Summer started pretty promisingly with those glorious 4 weeks when it seemed like everything was headed back to normal. By August, however, things didn’t feel so sunny thanks to renewed endless pandemic fatigue coupled with the loss of a beloved pet and cancelled vacations. Fortunately, right when I needed something to help generate happiness and warm feelings, Brazilian studio Pocket Trap released the video game equivalent of Season 1 of Ted Lasso in the anime-fueled action-RPG Dodgeball Academia, providing a welcome distraction that nailed its gameplay, storytelling, and heart in a way that I had not seen since 2017’s fantastic Golf Story. I don’t know what’s higher, the amount of smiles this game elicited from me or the number of concussions the blistering games of dodgeball gave the poor students of the titular institution. Either way (or more likely because of both), we have yet another surprise contender for 2021’s Top 10 lists and hopefully the start of a truly special series.
Much like the aforementioned Ted Lasso, this game is broken down into a series of binge-able episodes. Each comes jam-packed with plenty of dodgeball action slathered atop a heartwarming and hilarious sitcom premise at its core. Depending on how thorough you choose to be, they take about an hour to 90 minutes to complete, but don’t be surprised when you decide to exhaust every possible side quest and battle. The fodder for each episode’s central conflict should be familiar to all 80’s and 90’s TV-loving kids, but the material comes across incredibly fresh and not overly-mined. For example, one particular highlight is Episode 5’s spin on the students taking care of fake babies sitcom trope that managed to execute the central conceit more hilariously than any TV show I’ve seen in a long time and was surely the first time a video game ever thought to attempt it. Even without addictive battles, I would’ve seen this game through purely for the story’s entertainment value, but there was no shortage of epic dodgeball warfare either.
What would a game about dodgeball be without some fun actual dodgeball? While things may start out a little slowly as you’re an underpowered newbie, the battles quickly grow more complex and fun as new abilities, teammates, ball types, and environmental hazards are added into the mix. Instead of finding myself tiring of the fights, I really did want to see what the developers would literally throw at me next. Before I knew it, I was knee-deep in squad building tactics and equipment selection, so I could survive back-to-back-to-back arena style matches with much needed healing or unleash a Hadouken-like attack to clear the floor at just the right time. You will need more than just the 5 D’s of Dodgeball, though, to reach the ultimate glory of hoisting the school’s trophy. You are gonna need a whole lot of heart.
The real heart of Dodgeball Academia and why it’s so successful at what it sets out to accomplish is the constant optimism of the protagonist Otto and his every-growing team of ragtag misfits. While Otto strives to be the best, he also understands that the most important thing is simply trying your best. No foe is truly a lifelong enemy, but rather an opportunity for a new friend and teammate, and that spirit is infectious.
I really did just want to see all my beloved characters succeed, and nothing epitomized this more than when I found myself on the edge of my seat watching the heroics unfold as the nervous and weak yet undeniably lovable Balloony somehow was my final non-eliminated teammate in an official tournament match. As the balls rained down from the heavens, the cruel dodgeball gods struck down the seemingly always reliable Otto and Mina, leaving me with a player who only agreed to join the squad so we could have a team of 3 to fulfill the tournament’s requirements. Up until that point, I had only ever thrown him the ball during the rare instances of remembering that he had a healing special move, but suddenly and unbelievably the entire season now rested on his narrow shoulders. With two foes bearing down on him and the end in sight, all hope seemed lost, but Balloony dug deep into his heart and rewarded the Chinbusters for always believing in him, tossing beautiful swirling ball after beautiful swirling ball until only he was left standing. At this point, I knew we weren’t just a team, we were a Dominic Toretto-style family, and we weren’t going to stop until we won the whole darn thing.
From start to finish, this game was exactly what I needed like a warm bowl of soothing video game soup. Heck, I loved it so much that I even unlocked every single achievement. It is a game that should truly have something for everyone from young kids just starting out gaming to seasoned RPG vets, and it would assuredly be a phenomenal couch co-op experience to enjoy with your kids. For their exemplary efforts, I hope all the endearing students receive a “D” for “Delightful” and that they have many more semesters ahead of them. So, do you and your serotonin levels a favor and check out Dodgeball Academia.