Sony is often criticised for shrinking its home console franchises down to handheld size – but, despite the best efforts of its detractors, that commentary doesn’t always hold weight. Sackboy’s maiden craftworld campaign may have been animated by the DualShock 3, but LittleBigPlanet PS Vita is one of those not-so-infrequent portable releases that proves there’s a place for the platform holder’s greatest mascots on the move. In fact, this may just be the most impressive outing in the Imagisphere to date.
We daresay the absence of series creators Media Molecule will prompt some of you to wear a frown like two deft jabs on the right-side of the D-pad, but newcomer Tarsier has done an outstanding job. Not only has the studio managed to accurately trace the blueprints built by Guildford’s greatest – it’s also imbued the series with its own unique ideas. Couple that with the PlayStation Vita’s wealth of interface and connectivity improvements, and you have the ingredients for the handheld’s greatest game thus far.
The narrative set-up is familiarly twee, with Sackboy pitted against a rogue puppeteer who’s drained Craftworld of its joy in order to fuel the construction of an army of soulless Sackbots known as the Hollows. As always, you’ll liaise with a handful of creator curators as you embark on an adventure with the intention of restoring glad tidings to the Omniverse.
As has become a recurring theme for the franchise, the plot is merely window dressing for the five worlds and bevy of levels contained within the cartridge (or download, if you happen to be a right old fancy-pants). But the characters are as strong as ever, with the pipe-puffing Sean Brawn and ironically macabre Mrs Sunshine particular highlights. The dialogue is also adorable, and while the flagrant use of archaic language in narrator Stephen Fry’s voice over sections isn’t as novel as it once was, it’s still likely to prompt an occasional chuckle from those of you with a taste for dry British humour.
Like the eclectic cast, the gameplay is delightfully varied too. Tarsier takes its time introducing all of the title’s mechanics, opting to gradually funnel in new ideas across a plethora of different backdrops. Throughout the campaign, you're transported to an American-inspired roller-coaster outback, an opium-induced wonderland and a futuristic city built out of old forgotten technology. Unsurprisingly, you unlock access to a slew of gadgets along the way, including old favourites such as the creatinator, grappling hook and grabinator. Familiar they may be – but, impressively, the developer has found a way to make them feel unique again.
During one short sequence of the campaign, for example, the creatinator is used as a rocket launcher to remove sticky bubblegum from platforms and unlock new pathways. But instead of just targeting the missiles with the analogue stick, the game allows you to draw new pathways with a stroke of the touch screen. It’s such a simple tweak, but it brings new life to an otherwise familiar idea – and LittleBigPlanet PS Vita is positively brimming with that kind of creativity.
The touch screen is, of course, pivotal to the experience – but the developer has resisted the temptation to overuse it. As such, you’ll mostly be reaching into the screen to create makeshift bounce pads and tinkle on piano keypads. Everything is colour coded, so green blocks indicate when you need to spread your fingers around to the rear touch pad, while blue blocks signify that something needs to be groped from the front. There are occasions when you’ll find yourself playing finger twister with the console in order to reach the screen while keeping your thumbs on the analogue sticks, but these moments are fleeting frustrations rather than prolonged problems.
Gimmicks aside, though, LittleBigPlanet PS Vita is arguably the best entry in the series as a pure platformer. There’s still a weightless sensation to Sackboy’s movements, but the controls feel much tighter this time around. Flinging the burlap buccaneer around increasingly complex stages is immensely satisfying, and even though it still won’t satisfy platforming purists, there’s a lot to like about the level design.
Of course, anyone that’s played previous entries in the series will know that platforming is just part of the appeal – and, unsurprisingly, LittleBigPlanet PS Vita is brimming with mini-games and side activities. Many of these are played with the console held in a vertical position, giving the distractions a smartphone-esque quality. Highlights include a Blade Runner-esque twist on Doodle Jump, a floral-focused reimagining of Bust-a-Move, and a bonce-bopping take on Whack-a-Mole. There are also plenty of original ideas, including a boxing game that can be played in local multiplayer by holding half of the Vita, and a riff on curling with touch screen controls and power-ups.
