It’s rather surprising when you get right down to it that more games haven’t aimed to mimic Super Smash Bros. in how it approaches the fighting genre. Traditionally, fighting games are deeply enjoyable once you get to grips with them, but truly engaging when the game requires dozens (if not hundreds) of hours of studying frames, timing combo strings and generally analyzing the game down to a degree that most genres don’t require.
Among other things, Super Smash Bros. changed the game by introducing stronger platforming elements and a universal combo system that’s especially friendly to newcomers, and now a new indie release called Brawlhalla has pledged to implement this more accessible style of gameplay with some tweaks thrown in to differentiate it. While Brawlhalla fails to live up to the standards that Nintendo’s popular franchise has set, it still does a solid job of nailing its gameplay mechanics, making it a decent (and free) alternative.
Brawlhalla is the sort of game that appears to be extremely simple when first starting out, but putting in more time slowly reveals how much more is going on beneath the surface. Each fighter shares the same basic moveset, with one button being dedicated to light attacks and another for chargeable heavy attacks; to get your character to do different special moves, you need only to input one of eight directions and press either the light or heavy attack button. Though every character shares this moveset, there’s considerable diversity in the roster in terms of how that attack plays out; a forward light attack from one character may result in a quick shot from a pistol while another character swipes with sharp claws instead.
The goal of the game is to simply knock everybody else off the stage in whatever way possible, and as you take more damage, attacks send you flying farther and farther. Each character has nearly infinite wall jumps, two mid-air jumps, a dash and a shield to defend themselves with, and it’s here that gameplay can be made much more interesting. A battle between two skilled players, for example, may take place mostly in the air, as the two grapple with each other in an elaborate dance of mid-air jumps, dodges and spikes. Meanwhile, occasionally spawning items like throwable bombs and spike balls can help to even the odds a bit and introduce that special X-factor that can tip the scales in a player’s favour.
Brawlhalla divulges from Super Smash Bros. most notably in how it centres combat around two weapons for each character, introducing a sort of subclass system. Throughout the match, laser swords continuously spawn around the stage, and picking one up will cause your character to wield one of two pre-set weapons. Axes, spears, rocket lances and hammers are all par for the course here, and though weapons aren’t strictly exclusive to each character, no character has access to the same two weapons.
Weapons are a cool idea for a number of reasons, chief among them being that the player is gradually introduced to the full roster of characters without being aware of it. If you excel at using spear combos with Orion, for example, then it’s much easier to execute similar feats when playing as Kaya, who also has the spear set as one of her weapons. It’s inevitable that you’ll have a ‘main’ you play as more often than others, but this weapon system is a cool way of showing you the possibilities of other fighting styles. Moreover, it leads to greater diversity in character usefulness overall; weapons don’t enormously change a fighter’s core moveset, but they do affect things like reach and overall damage output.
The standard match of Brawlhalla only lasts for a few minutes, but there’s a broad variety of modes on offer. You’ll likely be spending the bulk of your time playing quickfire king of the hill matches with three other players, but you can modify the rules to your heart’s content once this gets too stale. One game mode spawns throwable bombs everywhere across the stage, making the game as much about dodging incoming fire as it is about punching your opponents in the face. Another mode divides players into teams of two and tasks them with punching and kicking a giant soccer ball through the opposing team’s goal as many times as possible. Although none of these modes stray very far from the core concept of hitting others off of the stage, they can still introduce some much-needed diversity to a game that can feel a little stagnant in some places.
Brawlhalla can be fantastic in how well it manages to ape the Super Smash Bros. gameplay, but extended play eventually makes one realize that it never truly hits the same highs. The stages are well-designed but rather simple in their construction. The items are fun to use, but there are only a few different kinds. The character roster is colourful and diverse, but none of the fighters are particularly memorable. The fact that Brawlhalla doesn’t really bring anything new to the table, that it’s content to just make relatively minor tweaks to a proven formula, make these issues seem all the more glaring; if Brawlhalla did a better job of carving out its own identity, the less-inspired content would be more easily forgivable.
Still, it’s hard to fault Brawlhalla for what’s being offered, as this is a game that costs you nothing but time to play and doesn’t fall into the ‘pay to win’ trap that many other free-to-play games do. The in-game economy centres around the purchase of ‘Mammoth Coins’, which can be traded in to the game’s store for exclusive cosmetic options for your favourite characters. However, those who want to play for free can access most of this content, too, by accruing enough gold across matches. You’re given a log-in bonus of gold for checking in every day, and more can be won by simply playing matches, with even more being given out if you win. Also, there are two ‘missions’ handed out each day which task you with doing things like playing or winning as certain characters; fulfilling the requirements listed nets you a nice influx of gold, too.
Each week, Brawlhalla rotates in eight characters for free-to-players to use and try out; if you want to keep any of them permanently, you have to pay up in either Mammoth Coins or gold. Some may decry this as being pay-to-win, but the roster is balanced enough that you never feel at a disadvantage, and it doesn’t take more than a couple hours to get enough gold to permanently unlock a character. Naturally, all the coolest skins and animations will be reserved for paying customers but make no mistake, this isn’t the sort of game that pressures you very heavily to pay; you can still have a lot of fun for free.
This is due in no small part to the progression system, which tracks your growth both as a general player and for each fighter. Playing and winning matches contributes to your profile exp, and each level up nets you some gold to spend in the game’s shop. Meanwhile, playing and winning as a fighter contributes to their individual exp bar, and each level up nets you new cosmetic options to further customize them to your liking. It’s a simple but effective system that rewards repeated play and keeps the player engaged; there’s always something that the game is handing out to you for passing a milestone, whether it be more gold or a new podium for your character to stand on when you win.
Brawlhalla employs a tasteful and vibrant art style that somewhat calls to mind the visual style of Dragon Ball FighterZ; the gameplay could easily pass for a slickly-animated cartoon. Characters are distinct and colourfully designed, and all are drawn with bold lines to make it easy to keep track of who’s being thrown around. Environments are also a highlight, with things like a mountainside castle, Aztec temple and steampunk clocktower being standout backdrops to the crazy action in the foreground. All that action is animated quite seamlessly, too; we came away quite impressed by the visual style of Brawlhalla.
Though there are some simple single player modes available for those that want to compete with bots, Brawlhalla is primarily a game centred around multiplayer. Luckily, there’s support for both local and online play, and it’s robust whichever way you choose to go. Matches are easy to set up and find, and connections are made lightning fast; you can go from the main menu to playing a match in roughly fifteen seconds. Also, if you happen to have a friend nearby, they can pull off a Joy-Con and battle you locally or pair up with you and go online, making for a smooth and painless experience. It bears mentioning, too, that we hardly noticed any performance dips when playing in docked or handheld regardless of how we were playing the game; Brawlhalla doesn’t appear to be too demanding on the hardware, but it’s still nice to see that there are no obvious compromises under the hood.
Though a bit uninspired, Brawlhalla still stands as a solid example of how to do a proper platform fighter, with several game modes, a diverse cast and a beautiful art style making this one easy to recommend. Perhaps best of all, it’s totally free, so you really don’t have anything to lose by giving it a try. At worst, you’ll find a Smash clone that doesn’t have a ton of new ideas; at best, you’ll find a new go-to for when you have a few friends over for a gaming session.