When you first start RoboDunk, it asks you if dunk is the meaning of life. This sort of faux-serious absurdity is, I won’t lie, kind of the sort of thing I live for. Lamentably, as much fun as that question might be, you can expect the game to basically leave it there. It does not have anything to say about the meaning of life, dunk-based or otherwise, that it cares to convey to you. And so my quest to find something that might yet tell me if dunk is the meaning of life goes as yet unfulfilled.
That’s not to say that RoboDunk is somehow lacking for this, but it does kind of speak to a larger situation. RoboDunk was a game I kept wanting to love, and it’s not like any component of the game is bad or awful or even half-baked or the like. It’s more that the game is a collection of many, many perfectly fine systems that somehow never quite coalesce, but also are not made awkward by their inclusion. So, you know… have fun watching me break that down in a review for a thousand words.
Junk In The Dunk
Here is absolutely everything you actually need to know about the game’s story: It kind of exists. Technically. The outline is that you are being sent to understand the sport of RoboDunk by the mysterious Overseer, which means first assembling a team of little robots to play RoboDunk and then winning matches to learn lore and such. The lore, however, is not nearly as entertaining as the visual premise of “little robots made out of what look like Lego™-brand construction bricks running around and playing basketball” would seem to set up. There was a war. Now the robots dunk. It lacks quite the fun I was hoping for, simply because it’s just… explaining the tropes instead of really sticking to the ribs.
The important aspect is that the game is played out in a series of not-quite-basketball matches. It’s not quite basketball even more than NBA Jam is not quite basketball; the only shots are dunks, you can make further dunks if you jump higher, and the closest to a long-range shot is passing to your teammate near the basket. Rounds have varying duration and fields can have varying effects, like being slippery, or being underground (limiting your jump height) and so forth. However, the core remains – it’s 2v2 hoops with no restrictions on physical contact, so tackle and shoot your opponents before attempting to dunk the ball, with higher dunks earning more points.
It’s also layered over with the system of a roguelike game, though. Aside from each robot having different weapons and stats, you also get special mods from winning matches that you can apply to your robots, more mods that you get mid-match, and then various other things you can find as you explore the map. It reminds me of an NES hockey game I played at a friend’s house ages ago where I swear you could explore an RPG-style map, but it must be an inaccurate memory since I haven’t found any evidence that actually existed.
Yes, I know Hit The Ice would have been similar, but that wasn’t ever actually released and it post-dates when that memory would have probably happened, which means… y’know what? Let’s just move on.
Now, this all winds up putting things in an interesting place. On the one hand, all of the individual components of RoboDunk do actually work. The moment-to-moment dunking is reasonably fun arcade action. The roguelike elements spice things up. The story, while perfunctory, is there. I always felt like I had meaningful goals to strive for in the campaign as well as skips I could pick up that would let me catch up faster, which was also nice. It all works! It’s fine!
But it’s the rare instance where I felt like all of these things didn’t help make the game more fun… but also didn’t hurt the game.
This is unusual. More often than not, what I find happens is that a bunch of extra things get stacked on top of one another and they make the game far less fun to play… or they all work together and make the game almost immeasurably more fun on top of what’s already present. But RoboDunk felt like the rare case where the individual components do neither. They never seem to really meld together into a new, satisfying whole, but they also never felt like they blended together into a unified experience. It’s a rare experience where all of the parts just sort of… exist in one game.
Nothing is individually bad; it’s a bit lightweight, and I found the whole weapons aspect didn’t really add as much as I had been hoping for. But at the end of the day it felt very much like a collection of systems which were individually fine just put together. Imagine a perfectly good dinner of tacos, baked asparagus, and fried rice. All of the pieces taste good, but none of them are really meant to be served together.
Play That Dunky Music
The graphics for the game are, I have to say, absolutely gorgeous. The sort of not-quite-Lego look (I’m assuming it’s not actually Lego to avoid any copyright strikes) is given a sort of stop-motion animation that I think is honestly brilliant, akin to the various Clay Fighter games except not terrible. There’s a fun tactile feel to it, and combined with the chunky (but not simplistic) UI it gives the whole thing a very earnest feeling I can appreciate. The animations are smooth, too, and generally speaking it was easy enough to tell what was happening on-screen – a mercy when you consider that it was happening with big sprites that had limited animation.
Music and sound effects, on the other hand, feel oddly disconnected. The music balance feels a bit too loud and the sounds get washed out, so I generally couldn’t get great feedback between my actions and what I heard in-game. The music itself didn’t delight me but it does at least feel appropriate, just kind of… generic. (I say that a lot, but it’s a persistent problem with a lot of smaller games.)
Also, while it’s not strictly speaking a flaw, I kind of hate the keyboard controls. Having WASD be my abilities and the arrow keys to move fills me with an anxiety I struggle to voice. Not a fan. It’s not a strictly bad control scheme, but it’s weird. Although I do commend the designers for using an unorthodox scheme, and you get used to it.
Turn Down For Dunk
I don’t want to give the impression that RoboDunk is in some way a bad game, because it genuinely is not. It’s fine at doing the things it wants to do. And maybe some of this is just me; maybe some part of it just didn’t stick to the ribs for me. It’s genuinely gorgeous and I want to love the heck out of it. And I never disliked it. But I would play a match, and each time I’d be like “well, that was fun enough” and then get up, go get a drink after tabbing away, sit back down, and I could not tell you any particularly interesting stories from that match.
And that’s really where I have to come down. Ultimately, RoboDunk is a pile of pieces that all work together in the strictest sense, but they don’t enrich one another. I enjoyed it well enough, but I never felt compelled to go back by anything in particular. It’s just… if you want a basketball-ish roguelike, this is definitely it, and it does everything right enough. But I can’t see you being blown away by it.
Review copy provided by Jollypunch Games for PC. All screenshots courtesy of Jollypunch Games.