers and has to try to defeat you using only his own skill. The light-hearted tone doesn’t stop the cast from being compelling even as they all joke back and forth with one another, and I was cracking up with every conversation even as I understood where events were inevitably going.
However, one notable critique I have for this title is that there were times I felt the matches became so chaotic that I wasn’t sure how I could be expected to keep up with everything. Thankfully, the difficulty is also balanced enough that it never took me more than a few tries to complete a match. The best comparison I could make is that if Mario Tennis were Street Fighter, then Dodgeball Academia is Super Smash Bros – very accessible to pick up, arduous to master without good reflexes. Still, it will frequently astonish you with gameplay elements you didn’t expect.
Dodgeball Academia has a quality that is difficult to find in many titles that try to capture the retro vibe. It’s absolutely a game created by a team that grew up with the classics, and it boasts those inspirations on its sleeve. What compelled me to this game was that despite its roots in the past being readily apparent, it still manages to carve out a distinct identity of its own rather than solely relying on playing to my nostalgia. It’s a title that succeeds at virtually everything it tries to do and does so with tons of charm and polish.
On a final note, Dodgeball Academia is releasing on many platforms, but personally, I would heavily recommend playing this game on the Switch. Thanks to a fixed camera angle, the controls are simple enough to grasp efficiently, and I suspect they will suit the portable factor rather nicely. I could absolutely see this becoming a new favorite party game.
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