Developer: Story Fort LLC
Publisher: Story Fort LLC
Platforms: XBOX, PC
Copy Provided By Publisher
I cannot tell you how many NBA Jam references I’ve resisted making in the course of this write up regarding Dunk Lords, a hot new 2v2 basketball game. And I’m not even going to try. It wouldn’t be fair to Dunk Lords, a game that may well live perpetually in the shadow of its older cousin, in my opinion unfairly so. This game deserves so much more than comparisons to a nearly two decade old cartridge. This game is fresh, it’s got modern sensibilities, and it’s darn fun to play match after match after match! Want to know why I’ve been excitedly following this game for the last two years like some kind of indie game bloodhound? Read on.
There's a lot of action in this game. Here we can see these robots wiping the court with me.
Golden From The Get-Go
It’s no exaggeration to say that nearly everyone I’ve either shown this game to or witnessed witnessing it for the first time has said the same thing: “Is this NBA Jam?” I mean, I was guilty of thinking it too the first time I saw Dunk Lords, roughly two years ago at PlayNYC. Back before this made-in-NY conference moved to more official digs, it found all kinds of interesting venues to host it. For its second ever year, bringing in developers from all over New York, it took over a theater, and that was where I found Dunk Lords, tucked away on a second floor balcony with the seats removed, a single screen mere feet from neighboring games. Pressed narrowly in between a demo station and the railing behind me, I picked up the controller for the first time.
Back then there were a lot less characters in the menu, a lot less courts to square off in, and yet the polish was there. The controls were tight. The animations were smooth. There were some wacky voice lines and sound effects. And yeah, you could still break the backboard. I’d like to think I have a good sense for calling hit games when they’re still early in development, and it owes in no small part to that feeling of polish I get from some games, the hard work and vision of its developers shining through an unfinished design, its gleam hinting at the gem beneath the rough surface. Early polish can equal big results come release time, at least as far as I’ve seen in indie titles, and Dunk Lords has proven no exception. It was a thrill to experience back then, and was just as much a thrill to see at PAX East this year.
Do we care why there are dunk academies all over the place in this world? Nope! Let's play!
Getting Into It
To anyone that’s played a 2v2 basketball game, Dunk Lords will seem immediately familiar and accessible. You’ve got buttons for blocking and stealing, buttons which contextually change to shooting and passing when you have the ball. There’s a button to swap controlled characters in the event your partner is being played by the AI rather than a friend. And yes, there is a turbo button ala NBA Jam that allows you to run faster, jump higher, and dunk with more style, a button I’ve got the bad habit of gluing my finger down on until I’ve long since run out of boost. At first glance, you might say it’s just like a modern NBA Jam with a graphical makeover and all the smoothness you’d expect of a game released in 2020.
Stop it! Stop right there with the comparisons. It’s one thing to cite another game as inspiration if you’re the developer. That’s fine, but it’s reductive to constantly compare games as if one’s merits are dependent on another’s. Dunk Lords shines all on its own, and it’s made a lot of novel improvements in the formula that it can claim for itself. For one, it leans in hard to the wackiness factor, turning it up to 11. Each character gets two special powers they can activate as their energy recharges on the court: a quick power with a button tap, and a slower hold-to-activate power that’s more devastating. These range from lasers, to glitches that take the ball out of players’ hands, to literally smacking people with fish (your own teammates too if you’re not careful). Each character’s powers are unique to that person, and building a team of two that either works well together or just clicks with your play style is a ton of fun!
Yes, one of the characters is a literal strawberry. Told you this game was wacky!
But it gets even better. You earn money each quarter and use it to pay for upgrades before going back onto the court. A selection of three gloves, three armors, and three types of shoes are randomly selected from a larger pool each game. Do you splurge early for something you can afford, hoping for that early advantage? Do you save up for a late game power burst? Do you go offense or defense? And which character do you buff up first? In addition to the personal powers each character brings to the court, the midgame progression via these upgrades is a nice dash of spice in this game’s simmering stew of delicious features.
