RBI Baseball 21 Review: Caught in a Pickle
When I was ready to write this RBI Baseball 21 review, I went back and read my review of last year's game to see what I said then. To my disappointment, I found a lot of the issues that plagued this series last year — which have plagued this series for the better part of a decade — still march on as glaring flaws in this latest installment.
RBI Baseball 21 feels out of place and out of touch. Most sports series are doing very well right now and, on balance, play better than ever. To the limited extent RBI Baseball 21 plays well, it does so because of last year's innovations. What it adds to the mix does more harm than good.
Baseball fans have new options this spring, so make sure you don't get their names mixed up. RBI Baseball 21 is not the one you want.
RBI Baseball 21 Review: Caught in a Pickle
RBI Baseball sits somewhere between sports sim and arcade. It's neither the true-to-life baseball game diehards may like best, nor is it the arcade-like game it used to be. The past few entries have made strides to get it closer to a sim, but RBI Baseball 21 doesn't add much of anything to that endeavor.
Many of the most-wanted and most-appreciated changes to this series came last year when the game adopted "Modern" controls in place of the old "Classic" controls. Things like a more user-influenced pitching mini-game and a more lifelike batter's box that didn't allow for players to float and line up a better swing were overdue, but RBI Baseball 21 doesn't build on those things. It simply brings them back.
Those were last year's highlights, but in 2021, they feel stale.
There's an immediate sense of unpolished flatness in RBI Baseball 21. It's a legacy issue, and with each game, it becomes more frustrating. Like last year, fly balls seem to teleport as needed for fielders to make a catch. Diving catches look even worse, with the ball tending to disappear as an out is called or bouncing off a player's glove several feet before it gets close.
Players routinely make plays on ground balls without looking or even moving their arms. At times, they transition from one animation to the next without any semblance of momentum or realism, performing feats that would be physically impossible.
On the field, it's annoying at best and unplayable at worst, and new features anywhere else don't do anything to improve the overall package.
The chief highlights in this year's game include a custom player creator and in-game commentary from Fran Charles of the MLB Network.
In the former's case, the create-a-player options are merely fine. There are too few hairstyles, including one which is incorrectly called "None" and still leaves your player with short hair. A selection of about two dozen pre-sculpted faces feels like a good first effort, and this will probably never be a game where you finetune a player's every minor detail anyway.
You can max out a player's stats to your liking, even creating someone so overpowered at every skill that you approach the batter's box or pitcher's mound feeling like Thanos after he gets the final Infinity Stone. Create-a-player is cool, but it's standard-issue in sports games today.
As for the commentary, less would've been more. It's not Fran Charles' fault, who does well in his day job. RBI Baseball 21 confoundingly pairs him with no one, so he's left to supply play-by-play only, with no one to deliver color commentary. Add to that the fact that his lines have been spliced into small slivers to fit any occasion ("The...[Boston Red Sox] lead it... to  here in the [fourth inning"]), and it isn't long before you consider turning off commentary entirely.
RBI Baseball 21 Review — The Bottom Line
- Simple controls make it an easier entry point to baseball games than others
- Rough gameplay flaws that have been around for years return once more
- New commentary track is better off muted
- Remarkable lack of new gameplay, presentation, or quality of life features
With no new modes supplementing the online, exhibition, league, and derby modes that have been here before, this is a sports sequel critically lacking new sights and sounds. Among what returns are the same persistent problems that have made RBI Baseball borderline unplayable for many seasons now.
The space between sim and arcade is potentially a fun one, and in other instances, such as Forza, The Yard in Madden, or Volta in FIFA, we've seen that happy medium thrive lately. RBI Baseball's design could be great, but its apparent carelessness makes it nothing but one of the most cynical releases annually.
In past years, one could even coldly see why the MLB would put this game out itself as it does. MLB The Show was a one-platform game, and anyone who wanted to play their own MLB game off of PlayStation platforms had to find it in RBI. But that's not the case this year, which makes it really difficult to understand why the league would even allow this to continue.
I can only assume there are contractual negotiations to fulfill, but as we have often seen in the real-life sport, maybe it's time for a buyout and for all involved parties to just call RBI Baseball a failed experiment.
[Note: The MLB provided the copy of RBI Baseball 21 used for this review.]