PlayStation 4 might not be officially announced yet, but PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale is the closest Sony can get to throwing a retirement party for PS3 without putting up balloons. The game is a scrappy 2D brawler in the mould of Nintendo’s Super Smash Bros, a frantic free-for-all of characters from different games that’s been built as a celebration of the platform and its teeming, varied population.
And All-Stars feels like a celebration. Its energy comes from breaking down the barriers between fictional universes, jubilantly tipping the likes of Nathan Drake, Sackboy and Kratos into an arena like a box of mismatched toys. Worlds literally collide when the game-themed backgrounds break in on each other, such as when a giant Chimera from Resistance bursts through the Ape Escape lab, or the Buzz! studio erupts through a wall of LittleBigPlanet felt. And when players die, they disappear in impeccably branded explosions of triangles, circles, crosses and squares – PlayStation confetti for a special occasion.
The game underneath all the flag waving is deeper than a four-way mess of simultaneous attacks would suggest. Each of the characters has its own specific moveset, comprising three basic strikes that can then be modified by holding a direction. Take PaRappa The Rapper: a tap of triangle sees him swat enemies with his skateboard, pressing down and triangle triggers a sliding low jab, while up and triangle performs a spinning handstand to ward off aerial attacks. Add in similar variations on both square and circle, as well as throws, blocks and powerful weapon pickups (hedgehog grenades, rocket launchers, ancient Greek axes), and it should become clear that there are intriguing combat nuances to be found behind the stars onscreen.
In fact, there’s a fully fleshed out stable of fighters, each designed with an appreciation for their origins. Such faithfulness is an achievement worth noting, since the 20 characters on the roster here are more disparate than Smash Bros’ lineup. Killzone’s Colonel Radec and MediEvil’s Sir Daniel Fortesque aren’t obvious sparring partners, but the trick is pulled off with a mix of playfulness and respect. Characters from fighting and action games, such as God Of War’s Kratos or Tekken’s Heihachi, retain trademark moves and can be played more or less conventionally, while less obvious candidates – Sackboy; PaRappa; Sony’s cat-like Japanese mascot, Toro – have been armed with a mischievous range of innovative attacks.
Sackboy’s a good example, epitomising All-Stars at its best. His moves imaginatively appropriate the creative work of a game that’s not even violent, let alone based on brawling. Instead, inventive spirit becomes his armoury, using reflective panels to rebound attacks onto his enemies, summoning projectiles with a Popit menu and firing them with a conjured fan.