With the benefit of hindsight, it’s not hard to see why Rocket League took the world by storm when it launched three years ago. Much like Sensible Soccer and older arcade sports classics, Rocket League drew from a basic team game which almost everybody understands (football), but went one step further when it introduced an additional element of chaos and complexity: cars. Kabounce aims to apply that same ‘easy-ish to learn, hard to master’ accessibility to something quite different – a team-based, score-building pinball arena game.
The premise is relatively simple. Two teams of four players cruise around a pinball table from a third-person perspective, bouncing between pinball bumpers while tagging them in their team’s colours to build up a score multiplier combo. Competitors must utilise a variety of movement techniques including power-slides, dashes and double-jumps to claim hard-to-reach bumpers across the map. After enough time, a score gate opens somewhere on the field, allowing players to deposit their accumulated winnings and rack up their score.
It’s here that the main competitive twist comes into play. Offensive abilities, such as a ground-pound ‘slam’ attack, enable you to not only knock-out the opposition directly but, vitally, steal their points. This adds both a layer of tension and tactical considerations every time the score gate opens – do you hang back and wait until the coast is clear and potentially earn more points in the interim, or do you bank your points nice and early out of fear of losing them to a slam attack? Additional abilities, such as an area-of-effect rush which auto-targets bumpers, are available to swap in and out of a loadout at the beginning of a match to mix-up the flow of the game.
Offensive abilities enable you to not only knock-out the opposition directly but, vitally, steal their points.
Much like Overwatch’s infamous loot boxes, collecting loot ball drops act as a nice incentive to levelling up, unlocking customisation of your in-game pinball through a number of pre-prepared ability load-outs and looks. With dozens of funky ‘toppers’ (hats), trails, ‘blinkers’ (glasses), shaders and other wacky accessories to obtain, redeeming loot balls at the Super Smash Brothers-esque slot machine is as satisfying as any typical mobile or ‘gacha’ game. Unlike many contemporaries in that space, however, you can only earn additional loot balls from playing matches or gaining experience points in other ways; there are no paid currencies in effect here.
For all it borrows from the Rocket League aesthetic and progression model, Kabounce does manage to throw in a few ideas of its own. Challenge Mode, available in both single-player ‘parkour’ and multiplayer split-screen ‘race’ variants, offers a set of time-trials with a focus on besting leaderboard rankings. Do you opt to hit every bumper for additional points or to trim precious seconds off of each run? The tricky scenarios also double-up as a smart, natural extension of the Training Mode, as players teach themselves advanced movement techniques to meet the requirements of each trial.
Unfortunately, Kabounce has one very large obstacle on the table preventing it from hitting the pinball jackpot: its player-base. Over the course of ten matches, spaced out over several days, I was only able to enter two with other human players… and even then, a few bots were still required to fill out empty team slots. This problem is further exacerbated by the fact that Ranked Mode, the primary jumping-off point for the competitive scene, is locked until the 27th of July. I’d be slightly less concerned if the game was still in Early Access, but it entered a full 1.0 release launch in late May earlier this year.
All of which is truly a shame, as the multiplyer matches where I did manage to play with other humans were some of the most fun moments I had with Kabounce. It was thrilling to watch thinking opponents easily adapting to and countering some of my basic strategies, such as slamming AI bots just as they approach the score gate to deposit their point cache. Suddenly, the full complexities of Kabounce’s movement and ability systems were briefly revealed and I was sucked in.
Ultimately, then, Kabounce clearly has a lot of potential. It may even be worth its current asking price if you have enough players (and controllers) to make investing in local split-screen worth it. But until it has an online player-base that can guarantee that you won’t just be playing against the same teams of bots forever, I can only recommend picking it up during a Steam sale.