Soccer Story Review – Aim, Shoot, Miss?

    Title: Soccer Story
    Developer: PanicBarn
    Release Date: November 26, 2022
    Reviewed On: PC
    Publisher: No More Robots
    Genre: Sports, RPG

There’s been something of a resurgence of the sports-RPG genre over the last few years, games inspired by older titles that featured explorable worlds and experience points to go along with their fast-paced matches. One of these titles even ended up in my Top 5 of 2021, Pocket Trap’s Dodgeball Academia. Now, a year later, I’m looking at PanicBarn’s Soccer Story and trying my hardest not to compare the two in my head.

Soccer Story is the tale of a young protagonist (with your choice of gender, though there are only two options) living in a world where soccer, and even any mention of soccer, is banned. Think of the town from Footloose, only taken to the extreme of having mysterious agents around enforcing the rule with “no soccer allowed” signs hung up all over the place. This is because a year prior to the beginning of their story, a tournament ended in a “calamity” that led to people dying, and now, the only sport allowed to be played must be sanctioned directly by Soccer Inc.

Soccer Story Screenshot 2

The protagonist’s life at home with their mother is suddenly interrupted by the appearance of a magical soccer ball that comes crashing through their window, only to zip back out again and lead them to follow the ball back to the local soccer pitch. Inspired to combat the evil Sports Fascism by their magical new toy, the hero recruits a team to restart their local soccer league, and along the way, they’ll play against teams of toddlers, the elderly, and even sharks.

In between matches, the player is given a Zelda-style overworld to explore and complete side quests, rendered in a very cool voxel style that I immediately fell in love with. Unlike the massive blocky style of Minecraft, here the whole world is constructed out of basically Lego bricks, combined with pixel elements to create an appealing new-retro style, unlike any game I’ve seen before.

Soccer Story Screenshot 1

The problem here, though, is that this part of the game – the actual RPG bit – is fairly weak. The world is fun to explore at first, but once you realize that every single quest is basically just a hunt through the world for targets, collectibles, or goals, it becomes more of a chore than a highlight.

It doesn’t help that the game presents you with several of these quests right off the bat, which do have the benefit of teaching you the basics of the game, but also make for an incredibly slow and pretty boring start. It’ll likely be an hour before you reach your first match, and that hour will be spent running in frustrated circles, trying to hunt down targets in the environment.

Soccer Story Screenshot 3

The other aspect that doesn’t help is that, for an RPG, Soccer Story lacks characters to latch onto. The lack of character portraits and meaningful dialogue means that your team is effectively made of cardboard cutouts with roles stamped onto them, and you only interact with them while playing matches. Further, in between those matches, if they have anything to say to you, it will more than likely just be to give you another quest to hunt down goals in the environment, which is made even more annoying by a lack of fast travel.

Though, once you do make it to the pitch,  the actual game of soccer ends up being quite fun, if not a little barebones. It took me several tries on the first major match to really get the hang of the controls – one thing the game doesn’t tell you is that there’s a button you’re supposed to press to cycle through which teammate you’re actively controlling – but the four-minute matches are brief enough that the game remains exhilarating.

Soccer Story Screenshot 4

Still, expect to lose several times before the controls click with you. Admittedly, even now, I’m still not sure I got there. For every awesome moment where you get two goals in thirty seconds, there are several where you aren’t sure what’s supposed to happen or feel cheated out of possession of the ball.

At the beginning of this review, I was trying not to compare this game to Dodgeball Academia. It takes a long time to develop an indie game, and I have little evidence that the two have anything to do with each other. But it’s hard not to look at these two games next to each other and see that the things I really adored about one are mostly absent from the other. There’s definitely an enjoyable experience to be had with Soccer Story, but you’ll need to have a high tolerance for jank to find enjoyment in it.

A review copy of the title was provided by the publisher for review purposes

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