Review – Soccer Story
As the brisk winds blow, the World Cup endears fans at every corner of the globe. Countries everywhere are battling a widespread disease called “Futbol” fever, making this month a suitable window to release a title that reflects the beautiful game. Whether it be coincidence or sheer marketing genius, Panic Barn had the same thought process. Using current events, they’ve ensured that the utmost attention is given to Soccer Story. When I first laid eyes on a trailer, there wasn’t a bone in my European body that didn’t fall in love – the pixelated visuals were too adorable to ignore. Hell, there was a period when FIFA was exclusively inside my console and played daily. You could say I’m fixated, maybe obsessed, but as someone that grew up watching, it’s just a goddamn lifestyle. The question I hope to answer today is if Soccer Story can score a Golazo.
The core premise of the journey is steeped in silliness, with Futbol being banned from the ironically named Soccertown. Of course, don’t expect the plot to leave you pondering life’s true meaning by the credits, but it’ll provide something tangible to chew. My big gripe is how hot and cold it is – and by cold, I mean downright frigid, to the point of being frostbitten. For starters, consider the banter: it comes off as highly manufactured – there’s no flow. See, a key ingredient for nailing that whimsical atmosphere is to inject it with a serum of charm. While yes, there are glimmers of charismatic energy sporadically sprinkled in, the characters are mainly devoid of personality. From the beginning, it’s evident the desire is to scroll past the dialogue quickly. At this moment, I realized that this title targets kids, thanks to an overly simplistic approach.
Plain and simple, Panic Barn isn’t too interested in the storytelling side. In fact, the perfect encapsulation of that is in the woeful sense of humour. I wouldn’t say it’s entirely unfunny, but it’s a bit dated. As I read, I’d liken it to a rough draft of a complete script written years prior. Instead of getting a handful of revisions, though, they left it. I’m not sure if time constraints influenced that, but I have suspicions. Whatever the case, one thing is certain: the literary quality is not spectacular. The jokes don’t fare any better, relying on old memes to deliver the chuckles. One example is an NPC that heaps an endless barrage of compliments. You’ll then utter that Keanu Reeves quote, insisting that it’s them who are breathtaking. No, I didn’t cringe at that, but I did roll my eyes at how forcibly inserted it felt.
To reiterate, Soccer Story isn’t a worthwhile romp for adults, and as further proof of that statement, look only as far as the narrative. While I stand by the general gist of what’s happening is simple to discern, it doesn’t negate the lack of cohesion with plot beats – how they’re introduced is akin to random outbursts – in other words, the pacing is scatter-brained. If that’s not enough, there seems to be confusion about the identity it desires to embody. At one moment, it maintains a lighthearted vibe before suddenly trying to dive into heavier situations like a missing father – nothing too real, but it dips its toes. It’s thanks to this conflict with itself that ends up hindering it. The refusal to embrace the jolliness, which, given the lunacy of this concept, would have done wonders, is a misstep. Seeing as the potential is squandered so frivolously is immensely frustrating.
Now, a pivotal aspect of football titles is, in a shocking twist, the matches, and Soccer Story has those in abundance. The only disparity here is that every rule is gutted and streamlined for children to grasp it easily – tackling is dumbed down, shooting has become a button mash, and passing is as advertised but won’t include through balls. Basically, every technical facet is gone – offside and out-of-bounds aren’t in anyone’s vocabulary. Hell, both the yellow and red cards have been systematically removed, which theoretically means snapping an opponent’s leg in two has zero repercussions. It’s because of this freedom that I’m convinced youngsters would thrive. For anyone with knowledge of the sport or have dabbled in FIFA, PES, and even Football Manager, this is, without a doubt, a significant downgrade. It’s about as bare bones as it can be. There’s still one feature that I particularly miss quite a lot.
In general, a button is always assigned the ability to switch between the characters I control on the field – it’s to help better my position to defend. In Soccer Story, that’s no longer a viable tactic, replaced by a faceless algorithm that often fumbles. There’s absolutely no sugarcoating the number of matches I lost or amount of goals conceded. Sure, during the early stages, I’d run rampant, emerging victorious without a bother. After a few hours, though, well, my session began hurting. The team standing across was relatively rigid and speedy. They routinely handed me my ass because I could never intercept their goal attempts. Try as I may, I could only watch as the ball was banged into the net, prompting me to retry over and over. It reduced this mechanic into a tedious slog thanks to repetition – Lady Luck became relevant to progressing.
Rather unexpectedly, RPG elements are mixed in that somewhat mitigate the struggle. See, my avatar sports four statistics: shooting, energy, strength, and speed. The perk each gives is pretty self-explanatory in that energy translates to stamina, and shooting is, well, the ability to score. Boosting them to the maximum level is the difference between becoming Cristiano Ronaldo or being a player for San Marino – basically, someone that’s tragically underprepared. Grinding isn’t the method used to increase these, however. To do that, it requires these colourful tokens that can be received in one of two ways: as a reward from a side-quest or by just purchasing them. Thankfully, none of those extracurricular activities are annoying because Panic Barn cleverly uses a ball to solve everything asked of you – from knocking coconuts to dribbling drills.
