LittleBigPlanet 3 is fun and frustrating, simultaneously introducing gameplay twists while limiting your time with them. I’m speaking, of course, about OddSock, Toggle, and Swoop–three new heroes with varied abilities and the game’s most obvious statement of difference. These playable characters are indeed different and somewhat ease feelings of been-there-done-that. By now, we all know the LittleBigPlanet story. Your Sack Thing (kudos to Sumo Digital for neutralizing Sackboy’s gender in dialogue) hops around pseudo two-dimensional levels with floaty controls, grabbing prize bubbles, stickers, and other collectibles. The levels are (much) bigger, Sack Thing’s new toys enable faster, more engaging movement, and there’s more tongue-in-cheek humor than ever, including self-deprecating jabs at the game’s surprisingly long loads. But by and large, LittleBigPlanet 3 is virtually indistinguishable from its predecessors–OddSock, Toggle, and Swoop don’t appear often enough to change the overall feeling and pace of play.
All that could change when LittleBigPlanet 3 lands in the capable hands of veteran creators. A bevy of new tools and capabilities embrace the design philosophies behind quirky derivations like RPGs, puzzle games, and fighters. In the past, LittleBigPlanet creators had to wrestle against objects and gadgets not meant for such sophisticated, left-field creations. No longer–say hello to world maps, inventories, made-from-scratch gadgets, and level design in three dimensions. Ostensibly, the creative potential has never been greater. But the number of design tools, the ways in which they interact, and necessary considerations present an intimidating learning curve for new players and those who haven’t dabbled in Create mode before.
Sumo Digital seems to have recognized the growing gap between creators and players. The PopIt Academy, a series of levels designed to teach level-building techniques through puzzles, go part of the way. For anyone with an iota of series experience, the PopIt Academy starts excruciatingly slow with the very basics of PopIt menu navigation and placing objects. There’s no way to jump ahead to more advanced steps fitting your experience level, but once I got to slightly more involved endeavors, I could see how the PopIt Academy journey would be immensely helpful. I felt engaged by the learning and loved finding simple answers to the questions I’ve asked in past games when blindly hopping into Create mode.
If you’ve no interest in taking that journey, you’re left with Adventure mode until LittleBigPlanet savants populate Create mode with a new generation of astounding works. This time around, Sack Thing lands in Bunkum, a land once threatened by three creativity-hogging Titans. The well-meaning Newton releases the Titans in a bid to add more creativity to Bunkum. Possessed by their evil and threatening to hog all of Bunkum’s creativity to himself, Newton poses a charismatic threat to the realm: Sack Thing must release OddSock, Toggle, and Swoop–Bunkum’s three heroes of old–to defeat Newton and save the realm from a creativity shortage.
The primary objectives of freeing OddSock, Toggle, and Swoop drive a shift in Adventure mode from a linear series of themed levels to hub worlds. There are only three, but each houses side quests and optional levels that deviate from traditional platforming with interesting challenges. The triumph of releasing one of Bunkum’s heroes is sweet; you get a level that uses their talents exclusively and the ability to swap between Sack Thing and that hero out in the hub world. Unfortunately, there are some inconveniences. Unlocking a new character is rewarding precisely because it offers a break from the all-too-familiar pace and mechanics of Sack Thing, but you can only use those characters in the hub world of their origin. These otherwise excellent heroes, with tight controls, fast movement, and behavior that just feels different, are relegated to one-off diversions until the obligatory power-combining finale. Even within the appropriate hub world, you can’t swap between Sack Thing and that world’s hero at will. Character-swapping gates are used instead. It’s frustrating to stumble across a space where a hero’s unique talent would come in handy only to have to navigate back to the swapping gate to make it possible.
Again, the relevance of these heroes will change in the user-created levels to come. It’s just disappointing that they’re so underused in Adventure mode, the easiest way for friends to jump into polished co-op fun. Whether playing solo or with others, the game enforces playing as Sack Thing in all but a small handful of secret levels that make use of all four. The way each hero’s distinct traits change the flow of play in their brief appearances makes their general absence especially disappointing. Toggle’s ability to switch between large and small forms at the tap of a button makes for interesting physics manipulation and some surprising chase scenes that add on-the-fly form changes to the requisite platforming skills. Swoop’s upward flight and speedy downward swoop test your balance of these skills in tricky, hazardous spaces. OddSock is my favorite. His speed, wall-jumping, wall-running, and tight controls are a stark contrast to Sack Thing’s floatiness. OddSock doesn’t so much complete levels as destroy them with grace and derpy cuteness.
But it’s over too quickly, with an exploratory playthrough clocking in at just a handful of hours, and the chance for meaningful interaction between all four characters is almost non-existent. I’m placing my bet on the community stepping up to make some truly stellar four-player levels, but for now, Adventure mode fails to embrace LittleBigPlanet 3’s best innovations.
On the visual side, LittleBigPlanet 3’s graphics are a notable, if not quite impressive, improvement over its forebears. The licensed, instantly recognizable music tracks are a delight, though. All tunes fit the levels’ themes and action perfectly. Meanwhile, Stephen Fry’s narration, still occasionally funny, rambles in places with irrelevant stories and overwrought whimsy. Hugh Laurie’s turn as Newton is better, succinctly giving a great deal of personality to the villain. Unfortunately, like our new heroes, Newton is underused, appearing infrequently at the beginning and end of hub worlds to introduce the next boss fight.
I’d be remiss without mentioning the somewhat buggy state of LittleBigPlanet 3 at launch. I met several glitches in my pre-release playthrough. Some of these, like respawn checkpoints ceasing to function and stuttering during cutscenes, have been fixed by day-one patches. Others, like one endless loading screen and environmental quirks that get Sackboy stuck behind or beneath a level, were infrequent but nevertheless demanded restarts that were made more frustrating by the game’s surprisingly long loads. LittleBigPlanet 3’s environments are far bigger than the series has yet seen (and densely packed, thanks to detailed layers), but loading times of half a minute or more are disappointing among current-gen contemporaries.
All of this makes LittleBigPlanet 3 on PlayStation 4 an easy sell for some and a hard recommendation for others. If you’ve grown as a creator alongside the series’ ever-evolving tools and already have ideas for the expanded feature set, you’re going to love what the game provides. If you primarily get your jollies from co-op silliness with friends, know that LittleBigPlanet 3 offers very little to differentiate from prior installments–its fun new protagonists are disappointingly scarce. But I have faith LittleBigPlanet’s community will step up to make the game these characters deserve. Even if you’re betting on the same, Sack Thing’s third outing is a capable platformer besides.