Few franchises last as long as Everybody’s Golf, but it’s celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. The arcade sports series has been a staple on every single PlayStation platform to date, and its latest edition is by far its most ambitious yet. But after a protracted production cycle, has veteran developer Clap-Hanz managed to sink an albatross with its online-focused open world swing sim?

The triple-clicking action will be familiar to anyone who’s picked up a Hot Shots over the past 20 years, but it’s the wrapping that’s changed. As already alluded, the chirpy title puts a heavy emphasis on multiplayer, with MMO-esque instanced courses open for exploration with up to 50 other players. There are treasure hunts to engage in, fish to catch, and – of course – Par 5s to master.

While the change in focus may frighten single player fans, it actually breathes new life into the brand. You’re still free to navigate the colourful environments on your lonesome if you like, but the game feels busier when there are other people milling around while you tee off. Daily leaderboards are integrated into everything you do, from drives to points tallies to nine hole rounds.

Frankly, even if you resist the urge to communicate with other players entirely, it feels like you’re part of a larger community, which is nice. The open world format also adds cohesion to the courses: holes no longer look and feel like self-contained islands, as there’s a structure to the way everything slots together – you can even career off course, and still land on the fairway of a different hole.

This unique structure is best leveraged by the new Turf War mode, a team-based multiplayer option that sees you working in groups to conquer courses. A kind of Team Deathmatch for folk who prefer flat caps over firearms, you’ll need to work against the clock to rack up as many points as possible by putting pars – or better.

The twist is that you need to manually navigate the greens between shots, so it becomes both tactical and frantic as you attempt to coordinate with your team in order to take on the correct holes in the optimal order. You’ll eventually unlock golf carts which help you to move even faster, and it’s extremely entertaining racing from hole to hole, seguing seamlessly from foot to fore.

But unfortunately, this mode accentuates the title’s head-scratching balancing issues. Simply playing the game increases your efficiency with each club, enhancing your shot distance and control. This means that anyone who’s played the title longer than you have is given an instant advantage, and while it won’t make up for sloppy play, it’s a bit strange that the playing field isn’t even.

More bizarrely, there are many smartphone-esque currencies that litter the entire game. In the Turf War mode, for example, there are warp points which instantly transport you to a hole of your choice. You can teleport three times by default, which in isolation would add an extra dimension, but those willing to spend tokens can warp indefinitely – almost breaking an otherwise ace mode.

To be fair, you collect these tokens around courses, and while we admire Clap-Hanz’s decision not to offer them as paid microtransactions, we still feel that their existence unnecessarily detracts from the mode, as it's clearly intended to be as much about navigation as it is hitting the links. What's the point in running, though, when you can just build up a collection of Warp Tokens and teleport around?

To be fair, any frustration you experience will depend upon the spirit in which you play the game. Despite its cute and colourful exterior, there’s always been a bag of depth to Everybody’s Golf, and that’s definitely true with this instalment again. But it is, by its very nature, light-hearted entertainment – and we found it difficult to get massively irate over any perceived injustices caused by the imbalance of the game.

But if you are feeling hard done by, then you’ll be relieved to learn there’s a single player campaign. This sees you taking on tournaments to earn XP, which in turn unlocks bosses for you to take on. Beating the bosses will not only unlock tons of cosmetic items which can be used on your own character, but will also open up access to other courses in the game.

Unfortunately, this highlights another bizarre issue with the title: you need to grind in solo play in order to open up the courses for multiplayer – both offline and online. We’re 15 hours and some 50 (!!!) rounds in, and we can still only access two of the five courses in the game. This also means we’ve missed out on some of the Daily Challenge bonuses, which is insane.

Essentially, the game holds a new tournament every day, and participating in it unlocks items. These goodies rotate every month, and are perhaps justification for some of the extraneous add-ons available on the PlayStation Store, as it’s clear that Clap-Hanz aims to constantly update the title with new content. But while grinding through single player tournaments to access all of the content is good incentive, the curve seems too steep.

In fact, we’d wager that most people won’t even unlock the final course, which means that its lobby is likely to be pretty empty indeed. And that kind of defeats the spirit of a game that’s clearly designed to be community focused first and foremost. Is it a complete deal-breaker? Well, no, we wouldn’t go that far – but it all just seems strange.

Speaking of strange, the character models are sure to divide. To be fair, the game has a very impressive character creator that effortlessly marries a variety of art styles, from the chibi heroes of the PlayStation Portable days to the more realistic proportions of the Vita. As a whole, it definitely has its moments visually, but aliasing issues and some awful textures make it look dated overall.

Conclusion

Everybody’s Golf reaches the green at eagle pace and then proceeds to ever-so slightly duff the green. Don’t get us wrong, this is still an extremely enjoyable arcade golf game with some brilliantly original ideas, but there are some bizarre design errors which seem to weirdly imbalance the game. Pair that with an unreasonable progression system and you’re left with a title that needlessly undoes a lot of its own hard work. At the end of the day, you’re still going to extract hundreds of hours of top-notch entertainment from this title – but save for a few silly oversights it could have been essential, and that’s a damn shame.