Unbelievably, though, that’s not all. LittleBigPlanet PS Vita also includes a separate arcade area that boasts five unique mini-games that wouldn’t look out of place on the PlayStation Mobile store-front. These feature unique mechanics and art styles, and are presented within the overall package as standalone games. Amongst them, Tapling is arguably the highlight. This momentum-based platformer sees you using the touch screen to control jumps and rescue captured blobs in a Limbo-esque fantasy world. There’s also a twin-stick shooter named Retro Vector which conjures comparisons to the PSN’s own Gravity Crash, and Super Conductor, a puzzle game that sees you guiding electrical currents around circuits in order to power a slew of processors. Finally, there’s Orb-it, a rear touch pad controlled navigation game, and Stratosphere, a physics-driven title that finds you pushing and pulling blocks in order to collect tokens and complete increasingly difficult levels.
Each of these arcade activities include multiple stages and achievements, which are saved using LittleBigPlanet PS Vita’s most noteworthy new tool, the Memoriser. This can be used in the game’s level editor to create stages with persistent components. For example, if you want to build a mini-game with ten levels, but don’t expect the player to finish them all in one go, progress information can now be captured and stored. Data can even be shared between different stages, so you could, in theory, create a complete RPG with different worlds and a continuous levelling mechanic.
But unfortunately, as has always been the case with LittleBigPlanet, the tutorial system doesn’t do a good enough job of explaining how these various tools work. While it’s improved over the years, it’s still not where it needs to be. Only the most committed players are going to find the patience to work through all 67 of the game’s individual lessons, and even then there’s no guarantee you’ll know how to build an actual level. It’s all well and good understanding how to attach bolts to switches, but the game never explains the theory behind why you’d want to do that. It’s like learning the meaning of every word in the dictionary but never knowing how to construct a proper sentence.
What LittleBigPlanet should be doing is showing you how to make a complete level. It doesn’t have to be particularly impressive, but it needs to demonstrate the actual use of the toolbox’s components. The self-contained examples included in LittleBigPlanet PS Vita just aren’t good enough.
Still, once you’ve wrapped your head around tools such as the Gameplay Sequencer and NOT Gate, you’ll find plenty to like about the title’s creation engine. As you’d expect, the touch screen makes it extremely easy to create unique shapes and geometry. Dragging a finger across the interface to “paint” new objects makes perfect sense, as does tapping on items to highlight them. Tarsier’s even introduced some quick select menus that are accessible from the extremities of the touch screen – essentially giving the Vita a couple of extra buttons.
However, as previously alluded, unless you’re already familiar with creating levels, it’s going to take you some time before you build anything worthwhile. That said, overcoming the learning curve is definitely worth the effort. Actually having people play your levels is one of the most satisfying experiences in gaming, and there’s a whole social meta-game incorporated by the way in which you can “Heart” particular creators and follow their output much like you would an actual game developer in the real world.
The fact that you can now download levels too – as well as queue them up through the LBP.me website – unlocks incredible possibilities. Couple that with the aforementioned Memoriser component, and you really do have the tools required to create complete games within the world of LittleBigPlanet PS Vita.
What’s more, previous games in the series have proved that there are people willing to do the hard work. Even if you never get into the creation aspect of the game, there are thousands of players that will – and if the first two games are anything to go by, their output will eventually trump the main campaign. Already, we’ve sampled a really quirky puzzle title where you have to slot shapes together in order to create new ones, and a Killzone-themed rail shooter that takes advantage of the rear touch pad. The community’s output is mostly experimental at this early stage in the title’s lifespan, but we don’t doubt that there’ll be some incredible user created stages released in the months to come.
We should probably set aside a moment to compliment the game’s visuals too. While most other first-party titles have settled for sub-native resolutions, LittleBigPlanet PS Vita takes advantage of every pixel – bringing Sackboy’s often-twisted world to life with exhaustive attention to detail. Some of the textures on the materials are absolutely outstanding, and while the game is prone to the occasional frame-rate hiccup in high-intensity areas, it’s still one of the most visually and artistically impressive experiences available on the hardware.
And yet, for as good as the game looks, it’s the soundtrack that really steals the papercraft show. A mixture of eclectic synth-based melodies and orchestral riffs provide the perfect backdrop to the platforming at the fore – and while there’s nothing quite as memorable as The Go! Team’s ‘Get It Together’, you’ll still be humming the soundtrack for weeks.
LittleBigPlanet PS Vita is a portable powerhouse – a truly astounding experience that matches the ambition of its console counterparts. Tarsier has meticulously re-laid the foundations originally plotted by series creators Media Molecule, and constructed a pocketable planet brimming with potential. It’s now down to the game’s imaginative player base to furnish that virtual landmass with ideas and ambitions of its own.