Wednesday, September 26, 2012

LittleBigPlanet PS Vita Review

LittleBigPlanet has been a hallmark series on the PlayStation 3. It features light-hearted story, simple yet delightful gameplay, and a community base that provides new levels to play almost daily. At its core, LBP is just another platformer with a unique level creation tool, but the visual mishmash of elements, upbeat music, and drop-in drop-out cooperative play were what separated it from the rest. After a sequel, a portable version, and numerous levels, costumes, and DLC have been released, all somehow managing to maintain the same atmosphere, can LittleBigPlanet PS Vita hope to bottle the same lightning its predecessors have?

When the Vita was released, Little Deviants was its Wii Sports—an interesting game with little substance that just showed off what the hardware could do. I think Sony would have done itself a favor, however, if they had just gotten LittleBigPlanet PS Vita in development earlier and had it ready for launch. Simply put, it shows off exactly what the Vita can do in a way that has substance, meaning, and showcases just how fun a bigger-than-pocket sized handheld can be. From puzzle solving with touch-sensitive blocks to guiding shots with your fingers to rotating the screen for arcade games, LittleBigPlanet PS Vita does a marvelous job utilizing all of the Vita’s quirky technology. Even the back touchpad is utilized in a way that’s user friendly and makes sense—as a way to push blocks out toward the screen when you’ve pushed them back into the background. This game marks the first time I’ve seen a game use the touch screen or rear touchpad technologies as a gameplay mechanic and have it not be hokey and nigh-embarrassing. Nintendo Wii still has this problem and I’m sure Vita will too.  Heck, even Uncharted couldn’t get it right. Still, it’s nice to see that these features can feel like part of the design and less like a slapped-on feature two weeks before release.

The story has never really been an important or particularly strong feature in LittleBigPlanet, but LBPPSV (oh my, that’s a mouthful) looks to change that paradigm. In this game, Sackboy happens upon a gateway to Carnivalia, a travelling carnival planet that journeys across the omniverse. Before being sucked in, a strange man named Colonel Flounder warns him away, telling him Carnivalia has gone bad because of someone called The Puppeteer. Now it’s Sackboy’s mission to save LittleBigPlanet from The Puppeteer and set Carnivalia right again.

I rather like that the developers chose to have a slightly deeper story with this game. To solidify this story in the player’s mind, the developers chose to make the visuals have a slightly darker tone. Though it’s still light-hearted and bright in places, the game is visually darker in many lands, lending credence to the evilness of Carnivalia through juxtaposition. In addition to visually reminding you of what you’re up against, the characters drive the story home and make their worlds more personal. Though you’re still travelling from area to area, each level reminds you of your goal by tying in to the central theme of overthrowing the Puppeteer because he’s done something bad to your new friends. Other LBP games also had a similar story structure, but having a more solid goal and more lifelike characters make you want to persevere that much more.

By lifelike characters, I don’t mean that they’re more realistic, but rather more relatable and believable. This shift is due in no small part to voice acting. Rather than strange babbling for each character, they all have their own voices and tell their tales to you directly instead of through speech bubbles. Now, characters feel less like the scenery, a major problem in earlier LittleBigPlanet games. Come on, which one of these do you want to help, the flat cardboard person who looks to be part of the background or the broken doll with dimension who actually appears to be a character?

Setting the single player story aside for a moment, LittleBigPlanet PS Vita has a multitude of minigames to manage the monotony of merriment. Jumping on platforms, pulling switches, and grappling things is fine for a few hours, but sometimes you just want to play a flowery version of Bubble Bobble while holding your Vita sideways. All jokes aside, the selection of minigames is enormous, and most of them are entertaining. Heck, they included an entire arcade section of the game in addition to the minigames embedded into the story. It’s like Mario Party in here, only with less rage and cursing Birdo.

The community feature of this game is far smaller than its console predecessors and that’s to be expected. The smaller userbase of the console means there are going to be even fewer people who want to take the time to design a level, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. There are still some really well-designed and fun community maps available, but not nearly as many as on a console version.

It’s a shame, too, as the developers added tools that make design easier, including touchscreen integration. They also added in the ability to use custom images to put skins on items, or even take pictures with the Vita. Don’t do that second part though — the camera on the Vita is about as high quality as a webcam and it shows. Try to take a picture in low lighting and you’ll notice every pixel. Other than the obvious hardware limitations, the level design has never been more beginner-friendly and intuitive.

Verdict: LittleBigPlanet PS Vita is my favorite LittleBigPlanet yet. It features a better story, improved level creation tools, and more relatable characters, making the world far richer and more enjoyable. In fact, the only drawback of this game is that I wish I could play it on a bigger screen using the Vita as a controller because it’s so pretty I wish I could see more of it. Give this game a whirl if you like any of the other LBP games, platformers, or enjoy creating levels. It’s also a requisite to owning a Vita, as it’s the one game that shows off what it can do without making you say “Ugh.”
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