Unfortunately, my suspicions seem to be factual, and Soccer Story was almost certainly rushed to coincide with the World Cup. It’s a brash proclamation, but I have justifications. Firstly, the fishing mechanic is a bore. Now, I appreciate how it doesn’t ever hold my hand. There’s no tutorial which isn’t a complaint because the visual hints are more than adequate to explain what needs to be done. Hell, if I can quickly clue in, it’s done something right. Regrettably, when the bait is taken, and I’m thrust into watery combat, it starts faltering. To successfully reel in my line, I must repeatedly press a single button while following the trajectory of my catch. Unlike other games with this facet, there’s no mini-game, only mindless action. I became disenchanted due to that because the level of engagement is zilch. It gets much worse from here, too.
Soccer Story doesn’t allow me to sell items to earn some cash. Coins can only be gotten by completing side quests or slide tackling, I repeat, slide tackling the grass. Any extra trinkets I may obtain are immediately made redundant – enter junk. Apart from having an apt name, it literally exists only to prolong fishing – and does so artificially. Among the sea life, there’s the chance a black garbage bag is caught. Usually, the game respects your time, and I wasn’t pulling many. That all goes to hell once I got a questline to capture a piranha. I waited, and waited, and waited for what felt like two or so minutes, but all I had to show was plastic – I gave up. Yes, I know I seem like an exaggerating bellend. I assure you this grief isn’t without merit – another hiccup causes my irrational impatience.
Aside from everything I’ve outlined, controls are terribly inaccessible for those with disabilities. Another ability in my arsenal is lobbing the ball, but how that’s done is pointlessly intricate. It demands I aim with the right analog while smashing the A button puts it into effect. Of course, the previously mentioned statistics play a critical factor, namely shot strength. Every punt has a degree of stiffness behind it that can then be manipulated by clicking the stick in. It sounds simple enough, and it is, but only if I stay stationary. Being on the move while targeting and dictating the power behind my kicks felt clumsy as hell. Now add time-sensitive tasks, which is a recipe for rage quitting. It’s unintuitive, and to be frank, I was a hair away from giving up due to sheer aggravation.
Okay, I admit, in my initial handful of minutes, I did have a grand old romp. Then as those became hours, that delight fell off the proverbial cliff into oblivion. I’m not sure where to begin, but here I go – Soccer Story has a bad habit of crashing. I did as I usually do when reviewing, counting each one that happened and was stunned. Firstly, when opening my inventory, I had to endure not one, not three, and definitely not four. If you guessed a stupefying five, you’d still be mistaken. No, it was an astounding six complete shutdowns for checking what was in my pockets. Tragically, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. See, as I travelled from point A to B, my movement began stuttering and then, poof, I was at the home screen. In an improvement, I suppose, it happens twice, so that’s cool.
At least there’s an auto-save feature to help nullify the loss of substantial progress. It’s a shame that the same saving grace is a functioning contradiction, however. To put it bluntly, I had an additional pair of crashes because of it. The technical prowess is evidentially atrocious – optimization is horrid. In fact, the fishing brought about a twosome of hiccups, but hey, it only soft-locks the game – there’s the strange phenomenon of duplicating my character, as well. By this juncture, my one option is rebooting, essentially turning it into, you guessed it, a sort of crash. I came by side-quests that couldn’t be finished, too, and when I lost a Futbol match, my punishment was teleporting to the abyss. To make matters worse, it auto-saved, trapping me to wander the darkness. I eventually found a way out, thanks to stubbornness, by clipping through a hidden floor.
Soccer Story has an idea worth fleshing out but is let down by appalling stability. The gameplay loop has fun moments, but unintuitive buttons fight against that, keeping it from excelling. The football notion has me smitten, and I felt nostalgic for my childhood due to a specific quest with goal lines constructed by adjacent objects. The caveat here is that it desperately needs tweaks and reworked controls. As it stands, I’d forego lobs because of the difficulty to pull off, eliminating a whole mechanic. Still, I could see my niece loving all the bright colours. She’d love the cutesy aesthetic. Despite my unfavourable coverage, there’s hope to steer the ship into clear seas. As it stands, I grew bored, angry and full of salt. There’s no way I could recommend buying it.
I enjoy the pixel art and find it charming. It have gotten a bit more polish to truly tighten up the aesthetic.
I like how Panic Barn weaves a Futbol into side-quests. When looking at the bigger picture, it’s nothing groundbreaking.
The music is forgettable. Simple as that.
Between crashes and unintuitive controls, I quickly grew bored. The game failed to properly hook me and I’m not looking back after moving on.
Final Verdict: 4.0
Soccer Story is available now on Nintendo Switch, Playstation 4/5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, and PC.
Reviewed on Nintendo Switch.
A copy of Soccer Story was provided by the publisher.