Dodgeball Academia is a sports RPG about a chaotic week at the titular school, an institution where colorful students gather to unlock magical powers and harness them in the noble sport of dodgeball. I play as Otto, a brash and friendly young boy who runs away from home to enroll. Inserting himself unnoticed into the opening ceremony, Otto is invited to touch the mystical Hero’s Dodgeball, awakening his magical gifts. Now able to turn dodgeballs into literal fireballs, Otto takes classes, competes in the annual tournament, and makes lots of new friends and rivals among the students, all while saving the school along the way.
Dodgeball is the dreaded schoolyard game designed to allow bigger kids to pick on smaller ones. Players are divided into two teams. Standing on either side of a central dividing line, players hurl large rubber balls at each other. If a player is struck by a ball, then they are “out” and must leave the play area. The limited number of available balls ensures a regular flow to the game; every time a team makes an offensive play with a ball, they must make a defensive play from that same ball before they can act offensively with it again. The teams continue throwing balls at one another until all the players from one team are hit out.
For all its magical excesses, at its core Dodgeball Academia is a straightforward adaptation of these dodgeball rules. Otto’s main ability is to throw the ball. By tilting the joystick towards or away from the opposing team’s half of the court, the ball is thrown with more or less speed. Otto can also catch a ball when it is thrown at him. Since balls often come in volleys from the opposing team, approaching at differing speeds and from multiple directions, catching them all turns into a rhythm-based challenge. It’s often more prudent to jump over a ball or just run out of its way instead of trying to catch the complicated pattern thrown by the opposing team.
Where Dodgeball Academia upends the formula is by turning the sport into a light RPG. Instead of being eliminated by one hit from the opposing team, Otto and his teammates have a hit point meter which is drained when they are struck by a ball. They are not “out” until their hit point meter is completely drained.
Each character has three statistics which determine their performance. Higher strength causes balls to deal more damage, higher agility makes the character move faster and critical hits occur more often, and higher technique increases the speed the character’s special meter builds up. These stats can be increased by eating certain foods or by winning matches to gain experience levels.
Where Dodgeball Academia feels more like an RPG is with its special abilities. Otto is a powerful but straightforward example. By holding the throw button he can imbue more fire energy into the ball, setting his target aflame if it hits. These flames continue to deal damage to the target for a few more seconds. By successfully catching balls or holding the Focus button, Otto’s special meter fills. When full he can unleash his special attack, transforming the ball into a screen-filling meteor that would make Ryu proud.
Other recruitable characters possess other elemental abilities. Ice powers make characters move slower when struck. Bubblegum powers stick characters to the ground. Lightning powers briefly stun characters. Characters also differ in more fundamental ways from Otto. One character’s special ability bounces a ball off the heads of the opposing team as long as the throw button is pressed in time with the character’s snapping fingers. Another fills the court with a blue foam that heals when stood upon. Some characters can dodge-roll away from balls instead of jumping over them. Some can counter a thrown ball instead of catching it.
There’s theoretically an interesting variety of abilities among the six player characters, but these differences don’t feel more than superficial. Every match comes down to hitting opponents with thrown balls. Using different powers feels incidental to this goal. There’s healing options available. I rarely need them. Different characters can inflict different statuses. I never use them. It always feels more prudent to overpower the opposing team with raw strength.
It doesn’t help that as an RPG, Dodgeball Academia is shallow. Otto and his teammates earn experience points as they level up that make them hardier in battle, but their new abilities are pre-set. They don’t build towards new strategies through my hard-made choices as they level up. Each character is static, rising in power to a predetermined endpoint. How well they perform doesn’t align with how well I can plan a character build but with how well I can understand and execute the only build they have.
Otto is a good example of this singular design philosophy. He starts out having to charge the ball to inflict the fire effect. After gaining some levels, he no longer has to charge and every thrown ball gains the effect. Still later, his attacks become stronger if he jumps in the air first. At max level he gains a boost to agility and strength when he is the last person standing on his team. The intention of Otto’s build is spelled out: Be aggressive. Get the ball, jump and throw the ball. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Other player characters have similarly basic strategies which all boil down to “throw the ball at the other team.”
Having a limited moveset can be an interesting choice for a videogame. There are dozens of platformers which have crafted brilliant experiences only using a jump button. Dodgeball Academia does not manage this, taking its limited ability set—throw, catch, jump, focus—and concentrates it on mostly throwing the ball. The other options exist, tantalizing, but don’t have enough practical application to feel worth bothering.
