They say imitation is the most sincere form of flattery. Sony have spent much of this generation flattering Nintendo then, it seems, all with an increased flourish in the past couple of years. They have taken it upon themselves to let loose a variety of brave and innovative releases onto home console via digital distribution and have benefited by seeing the likes of Flowerand anything Pixeljunk (for example) reap significant rewards. They’ve brought one to one motion mapping via PlayStation Move and they have made Drake and Sackboy joint mascots of anything Sony in the way they’ve seen Nintendo manage Mario and Zelda. They’ve even deigned to give Sackboy his own kart racing game and now we have PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale, a nod to Super Smash Bros. if ever there was.
A brawler by nature then, if not by name in this case, but a brawler is most definitely what Sony want you to see it as. What you have in front of you when you first start up this showcase for Sony characters is a bland homescreen, offering as the main attractions arcade mode, online gaming action or simply a set of (admittedly wholly explanatory) tutorials. Ignoring the education for the moment, and heading into arcade mode you’re provided with a gallery of some twenty-two Sony avatars ranging from Nathan Drake to Kratos all the way to the Fat Princess and Toro. It’s a mixed bag with some instantly familiar to all, some less so but all brought together whatever their background to do battle one versus one, one versus one versus one and also one versus one versus one versus one. You start off simply facing one opponent, then there are three of you all fighting this way and that before squaring off against three others in a four-way brawl until you’ve faced all but one of the roster. Then you face that one in a boss fight of sorts before fighting another boss (which those appreciative of gaming history may chuckle at) who has various stages of battle. It does seem to drag on in arcade mode but be prepared to repeat ad nauseum if you want all trophies as many are character specific, including one for winning with each fighter and another trophy or two for doing a super special move in that person’s home stage. Factor in the multiple difficulty levels and there’s a lot to do in single player mode if you are so inclined.
Fights in arcade mode vary wildly in experience depending on how many foes you’re taking on. When facing off in a one versus one situation you only have to concentrate on one person and perhaps the pitfalls of the stage. Each stage is based on a specific pair of game worlds, changing part way through the fight so it could be God of War based and then turn into something from LittleBigPlanet but the reality is that there will be different platforms in numbers and types, different sized stages and generally just more to take into account when thinking about your fighting strategy than just your opponent. The moves each character can make are nice and varied in terms of what they do, but the controls for each are the same. Hold left, right or up and press Triangle, Circle or Square to perform a move. When you connect enough times you fill your Action Points (AP) meter once, twice or thrice, and pressing the right shoulder button executes a lethal Super move of varying degrees. The difference between Super move levels for one character are such that they do inject some extra strategy into the game. Nathan Drake for example will throw a canister ahead of him and shoot it, or topple a column or turn characters into zombies ready for shooting. Which is best in any given circumstance will vary and it’s for you to balance that preference with the knowledge that you will have fewer Super uses the longer you wait. Alongside attacking moves you can use the left shoulder button and directional controls to evade, as well as jumping with the X button. There is scope for real depth here if you learn a character’s strengths and weakness, which move is which and when to use it and how to maximise the benefit of blocking and evading interspersed between attacking. More importantly if you can work out how to link moves and deliver a hammer blow via a combo you’ll be far ahead of most. When you add more fighters into the mix and have more than a one on one battle this possible strategising and in-depth fighting can get lost, and it’s here that the description of the game as a brawler - as opposed to a beat ‘em up - becomes much more clear.
There are other aspects of the game we need to talk about which will affect how much or little you get out of the gameplay. There are items found throughout each battle - both normal and epic (i.e. much more powerful; much rarer) - which whilst possibly adding layers of strategy, will more likely lead to greater button-bashing mayhem. The items are related to a particular character and will offer a unique attack or ability accordingly. The environments as they change will evolve hazards too which will affect things as if you get caught out by one you’ll lose AP points and it will take longer to get to a state where you can execute a Super attack. Probably the most unusual thing to get your head around is the fact no character has a health bar. Instead each fight is timed and in the default mode no score is shown - but every Super attack has the ability to kill and the more kills you get (and fewer deaths you suffer) helps you to build a higher score, leading to you rolling out as the winner at the end of the day.
With three or four players on the screen at once it becomes much more challenging to work out what’s happening at any time and keep on top of it. This is not helped by the desire of the camera to zoom out to show more of the arena at any one time, but in consequence shrinking the fighters meaning seeing their moves, positions, items that you can pick up and use - well, it all is made that much harder on a PS Vita screen. Ignoring the visual difficulties just managing to do anything but bash a series of buttons is increasingly challenging because you may be in the middle of something when the second or third opponent appears out of nowhere and stabs you with their sword or electrocutes you just before you level the first opponent with your Super. It doesn’t eliminate strategy or automatically take any fighting ability to the lowest common denominator, but it encourages it given the sharp rise in difficulty of doing anything clever and well planned, as opposed to just fighting for dear life.
PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale is the one of the first titles to support both Cross-Play and Cross-Buy features. What it means is that Sony have made a game that is identical on both the PS3 and Vita (aside from some control modifications necessitated by the lack of a second set of shoulder buttons on the Vita) and allows Vita gamers to play with their friends with PS3s online. In any game of two to four players you can have any combination of PS3s and Vitas remarkably. The game maintains its sixty frames per second performance as long as the user’s wifi can keep up. This is all mighty impressive and when combined with the fact that you also get the Vita copy of the game free if you buy it on PS3, it provides a wonderful online experience. Which is true, but it is severely castrated by the fact you can only play against friends, i.e. no random matchmaking as you would expect from any other fighter. It seems a peculiar decision but a decision it most certainly is. You can also play via Vita using ad hoc connectivity, but again this would likely be someone you know - or maybe that random person on the commute every morning! Of course, local multiplay is available too on the PS3 version.
The value of PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale is in the chaotic fun it provides. Whilst the fighting mechanics are strong the nature of its structure negate these and you’re left to enjoy an entertaining but primitive fight amongst friends and foes alike dressed up as characters you may, or may not, know. It provides belly-laughs locally and across the waves if you find friends to join in. It’s a game then best played with friends and to that end may be more suited to a living room than your Vita, a thought compounded given the length of one fight and the seemingly never-ending single-player arcade mode. There are better fighting games out there, but none anymore entertaining at the base level.
Sackboy Vs. Kratos?