Sackboy is too good a character to sit on the sidelines, but for the last six years that’s exactly what the LittleBigPlanet protagonist has done. With creator Media Molecule turning its attention to the outrageously ambitious imagination simulation Dreams, it’s been six long years since we saw the smile of Sony’s only knitted hero. But with the PlayStation 5’s launch, UK developer Sumo Digital has returned to Craftworld – and the results are remarkable.
Sackboy: A Big Adventure takes the emotive icon in an entirely new direction, as this is a pure platformer rather than a do-it-yourself construction kit. In terms of gameplay, it’ll attract comparisons to Super Mario 3D World and Crash Bandicoot, but the thumping heart of the original series remains intact: the eponymous plaything can still pick up gadgets, grab on to sponge, and jump on bounce pads. It’s a brilliant blend of old and new.
Speaking of new, we’re also introduced to a fresh cast of colourful characters, each voiced by some fairly famous faces from the world of British television and theatre. Dawn French is perhaps the biggest name, stepping into a Stephen Fry-shaped hole, and she does a brilliant job of assuming the role of Sackboy’s stately yet silly mentor. Her performance is quite understated, but along with Richard E Grant she steals the show.
Grant plays Vex, who serves as the title’s pantomime villain: a kind of Tim Burton-esque puppet with a sewn together grin who’s trying to enslave all of Craftworld so that they can work on his Topsy Turver. It’s down to you and up to three friends to navigate five worlds – with a little bit more once you’re done – in order to put a stop to his nefarious deeds. These locations span an underwater area, known amusingly as Crablantis, through to a jungle and a sci-fi metropolis.
The title retains the make-do look of the LittleBigPlanet games, meaning there are lots of stickers, cardboard cut-outs, and balls of yarn. The materials are simply stunning: you can see little tufts of frayed thread around the edge of Sackboy’s bonce, while woollen coral reefs appear physically soft to touch on the screen. An incredible depth-of-field effect gives the release a really glossy appearance: it’s almost like you’re watching the most amazing puppet show ever made.
Sackboy has a variety of moves in his arsenal, including the ability to punch, jump, roll, and more. As alluded to earlier, some stages are built around power-ups, like the hookshot from LittleBigPlanet 2 or a pair of futuristic hover-boots. The developer gets a ton of mileage out of these mechanics: there’s a shuriken that you use in one stage to chop down inflatable cactuses, which later becomes a teleportation tool you have to fling in order to avoid obstacles and reach new areas.
It’s this creativity that keeps the title feeling fresh over the course of its 10 to 15 hour running-time, with the studio surprising with almost every stage. There are a few rare occasions where the release feels like it’s relying on a little bit of filler – including one boss fight which is disappointingly recycled – but the vast majority of the time you’ll be forging ahead just to see what the designers have come up with next.
The game does get difficult, and throwing other players into the mix can only add to the challenge. Of course, what you lose in precision platforming you make up for in sheer chaos when playing with friends and family, and the gameplay is just about simple enough that anyone can have fun. We will stress that this is still thoroughly enjoyable in single-player, although there are a handful of co-op levels that can only be tackled by two or more. It’s also a shame online play isn’t available at launch.
It’s the sheer swagger of this release that’s won our heart, though. In one moment you’ll be bounding between bubbles to the motif of Madonna’s Material Girl, while other levels are built entirely around fully licensed songs. When this game was announced, we never would have imagined that it’d have us hopping over laser-beams to the beat of Britney Spears’ Toxic, but it’s not like we’re complaining. At all.
Outside of the core stages, you can navigate each world through interactive hubs, which also harbour stores operated by a fake Frenchman named Zom Zom. It’s here that you can spend all of your precious Collectibells – which you’ll discover in levels – on costumes to personalise your Sackboy. As with previous games in the franchise, there are full-sets ranging from deep-sea divers to mountain climbers, but you can mix-and-match the accessories to create your own unique look.
There are also time trial stages which will really challenge your dexterity, each offering orbs if you can beat the par times. These orbs represent the primary collectible in the campaign, and are hidden everywhere; finding a full-set in each stage rewards you with a sticker, with one of your sub-objectives being to complete an entire album of your discoveries. Effectively, you’re going to be replaying stages multiple times to master them – especially if you want to 100 per cent the adventure.
There’s a lot of love been poured into Sackboy: A Big Adventure, and thus it’s hard not to love it back. This is a brilliant platformer with tons of imaginative ideas and a strong sense of style. The lack of online multiplayer at launch is a bit disappointing, but it’s coming as a free update before the end of the year, so we can forgive the developer that. If you’re looking for something bright and breezy to begin your PS5 journey, then this is a near-flawless romp when it’s at its pomp.