Soccer Story, out this week, is a new RPG from PanicBarn, the team behind Not Tonight. It is an RPG devoted entirely to the sport of football. It is not, as the combination of name and art style might have you initially believe, a sequel or successor to Golf Story.
Set in a fictional world where a great cataclysmic event has—along with a corporate power grab from a FIFA-like governing body—resulted in the near-death of football as we know it, Soccer Story has you playing as a young kid who, in their travels, seeks out to bring the world game back to the world.
Wearing its JRPG influence on its sleeve (and shorts, and socks, and boots), Soccer Story is a beautiful game, set in a world that’s both retro (chunky pixels, fixed top-down perspective) and modern (lovely lighting, swaying grass, everything is actually 3D) at the same time.
It’s a wonderful place to spend time in. Every corner of it looks amazing, and its full of so much life, and character. Fans of chatting with every NPC they can find will love this, because everyone in the game, from the biggest personalities down to folks you may only see once is utterly charming, and I can’t remember the last time I spent so much time just walking around a game talking to people.
Which is lucky for Soccer Story, because you end up doing a lot of walking around. Aside from some cooler action-based challenges (like playing soccer golf), the game is full of checklist and fetch quests, like “score five times through some hidden goals” or “kick some acorns off a tree”, and...that’s pretty much the only thing the overworld section of the game is ever asking you to do, since there’s no combat or random encounters (more on that in a minute). I know that’s harking back to its JRPG inspiration, but for a game whose map never marks your objectives, being asked to find ten of something then getting stuck on eight—and having to do that over and over and over—isn’t a cute homage to the good old days, it’s a pain in the ass.
Breaking up the action (or lack thereof) at certain stages of the game are actual, real-time games of football. These are basically the boss fights, the things you’ve upgraded your party (well, team) for, and should be the centrepiece of the whole Soccer Story experience. Sadly, they suck.
The AI is terrible, the way defenders react to your movements is deeply artificial (and often simply unfair), keepers are erratic and even when you unlock special moves later in the game, the whole thing just feels incredibly simple. That’s not to say I was expecting a small indie RPG to somehow feel like FIFA, but it does perhaps explain why so many other sports RPGs decide to recreate on-field action in slower, more deliberate ways.
Thankfully those games are few and far between, and the vast majority of your time is spent wandering the overworld. Or, I guess in a game without dungeons, just the world. And while I’ve criticised the repetitive nature of the quests, this lack of action and focus on characters does have one upside: Soccer Story is incredibly chill.
Because you’ll never trigger a battle on the map, or be thrown into a dungeon full of puzzles, Soccer Story is just such a relaxing experience, one where wandering the map chatting to people isn’t just the focus, it’s the single best thing about the game. Which is a bit of a shame, since it’s also supposed to be all about football, but like the great manager and football mind Brian Clough one said, you can’t win ‘em all.