Bowling has always felt more suited to a minigame or as part of a compilation, rather than a sports game requiring a full release. But PBA Pro Bowling 2021 is an officially licensed bowling game – and a sequel nonetheless – from the Professional Bowlers Association. It isn’t from one of the big developers of sports titles such as EA Sports or 2K, instead coming from Farsight Studios – albeit though a studio with a pedigree of licensed sports titles. So, adjust expectations accordingly.
If you’ve never played bowling – or have forgotten what it is after spending the best part of 12 months indoors – it is a game involving a ball and ten pins. You throw the ball down a long, narrow alley, attempting to hit as many pins as possible. Topple all ten in one throw and you earn yourself a strike. Repeat this feat 11 more times for a maximum score of 300 and a perfect game.
PBA Pro Bowling 2021 has a number of ways for you to achieve that highly sought-after perfect game. Quickplay allows you to jump straight into the action, and there is a local multiplayer mode for up to four players asynchronously. Career mode however is the real meat and bones on offer.
Firstly, you get to choose your real-world professional bowler from a limited selection. More are available to choose from, but more on how that’s implemented later. And after that, you can jump straight into the action!
You will need to unlock events as you progress, and you start from the very bottom of the ladder playing through local leagues before moving on to bigger and better events. Some events can simply have you posting a score against several other bowlers in a mini-league. Others can have you face-off against a single opponent in knockout bowling.
Mini-league events are fine, but they lack that competitive edge of a sports title. PBA Pro Bowling does offer a scoreboard for you to monitor, but it is hidden away in the pause menu. The developers have missed a trick by not showing the scoreboard after each frame and ratcheting up the tension. As a result, these events feel like a lonely experience, even with a crowd present.
Elimination matches, on the other hand, are where the action is! You as player one will bowl your first frame, then your opponent will bowl their first and second frame, before you then bowl your second and third frame etc. With the greatest of respect, bowling isn’t the most exhilarating of sports, but this format tries its absolute hardest to make it so, and does a pretty good job.
There is the option of two control methods to bowl with: Arcade and Simulation. These can be changed at any point as well, in or out of a match. Simulation is unsurprisingly the more realistic of the two, having bowlers set-up angles and ball curvature before releasing the balls. In Arcade mode, curvature can be increased or decreased as the ball flies down the alley.
Arcade mode also introduces three special bowling balls that, if they were real, would make a mockery of the sport. Firstly is bomb ball, which guarantees a strike when used. Lightning ball acts like it has an area of effect attack and will knock down pins that normally would have been missed. Then finally is split ball, which splits into two balls to hit those pesky splits. Whilst these three are all on cooldown timers when used, you can reset them quicker provided you spend your Gold Pins to do so. Gold Pins can be awarded by using certain bowling balls unlocked in the Pro Shop, or by using real-world money.
Yes, that’s right, PBA Pro Bowling 2021 has microtransactions. Ranging from £0.79 to a quite frankly offensive £83.49, you can use Gold Pins to purchase new pros, venues, balls and oil patterns. Many of these are unlocked as you progress through the tour anyways; these just help you unlock items more quickly.
I don’t have an issue with microtransactions when implemented in a game that needs them. However a bowling game that costs £20.99 does not need an additional purchase of £83.49 to purchase items that can be unlocked through natural progression.
PBA Pro Bowling 2021 also has two multiplayer modes: Tournaments and Multiplayer. Tournaments work much like the league format from Career mode in that you enter it, post a score, and see how you fare once the tournament ends. Or rather, guess your outcome at the end, as the tournaments I did enter didn’t appear in my History tab and so I couldn’t find out how badly I did.
Then, Online Multiplayer pits you against other players directly, but good luck in getting matched up as the player base is all but dead.
I missed out on the original PBA Pro Bowling game back in 2019, but judging from the achievement list the two titles are very similar. In fact, the achievement list is identical to the previous game. There are 14 achievements in total, awarded for getting lots of strikes and winning each of the tournaments – about all that you can do in the game really.
You should go into PBA Pro Bowling 2021 on Xbox not expecting too much, but even then you will probably find yourself disappointed by what is on offer, alongside becoming pretty bored during events. Having you reel off your ten frames as quickly as possible does allow you to get through the Career mode faster, but at a price of losing interest far quicker. The Elimination events where you face an opponent and can see how they are doing are far more engaging, but there is sadly not enough of them.
PBA Pro Bowling 2021 proves my initial prediction right: bowling games should accompany other games as a compilation, or be a minigame in a larger title.