A fleeting glimpse belies the truth – Sackboy’s latest adventure may seem like old hat, but closer inspection reveals something revelatory. By enveloping finger feedback in the warm embrace of traditional mechanics, LittleBigPlanet PS Vita forges a new path for gaming and bridges the gap between mainstream and "casual". Comforting in its familiarity, yet exhilarating in its newness, LittleBigPlanet Vita is a captivating ride into uncharted territory – a place where buttons and touch controls harmonize to create a game that, amazingly, is more fun than ever because of it.
This beautiful union starts with the Imagisphere, a place where literal seams burst with creativity and ideas fuel the adventures of material creatures like Sackboy. Of course, no imagination is without corruption, and our corduroy hero is called forth to save the Imagisphere more often than not. Such is the case when Colonel Flounder informs Sackboy that the world of Carnivalia has fallen prey to the evil Puppeteer. Once a beloved entertainer, the Puppeteer turned to extracting joy from others when the same joy disappeared from his solitary life. As an army of devious, faceless Hollows streaks across Carnivalia, the residual effects are felt on LittleBigPlanet, and Sackboy must step in to save Carnivalia before its downfall spells doom for the Imagisphere.
This always-engaging adventure is spread out over five worlds packed to the brim with story levels, Score Challenges, mini-games, and the like. Each of these is then packed with something more important: joy. Pure, unadulterated fun positively oozes from arguably the best level design in series history, and the experience is amplified by the most engaging touch mechanics ever seen in a video game. Themes of wonder and discovery are no longer theoretical constructs to provide background for this world. For the first time, wonder and discovery are things you feel as you jump, swing, and puzzle-solve through clever use after clever use of the Vita’s unique control features.
That’s not to say that every touch mechanic in LittleBigPlanet PS Vita is novel. Moving platforms into place, swingshotting Sackboy to new heights, rotating environmental objects, and guiding rockets to well-protected enemies are familiar concepts that any iOS gamer has seen in principle. Even tilting the system to navigate a ball labyrinth or using rear touch to steer a firefly pal through perilous traps won’t set the gaming world on fire (though the latter is admittedly only possible on Vita). However, citing specific differences is irrelevant, because the magic lies in the context. Where touch was once only suitable for bite-sized fun on smartphones, it has now found a comfortable home in a console-quality game. The benefits are mutual. By embracing the Vita’s unique features but adapting their use to traditional platforming, LittleBigPlanet PS Vita retains its sense of self and never fails to recognize why it’s so much fun in the first place.
Instead, it becomes MORE fun. Touch is not a replacement, it’s a supplement – to make level designs more creative, boss fights more thrilling, and puzzles more challenging. Each element is aided by new ways to interact. Consequently, there’s simply more gameplay to love. You’re not just bouncing between platforms -you’re creating a path for your high-flying sackperson by pushing platforms in and out of the screen. You’re not just hitting a switch to call down an elevator – you’re freely moving that elevator with your finger, and flicking it upwards to launch Sackboy to unseen heights where secrets await. Touch and tilt, once a cause for hesitation, blend so well with traditional button-based platforming that I’m always eagerly awaiting their next appearance. And, with a few rare exceptions, the responsiveness of each left me totally satisfied. Because these mechanics work exactly how I expect them to, I’m free to enjoy the fun they provide. It’s liberating, and a revolution for PlayStation gaming.
The same newfound enjoyment extends to Creation mode, the bread and butter of any LittleBigPlanet game. Here, touch controls are used to streamline the level editing process. You can lay down stickers and objects by tapping anywhere on the screen, use your finger to quickly swipe and scroll through the Pop-It menu, and even draw freeform shapes in your world out of creation materials. If you find that you don’t agree with certain touch mechanics, don’t use them: touch can be completely ignored in favor of buttons, but it’s likely you’ll settle in with some combination of the two. I personally found swiping and scrolling with my fingers made Pop-It navigation a breeze, but rotating objects felt better when performed with the right analog stick versus sliding two fingers across the screen in opposite directions. Once you find your niche, you’re free to go nuts with every creation tool from LittleBigPlanet 2 and a whole host of new options that make creative use of touch and tilt.
Tarsier Studios and Double Eleven have done an admirable job of showcasing what’s possible with these creation tools in the Score Challenges and mini-games that unlock as you play through the story. You can rotate the Vita to play touch-based air hockey with a friend, play Snood with flowers, or smash Sackpeople back into the ground a la Whack-a-Mole. Almost every side attraction is worthy fun, but the developers didn’t stop there. An entire world – The Arcade – is dedicated to bite-sized gaming as a proof-of-concept for the Vita’s feature set. The five Arcade games are wildly different in concept, but each is presented in unmistakable iOS format: incredibly easy to learn, relatively difficult to master, and ready to dish out a three-star rating for each of the dozens of levels on offer. My favorite, Tapling, plays like a mash-up of LIMBO and Escape Plan. A hauntingly muted art style draws you in, but devious death traps stand between you and freeing your caged friends. It’s the stuff of 99-cent indie glory, and I’m beside myself with excitement to see what inspiration will be drawn from these examples by the incredibly talented creators out there.
Therein lies the beauty of LittleBigPlanet PS Vita. No gameplay stone is left unturned, no single idea outside the realm of possibility. The story levels and mini-games leverage touch, tilt, and buttons to craft console-quality platforming, bite-sized fun, and compelling hybrids of each. This is the uncharted territory that LittleBigPlanet lays claim to, the new frontier where tradition and modernity come together in sweet harmony. As each new level loaded, my mind whirled with the possibilities and my heart thumped with anticipation. I was rarely let down, and a joyful grin was plastered across my face throughout. What’s new is exciting, and LittleBigPlanet PS Vita offers both in spades.
New features help keep the whole experience grounded in portability. No local ad-hoc multiplayer is a bummer, but the ability to download and store community levels means that you never have to be without new content. Simply download a fresh batch of interesting levels at home and take them with you to play where 3G and Wi-Fi can’t follow. Beyond playing, creating, and sharing anywhere, requisite Near functionality helps flesh out the already-burgeoning social network of LittleBigPlanet Vita. You can post high-score challenges and level links to your friends, and see what others in your area have published. This interaction should foster good-natured rivalries and tight-knit creation communities come release day.
For all of its victories, LittleBigPlanet Vita needs no pass in the technical department. This game is every bit the visual stunner as its console brethren, with memorable music to boot. Keen-eyed veterans might notice a bit less superfluous detail in the environments, but I was hard-pressed to find any appreciable difference. LittleBigPlanet Vita looks fantastic and, in my dozens of hours of playtime, never once stuttered with a glitch or framerate drop. Every corner, cutscene, and level is diamond-polished, completely freeing the player to enjoy the gameplay variety and fun on offer. Of course, not every level hits a home run; a few mini-games are forgettable, and the occasional bout of platforming is finicky. I’ve already mentioned that touch and tilt responsiveness is consistent throughout, but one particular mechanic (spinning a grabbable wheel) was hit-and-miss in the few levels where it appeared.
Meaningless gripes aside, the brilliance of Sackboy’s new outing was apparent to me within minutes of playing. Less apparent is the direction of causality between this game and Sony’s young handheld. Was LittleBigPlanet made for PlayStation Vita, a platform that could lift the former’s imaginative appeal to staggering new heights? Or was the feature-packed Vita made for LittleBigPlanet, a canvas upon which Sony could paint the future of portable gaming with finger swipes and photographs? The answer isn’t clear, but the end result is. LittleBigPlanet PS Vita is magnificent fun, a remarkable display of innovation that is only possible on PlayStation Vita, and the very best reason to own one.