Fighting games are difficult to get into. To be truly good at a Tekken, or a Street Fighter, you need to have grown up alongside them, learning their systems, and mastering at least one of their characters’ movesets. In order to stay competitive, you need to keep playing, studying minute details like the number of frames in an animation, hitboxes, and the like. While games like Super Smash Bros. can be played like this, there's an immediacy and simplicity to its unique, fun, mascot-based scrapping that allows players of any skill level to enjoy its offering. It’s a hard balance to achieve, but the formula works so well that it’s surprising to see so few true imitators.
Enter Brawlhalla. A breakout hit on PC, this free-to-play four-player fighter has landed on PS4, and is as close to Smash Bros. as you’ll currently find on the platform. Obviously it lacks the appeal of pitting famous characters against one another, but when it comes to the scrapping itself, it does a fairly good job of replicating the fast, chaotic nature of Nintendo’s brawler.
The roster of Brawlhalla is a varied mix of heroes and anti-heroes, from a half-man half-bear Viking to a trilby-wearing 50’s Italian mobster. Each of the 30-odd legends, as they’re known within the game, has a detailed backstory, as well as unique stats and two weapons they can wield in battle. For example, Bödvar, the aforementioned Viking, utilises either a war hammer or a short sword.
It’s in this weapons system that the game begins to distance itself from its inspiration. Battles work on an almost identical 'the higher your damage, the further you’ll fly' system, but the fighting itself operates slightly differently. You begin the fight with no weapons at all, and each character shares a universal hand-to-hand moveset. After a short while, weapon pickups begin to fall into the arena, which is when each fighter comes into their own. Bödvar will pick up his war hammer, while Cassidy will gain her dual guns. There are a number of different weapon types, and each has a moveset attached to it. Beyond that, each character also has a few moves unique to them for each weapon, and it’s these chargeable attacks that will most likely net you a knockout.
You also have access to a triple jump, wall jumping, a recovery move, a dodge, and a dash, all of which you’ll need to make smart use of if you’re to stay in the heat of battle. Despite the number of options at your disposal, controls are easy to get to grips with. You have two attack buttons - one for faster, lighter moves, and the other for the heavy hitters - a jump button, and a dash/dodge button. There’s even a rudimentary tutorial talking you through the controls, but it really won’t take you long to learn. It’s a straightforward game to play, in other words, but there’s just enough nuance in the combat for more serious players to sink their teeth into.
Play enough with one legend and you’ll increase their level, which unlocks not only new colour options but new stances, which basically change up that character’s base stats a little. Koji for example has very high dexterity, but playing him in his defence stance removes a point from his dexterity and attributes it to his defence, rounding out his stats to a degree.
There are plenty of ways to play, too. Offline play is available for up to four players, while there's also a basic single player tournament mode and a training mode if you want to brush up your skills. Online has a wide range of options from casual free-for-alls to ranked 1v1 or 2v2 matches. Whether you’re connected or not, you can also enjoy some wackier game modes, such as Brawlball, in which your objective is to get to the opponent’s side of the screen holding the ball and stand in a highlighted area to score. Aside from a meaty story mode, it’s pretty feature complete.
Of course, this being a free-to-play title, there are a few currencies to be aware of. Fortunately, two of them, gold and glory, are earned in-game. You receive gold for normal play and it can be used to purchase new legends. Glory is awarded at the end of each season of ranked play, and the amount you get is tantamount to your skill level and how much you’ve played. You can also use glory to purchase special skins for legends and weapons. Lastly, mammoth coins are used for a wide variety of cosmetic items, and it’s here where your real-world money comes in, if you’re so inclined.
Brawlhalla’s presentation is possibly its biggest problem. The menus can be quite confusing as there's always a lot of information onscreen. It’s not so bad once you get used to it, but the UI is still a bit too messy for our liking. The art style isn’t particularly inspiring, although there are some decent animations to be found here and there. The music and sound design are, again, decent, but not especially memorable.
Some presentation niggles aside, Brawlhalla is an entertaining fighter with fun, punchy combat that just about manages to capture that “one more match” feeling. While it isn’t quite as tightly designed as the seminal Super Smash Bros., the large roster, wide range of modes, and a reasonable level of depth help it achieve a similar balance of accessibility and challenge - you can play as casually or as competitively as you like. With pay-to-win nowhere to be seen and exceedingly good online play, this is one free-to-play title that’s well worth a try.