PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale is Sony's first foray into the brawler-style fighting genre. With its focus on the company's various characters and mascots, the comparisons to Nintendo's Super Smash Bros. series are inevitable. While All-Stars shares a number of obvious similarities with Nintendo's popular franchise, it differentiates itself with the depth of its combo system and a unique scoring method.
All-Stars features a roster of twenty characters and, despite some glaring omissions from Sony's past, the cast is a good mix of must-have household names, nearly forgotten heroes of yesteryear, and a few third-party guests. As for the guest characters, almost all of them fit in perfectly with the PlayStation branded mascots. Despite becoming multi-platform in recent years, franchises like Tekken (Heihachi), Devil May Cry (Dante), and Metal Gear Solid (Raiden) are ones that helped establish the PlayStation brand between 1995 and 2001. The only guest that doesn't fit in is Big Daddy, whose game (BioShock) wasn't even available on PlayStation originally. To make things even more strange for Big Daddy, the BioShock-inspired levels in All-Stars are based on BioShock Infinite's Columbia, not Rapture.
The levels in the game get just as much love and attention as the characters do. Each stage in All-Stars is actually two stages, which is a genius idea that helps differentiate the gameplay from that other mascot brawler. At some point during each match, the stage's theme will shift, thereby creating mash-ups that players could've never dreamed of. A happy, colorful LocoRoco level suddenly gets attacked by Metal Gear RAY. A fight that begins on a pair of ISA carriers from the infamous Killzone 2 trailer crashes into an army of monkeys from Ape Escape. Or a battle in the serene Sandover Village from Jak & Daxter becomes a driving range for the characters from Hot Shots Golf.
All of this nostalgia lays the groundwork for what many would expect to be a button mashy, 4-player fighting game, but that's All-Stars steps it up a notch. Rather than having a standardized Light/Medium/Heavy move set, each character's three attack buttons are unique to that specific character. And, while no move in the game is any more difficult than holding a direction and hitting a button, these simple moves can, with practice, be linked into lengthy chains of combos and juggles. The game provides a good tutorial/challenge section to teach players several of these combos for each character. It's obvious that the developers looked at each character separately and designed their move sets based on that character's history, then dedicated the time to implement moves that make sense for each character while simultaneously fitting within the confines of this type of game.
The goal in All-Stars, as one would expect in a fighting game, is to eliminate the other characters. But, the way this is achieved is quite different than other fighting games even in this sub-genre. Simply put, there are no life meters. Attacking other characters results in earning AP, which is basically a super meter. Each character has three levels of super moves, and these supers are the only means by which another character can be killed. Regular moves, special items, and environmental hazards only result in the gain or loss of AP. Players earn two points per kill, and lose a point per death in timed battles. It's a design decision that is quite jarring at first, but makes sense the more the game is played.
The Arcade Mode of PlayStation All-Stars serves as a story mode for each character, and this is where the game falls a little flat. Each run through involves the same progression of encounters where the opponents are random. The story starts with a still-frame, storyboard style intro video that sets up a marginally good reason (some better than others) for that character to want to fight. It starts with three 3-minute battles against one, two, then three opponents. This is followed by several "stock" battles where the first to three kills wins. Then, in the vein of Soulcalibur's "destined battles," comes a one-on-one battle with that character's rival, which usually ties into character's opening video.
Most of these rivalries are believable or at least have some "inside baseball" significance. For example, Sly Cooper and Nathan Drake are rivals based on both of them being treasure hunters and/or master thieves, while Nariko and Dante are rivals presumably based on the fact that both are Ninja Theory characters. Surely, David Jaffe is smiling as he sees Kratos and Sweet Tooth butting heads. And there's some goofy, random ones like Heihachi and Toro. After the rival battle is won, it's on to the game's boss, which is SCEA's original mascot, Polygon Man. Unfortunately, the battle against Polygon Man brings nothing unique to the table. He summons one, then two, then three purple-clad opponents to fight for him in a way that seems immediately familiar to players of Marvel vs. Capcom 3. In between each of these summons, Polygon Man will attempt to crush the player, which then leaves him open for attacks. But, only the summoned characters have the ability to kill the player's character, so Polygon Man himself is actually not a threat at all, which is both strange and disappointing.
The online mode works great, which is a feat in and of itself based on issues that companies like Capcom still seem to have with the matter. Even on Vita, the online mode features voice chat, matchmaking, and rankings. Plus, whether you're playing on PS3 or Vita, going online pits you against players from both systems. Fighting online is also the fastest way to earn experience points, which apply separately for each character. Leveling up results in all sorts of trinkets including new outfits, user icons/backgrounds, new taunts, alternate intro/outro animations, and more.
Overall, All-Stars does many things right, but it also feels like the first game of a series. Despite the welcome innovations and excellent attention to detail in terms of nostalgia, I can't help but feel like the game is a little bare bones. I think they've only touched the tip of the iceberg when it comes to interactions between the characters themselves. Thanks to Mortal Kombat, most other fighting games' single-player content seems lacking by comparison. And, while there are always going to be characters left out, there are hints here that indicate many heroes and villains of the past are not forgotten. Some of the special items and weapons in the game include an axe from The Mark of Kri and leech beam from Wipeout among others. The groundwork is there for something amazing though, so I hope they get a chance to do another in a couple years. Hopefully that'll be enough time to convince Activision to let Crash and (retro) Spyro out of their cages. With that said, if you're a fan of the PlayStation brand or any of the characters found within, there's a lot of fun to be had with PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale.