Drawn to Death plays like Twisted Metal, Quake, and Street Fighter all had a big violent orgy in Screech from Saved by the Bell's ring-bound high school jotter. This raucous online-only third-person shooter is bulging with so much personality that many won't be able to see beyond the d*ck jokes and crude art direction, but what lies behind the lined A4 pages is a frenetic arena action game with an insane degree of depth – and arguably one of the fresher multiplayer experiences to deploy on the PlayStation 4 this side of Overwatch and Rocket League.

There's just so much to like about the latest from God of War maker David Jaffe: the firearms – ranging from a rocket-powered Super Nintendo armed with deadly Chrono Trigger cartridges to a dodgeball player who chucks explosives from over your shoulder – are universally imaginative, the characters – each armed with their own set of special moves – are smartly balanced, and the game modes – which all riff cleverly off multiplayer staples – are frantic and fun. The game's status as a PlayStation Plus freebie may have cast it as something of a black sheep, but it's anything but in reality.

Take a ranked match of Organ Donor we just lost: there are seconds left on the clock, and we're playing as punk rock hero Johnny Savage. We've just been taken out, leaving our ticker behind for the match leader to transport to a deposit point for the victory. We take advantage of a quick respawn, bringing us instantly back into the action at the expense of half of our health. We whip out our Headbanger special which creates a dome of devastating sound, inflating the head of our adversary until it pops and leaves behind the two hearts that we need to leapfrog our opponent and snatch the win.

We end up losing anyway, but it's moments of intense last-ditch action that make The Bartlet Jones Supernatural Detective Agency's outing such a thrill. In many of the game modes there's real consequence when you die – in deathmatch, for example, you'll gain two points for a kill and lose one for a death – which means that a killstreak can take you from the bottom of the scoreboard to the top. This is especially entertaining when you enter the double-damage overtime phase, and can lead to the kind of teasing that you typically associate with fighting games.

What's even more enjoyable is just how much there is to learn: Alan – the Deadmau5-masked butcher armed with a chainsaw – can toss his munition across the stage for serious damage, but miss and you'll have to take time to retrieve it lest you lose access to his other special, Flying Death. He can also turn invisible, but winged nemesis Cyborgula can see through the disguise. Shark-faced ninjutsu expert Ninjaw, meanwhile, can summon the power of the sea and anchor enemies in place – but amputated military veteran Bronco can still use his specials in this state.

Learning how to deal with each character type can give you the upper-hand in close matches, while also mastering the strengths and weaknesses of your own chosen hero plays in your favour. Western-themed demon Diabla Tijuana can counter Johnny Savage's Devils Riff attack by kneeling just as it's deployed, transforming a potentially devastating special into a welcome health buff. She also moves faster when on low health, but is particularly susceptible to the aforementioned Alan's devastating melee attacks.

And the weapons augment an additional layer of depth: Uncle Joe is an explosive dead body that can be launched from his coffin for nuclear damage, but you'll need to dig up a new corpse in order to reload which takes time. Meanwhile, the Fister is a bow and arrow that fires a giant exaggerated hand and does an increasing amount of damage depending on how long you let it charge for. There are dozens of weapons – each similarly creative – in the final game, and each requires time and practice in order to best understand how they work. Heck, there's even strategy involved in your loadout, as you pick which firearms you'll be able to gather on the stage itself.

Perhaps the only downside here is that the title's free-to-play origins do peer precariously through the curtain at times. With each match you play you'll earn blood, which contributes to a key. These can then be used to unlock new weapons, or you can pay to open them all up from the off. Similarly, you'll collect Mysterious Boxes – which house random cosmetic unlocks like costumes and taunts – but the quota of kills you need to grab one of these on the house seems a little on the high side to us. Of course you can always stump up for a batch, but the complimentary ones should come quicker in our opinion.

You'll want the skins and taunts, too, because the game's got a great sense of style to it. The juvenile humour is sure to grate on some, but where the likes of Borderlands teeter on the, ahem, edge of being edgy, this game goes all of the way. You get berated by the commentator when you're not pulling your weight, and put-down when you lose. The language wouldn't sound out of place in Gordon Ramsay's kitchen, but it's always got its tongue firmly in its cheek, from the faux countdowns to the FMV sequences that background the title screen.

The art-style is an acquired taste, but running at a robust 60 frames-per-second it looks much better in motion than you may expect. And some of the maps are great: there's an up-market city street being attacked by aliens and a gladiatorial ring with moving walls. Perhaps the most impressive thing is just how rigorously the game sticks to its doodle theme: there are animated GIFs you can use as taunts in the lobby before matches, menu items are labelled with phrases like 'Stats and Sh*t', and even the ranked progression sees you climbing a hand-drawn tower.

There are issues – like the way in which your progress can be unfairly punished for having a bad teammate at times – but they're very small problems that can be fixed with a patch. Perhaps our biggest concern is how long the game will be able to maintain a vibrant playerbase once the PlayStation Plus honeymoon dies down: with multiplayer game competition intense on the PS4 – and heavy-hitters like Destiny 2 on the way – the title's going to need rapid updates to keep its matchmaking times fast like they are now, and it remains to be seen whether such a small team can deliver new content at the same speed as, say, an Overwatch.

Conclusion

Drawn to Death's juvenile presentation belies a nuanced shooter that's frankly a breath of fresh air. The title fuses fighting games with frenetic on-foot action that feels quite unlike anything you'll ever have played before. Quality game modes and an imaginative roster of weapons are only let-down by the whiff of lingering microtransactions that have seemingly survived the title's business model change unscathed. Other than that, though, it's f*cking awesome.