Other than an overwhelming public interest in their sex life, it’s difficult to think of many direct comparisons between footballers and pandas. Despite this, new Danish developers GetAGame have seen fit to yoke together the worlds of bamboo munching and leather kicking in the form of Pandaball. Billed as an easy to pick up local competitive football title, the cartoony stylings and tongue-in-cheek presentation make it an unusual, but attractive idea. As always, however, the proof is in the playing so did I eat, shoot, and leave?
First impressions are telling here, as it is clear that Pandaball is incredibly barebones. The only options are local multiplayer (why not online?) and what is labelled as Training but actually contains the entire single player offering, namely one-off games against the AI or a rudimentary cup challenge of five rounds. This sparse offering is disappointing with no options for league or local tournaments provided. While the intention may be to focus on quick couch based gameplay, it is a huge oversight not to include some kind of support for basic sporting competitions.
The developers promise a range of unique panda athletes with different appearances and abilities but this doesn’t really go much beyond the aesthetics. Yes, some pandas seem quicker than others but a football game with only 16 player choices is again somewhat lacking. The lack of choice and variety was compounded in my time with the game as the aesthetic costumes didn’t work despite my levelling up every panda. Consequently they all looked pretty much the same. There is also no ingame narrative or explanation as to why the pandas are playing football. Even a static screen introduction would add something to the game. As it is, it feels like a minigame taken from a larger game.
Everything in Pandaball is bright and colourful (aside from the monochrome pandas of course) and it plays relatively smoothly. The five-a-side gameplay is highly reminiscent of the likes of Mario Smash Football or even the overlooked Sega Soccer Slam (one of my favourite Gamecube multiplayer titles) and works on a basic level of pick up and play. Passing and switching between the players is just a matter of pressing their related face button whilst shooting and tackling are mapped to the right stick. This highly simplified control system does make the game super accessible to younger players but doesn’t really offer any potential for deeper systems.
To succeed in Pandaball, you’ll need to master the system of different powerups and ball types. Tackling opponents, even off the ball, sometimes rewards you with powerups such as super speed or double the goals scored, whilst ball types range from the super bouncy bamboo to the heavy but hard-hitting rock. The latter is worth 2 goals if you score, and can be combined with the 2x powerup to give you a 4 goal bonus from one shot. This is a nice feature which can lead to some amazing recoveries, or some hugely frustrating comebacks, depending on your point of view. The most interesting ball is the beehive one that is worth a massive 3 goals when scored with but is continuously weakening and when it bursts the nearest panda is taken out of action temporarily whilst covered in angry bees.
There is an optional level of depth to the game in that you can level up yourself and your pandas through gameplay. You have a player level that is increased through the XP you earn in each game. It’s not entirely clear what contributes to this but I assumed it was goals scored and tackles made. As you progress in level you’ll unlock extra pandas and pitches (although the latter is just aesthetic). Alongside this, each panda themselves have unique requirements to level up, ranging from scoring goals to keeping clean sheets. The arbitrary nature of this is perhaps best summed up by the unlockable panda who levels up through not being used.