Ball is Life
Character, charm and a sprinkle of pizazz, are components that all games strive for but not all can achieve. Great indie games are filled with these and Dodgeball Academia is no exception. From the characters and writing to the frantic dodgeball matches, charm and character are found in spades across this sports RPG. An experience that was just as exciting from the first minute to the last, and left me wanting more of Otto and Co’s capers.
The game starts with Otto rolling up to his new school – Dodgeball Academia. Otto has come to this school in somewhat dubious circumstances that are explored through the 8 chapters of the game. In this first chapter you meet most of the characters that will play a role through the story. These characters do well to not conform to typical tropes, such as the hair combing cool boy Kyabo who is picked on more than you would expect someone in a greaser jacket; or the lunch lady, kind faced as you would expect but loves to extort the students in the name of capitalism and general disdain for the students. The character and general art style of the game is excellent, and a bulk of the game’s charm can be attributed to the way personality is exuded by each character being unique down to their idle animations.
In the early stages of the game you are introduced to the Tournament, a must win event for Otto and his party. The 8 story chapters advance not only your standings in the tournaments, but also explore side stories about your fellow dodgemates. These can be typical high school affairs, such as investigating the love letter slid under your door or helping the school defend against a droidgebot uprising. These vignettes are always fun and let the writing really shine through the characters and their interactions.
Being an RPG, there are of course side missions to take on to distract from the tournament preparation. Some are persistent across the chapters, such as doing a daily challenge with a student trying to improve his game, confronting Otto with a new strategy each day or an underground tournament that you can participate in until you’ve conquered all comers through attrition, healing bared between bouts. Other in chapter side missions offer more opportunities to dodgeball, and I happily completed these quests if it meant a chance to hone my skills or play test the other characters in my party.
This brings us to the actual dodgeball you learn at the Academia. Mentioned at the top it is fast paced, with each match typically only lasting a few minutes. Unlike other dodgeball game of the year Knockout City, and general dodgeball rules, there is no set amount of hits to win, characters have health bars so the amount of hits can vary significantly. The dance of catching and throwing can be delicate, especially with the increasing amount of opponents and dodgeballs that can be on court at a single time. Dodging is also a tricky prospect, the dodged ball potentially hitting others in your party, or going to the eliminated opponents waiting in the wings and launching attacks from the rear. Making connections with the opponents faces is always satisfying, and the way the final hit sends them flying across the court never gets old.
Relying on a single tactic in these encounters is never enough. The number of opponents, variety of dodgeballs and arenas all work to contribute to a fresh dodgeball experience through the run of the game. Dodging may seem easiest, but special bubblegum and ice balls can root you in place and quickly test your catching ability, or make you an easy target for the cars in the car park arena. There are also the ultimate abilities to contend with, and the computer is not afraid to use them. These see you having to dodge multiple balls, being gummed down and facing a barrage or having to dodge giant balls taking up half the court. Naturally, your own ultimate abilities are devastating attacks that will help round out games through Otto’s Focus Beam, or get you out of a sticking situation with Balloony’s Healing Wave.
Through the course of the game you will build your roster up to a total of 6 misfits in Otto’s crew. All characters offer something unique in their dodgeball skills library. Some prefer to reflect the ball back to the other team in place of catching the ball and some will dodge roll instead of dodge jumping. Then there is also the stats side of things, with the game having 3 stats, strength, agility and technique. There is some implicit gaming knowledge required here as I do not think anyone at the academia explains how exactly each stat affects the moment to moment dodgeball, but we can quite easily guess.
Rare items that can be found throughout the course of the game (or purchased for a pretty dollar) can be used to permanently improve the stats of your roster. This includes a small meta game of each character loving or hating, and few points in between, which affects how much benefit they will receive. There is also equipment that can be found and bought at the school, offering further opportunities to customise the characters. These items can offer simple boosts to health and stats, draining health effects to your dodgeball hits or even major strength bonuses at the expense of majorly decreased defense. With two equipment slots to a character and no penalties for changing the loadout, experimentation is encouraged.
Dodgeball Academia comes out on top of the tournament. All the systems in play are excellent, the gameplay is fast and fun and the writing is exactly what it should have been. This is all tied together with excellent design in both music and visuals. The focused vision of developers Pocket Trap has helped this game to land among the year’s indies darlings, and comes with a strong recommendation.