Platforms: PC (reviewed), PS4, Mac
It seems like fighting games fall into two camps these days: mechanically solid games with unimpressive feature sets and games packed with content yet half-baked core gameplay. Brawlhalla, the latest Smash-alike platform fighter by Blue Mountain Games, mostly falls into the latter category. It’s very clear that the development team wanted to make a fast, frantic, fun, and fair platform fighter; a game that can just as easily be played on your living room couch or an e-sports arena.
For the most part they succeeded. However, it’s left the rest of the game feeling somewhat incomplete, a familiar feeling for ambitious indie titles.
Easy To Pick Up
If you've ever played a round of Smash, then you'll immediately be familiar with Brawlhalla’s gameplay systems. Hit your opponent to increase their knockback. Knock your opponent off the stage to win. The game is played with a simple control scheme consisting of a light and heavy attack button, a throw button, and a dodge button. Special moves are as simple as pressing a direction and an attack button at the same time. It sounds incredibly simple, and for most gamers it is. If you're of the hardcore persuasion, there's no shortage of advanced techniques to learn. From executing grounded moves in the air to ledge canceling, Brawlhalla matches are easily as technical as professional Smash 4 matches, though not quite as much as Melee.
What makes Brawlhalla truly unique is its approach to items. Unlike Smash, where items are routinely banned from professional play, Brawlhalla attempts to balance items by changing their role in battle. Items come in two varieties, weapons and gadgets. Gadgets are items that you throw, like bombs and spiked balls, and they operate much as they do in Smash. However, their power has been greatly toned down. It’s rare for gadgets to score kills on the opponent. Instead they are used as an improvised zoning tool for characters that don’t have projectiles. Gadgets will also never explode unless they are specifically used by a player, preventing the random exploding box effect. Unfortunately, you still pick up gadgets with an attack button. This means there are points where you attempt to attack the opponent but pick up an item instead, leaving you completely vulnerable to counter-attack.
Gadgets still feel as if they inherit some of the problems that items have in Smash, but Brawlhalla’s weapons are a truly unique solution to the item problem. Instead of giving you a home run bat that replaces only one of your attacks with an unnecessarily powerful swing, Brawlhalla’s weapons replace your entire move-set. Each character has two weapons they can use, and picking one up alters every single attack they can perform. These attacks are unique depending on which character you are playing. For example, if two different characters pick up a spear, they will use completely different normal and special moves tailored to their personality. An aggro character might spin the spear for a multi-hit attack, while a zoner might use the spear as a long range poking tool. None of these attacks are super powerful. In fact they aren’t any more powerful than the attacks you use unarmed. They just allow you to adapt your playstyle to different situations.
New Is Not Always Better
There are some areas where Brawlhalla feels like it has innovated too much on the original Smash formula. Instead of a percentage meter, Brawlhalla characters have a health indicator that changes from white, to yellow, to dark red as they get damaged. However, there is no way to tell exactly how much damage you have taken, which makes it hard to optimize combos and strategies. These indicators are situated in the top right of the screen and they are smaller than they really should be. Characters flash the same color as their indicator when damaged, so you don’t always have to take your eyes off the action, but not putting an integral part of the U.I. front and center just feels like a rookie mistake.
Brawlhalla’s roster is one of its greatest assets. Boasting 34 characters to choose from, all with unique fighting styles, and all representative of some of the wackiest fighting game tropes. You’ll see aliens battle werewolves, pirates battle robots, knights battle ninjas, zombies battle dragons, and more. Each of these characters can be customized with different costumes and color palettes. You can even choose custom weapon skins, or change the skin of the helper that drops you onto the battlefield when you respawn. You can even slightly tweak each character’s stats before battle. Add a little more to speed to focus on your pressure or add some to defense for some extra survivability. With all the characters, weapons, stats, and costumes put together, it can be argued that Brawlhalla has one of the biggest rosters of any modern day fighter.
All of this is backed up by rock solid netcode. Matchmaking is quick and painless. Before you know it you will be jumping into everything from one on one matches to eight player free for alls. Serious players can climb their way up the leaderboards while casual players can participate in goofy matches, like ones where each lost life rotates you to a new character. You can even test out new balance changes before they go into effect, in order to give the dev team feedback. Brawlhalla succeeds in just about everything gameplay related.
However, this isn’t a game that can hold itself up on gameplay alone. Its main source of replayability is it’s free-to-play nature, but this is just an illusion. After grinding for two hours I barely had half the amount of gold needed to buy a single character. With a roster of 34 characters, you’ll need to grind 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for three months in order to unlock them all. This doesn’t even take into account the wealth of skins and other aesthetic treats you can unlock. It’s much more worth it to drop twenty dollars on unlocking the whole roster.
But once you’ve done that, you might find that the game has less to offer than you originally thought. There is no single player campaign to speak of, giving you little to do when you can’t find opponents. There are weekly challenges, but you complete them in multiplayer and all they do is earn you gold, which you won’t need if you’ve unlocked everyone.
Free to Play's Hidden Price
The tutorial is a joke. It’s just a normal match on a level with some controls posted in the background. It doesn’t do anything to teach you high-level concepts like jump limits or canceling. You don’t even have to do what the tutorial says to complete your training. You just have to knock your opponent off the stage.
The games sound design is sorely lacking. Audio levels are not balanced and sound effects feel muted, lacking the oomph that effects should have in fast paced fighting games. The game’s menus are depressingly sparse, looking more like a mobile title rather than a fully developed indie title.
Finally, the only story the game has to offer is in its “meet the heroes” menu, a sort of improvised gallery. Yet all the story info is right there from the beginning with nothing to unlock, aside from the characters and skins themselves. All of this puts Brawlhalla in an awkward position. As a free to play game it gives you an impossible grind, but as a 20 dollar title it gives you nothing to do.
Unfortunately, Brawlhalla is yet another fighter that you will play for the mechanics and the mechanics alone. There is no shortage of these on the fighting game market. It’s a fun little fighter to break out whenever you have company over, but it will never replace Smash. It will be overshadowed by not only all the other AAA fighters on the market, but all the other indie platform fighters that are in development. It’s an enjoyable game, but no one is coming over and saying “I really want to play you in a few matches of Brawlhalla.” When a game is selling itself on mechanics alone it really needs to attract gamers with a high level of dedication to keep it alive. There are just too many other games to dedicate yourself to right now and it’s doubtful that Brawlhalla will find its niche in the fighting game community.
When all is said and done, it’s still a free game. It’s hard to argue with a price tag of zero dollars. I do recommend giving Brawlhalla a try. You will have fun with it for more than a few matches, but there’s no chance that we will see Brawlhalla on the main stage at EVO any time soon. With so many other fighters coming out and so little replay value in Brawlhalla’s feature set, I’m skeptical that Brawlhalla will retain much of its player base after a few years pass.