The innovations don’t stop there through. In leaning into the crazy that is Dunk Lords, there are special locations on the court that earn you extra money, energy, or “mega” power if you can make shots or dunks from them. Yes, you can break the backboard, but also given certain conditions you can even break the roof with your dunks! You can earn extra money faster, leading to better powerups. You can blast your opponents more with your powers. Sure, there’s always that incentive to go for three point shots over two point dunks, but now there are even more ways you can split your decisions on how to score. It’s always fluid, though, and it never breaks the quick pace of what continues to be an absolute blast to play. Oh, and some courts having obstacles or moving parts, so hitting those power spots isn’t always as simple as doing a layup.
The upgrade screen. Some items help you while others hurt the opposing team. Some offer bonuses in exchange for tradeoffs like "no passing".
All of this isn’t to say that Dunk Lords is some kind of power-driven luck fest with no skill involved. There’s plenty of room for skilled plays here! Even against the AI, matches can be brutal if you’re constantly under pressure from the other team. You try to pass, but good positioning results in a stolen ball. You try to move the ball down the court, but the opponent seems to swipe the ball from you for even daring to try. I didn’t mention this before, but there’s also a dash button which requires a higher degree of control to use. In the hands of a skilled player you can avoid enemies and dash across the court faster, saving your valuable turbo energy; you can also use it to quickly steal the ball from an opponent if you dash through them. In the hands of a mediocre player (aka myself), you can give your opponents the ball with a poorly aimed dash faster than it takes you to tie up your laces. Overall, Dunk Lords strikes that very careful balance between rewarding skill and still remaining accessible to a button-mashing good time.
I’ll also give a shout out to the game’s story mode. What I expected when I played this game was an engaging 2v2 mode to play, with friends or against AI, over and over for many happy hours. I found that, plus more! The story mode is not only pleasant to play and fun to experience but also a great way to get a grip on all the levels and characters. Especially for a game I’d prefer to play with at least one more friend, the story mode made a much more engaging way to battle against the AI while I was solo. It drips with the same awesome theme that binds the rest of the game together: wacky characters, good voice acting, charming music, and visuals that pop. Coming from a guy that usually dismisses story modes if they’re more like glorified tutorials, I didn’t know I needed a story mode in Dunk Lords. But I’m certainly glad we have it now!
If you aim for the sky, you might just hit it while dunking!
I struggled for no small amount of time in thinking who this game might not be for. We at Sprites and Dice believe that there’s a game out there for everyone, and a game review is less about slapping on a label of “bad” or “good” as much as it is about finding the right fit for a person’s gaming style. With that in mind, I found it hard to find that same balanced criticism I give on each of my reviews, that warning that a particular person might want to watch a couple extra videos or maybe try the game at a friend’s house before purchasing themselves. I think this owes in no small part to Dunk Lords’s accessibility, that ease of sliding into a game that I mentioned before. You can play this game a ton with friends and get really competitive with it, or you can break it out at parties, leaving it up on the TV for friends to cycle through all evening. It’s good for both experienced gamers and people who are just looking to push some buttons, laugh a little, and have a good time. For that reason, I’d say that if you really just don’t like 2v2 style basketball games, maybe you’ll want to be a little more cautious towards purchasing, but you probably didn’t need a whole review to tell you that. Mainly, I’d also say this game is at its best when you play it with at least one other friend, so if you play games mostly solo that’s certainly a consideration. I wouldn’t call it a gamebreaker; I’ve put in plenty of time alone by myself on this title and been perfectly happy. But know what you’re getting yourself into. And finally, if you play on PC make sure you have a controller to plug in; playing on a keyboard is functional but the feel of a controller much more natural.
You'll be playing as Slice in the story mode, along with other characters. Like Marlon. Who is a bear. With very good manners.
That’s A Wrap
All in all, and even amongst the gems of indie games I’ve written about, it’s rare to see a title with this level of mirror finish. And for that reason, I think that if this is the kind of game you can see yourself playing, you absolutely should make sure you get a copy. Personally, I can’t wait to see if it makes it to Switch, because I could easily see teaming up in local handheld mode on the go or throwing my Switch onto a dock in a hotel room to play with friends in the evenings after cons. Bringing this game to the party is where Dunk Lords shines, and even though we received a review copy for the purposes of this article, I can’t wait to toss more money at the developers to put this title on more of my systems. That’s how good I think it is. Do yourself a favor and go check it out. If you’re anything like me, you’ll be lacing up your high tops and dashing across the court before you know it.