Review: Fighting It Out In ‘PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale’ (PS3)

I’ve been saying for months now that 2012 has become something of a fighting game fan’s dream. With major new releases from the “Tekken,” “Dead or Alive,” and “Soul Calibur” franchises, expertly curated collections bringing together 25 years of “Street Fighter” history, old-school downloadables making their way to consoles, and new entries like “Skullgirls” and “Persona 4 Arena.” Ambitiously, Sony wanted to get in on the action with their very own console exclusive title, but one inspired less by the deep, technical fighters from Namco-Bandai, Capcom and the like, but instead Nintendo’s addictive “Super Smash Bros.” games.

So they assembled their own motley crew of PlayStation gaming mascots (Sir Daniel Fortesque, anyone?), dragged in characters from a couple of third-party franchises, and voila, you have “PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale.” The only problem is, the last two parts of that title are a little inaccurate, as Sony and developer SuperBot try their best don’t quite deliver the same kind of memorable fighting experience as the game that inspired it.

Mechanically, this brawler, which allows up to four fighters, is identical to “Super Smash Brothers Melee,” with three basic attacks mapped to the face buttons (light, medium, heavy) which can be modified depending on where you’re moving the d-pad or joystick. You can also clutch your opponent for a directional throw using the R-stick and roll out of the way to evade incoming attacks. Also similar to its predecessor, “All-Stars” has dynamic environments with danger zones to smash you and your opponents, as well as weapons and equipment to aid your character in the fight.

Where SuperBot mixes things up is in the way health is handled: there is no health bar, only Action Points (AP). You’ll fill this bar on the bottom of the screen with successive attacks, reaching up to three levels of Super attacks. When you have one of these cued up and your opponents are in the right position, tap R2 and you’ll send them off the screen and into their doom. Each character has three visually distinct levels of Super attack, so if you’re using Ratchet, for instance, the first level of his Super will eliminate nearby enemies with gunfire, the second level will place you in the mechanical shoes of Clank who can temporarily deliver one-hit kills, and level three pulls all the way back and puts you in Ratchet’s ship, targeting the remaining fighters with a laser cannon.

The Supers and the revision to the meter system are, I think, the greatest path to getting casual and new gamers hooked on “All-Stars,” emphasizing the meter that shows how you’re being rewarded for attacks as opposed to being penalized for getting attacked. It helps that many of them are unique and work well with their character, most cool enough that you’ll hold on to your first and second level just so you can reach the third. Still, even after about a week with the single player campaign and a couple of days with the recently-activated online multiplayer, it does seem like a few characters are able to land more heavy attacks in rapid succession, ultimately allowing them to fill their meters faster (Ratchet and Kratos appear to be the wort offenders).

Also, while “All-Stars” offers some level of depth via combos, nearly all of the 20 characters are pretty much pick up and play. For the most part, you’ll be setting up your opponents for a juggle, or attempting to trap them in a corner a series of attacks.

So if the combat works and the characters are fun to play, what’s the beef? Between the small (for modern fighters, at least) roster of characters, to the almost perfunctory inclusion of items and weapons, to the stages that never really reach the level of mayhem, one would come to expect from this sort of game, “All-Stars” never feels like it’s ever really properly gotten started.

I can’t fault SuperBot for the wild collection of characters they’ve brought together here because each and every one is, as necessary for an enjoyable fighter, distinct in how they play with their own strengths and weaknesses. The one drawback to having a conservative roster like this, is that the matches aren’t especially variable. Time and again, I saw Raiden from “MGS” or “Ratchet” or “Kratos,” meaning players had, at this point, settled on a limited number of characters that they felt comfortable using. In equivalent terms, it’s like playing “Street Fighter IV” and coming up against a line of players who keep wanting to use Ken. Plus, there’s a weird philosophical divide in having half of the characters come from M-rated games in what’s a T-rated release.

As for the levels, their danger zones are mostly, strangely not all that dangerous. It’s cool to have Hades from “God of War” put the smack down on a fighter unlucky enough to be under his hands, but outside of draining a little of that player’s AP, it lacks the kind of pyrotechnics to make it temporarily disruptive to the match. Also, many of the levels lack any kind of added verticality, most topping out at two levels and about one screen’s worth of fighting area horizontally. So occasionally, the battlefield starts to feel claustrophobic.

Weapons, one of which is typically on the screen at most at any given time, feel strangely under-emphasized, like SuperBot was uncommitted to letting them mess with the overall flow of the matches too much. But that doesn’t seem to matter too much since most players I encountered online ignored these powerful tools anyway.

These and lots of smaller quirks detract from the overall experience: from the lack of score on-screen during matches, to a character progression/unlock system that adds some minor customization to your characters, but only from a collection of presets. The campaign is a nice opportunity to learn your chose character (and unlock customization options along the way), by the opening and closing still images accompanied by VO are as bland and unwelcome here as they were in “Street Fighter X Tekken.”

My core complaint isn’t that “All-Stars” isn’t good–it’s just that it’s not quite good enough. Since its really the only new game of its type on the market right now, and if you’re fiending for some mascot combat, then this is definitely the game for you. Otherwise, you might want to wait until SuperBot has at least updated the roster before giving it a try.

“PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale” is available now on the PS3 and PlayStation Vita.

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