For many, dodgeball day in gym class was either the stuff of nightmares or a chance to unwind all that simmering teen angst. I actually quite enjoyed it, one-sided as it often was, usually because it was the most honest opportunity I'd ever have to confront my bullies and pelt them in the face. Fast forward to 2021, and I'm an almost-30-year-old who enjoys too many anime shows, so Dodgeball Academia's cartoony sports action was clearly designed in a lab for dorks like me. It's an inventive action-arcade RPG with enough charisma to stand alongside Captain Tsubasa's soccer or NBA Jam.
Stop me if this sounds familiar: You're a young boy with big dreams of becoming the best dodgeball player in the world, and the only way to do that is to attend a giant school where apparently that's the only curriculum. Along the way, you'll meet quirky faculty, form friendships and rivalries with fellow students, and discover the campus' mysteries. The only thing missing is a catalog of creatures to capture, unless these dodgeballs have some extra functionality I don't know about. Dodgeball Academia explicitly recalls the influences of Pokémon, sports anime series, and Steven Universe.
I begin working my way through the ranks of Dodgeball Academia, waking up each morning in the student dorm I share with Ballooney, a boy with a literal balloon head. I'm free to roam the moderately sizable campus as I see fit, spending money at the gear store, challenging classmates to battles out on the courts, or going to class in the main building. On my way to class, several students interrupt me to duels, and quickly learn the bite of my dodgeball. True to RPG fashion, the defeated opponents offer up some cash and XP. The 3D school environment is pretty enough, but it's all the incredible 2D character art and animation that makes me feel like I'm suddenly stepping into an episode of Gumball or some other Cartoon Network classic.
Dodgeball Academia's battles are, well, a lot like dodgeball. I race to pick up one of three balls sitting on the center court divider, take a few steps back to safety, and while just throwing the ball is an option, I soon learn to charge up my shot and ignite my ball on fire. Alright, that last part isn't quite like regular dodgeball. My shot smashes into a schoolyard bully and his silly pompadour hair, washing him in flames that continue to deal damage.
Camaraderie with my two teammates won't save me though when our opponents throw different kinds of shots all at once. One supersizes his dodgeball into a rubber boulder, while another lobs his into a slow arc in the air. I ninja roll just barely out of the way of both and prepare to grab the third.
Suddenly, the oncoming ball disappears into thin air, and I'm left grasping at nothing. It suddenly materializes to my side, as if to say "nothing personal, kid," and smashes into my gut.
My reluctant teammate Mina, a rambunctious frog-faced girl, probably wouldn't have picked me first out of a lineup, but we're all each other has at the moment. I tag her in as my health gets low, taking control of her while Otto takes the backline. Our enemy team appears to be unsure of themselves, and since at least one ball is in their court, Mina can charge up her ultimate move Super Saiyan-style, emitting flashes of light and screaming her heart out. There's no saving our foes now, as Mina unleashes three piercing arcs of lightning down from the sky, blasting two foes into the air and KO'ing them for good.
Dodge, duck, dip, dive, and dodge
Dodgeball Academia's quickly stacking list of mechanics are clearly designed to encourage aggression. Throwing, charging, rolling, and countering or grabbing balls are just as effective when you have one dodgeball or when you have three. I love it when my team is in possession of all three dodgeballs because it feels just like those moments in high school, where a brief calm hits, before an entire class rains down dodgeball violence on the other. When my opponents bite the dust, they're also sent to my own backline to nip at our feet with errant shots while I deal with whoever remains.
At first, I was worried Dodgeball Academia would be too much of a cakewalk, but that increasing pressure to get the dodgeball out of your hands kept surprising me, reminding me that victory was never certain. In the same way that NBA Jam really only had a handful of mechanics, but managed to feel like a deeper game that demanded some level of skill, Dodgeball Academia feels like something I'll need a few more hours to truly master. Not that I have a problem with that when it's this much fun.
All the while, our third teammate, Ballooney, has been sitting scared on the sidelines. In Dodgeball Academia's story mode, battles are occasionally interrupted by comic book interjections. The kind you see in any anime when a character somehow magically finds a way to have an entire conversation in the span of three seconds. Our team's current rival, a snot-nosed boy named Cubo (who, get this, has a cube for a head) sneaks in a devastating attack while the principal has his back turned, and depletes my health bar to one point.
Like Phoenix Wright yelling "OBJECTION!", Ballooney starts screaming "I WILL HELP MY FRRIIIIIEEEEEEEEEEENDS," and revitalizes the entire team with a giant healing tidal wave effect.
That "power of friendship" fighting spirit oozes from every corner of the small, but lively campus. When I'm not busy tossing dodgeballs, I'm visiting the student store to try on new accessories to boost my stats Yakuza-style, or I'm meeting a vampire girl who likes to hoard coins from the fountain. I'm visiting the infirmary between bouts to heal my Pika—I mean teammates. I'm also visiting the cafeteria run by a capitalism-crazed "dodgeboomer" who will sell me healing popsicles and potato chips. If you want to take the shonen fight to the real world, a local versus mode lets you duke it out with a friend and customize your team. Sadly, you can't play against AI enemies outside of the campaign.
The school grounds are inviting in their warm and colorful style, but the real show stealer here is the huge cast of animated students, professors, and faculty. My partner and I spent 20 minutes debating what style it took more from: OK KO's boyish antics, Steven Universe's diverse body types, or My Hero Academia's devotion to immediately recognizable faces and personalities. Whatever the mixture's contents, it works. You know immediately who's a jerk, who's a do-gooder, and who's a weird cat-shaped abomination against god and science that will inevitably end up being your favorite.
Dodgeball Academia adheres to plenty of familiar shonen cartoon tropes, but it's comfortable with mocking them in the same breath. It's a world where conflicts of all sizes are solved with dodgeball-shaped diplomacy. Dodgeball Academia is available on Xbox Game Pass for PC, or for $25 on Steam. I'm about three hours into the campaign, which contains eight "episodes" that are all about an hour or two long and help break things up into digestible chunks.