JRPGs have always been a bit of an odd moniker for a genre no longer constrained to the east. Dodgeball Academia, for example, carries many of the genre’s qualities and conventions but originates from Brazil. So I guess that’d make it a BRPG, which also means it could be a Ball RPG, and given the sheer amount of dodge and ball puns this game throws at you over its runtime that seems apt. Let’s go with that.
To make the obligatory multi-game comparison, DA plays like the lovechild of Paper Mario and the Kunio-kun Super Dodgeball franchise. You’ve got 2D characters in a 3D world and relentlessly goofy writing, meanwhile your combat is real-time action on a dodgeball court replete with special throws. Real-time combat in an otherwise traditional RPG isn’t new – the Tales franchise alone has had that on lock for decades – but this combination is certainly fresh.
The story of DA is kept light. Characters in-game even compare their lives to a sports anime and the inspiration is made evident from the jump. That means that you aren’t here for intrigue, twists, or much beyond “getting stronger” and “the power of friendship”, which is fine! Everyone likes a comfort food shonen and this is a playable version of that. Many modern indie RPGs are looking to pull a LISA or Undertale and yank the rug out from under you, often to varying degrees of success. Know going in that DA does not. Instead it wants to appeal with its striking presentation then hook you with its gameplay and humor, which it succeeds at.
Let’s hit those in order. I have a lot of affection for the Super Dodgeball franchise, in particular the GBA entry, and the combat system is very much that but with some critical changes. Each character comes with a handful of moves: normal throw, charge throw, movement trick, defensive trick, and balltimate. No two characters have anywhere close to the same combination of these. Spin shots that pierce multiple opponents, lobs that allow you to throw borderline uncatchable mixups, a bevy of status effects, the list goes on. They all feel completely distinct from one another and you will inevitably find favorites. I’ll avoid spoilers, light as they are, but mine was a glass cannon delinquent who by endgame was nuking entire teams from the front line all by themselves. Terrifying.
Because this is a BRPG we need to talk about the progression. Levels unlock passive skills that will eventually define each character’s niche, but gear and stat-boosting consumables will allow you to shift them into just about any role you please. A decent amount of the game’s equipment are just upgrades but many come with tradeoffs, a big return in one area for a handicap in another. High defense but no healing, a fast-charging balltimate but reduced firepower, massive damage increases but only if you’re playing from the right area of the court, etc. If you’re familiar with the high risk/high reward gameplay of “Danger Mario” builds in Paper Mario, where you’re perpetually on death’s door but do more damage than God, good news: you can do that here too. There’s even equipment that will drop you to a single hit point for this exact purpose!
All this is to say that the combat never gets boring. Even when you absolutely rock a fight in under 10 seconds it still feels satisfying, in large part thanks to punchy sound effects and colorful visuals firing big numbers out of your enemies as you send them flying out of the court. Every tweak you make to your characters has immediate feedback, and every team comp has an identity all its own. To pull off interesting builds in a game where characters only have three stats and two gear slots is a commendable feat.
Speaking of commendations, the dialog is on the whole excellent. DA is a comedy game through and through and its jokes landed more often than they didn’t. Of course it’s chock full of references but it isn’t restricted to just those; there’s some legitimately funny stuff in here that caught me by surprise more than once. The heap of characters the game introduces are all pleasing in their own distinct ways and suit the shonen framework perfectly, whether that’s being an infinite font of motivation towards self-improvement or just being a little shit that you can’t wait to beat up. I did find that the writing’s quality had a bit of a downhill curve, especially towards the endgame as plot events demanded a bit more seriousness, but I would never have called it bad. It remains lighthearted and silly for the entire duration and that’s fine by me.
In your slightly-more-than-a-week at the titular Academia you’ll be participating in the obligatory tournament, and the game ends when that does. As a result the game is tight, both in terms of scope and in runtime. I unlocked all but two of the game’s 37 achievements in a playthrough just shy of 13 hours and I wasn’t even gunning for them. There is a multiplayer mode with 8 playable characters that are unlocked as you complete the game, but it’s more of a fun diversion than something you’ll keep in your local multi rotation. Playing it with a schoolyard-style draft for characters could be a good time though, at least for an hour or two. I was reminded of how so many games from previous generations offered multiplayer no matter what their focus was, and it always makes me happy to see one included even if it’s not the main draw.
Dodgeball Academia is a charming little title that’ll keep you engaged from start to finish. It wanes a bit in its last ¼ or so as it runs out of new ideas but it cuts to credits before it ever gets frustrating. The game never suffers from the common JRPG issue of scope creep, never overextends itself or risks getting overlong. Pocket Trap had a vision for this experience and polished it to a mirror sheen, letting nothing get in the way of laughs and ball-based violence. Between the underrated Ninjin: Clash of Carrots and now this, I look forward to catching what this studio throws at us next.
A Steam code was independently purchased for review.