I’m coming off of a two month long Smash Bros. bender, which is even longer if you count the time I spent feeding off of the slow-drip hamster bottle that is Sakurai’s Miiverse page. This is a great time to be a fan of 2D platform fighter games… that is, if you own any Nintendo hardware.
A game looking to amend that caveat is Brawlhalla, a fighting game similar to Smash Bros., but in lieu of Nintendo’s all-star cast of characters, it lines its roster with the greatest warrior archetypes in history, both real and fictional.
By now, we all know who would win in a fight between Mario and Link (and even who would win in a go-kart race betwixt the two), but if ever you were curious about whether a viking could hold his own against a cowgirl or an alien warlord, Brawlhalla is here to help answer that curiosity.
Brawlhalla is a vaguely Nordic paradise where not only vikings, but warriors from all lands, time periods, and planets gather to fight each other four at a time. The fighters are about as diverse as possible, and they’re all rather smoothly drawn and animated, although motion tweened to high heaven.
Instead of having their own sets of special attacks, fighters scramble for randomly dropped weapons that greatly increase their strength and range. There are swords, hammers, spears, guns, lances, and dual blades – each fighter is a specialist with two of the aforementioned weapons, and randomly obtains one of them when picking up the Excalibur-like weapon icon on-stage.
Each weapon feels considerably different, and has its own strategy to it, but I took issue with how any given weapon feels about the same in the hands of any fighter. Yes, each character has different attack, defense, and speed stats, and each weapon is reskinned to match the fighter’s aesthetic, but aside from that, there’s little difference between the hammer a viking swings around and the one a steampunk lady wields – aside from a unique neutral strong attack, every character has the same attacks and animations when using a particular weapon.
In a way, Brawlhalla commits to the Kid Icarus: Uprising mentality that the weapon is the fighter, and in that sense, each of the 11 currently available characters is actually a preset duo chosen from a pool of 6 “fighters” that can only tag in and out when standing atop a weapon icon. At least, that’s what it would be like if, as mentioned before, the new weapon wasn’t randomly one of the two in your fighter’s loadout. Every weapon icon looks the same, so if you were hoping for a particular weapon, good luck winning THAT coin flip.
Combat is held the same way it is in Smash; the more damaged the fighter, the further they will fly upon getting hit, until they eventually get sent off-screen, at which point they die. It’s a lot harder to tell how wounded a fighter is, though.
Instead of percentages, damage is indicated by a bar next to the player’s HUD icon that slowly turns from white to yellow to red. Also, these icons are much smaller and nestled in the upper right corner of the screen. They’re impossible to read in the heat of battle, and the devs know that, because they also make fighters flash their respective damage colors when hit – something I learned from a loading screen, because before then I hardly noticed it, and still had trouble seeing afterwards. To paraphrase Warren Zevon, I’ll check health when I’m dead.
Controls are also similar to Smash, although without all the frantic tapping of different directions – probably to accommodate players using their keyboards. There are a few other slight changes; any Smash veteran will take a good half an hour to get accustomed to the fact that dodging is done by holding a direction before pressing the dodge button and not vide-versa.
Re-education aside, the controls feel great, and the game supports a variety of controllers, allowing for local multiplayer, in addition to online multiplayer. Playing online, by the way, isn’t the most solid experience, but it works decently enough. To be fair, my computer is about 6 years old, so the occasional choppiness may have just been my computer trying to render the sharp 2D graphics. You’ll have to ask somebody with a machine from this decade how truly smooth the online multiplayer is, sorry.
Brawlhalla’s level design touts none of the traditional stage hazards of this genre – that is, unless you count the 45-degree walls lining some stages specifically designed to turn a powerful horizontal attack into a meteor smash.
While the stages are a bit underwhelming, they will surely be applauded by the “Fox only, no items, Final Destination” types out there – although they’ll likewise jeer the random draw of the weapons and inability to fight one on one (in the current version of the beta, only four player team and free-for-all matches are available, though that, much like some of the other things mentioned prior, may change later).
The one place where Brawlhalla severely departs from Smash Bros. is the unlockable bonuses. Brawlhalla has a generous helping of bonus content, but since it is (or rather, will be) a free to play game, every bit of it will cost you money.
Converting the item prices listed in elephant funbucks to actual cash, it seems that character reskins will run you anywhere between $4-10 each, with weapon skins costing $2-3 each. In fact, customizing a character in any other way beyond swapping palettes requires money. Much to the relief of all of us who reflexively cringe at the mention of such pricing models, however, all currently available DLC is purely cosmetic (although, a now-grayed out section of the store labeled “legends” suggests that some of the fighters must also be bought once the beta is over).
Brawlhalla doesn’t really take the Smash-style fighting genre in any bold new directions, but it does take it to new players, and unlike Nintendo or Sony’s crossover brawlers, it doesn’t count on you being familiar with the extensive history of a gaming company to recognize the characters – everybody knows what a pirate is.
If you’re interested in a fast-paced 4 player fighting game that’s easy to learn, but not much of a Nintendo fan and can’t be arsed to buy a 3DS or Wii U, let alone learn exactly what a Lucario is, sign up for the beta and try it out.