In between some of the biggest releases this year, with campaigns lasting for over a hundred hours, I think what we need right now is some pick-up-and-play titles. How about a blast from the past? Some classic 2v2 basketball action wrapped in a modern, roguelite system. RoboDunk aims to deliver, and deliver it does. A thunderous DUNK resonates through the scene, and what a spectacle it is!
Allow me to explain how cool RoboDunk is. All of the robots are designed based on real Lego figurines. In general, RoboDunk has this fantastic, whimsical aspect to it, where childhood playfulness is incorporated meaningfully, in a way I have not seen before. The lore, aesthetic, and gameplay all feel like a logical conclusion to the sort of imaginary universes created using whatever toys and Lego pieces were at hand when I was seven-years-old.
Each action resembles how I played with other kids. We would smash figurines we built against each other, but then nuh-uh, “I have a shield”. “You can’t have the shield on all the time!” he says. “That’s true” I admit, as I “lower the shield” and get smacked in my hand, surely by accident. We collide a few more times and before I know it, it is time for my big maneuver.
“Check this out,” I say as I lift my hand super high, all the way into space (AKA about 50cm high), and crash down onto my friend’s robot (and his hand, after all, I never forget). He falls exaggeratedly, pretending he is dying in slow motion, before returning with a counterattack of his own. This is the sort of feeling evoked by RoboDunk, and it is glorious.
Once you know the Lego inspirations, you really cannot unsee that sort of play. The designs are blocky and shiny, with impressive light reflections, but feel almost clay-ish, like they were molded from Play-Doh. The stop-motion animation adds that feeling of making your mini-movies by coupling together pictures of your toys in Windows Movie Maker. But the final nail in the coffin is the lore, which you can unlock as you progress through the roguelite campaign.
Did you think this is just a game about random robots playing basketball? Wrong! After two robot wars, the bots have discovered the DUNK (in all caps, always) and the power it generates. These killing machines gained sentience and turned to playing basketball and developed cultures, religions, ideologies, and shrines surrounding the great sport. It is quite something, but again, it feels like just an extremely detailed explanation of how a toy that was around factors into the current pretend game the kids are playing.
Every aspect of it is detailed in slides, written in epic prose, explaining how, on the flamingo map, the discovery of the first Ramingo statue became an item of worship, and the driving force behind the “Second Great Exploration.” The “Pink Shockers” are all about the stylish dunks, while the “Ultra Violets” revel in the destruction of others and don’t care about the sanctity of the game. What a load of extremely charming nonsense. These adorable slides were a highlight for me. Adorable in a cool way, of course. Can’t forget about the cool. After all, this is a mechanically tight game with extremely exciting moments. It is not abstract just for the sake of it, the seriousness with which these elements are treated truly makes RoboDunk feel special.
The stop-motion and sound effects create a crunchiness during the clashes for the ball and explosive dunks. You don’t just steal the ball, you ram into opponents, taking it by force. Then, it is all about protecting yourself using a shield or finding a way for one of the two controlled robots to get up in the air and slam it down. The longer you charge the jump, the further you get, and the more points you score. If you manage to charge it up all the way, you get to perform a glorious space dunk for four points.
To protect yourself from opponents, you can use the shield, which will stun the enemy if they ram into you, or use the weapons. Each of the 16 robots has a unique set of stats, but also a different weapon, both of which change up the playstyle. There are also ways to modify basic abilities using the perk system. During the campaign, you get to choose between three matches, each containing two permanent perks for your robots which you can apply to whomever you choose. There are also temporary ones that you get to pick before each game.
They both come from the same pool, which you add to by purchasing them with match reward money. There is a pretty sizable tree to unlock, but that is not the only avenue the player can invest in. New robots can also be added to the roster after beating them in a match and can be upgraded to start with higher stats and instant perks. Each feel unique and the game incentivizes using them by providing a percentage money bonus for using bots you have not played with in a while. You can also build teleporters to later levels, though you do have less perks to choose from if you use one.
Now, I found all of this to be a good system for the campaign, allowing for more complex customizations and tactics as time went on, but RoboDunk is currently really struggling with the balance of some elements. The biggest offenders are the different conditions and hazards that begin appearing as time goes on. Logs take up three-quarters of the field and stunlock players, tornadoes that take way too long to get out of, turrets that appear at random times, and fire at intervals that are impossible to play around.
There are elements to RoboDunk that just feel unfair and combinations that kill enjoyment. Stuff like enemy teams that are super fast or can spawn turrets coupled with the turrets hazard, and maybe a condition preventing shielding for good measure. Sometimes it’s just impossible to move, let alone catch someone who can cross the field in an instant and score four points. And then they may also have a sabotage perk to be able to immediately score another three before you get back on defense.
Not much fine-tuning is needed for the frustration to be gone, but I think it is currently intended to be this way. With more upgrades to my robots, none of this would be much of an issue. I do think, however, that this arcadey style of gameplay would benefit much more if the goal of the rogue-lite elements was not to stop the player in their tracks when they encounter an unfair combination, but instead enchance the enjoyable chaos presented by all the variables. Add complexity to the gameplay instead of putting an unclear stop sign.
I still failed many times even without anything crazy just because RoboDunk is genuinely challenging. I do not think it needs to be insane on the Hard difficulty, because Normal, if you do not encounter the turret barrage, is a cakewalk. You can modify these things in the Endless mode, turning off specific hazards or rulesets, and that was a more consistent experience, but it was the campaign that provided the most exciting matches I played.
I hope that in the future, after player feedback comes in, RoboDunk’s balance can be tweaked in the right direction, and I am giving Jollypunch Games the doubt here. If it will be implemented soon, I think the experience would improve significantly. I also hope that by then RoboDunk will be more stable, as I experienced more crashes than I would want to. There is also the issue of the game providing you with upgrades that you actually cannot add to your robots, softlocking you on the reward screen in the process. These, however, are things that I’m sure will be patched in the following weeks.
My biggest issue is perhaps the weak soundtrack. This is an intense game, especially during those final dozen seconds where the fate of the robots you’ve build for the past hour is decided. The tracks which play during the matches are pleasant, but just that. They do not encapsulate the excitement of a robot dunking a ball from space. They are also noticeably too short, and end without looping. Often, during a match, the soundtrack would just fade off and stop for a good few seconds before coming back. It was really distracting.
RoboDunk stands at a crossroads. If the game continues to develop in the direction of time-consuming upgrades just to beat the hard mode, I will bounce off it like it is a backboard. If it loosens a bit, I’ll be back for more dunking. As it stands it is still a unique experience that will be a ton of fun for anyone who can survive its lowest moments in solo, and especially for a group of friends playing against each other, or in co-op. The highs are worth it; I was jumping off my seat trying to get a last-second score. I just hope that sort of feeling is the focus here, not the annoyances caused by needless difficulty spikes and padding.
Mateusz played RoboDunk on PC with a review key. RoboDunk is also available for Nintendo Switch.