It's a very normal part of the gaming industry for an out-of-the-blue smash hit to define a subgenre and, in the process, inspire a number of similar games. When Golf Story arrived on Switch in 2017, taking the RPG slant of Game Boy Color's Mario Golf and pushing it in new directions, it set a particular tone for lighthearted narrative and a quirky take on its sport; inevitably, then, Soccer Story has drawn inspiration and applied similar ideas with its own spin on the beautiful game. We don't make the comparison as a criticism, and indeed developer PanicBarn makes its own jokes and acknowledgements of its reference sources. The question then becomes whether Soccer Story has enough of its own ideas, and quality of execution, to become a worthy addition to this subgenre of pixel-based comedic sporting adventures.
The answer? Yes, it does, albeit with some caveats.
The overall story of Soccer Story is charming, albeit it's not particularly creative or surprising. The evil 'Soccer Inc.' is a rather clunky satire of FIFA that wants to own and control football, or soccer if you prefer. A great Final match led to a 'calamity' and football being banned in the world; your plucky hero (you can choose between twins) lost their father in the process but wants to bring football back. So begins a quest to persuade hero animals to play once again, all while taking on tournaments and improving your team's abilities.
Most of your time, like in the aforementioned Golf Story, is spent not playing the sport, at least in its formal guise. You have a magic ball and explore the world, carry out side quests, and generally kick your ball at everything. You visit a colourful, charming set of locations, with the world being relatively small but packed with tasks and items to discover. Activities have some decent variety too, whether it's hitting targets, solving simple puzzles, or occasionally scripted challenges that offer throwbacks to other games and genres. There's repetition as you progress, however, and the story structure falls into that trap to some degree.
The pattern for each area is largely the same: arrive, learn why teams aren't playing football, run around on errands to help those teams, then play them in a mini tournament. That is a slight complaint, as from start to finish it feels a little too familiar as you move between areas (right down to often re-used dialogue lines), but overall the world has enough personality to drive you on.
The actual football, whether in games of 5-a-side or even 1v1 showdowns, is mixed. In its simplicity it can be fun, albeit we found we would either win easily in Medium difficulty or sometimes win 'cheaply' in Hard; at least you can change difficulty on the fly. Gameplay here is very basic, even after some additional abilities unlock later in the quest.
The biggest flaw is the goalkeepers; they are either terrible or outstanding, with serious AI flaws that allow some pointless long-range shots to score. Before long you end up doing a messy mix of kick-and-rush and gegenpress to win, and it's not always particularly satisfying. Not that we think it's worth devoting time to, but it's also worth mentioning that a 'Quick Game' option does exist to play locally with friends, too. In the end the actual football matches are competent, but the fun in this title — a little ironically — is away from the pitch.
Thankfully, then, most of your time is spent off the pitch on the aforementioned quests, exploring every nook and cranny in the process. There's a sizeable cast of NPCs and decent humour and writing to be found, and simply running around the world is a pleasure.
On the technical side we have a slightly mixed bag, but it's mostly positive. The overall look is excellent, blending pixel and voxel looks with some lovely art design, some of which appears like a sharp HD take on visual styles prominent in the DS / 3DS era. Visuals are a positive, though we encourage you to ignore the 'Quality' setting in favour of 'Performance'; the former only adds unnecessary extra shadows while tanking the frame rate, but the game looks good and runs pretty well on the latter setting.
We did encounter some technical hiccups, however. Our original build had us stumble across a game-breaking bug, though thankfully this was fixed in a launch day patch. Even on the updated version we experienced a few crashes, though the generous autosave meant we would only lose a minute or two of progress. In addition, the game tends to have brief pauses and hitches at random moments, seemingly linked to asset streaming or autosaving in the background. It's not too frequent, but you'll likely encounter this and some other small bugs. The audio and soundtrack is a little average too, but ultimately isn't a big factor in how much you'll enjoy running around the world and exploring.
Overall, this game doesn't match the quality of the title it openly cites as inspiration (even the menus and fonts are very familiar) and Sports Story — Golf Story's official follow-up — is set to arrive on Switch shortly. Yet Sidebar Games sets a high bar, and it's also the case that Soccer Story is full of heart and evident passion from the PanicBarn team, leaving us with a reasonably entertaining take on the subgenre with a quirky football/soccer spin.
Soccer Story delivers a colourful, charming take on the 'sports adventure', bursting at the seams with earnest effort and care from the development team. It's a fun experience, though it doesn't reach the heights of the genre's most famous release. Bugs and hitches pop up occasionally too, but if you're seeking some light entertainment and happen to love football, its cute visuals and charming world make it worth consideration.