OK, we’ll admit it. When we first heard about Playstation All Stars Battle Royale, we were a little bit sceptical. The unfortunate owner of one of the most unwieldy titles ever created (right up there with Sonic and SEGA All Stars Racing and Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-slick Precipice of Darkness), at least initially, the leaves weren’t reading all that kindly. A four player brawler starring a collection of Playstation characters, Sony was planning on walking down a well trodden path - a path Nintendo had practically built from scratch with its own beat 'em up, Super Smash Bros. But as Playstation All Stars Battle Royale proves, you can't judge a book by its cover - or its exceedingly long name.
A frenetic multiplayer beat ‘em up, Playstation All Stars Battle Royale is a tribute to the biggest names from Playstation history. From PS2 characters like Ratchet and Clank, and Jak and Daxter, to real blasts from the past like PS1 platformer Medievil’s Sir Fortescue, rapping cardboard cutout PaRappa the Rapper, and more modern fare like Little Big Planet’s Sackboy, and, er, that guy from Killzone, Playstation All Stars brings a wide range of characters face to face for the very first time – whereupon the only logical thing they can think to do is to have a whopping great punch up across a variety of Playstation themed arenas.
While Nintendo’s Super Smash Bros pretty much set the bar for multiplayer beat ‘em ups anyone can join in with, Playstation Battle Royale at least comes out fighting. Looking to beat Nintendo at its own game, with over twenty characters to choose from (including cameos from some fairly big names, like Big Daddy from BioShock (the monster in the 50s style diving suit, not the fat guy in the leotard)), a variety of elaborate, fan-service filled stages to whack each other across, and support for four player same-console multiplayer, Battle Royale is a game that ticks every box - and practically screams “party”.
It’s lucky, then, that the controls and concept are as easy to pick up as you’d hope. The X button jumps, the left stick or d-pad moves your character around, while the other face buttons handle your various moves, which are different for each character. Press triangle as PaRappa, and you’ll whack your opponent with a skateboard; press circle as Sackboy, and you’ll chuck a cake in your enemy's face; while square makes Sir Daniel Fortescue lash out with his sword. Some characters have moves that go beyond standard fare, too, and can even be merged together – pressing circle makes Sir Daniel pull out a shield, which can then be used to charge at people by pressing triangle. Experimenting with each character, and getting to know their moves, is one of the most important parts of the game - although it's by no means a necessity to memorise every move.
One of the biggest differences – and one of the initially most confusing aspects, if you’re familiar with Smash Bros – is that the game doesn’t feature a percentage damage system, health bars, or any other way of tracking how much damage you’ve taken. In fact, you can easily take a licking and keep on ticking, as absorbing hits doesn’t actually harm your character. Instead, things have been turned the other way around - every time you attack another character, you’ll earn points, which charge a “super” move – and it’s by unleashing this move that you’ll claim your victories.
Rather than knocking your foes off the side of a level, or simply doing so much damage you KO them, the only way to earn any victories is by eliminating them using a super move. Each super move has three chargeable levels, each of which dishes out more damage and destruction than the last. While you can earn a level one super move pretty easily, it’s fairly weak, with a limited area of effect, and can be quite difficult to use (at least, until you get the hang of it). Level two moves, meanwhile, are much more effective, and can usually take out two or three of your opponents, if you get the timing right, while level three super moves cause screen clearing, special cutscene triggering, ground shaking devastation to everyone on screen. Bar you, of course. Again, your super move differs per characters – PaRappa the Rapper’s level 2 gives you a glowing Skateboard to ride around the level, eliminating everyone you touch – while Fat Princess gets a giant chicken... However, things aren't quite as balanced as we'd like - some character's super moves seem a lot more effective than others, while some seem to take so long to charge up, you're almost guaranteed to be punched, and interrupted, losing your move in the process.
Every time you defeat an opponent, you’ll earn two points, while deaths cost you one, with the aim being to finish the round with the most points. Of course, in practice, this is a lot more manic than it sounds. Once everyone’s got the hang of the super moves, games quickly degenerate into a tense, mad brawl, as you try to get close enough to your enemy to hit them without getting in range of their super move. Power up items – giant axes, boots, and power-ups borrowed from other games pop-up at random, too, to add an extra layer of insanity to proceedings, and help keep everyone even more on their feet. While there is a learning curve involved here, it’s really not as bad as we initially thought. Though it’s fiddly to start with, it’s easy enough to get your head around – and once you start playing, it’ll be difficult to stop. The battles come fast and furious – either timed showdowns, or with a first-to-so-many-points limit, making every super move count. Mistime your move, and it’s only a temporary setback, as another one’s on the way – and things get even more manic.
The stages, too, are well worth writing about. Taken from games of Playstation yore, the levels are often mishmashes of several games in one. Outside PaRappa the Rapper’s dojo, Chop Chop Master Onion has a karate fight with a passing mech from Killzone; Uncharted merges into a stage from the upcoming BioShock Infinite; while the Little Big Planet stage transforms into a game of Buzz, where you’ll have to stay on your feet, as the branches and platforms become answers to a question...
When you finally manage to tear yourself away from the multiplayer, though, there’s a pretty robust single player offering here too. Each character has a story to play through (although by story, we mean collection of battles bookended by an intro and extro), a number of challenges you can complete, asking you to perfect various parts of your arsenal, like dodging moves, or hitting people with supers – and, there’s a persistent levelling system going on in the background. Every time you finish a match, you’ll earn experience, on a per character basis – which in turn unlocks new costumes, intro animations, victory animations, and pics for your in game profile. It’s not much, but with 200 levels to reach with each character, it’ll certainly take you a while to unlock everything there is to see. Best of all, the vast majority of things are unlockable either in single player or multiplayer – so there’s no need to venture online if you don’t want to.
Although we may have initially worried Playstation All Stars Battle Royale would be no more than a poor man’s Smash Bros, we’re pleased to say we’ve been hugely, hugely surprised. Fun, accessible, and with that one-more-go appeal in spades, Battle Royale is a fitting tribute to (getting on for) 20 years of Playstation you won’t have to be the hardest of hardcore to appreciate. While their prices may have skyrocketed lately, Playstation All Stars Battle Royale is every excuse you need to buy a full complement of controllers. If you’re lucky enough to have this nestled under your tree for Christmas, you’re sure for a mental Christmas Day.