Xbox Game Pass is the gift that keeps on giving and giving and giving. July and August have truly been some jam-packed months as the service has seen loads of games being added to it. Omno, Hades, The Ascent, and Cris Tales to name a few. One of the most recent additions is Dodgeball Academia. This little game has some unique ideas, but none of them do enough to hide the game’s more irritating design choices.
Created by Pocket Trap and described as a “sports RPG”, Dodgeball Academia follows the scholastic adventures of Otto. After being accepted into one of the most prestigious dodgeball academies around, Otto begins doing all that he can to improve his dodgeball skills, to gain new friends, and to become the very best – like no one ever was.
That Pokémon reference was intentional, since a fair amount of Dodgeball Academia’s Pokemon-influenced design choices are as well. Your party members can be outfitted with held items that give specific boosts, there are items that give permanent stat upgrades, and there’s even a medical center that you visit in order to heal your crew, which comes with a little jingle. None of this is bad, necessarily, but it highlights the fact that the game has a hard time breaking free from the stereotypical structure of a JRPG.
Yes, this is definitely a JRPG. “Sports RPG” has a cutesy, original ring to it, but this game has character and party progression, leveling, and stat management. That means, unfortunately, that it comes with a lot of the irritating pieces of the genre as well. Three chapters into the game, tutorials were still coming up. Incredibly simple tutorials, mind you, that could have easily been slotted into the earlier portions of the game. There are also a fair amount of unskippable battles that you can get sucked into. Again, this is much like Pokémon since any person you lock eyes with is part gorilla and takes that as a declaration of war.
Interruptive tutorials and unskippable battles are a minor issue, however, in light of the game’s worst aspect: its story. If you’ve ever played a JRPG or watched an anime of any kind, there is literally nothing new here to find. Otto is an incredibly bland protagonist whose only personality traits are that he loves dodgeball and he’s loud. He has no flaws, no charm, and he’s irritatingly dim.
There’s not a single reason to care about Otto and his quest, because neither he nor his friends are even vaguely interesting. What Otto wants is what literally every other student wants: to be the best dodgeball player in the school. The most interesting characters are ones that never join your party, and Baloony. Baloony at least has character flaws and an actual personality, but his arc is completed pretty quickly and you’re stuck, once again, with Otto and his band of bland buddies.
If one were to look at the game’s script without any written or visual indication of who was speaking, the characters would be almost completely indistinguishable from one another. This is a huge shame since a great deal of effort obviously went into creating fun, unique designs for each character. They’re all animated differently as well, but there just isn’t any substance in what they say.
You may think, dear reader, that I’m going on about the story too much, but that’s one of the most vital ingredients when making a JRPG sandwich. Perhaps the character issues stem from there being too many characters that are often competing with one another for the predictable and lame character tropes that are so frequently found in anime and anime-inspired stories. The protagonist, the impish friend, the too cool bully, the too angry rival, the girl, the broody girl, and so on. One could argue that, “Those tropes are in there and used all the time because without them it wouldn’t be the genre that it is!” This is true – you cannot make a vegemite sandwich without vegemite. But what if you removed the vegemite and made a new, better sandwich?
Dodgeball Academia actually does this when it comes to gameplay. It takes the turn-based combat which often feels inseparable from JRPGs, and throws it in the bin. The dodgeball battles are truly the game’s highlight. The action is quick, frenetic, responsive, and as things get harder, there’s even the slightest little bit of strategy when it comes to choosing your party members and items.
Yet, it still has its own hiccups. Some of the fights can go on for way too long. Higher leveled opponents can soak loads of damage, and if you’re the same level they don’t often pose much of a threat. Compared to the game’s earliest dodgeball matches which end in just a handful of snappy throws, it can feel horribly grindy.
It isn’t all bad at Dodgeball Academia. The music is fun, the art is great throughout, and the general premise is interesting. Then again, none of that is so interesting that it’s worth sticking through the late game combat, yawn-inducing story, and milquetoast characters. Perhaps diehard JRPG fans will find something to love with Dodgeball Academia, but if that isn’t you then this is one you’ll want to dodge.
Play ball! Dodgeball Academia lands on Xbox Series X|S and Xbox One