PaRappa the Rapper and a Big Daddy walk into a fighting game. It sounds like a bad (or extremely bloody) joke, but the literal punchline is that they’re pretty evenly matched. If you even remember him, Ape Attack’s Spike holds up fairly well against DMC’s Dante, and the projectile-reflecting Sackboy from LittleBigPlanet can manage long-range warriors like Killzone’s Mael Radec and Uncharted’s Nathan Drake. Unlike any of the other combatants, Sly Cooper relies on his stealth to avoid being hit, whereas in a call-out to his series’s roots, Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance’s hero, Raiden, has a special move that traps his rivals in cardboard boxes. None of this should work, especially in comparison to Nintendo’s equally cartoonish and scattershot brawler series, Super Smash Bros., and yet if these comic combinations of heroes don’t get to you, perhaps the solidly designed albeit ridiculous and occasionally unbalanced mechanics of PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale will.
For the most part, each character plays as you imagine they would: Both Ratchet (of Ratchet & Clank) and Jak (of Jak and Daxter) alternate between melee attacks and a various arsenal of gimmick guns, whereas MediEvil’s Sir Daniel Fortesque slowly swings his gigantic sword and charges into his foes. Heihachi Mishima, from Tekken, smoothly brings his stance-shifting and combo-juggling moves with him and both versions of InFamous’s Cole Macgrath (good and evil) have means of quickly thrusting through the air. Only God of War’s Kratos seems inappropriately broken, with his regular attacks every bit as strong and long-range as his special moves, especially in comparison to the odder characters: Sony’s mascot (at least in Japan), Toro Inoue, who mocks characters (like Akuma) by donning their costumes, and Twisted Metal’s Sweet Tooth, who feels like a sluggish distillation of several other characters—ones who aren’t normally found in cars. Still, the design is clever and often surprising, as when Fat Princess gets one up on Heavenly Sword’s Nariko, and it reminds us that the Sony library, which includes third-party exclusives, is rather robust for DLC: Bring on Maximo, Crash Bandicoot, or, say, Sephiroth.
Strong as the all-star lineup is for PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale, the battles don’t always have that regal poise and can quickly devolve into hectic button-mashing. Characters don’t have health meters, and can be knocked out only through the use of special moves; therefore, defense isn’t nearly as important as a strong and constant offense, through which you can accumulate the AP necessary to trigger those killing moves. This isn’t to say the game is without strategy: Do you execute a short-range Level 1 attack or attempt to save up for an arena-killing Level 3? Do you save your Level 2 in an attempt to counter an opponent’s Level 2? Nor is it all mashing buttons: The better your combo, the higher your AP generation, and certain items, throws, and level hazards will even allow you to drain the AP of your opponents. For the most part, though, especially in online tournament play, which limits matches to a “most kills in 3:00” affair, combat is hectic and, when multiple characters pick the same character, confusing to keep track of. Variety may be the spice of life, but only when it’s tautly balanced, as in Persona 4: Arena.
Additionally, cleverness isn’t a solid foundation for a fighting game, at least not in the long run. Some of the animations that accompany Level 3 supers go on for too long, especially those that disable one’s ability to defend or even run away. The mash-ups and creativity in level design are outstanding: a battle that begins atop two of Killzone’s besieged landing drones ends up in a two-tiered bunker; LittleBigPlanet’s course is slowly dropped in by an unseen level editor (and then co-opted by the MC from the quiz game Buzz!); and Ratchet & Clank’s hapless Qwark gets devoured by God of War’s Hydra. But it all grows repetitive and sometimes overshadows the combat itself. The effort to have animated backgrounds and varied hazards also leads some levels to fall flat: The Dojo from PaRappa the Rapper has only one straightforward floor, even after being blown up by Resistance’s alien invasion, and the first half of Uncharted’s level is stuck in the claustrophobic cargo hold of a plane. Some characters can salvage and even exploit this hilarious yet unbalanced hodgepodge of ideas, but equal footing—the cornerstone of a skill-based brawler—is sometimes lacking.
Whether it began as a joke or not and just spiraled out of control, PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale is largely what you make of it. Serious combatants will find a robust practice mode and the now industry-standard array of combat trials, while those who just want to kick back for a few hours can enjoy the story mode, which comes up with bizarrely entertaining reasons for these characters to be facing off. (Kratos should never have smashed Sweet Tooth’s ice-cream cone. Evil Cole should know better than to stand between Fat Princess and her cake. And nobody, especially an animated cat, should ever call Heihachi an old man.) Co-op is alive and well in the 2v2 modes, and those with a masochistic streak can challenge their friends (or enemies) to 1v3 battles in the Versus mode. Moreover, every action you take with a character helps to build up their Battle Points, which in turn unlock new costumes, taunts, and player icons. Given the depth of the lineup, there’s something here for every Sony fan, but even trolling Nintendo fanboys may have to admit that this is an equally deep fighting game…even if that fact sometimes gets lost amid all the colorful pastels, cel-shading, and machine-gun pixels that make up this weird and wonderful patchwork universe.