Congratulations! We are pleased to inform you of your acceptance into the Dodgeball Academia, the finest dodgeball training school in all the world! Your stay on our state-of-the-art campus includes access to our top-of-the-line training courts, comprehensive library, and classroom facilities to help you hone your form into something truly formidable. Unlock your deepest potential by touching the Hero’s Dodgeball! An extremely authentic relic that ended the 100% real, and very deadly, Dodgeball Wars! Recharge in our definitely up-to-code cafeteria before returning to your dorm, which has been vermin free since May! We know that you will have everything you need to become the dodgeball player you were born to be, and we cannot wait to welcome you with open arms (once your tuition check clears)!
Such is the premise for Dodgeball Academia, a new RPG from Brazilian developer Pocket Trap. Players will take on the role of Otto as he begins a new school year at the titular institution to become the best dodgeball player ever. Being the new kid is always a challenge, and Otto has to navigate making friends, dealing with rivals, and managing his parent’s expectations while being pelted by a seemingly endless amount of dodgeballs.
The first thing you’re going to notice when starting Dodgeball Academia is it’s bright, colorful visuals. Otto and the other characters are represented with hand-drawn 2D sprites while the school campus and other environments are three-dimensional. The two styles look great together, thanks to the use of simple shapes and minimal textures in the backgrounds. In still images, Dodgeball Academia looks like something that would be right at home as an animated series, which I adore. In motion, however, that presentation does suffer a little thanks to a limited number of animations. The limited animations aren’t enough to distract from the appeal of the visuals, but I did find myself noticing them from time to time, especially while exploring.
Dodgeball Academia’s cartoon visuals are complemented well by its sound design. The music is catchy, upbeat, and feels good in the moment-to-moment gameplay. I wouldn’t go so far as to call the soundtrack memorable, though. There is one song I have pretty well memorized, but that’s primarily from repetition rather than enjoyment. The sound effects during combat are superb, adding a delightful amount of impact to nailing children and robots with dodgeballs. Super moves, catches, and counters also have pretty great sound flourishes.
I’m sure the visuals and sound design, delightful as they may be, aren’t the thing you’re most concerned about in a game called “Dodgeball Academia”. You want to know about the dodgeball. Dodgeball, unsurprisingly, serves as Dodgeball Academia’s combat system. Otto and his teammates are on one side of the court, the enemies are on the other, and dodgeballs sit on the centerline. After an initial scramble, both sides begin throwing the balls at one another. A hit is not enough to eliminate a player, instead everyone has a health bar that ticks down as they get hit until the bar reaches zero, after which the player is ruled “out”. This continues until only one player remains, and their team is declared the victor. That’s the basic ruleset, and at the beginning of the game, it’s all Dodgeball Academia expects of players.
As the game goes on, however, more and more features and twists are added to keep the dodgeball gameplay feeling fresh. Charged throws and super moves give players more offensive choices, while catching or countering provide character-specific defensive options. KO’d players, in some battles, can stand outside of the court on the opposition side and pick up stray balls that have rolled out of bounds to either pass to their teammates or throw at opponents. Later still, elemental balls come into play, inflicting status effects on hit such as burns, poison, or even temporary immobility. By the time I reached the end of Dodgeball Academia, the game had become drastically more complex and involved, but the new features were introduced at such a pace that it never felt overwhelming.
But Dodgeball Academia doesn’t just tout itself as a dodgeball game, it calls itself an RPG! That means it needs to have a story, and Dodgeball Academia’s story, much like its visuals, is straight out of an animated show. Otto is the new kid in school, and that school is all about dodgeball. The main event is an all-school tournament, and winning that tournament is Otto’s overall (or season, to stick with the TV analogy) goal. On his first day, Otto gets set up with a best friend, a rival, and some familial pressure to give the tournament some added importance. The story is broken up over eight days, with each day (or episode) having a self-contained story that usually culminates in a tournament match. The overarching narrative is nothing more than a pretty predictable framework, but I found the plot of each day to be interesting enough to keep going. The writing can be charming, and I imagine it would resonate especially well with a younger audience.
One of the tournament rules stipulates Otto needs a team, and over the course of the game his team grows pretty dramatically as Otto expands his friend group. As the roster grows, you can swap party members in and out of the party based on your preferences or needs. To Pocket Trap’s credit, each character feels unique when it comes time to play ball. Each character has a unique super move that either dishes out huge damage or supports the whole team in some way. Everyone also has unique charged throws that can add elemental damage or move in irregular patterns to confuse enemies. What each character doesn’t get enough of, however, is narrative attention. Very few of Otto’s friends get to have what I would call significant character development. Some get fully-realised arcs, but others stay pretty one-note from start to finish.
One of the more interesting quirks in Dodgeball Academia is that each team member has a set of preferences and allergies. Every item in the game has its effect either enhanced or hampered by those likes and dislikes. If a character loves a flavor or kind of item, it becomes substantially more effective. If a character dislikes an item, they will still use it, but the effect will be reduced. If a character is allergic to an item, the item can’t be used on them at all. I like this idea quite a bit in theory, and it did shape my item purchases across the game, but it has some definite drawbacks. There are a TON of different items, and more often than not opening a chest leads directly to checking the item menu to see what it does and who it’s good for. As the team grew, I eventually ignored some of the later members altogether just to keep things simple for myself.
One comparison that never really left my mind during my time with Dodgeball Academia was Pokémon. Every day a new set of generic NPCs spawns that will either stand in place or wander in a short, set path until the player crosses their line of sight. Then, the NPC runs right up to the player, says a little line, and then you move to the battle screen. There’s a free clinic you can go to at (almost) any time to get fully healed for free after a happy little jingle plays. The vast majority of the game’s characters are children trying to be the best. Taken individually, I can see how you may be skeptical, but taken as a whole, it feels intentional. I don’t mean to imply that this similarity is a bad thing, but it did make some things feel a touch too familiar.
I’d like to take a moment before I move to my conclusion to talk about a couple of Dodgeball Academia’s options. There are sliders that can change damage players give and receive anywhere from 0% to 400% of normal at almost any time and with no penalty. The sliders are a fantastic way to adjust the game’s difficulty, and I think they deserve recognition. I even used them myself during a particularly difficult side quest that I felt had become unfair. There’s also a mode that displays the game’s dialogue in two languages, which I think is pretty darn cool.
Dodgeball Academia feels, to me, like an RPG that tries to straddle the line between being formulaic and unique. In some areas, it succeeds; the story is enjoyable enough, the visuals are almost perfectly in line with my personal tastes, and I enjoyed playing dodgeball…but things got a little stale when I realized the solution to everything was dodgeball. Fortunately, the game is short enough to keep that ever-so-slight staleness from transitioning to a full-blown grind. I enjoyed my time with Dodgeball Academia, and I think you will too.