The moment I ripped open the Christmas wrapping on a Sony PlayStation in 1999 was the moment when I like to imagine that I joined the PlayStation family. I’m grateful for the countless gaming memories and friends made in the years since, but PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale is the kind of game I didn’t know I needed until now. A competitive gathering of legendary PlayStation characters is an idea I rarely entertained, probably because I doubted it could be very much fun.
I was wrong.
PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale is absurdly fun, endlessly replayable, and a love letter to fans who have grown and matured alongside every character that populates the game’s storied cast. Brilliantly realized worlds and polished mechanics bring the celebration to life, and a staggering degree of combat depth and variety rivals this generation’s greatest fighters. Where PlayStation All-Stars falters is not in its design or sincerity, but in narrative missteps and presentation blunders that prevent the party from feeling like a cohesive whole. Equal parts charming and cheesy, serious and… well, just plain lame, it’s hard to discern just what kind of story PlayStation All-Stars wants to tell (if any at all). Either way, the greatest strength of Sony’s finest exclusives is missing here. Still, it’s hard to hold these concerns against a game that excels tremendously in every other respect. PlayStation All-Stars isn’t a perfect game by any means, but it’s damn good at fulfilling its promise to celebrate PlayStation history with a truly impressive cross-franchise brawler.
This premise begins with a mostly awesome cast selected from the last 17-odd years of Sony gaming. Representatives from every era are on hand to duke it out in stages that send up two or more memorable franchises. Impressive as the battlegrounds are to behold, the fighters are the real stars. SuperBot Entertainment absolutely NAILED its portrayal of every member on this diverse roster, and the smiles waiting to be slapped across your face at the sight of your favorites are innumerable. Jak’s powerful forward punch, Ratchet’s one-two-three Omniwrench combo, the fluidity of Dante’s rapid switch between sword, scythe, and guns… these are unmistakably the PlayStation heroes and anti-heroes you love, brought to life with mechanics that bestow an impressive amount of depth upon each. You’ll peel back layers of understanding as your playtime racks up, uncovering new combos and approaches for every conceivable situation. How does Raiden fare as an approach master in 2v2 team battles? Can Good Cole carry a one-on-one grudge match? How many kills can Heihachi’s Level 2 Super realistically garner, given the stage and mobility of his opponents? Will Spike’s Level 3 Super, which clears the stage in one fell swoop, be enough to secure victory?
The aforementioned Supers are what separate PlayStation All-Stars from its obvious competition. Instead of suffering a damage percentage that makes you more susceptible to being knocked off-screen, you’ll build up AP for every attack, combo, throw, and item you deploy against your opponents. With enough AP, you can unleash a series of progressively stronger and more extravagant attacks – Level 1, Level 2, and Level 3 Supers – that are the game’s only means of scoring kills off your buddies. For example, Sackboy’s Level 1 Super is a simple KO uppercut. Earn enough AP to reach Level 2, and you can drop flaming rocks ripped right out of the Imagisphere on anyone foolish enough to not run the heck away. Sackboy’s ultimate attack, his Level 3 Super, traps everyone else inside Prize Bubbles that the corduroy creator is free to pop. The system sounds restrictive on paper, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. The tension that arises as your competition moves closer and closer to each Super is palpable, and the strategic applications of each – based on everything from stage design to match type to character involved – are infinite.
Better yet, the core system of Super attacks and AP establish a white-knuckle urgency that will have casual couch potatoes and hardcore fighting enthusiasts alike on the edge of their seats with excitement. Matches between human players aren’t often total blowouts, and even the largest lead can be turned in the blink of an eye thanks to timing and intelligent Super deployment. 1v1 matches are especially intense for this reason, but the game’s bread-and-butter is its three-minute timed mode with four players. This particular setup places emphasis on a risk-reward relationship that sets the relative difficulty of landing a Level 1 Super against the time and effort needed to build AP for a Level 2 or Level 3. It’s a fascinating dynamic that never plays out in the same way twice, ensuring that – even over hundreds of hours of gameplay – every single match feels fresh, exciting, and unpredictable.
Less inspired is the game’s single-player Arcade Mode, which is astoundingly unambitious, even for the genre. Every member of the game’s 20-character roster has a campaign of several matches against CPU opponents, book-ended by “cutscenes” that don’t extend beyond voiced dialogue lain over competent artwork stills. The biggest problem with Arcade Mode isn’t its relative simplicity, or even that each story is disappointingly brief, but that each character’s context for participation in this brawl is wildly hit-or-miss. I can buy that Good Cole is seeking out people with special powers and believes the All-Stars cast might be Conduits, but Raiden’s insistence on protecting his fellow fighters (wait, what?), who he admits might not want or need his help, is patently ridiculous. The same inconsistencies extend to the game’s rivalries, which pit two specific characters against each other in a mano y mano battle near the end of their respective campaigns. It’s honestly heart-warming to see Sackboy win over the love of a Little Sister (as Big Daddy rages with jealousy), and the mischievous bickering of Nathan Drake and Sly Cooper is thematically appropriate and funny. Other moments, like the ice cream incident between Sweet Tooth and Kratos, are groan-worthy misfires that fail to treat either character with due respect.
