When writing a video game review it’s generally seen as bad form to describe a title by directly comparing it to another game. Telling readers that Game X is “just like Diablo, but in space” conveys your message in a quick, concise manner, but it also gives readers an oft-unrealistic full view of the game you’re reviewing. Maybe Game X is like Diablo in all but its gameplay. Maybe it looks exactly like Diablo and features all the same weapons and characters, except the entire game is an open-world first-person shooter. This is an extreme case, but you can see how describing that game as “like Diablo” would be both technically accurate and totally misleading.
That said, today I’m reviewing PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale, and I’m going to completely ignore everything I said in that last paragraph. In the case of this game, it’s simply not possible to discuss this title without also mentioning its blatantly obvious inspiration: Nintendo’s Super Smash Bros. series.
Developer SuperBot Entertainment hasn’t so much lifted ideas from Nintendo’s flagship fighting game franchise, as it has photocopied the majority of gameplay options, modes, and even attacks found in the Smash Bros. titles. Describing PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale as being “like Smash Bros.” is only inaccurate because “like” is not a strong enough word to convey how similar these titles truly are. For all intents and purposes, PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale is Smash Bros., only with an odd collection of characters that Sony believes players have mentally linked to the PlayStation brand over the last few decades.
There is nothing new or novel about PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale, and when examined as a whole the concepts in place here don’t seem like they should work together beyond impressing upon PlayStation owners that Sony too has a motley troupe of colorful mascots. That seems to be the entire reasoning behind the creation of PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale, and as idiotic as that sounds the game has a mile-wide addictive streak. I’ve actually found myself playing it in lieu of Tekken Tag Tournament 2, and I’m a very big fan of that particular fighter.
Objectively I shouldn’t like this game, and yet I do. Maybe. I’m conflicted.
Everything Old Is New Again
As I mentioned above, it’s just not possible to discuss PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale without mentioning Super Smash Bros. The game borrowed Nintendo’s biggest iconic characters (Mario, Link, Samus, etc.) from all of its most popular franchises (Super Mario Bros., The Legend Of Zelda, Metroid, etc.), gave them each fighting moves based on their classic gameplay styles, and dropped them into arenas modeled after instantly-recognizable levels in which they were tasked to fight to the death.
Collecting all of these characters in one game would be enough to entice many Nintendo fans to buy the game, but the real key to Smash Bros. success was that it allowed up to four players to duke it out simultaneously, either in a group melee or in team battles. Likewise, the game included a massive number of options for its battles, so that players could customize their fights any way they wished.
Needless to say, the original Super Smash Bros. was a massive hit, and each successive entry in the franchise proved even more successful. Of course, while the game was generating all this love from fans, other gaming companies were taking notice and wishing that they too could get in on this kind of action. Unfortunately, there are very few companies outside of Nintendo with the necessary number of iconic characters to populate a fighting game. Sega could do it, Capcom could too, and Konami even attempted to copy the Smash Bros. formula directly with the Japan-exclusive Dream Mix TV: World Fighters, but beyond that it seemed as if Nintendo had finally stumbled on a killer gameplay formula that the rest of the gaming industry would be incapable of swiping.
Sony, demonstrating its ability to think outside of the box, saw this success and the recent fighting game renaissance kicked off by Capcom’s Street Fighter IV, and decided that it too would like to tap into this mascot-based fighter craze, albeit more than a decade since the craze started.
To fill out the rosters, Sony went to several third party developers to recruit characters that are exclusive to the PlayStation, with only a few exceptions. Of the 22 fighters (including upcoming DLC), 18 have made their homes exclusively on PlayStation. Of the remaining fighters, only Big Daddy from BioShock and Dante from Devil May Cry are a stretch to claim exclusive ties to Sony, while Tekken‘s Heihachi and Metal Gear Solid‘s Raiden both can show roots in the PlayStation.
That’s Not A Fighting Game, This Is A Fighting Game
As you might expect, developer SuperBot Entertainment also lifts copious cues from Smash Bros. in creating the PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale experience. The controls are purposely simplistic — only three attack buttons are necessary here, and they all boil down to pressing commands alongside a given direction to dish out one of your chosen fighter’s attacks. As in Smash Bros. each of the attack types (for example, Triangle + Up, or Square + Left) will launch an attack with similar properties (up attacks will hit foes above you and usually launch them into the air), regardless of who you’re playing as, but here is where we see PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale begin to differentiate itself from its precursor.
A few months prior to the release of PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale, Sony hired Seth Killian to work on the game as a consultant. Though you might not recognize Killian’s name, he’s spent years working on Capcom’s most recent fighting titles, starting with Street Fighter IV and leading up to Street Fighter X Tekken. Before that Killian was a professional Street Fighter II player, so when it comes to fighting games the guy knows his stuff. Obviously that experience is what Sony was hoping to tap by hiring Killian, and the end result is a Smash Bros. clone that also owes a lot to more traditional, hardcore fighting games.
While PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale may superficially feel like and resemble Smash Bros., it’s a far more nuanced title once you’ve spent ample time with it. As I said above though the standard attacks are largely similar across the entire cast, each character has his or her own quirks that make mastering each fighter a surprisingly lengthy exercise. You won’t have to spend thousands of matches learning to perfect the timing on a dragon uppercut, but you will find that online matches are far more often won by skill than pure luck, as they often are in Smash Bros.
The fighting game lineage in PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale is most apparent in the game’s use of Super Moves. By attacking your foes you’ll generate energy. This energy goes into a three-tiered meter. Once you’ve filled a tier, you’re able to hit a single button to unleash one of your character’s super attacks. Each fighter features three separate attacks, each more powerful than the tier before it and all thematically linked to their game/series of origin. To wit: Raiden’s first level super attack sees the cyberntic ninja flip into a handstand before cutting his enemies to pieces using the sword strapped to his leg. In his third level super though, we see a short cinematic before iconic Metal Gear Solid music kicks in, and all your enemies are trapped inside of Solid Snake’s notorious cardboard box. Then, for the next few moments, Raiden is given increased speed and strength and any attack he makes on any of the boxes around him instantly kills his opponent. Smash Bros. fans might not like the added level of strategy presented by these multi-tiered super attacks, as they make the game more directly focused on skill and proper timing than merely being the first to fire off a super, but PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale is definitely a deeper, more engaging title for its inclusion.
He Who Dares Wins
The key differentiation between PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale and Super Smash Bros. is that Sony is simply willing to do things that Nintendo is not. Over the past decade, it’s become increasingly clear that Nintendo is wary of online functionality in its games. By contrast, Sony has embraced online gaming and PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale is a perfect example of that. All of the game’s various modes have online counterparts, lag is surprisingly non-existent (despite how hectic four-player matches can get), and there are few party gaming experiences available on the PlayStation 3 that can be as instantly accessible and entertaining as throwing down on an international group of friends as Sony’s favorite virtual brawlers.
Of course, all of Sony’s big releases these days have online components. Even the exclusively single-player God of War series will be online when its next iteration, God of War: Ascension, hits shelves in March of next year. What is surprising is how effectively Sony is able to combat player fatigue. Given how simplistic the game’s controls are, and how easy it is to barrel through the relatively anemic singleplayer modes in PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale, it’s to be expected that those gamers who don’t have an infinite supply of friends with online connections and a copy of the game might grow bored with it in a short matter of time. Smash Bros. combats this by including tons of unlockables, covering a vast swath of Nintendo history. Sony doesn’t have the same kind of storied past, so instead the developers at SuperBot gave each character an almost roleplaying game-esque leveling system that unlocks neat new rewards for using a single character over and over again. None of the rewards actually improve your fighter’s abilities or make the game any easier, but they do include a wealth of new costumes and aesthetic accouterments that should be appealing to fans of the characters in their original iterations. Each different character features dozens of things to unlock, and each successive unlock requires more and more play time, you could find yourself spending months with this game before you’ve seen all the stuff it has to show you.
PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale also features comprehensive cross-play with the PS Vita. Unlike many others that feature a truncated version of the game on Sony’s handheld, the Battle Royale offering on the Vita is essentially identical in gameplay, graphics, and content to the PS3 version, and the two can play together online. Players can unlock stats and content on either system and transfer it to the other, and a Vita copy is included with the PS3 version. The handheld version has a few minor changes like forcing you to use the touchscreen to pick up weapons, but in all other regards it looks and plays the same and fulfills some of the much hyped, but often ignored cross-play potential between the two systems.
Yes, Sony blatantly stole design cues from Nintendo’s Smash Bros. series in order to create PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale. To claim otherwise would be delusional. This game is Smash Bros. with a cast of characters that made their home in the PlayStation.That said, if Sony was going to lift ideas from anyone, at least it chose the right mark to steal from. Developer SuperBot has done an excellent job of capturing the whimsy and simplistic appeal of Smash Bros., while mating it with a varied cast and a host of gorgeous, thematically appropriate stages.
Objectively, if you were to ignore the derivative nature of PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale and focus entirely on its pros and cons, the game would be an interesting, if relatively shallow fighter that invites large group play by virtue of its four player simultaneous battles. If, on top of that, you happen to be a fan of the characters assembled for this fight, PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale should be very appealing. It’s got depth, colorful graphics and is largely unlike anything else on the PlayStation 3.
Still, Sony has historically been at its best when doing something completely original instead of merely aping the competition. When Sony introduced the CD-ROM to mainstream console gamers with the original PlayStation, that was a big deal because it had never been done before. However, when Sony introduced the Move peripheral in response to the Wii’s motion control gimmick and Microsoft’s Kinect, it was seen as a middling success, regardless of how technically accomplished the device might have been. While PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale is enjoyable, it’s just not very novel and it does little to ensure that PlayStation fans will still be talking about this game when the next Smash Bros. title hits retail shelves.
Score: 7.5 out 10
(This review was written using a PlayStation 3 and a PS Vita copy, both of which were provided by Sony.)