This limited feeling is frustrating because I can tell Dodgeball Academia is trying. Yet even where it tries to add variety, it fails. Outside the different character abilities, special dodgeballs appear which are also imbued with elemental powers. The intention might be to ensure elemental effects are felt even when characters that use them aren’t present, but the result is inherent elemental powers don’t really matter because they also come from the dodgeballs.
Otto’s fire powers cease to be special when there are dodgeballs that apply the same effect. I don’t need to bring a character with bubblegum powers when I can throw a bubblegum dodgeball to stick opponents to the ground. These elemental dodgeballs, rather than creating more depth and strategy, neutralize what makes each character unique. They transform matches into a roulette wheel of random effects.
The dodgeball matches themselves also feel mostly the same because they all take place across mostly-identical arenas. The arena’s size and shape never changes. The match’s location can add additional obstacles, like tall grass obscuring the action in the forest and cars driving across the arena in the parking lot, but these feel more like minor annoyances than game-changing events. And the vast majority of matches take place in a no-frills arena where the only threat is the other team.
The world’s size doesn’t help a feeling of limited variety either. Spending Otto’s first few days in the school, its campus, and a neighboring forest is fine for introducing the world, but when Otto’s next three days involve the same sort of dodgeball hijinks in the same three small environments, it all starts to blend together. I’m overjoyed by an invasion from a robot army to break up the monotony, yet even this world-shaking event lasts for only a single in-game day. When Otto wakes up the next day, it’s back to generic students picking fights with him while he tries to walk to the library.
I’m disappointed that Dodgeball Academia isn’t much fun to play because it is a delight to look at. Character designs are excellent and eclectic. Otto has the most basic design, obviously human, with only a red tint to his skin like a bad sunburn suggesting anything unusual about him. Then there’s Boris and his little sister Vampy, monstrous students with purple and green skin, respectively, who look like they transferred to Dodgeball Academia from an episode of The Munsters. Other characters are practically muppets. Otto’s roommate Balloony has teal skin and a massive head which deflates when he is scared or disappointed. The School Monitor, with her giant blue head and toothy smile, could be the Blue Meanie’s little sister.
Not all the character designs delighted me. Dodgeball Academia’s principal and some of its students are Black. I am immediately uncomfortable with their appearance. They have fat lips and huge round ears that create a distinctly monkey-like appearance. I may be reading too much into things and in a setting filled with distinctive character designs it’s hard to accuse these ones of being deliberately offensive. I still can’t shake the feeling that I am looking at caricatures ripped from white supremacist propaganda whenever they are on screen.
Despite these personal misgivings, Dodgeball Academia’s character designs are otherwise uniformly excellent. They even have intricate idle animations that inform their personality, ensuring the screen is always filled with lots of eye candy to enjoy.
The high level of attention given to the character designs is reflected elsewhere in Dodgeball Academia. The dormitory has multiple air tanks dotted around the building, and when examined, Otto deduces they must be for Balloony’s use. I never witness Balloony experiencing noticeable problems with keeping his head inflated, but these tanks suggest that it can be an issue for him. Each member of Otto’s team has foods they like and dislike. Suneko, a dark and intense teen rebel-type, is listed as “Allergic” to foods like cheese bread, pudding, and chocolate milk. I deduce from this that Suneko is lactose intolerant. Again, her allergy never comes up in the plot, but I appreciate a glimpse at the inner life of a player character and the choices they have to make every day of their life.
I especially appreciated that one of the professors, Fortunato, uses a wheelchair, and most of the school reflects his disability. Elevators are attached to almost every stairwell, suggesting Dodgeball Academia is filled with old buildings which were retrofitted to accommodate staff and students with disabilities. The parking lot even has multiple handicap parking spaces, something I almost never see in videogames. There is one significant blunder made to these details, however: The steps leading up to the gates, the only entrance into the school and directly adjacent to the parking lot, do not have a ramp or an elevator. Fortunato is apparently trapped in the school grounds.
Dodgeball Academia has a lot going for it. It’s beautiful to look at with strong and distinct character designs (my misgivings about the Black characters aside). It has an interesting setting and its clear thought and care was put into the inner lives of the characters who live within it. But as an actual sports RPG, I find it repetitive. There are no choices to make in each character’s RPG development. The strategy always seems to boil down to “get the dodgeball, throw the dodgeball.” The game world is tiny, immediately tasking me with running and re-running over the same few areas with little variation. A preponderance of random dodgeball matches against generic students grows grating quickly. There’s good art here and a story with good values, but playing the videogame to see those strengths is a slog.