Arcade Mode’s narrative shortcomings are remedied somewhat by how faithfully each character plays in a given match. Movement speed, momentum, quips, and signature moves turn each fighter into a near-perfect facsimile of the hero (or villain) you remember from games past; Ratchet and Clank employ a wide variety of galactic weaponry, Nathan Drake is suitably aloof, and Sir Daniel Fortesque is a comically inept coward-turned-hero. The personality of each character shines through his or her attitude, unique characteristics, moveset, and vivacious voice talent (including the return of fan favorites like Nolan North, Eric Ladin, and LittleBigPlanet narrator Stephen Fry). Phenomenal stage design ties the whole gameplay experience together, meshing dynamic platforming elements with more easter eggs and fan service than you can shake a Time Net at.
Thankfully, the twenty roster selections are mostly worthwhile, but some fans will no doubt feel jilted by a few questionable oversights. For some missing characters, this may simply be a matter of too many years and business deals between the height of their popularity and 2012. We may never know why some characters weren’t included, and I may end up eating my words as DLC hits PlayStation Network in the coming months, but I personally feel that any game of this nature without the likes of Crash Bandicoot, Solid Snake, Lara Croft, and Spyro the Dragon is missing a crucial part of PlayStation history. These (and many others) are characters that have left indelible marks on the legacy of the brand, and it’s strange to think that relative unknowns like Toro or Nariko were given precedence over the aforementioned.
Setting aside all questions of legitimacy, the cast on hand is very well-balanced, bringing a diverse array of strengths and weaknesses to the fighting table. You’ll need those strengths, because CPU opponents put up an impressive challenge at the highest difficulty level. In fact, studying CPU characters is a valid way to learn advanced techniques and strategies, which you’ll employ over a great many hours spent through Arcade Mode, Combat Trials, and multiplayer matches. A progression system unifies the experience, and your performance and accomplishments across all modes will net you rank-ups that unlock new costumes, taunts, victory music, titles and icons for your custom playercard, and more. It’s a great selection of rewards that will resonate with the PlayStation faithful, but the ubiquity of progression devalues the level of your character, which is prominently displayed at the beginning of every match. You’ll earn more experience for completing harder tasks and playing on higher difficulties, but new ranks are earned so fast that the whole thing feels less like a measure of skill and more like a measure of time spent with each character. Progression isn’t particularly well-organized either, as all of the hundreds of goals (which are divided between your current session, lifetime career, tournament season, and specific modes) can only be viewed in a single menu far removed from the first thing you’ll want to do: play the game.
On a technical level, the game performs admirably, running at a constant 60 frames-per-second regardless of platform. There’s no graphical caveat for this achievement; stages and characters are packed with detail and a pleasure to behold. Special commendation must also be given to the game’s audio, highlighted by diverse sound effects and background music that respectfully remixes memorable tracks from each franchise. Networking is similarly polished. Cross-play works like a charm between PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Vita, and as profile data seems to be tied to your PSN ID, syncing your character levels, unlocks, and completion data between the two platforms is quite literally as easy as signing in. Hooking up with your friends is a breeze as well, thanks to the always-accessible party invite system. Changing match settings, adding CPU opponents, dropping in and out of a game; it’s all very accesible, designed to get you into the action as quickly as possible.
Not every presentation element is a home run, however. Menus and the UI in general are woefully slim on detail and allure; you’d be hard-pressed to find a more visually boring interface in any triple-A PlayStation blockbuster. There’s certainly something to be said for prioritizing gameplay over style, but it’s hard to justify no style to speak of. It’s a small complaint, to be sure, but in a game so fiendishly fun and compelling that “Time for bed” quickly becomes “Holy s***, it’s six in the morning?!”, this sore spot becomes apparent after a while.
PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale is a triumphant nod to nearly two decades of memories and amazing experiences. SuperBot Entertainment absolutely understands what makes PlayStation special, and has succeeded in marrying emotionally-charged fan service with a suitably deep fighting experience that will likely evolve for months and years to come. Inconsistent narrative direction and ho-hum presentation aside, PlayStation All-Stars might just be the most pure fun I’ve had all year. And as a lifelong PlayStation fan, the wait was worth it.
Editor’s Note: The majority of time spent reviewing PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale was spent playing the PS3 version of the game, testing every mode and character over 30+ hours of gameplay. The PS Vita version of the game was tested primarily for network compatibility, but the gameplay experience is identical between each version (save for PS Vita control changes to compensate for missing L2 and R2 triggers).