It’s easy to be cynical about a game that borrows so heavily from a well-loved franchise. And there’s no question that, on the surface at least, PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale bears more than a striking resemblance to Nintendo’s Super Smash Bros. But this is a game where appearances can be deceptive. Underneath its collection of classic (and not so classic) characters, four-player battles, and tongue-in-cheek franchise mash-ups lies a fighter that eschews button mashing and over-the-top special moves for a deeper, more technical fighting experience.
That’s not to say it’s a better fighting experience because of it, though. There are three attack buttons to choose from–which don’t directly correspond to punches, kicks, or the power of an attack–and each of them can be modified by using the D-pad or analogue stick. That already gives you quite the combination of moves to choose from, but the game layers on more complexity with jumps, throws, blocks, rolls, dodges, taunts, items, and super moves. The sheer number of attack options available to you can be overwhelming, particularly during a heated battle.
It’s a complex system that stands in stark contrast to the game’s eclectic collection of characters and cute, colourful arenas. But it mostly works–if you’re willing to put in the practice. Button mashing isn’t an option–at least if you want to win a fight–and you won’t see the kind of outlandish, high-energy effects and special moves typical of other team-based fighters like Marvel vs. Capcom. In some respects that’s a disappointment, but your pugilistic powers do leave room for more strategic forms of combat.
Making sense of that strategy with well-timed punches, kicks, and throws, particularly amid the chaos of four-player fights, is where the challenge in Battle Royale lies. Getting a grasp on things is made all the more difficult by each character having a unique way of handling, to the point where learning to fight with one character rarely translates across to another. Kratos, for instance, moves and attacks much like he does in God of War, flinging his Blades of Athena around with a brute force that results in some slick, impressive-looking combos.
But someone like Parappa the Rapper is a trickier proposition. Chaining his moves together requires more delicate timing, and demands multiple directional commands to execute uppercuts and sweeps or to wield his skateboard to fling opponents into the air. The unnervingly cute Toro (Sony’s official mascot in Japan) can change clothing during a match to switch from a karate champ to a ninja to a helmet-wearing hothead, and each outfit completely changes the types of moves he can perform.
Such complexity means that, at least initially, the only way to succeed is to try to master a single character. And even when you do it’s disappointing to find that the game never reaches the silky-smooth, fluid heights of a truly great fighting game; there’s simply a lack of finesse in how the characters handle, how their abilities are balanced against each other, and how their punches meet that makes for unsatisfying combat. Numerous tutorials that cover everything from basic kicks and punches to full-on combos and combat trials that put those skills to the test certainly help make sense of Battle Royale’s technicalities, but never to the point where you can overcome how stilted everything feels.
There are other idiosyncrasies to contend with too. For starters there are no health bars; matches are instead won by racking up kills, either to a set goal or by simply getting as many as possible within a time limit. The only way to get kills is by building up your AP (power) meter via combos and unleashing super moves: the higher your AP, the more powerful the move. It’s an interesting twist on fighting game mechanics, and changes how you approach battles.
Without the constant pressure of a health bar, you can be more reckless and go on an all out attack without fear of reprisal, especially at the beginning of fights when AP is low. When everyone’s AP Is higher, and special attacks are ready, it’s wiser to take a more cautionary approach. But even then the game never really approaches the sort of tension levels you might expect from a fighting game. There’s none of those last second, down to the last of your health bar moments that are so tense, and so appealing.
Like the rest of the combat, gathering AP for special moves is tricky. Each character handles differently, going beyond simple differences of short, medium, or long-range attacks. Some level one supers can be interrupted with attacks and throws; others can’t. Most level two supers can be countered only with other supers. Some level three supers kill everyone onscreen, without any input from you, while others require you to hunt down your opponents. Suffice it to say, the learning curve is steep.