The Little big planet games may be particularly difficult to review before they are actually released. While there is some offline content on the disc, most of the LBP experience has always been to sample the millions of post release creations of other players and share your own creations with others. So the isolated pre-release version of the game I’ve been playing on the PS4 for the past few days bears only a superficial resemblance to the much wider game for people to enjoy now that it’s available to the general public.
While waiting for the creativity of the community to flesh out the game, I went through the built-in Adventure mode. The developers at Sumo Digital (who this time took over from the creators of the series at Media Molecule) built this mode using the same tools players can use to create their own Little big planet adventures as a kind of showcase for the types of creative options available. Indeed, Adventure mode shows just how powerful these tools are in the hands of a team of professional designers who have months to dedicate to the project.
The levels are packed with visual creativity and childlike charm. Each piece is built from virtual versions of real materials – sponge, rock, rope, marbles, feathers, iron, and so on – all of which look better than ever on PS4. It’s like a child’s toy box comes to life, complete with colorful stickers and charming background details like bouncing dolls. My only complaint is that many scenes are just too crowded, with too many distractions, and the lighting system makes important elements difficult to see at times.
Most Adventure levels stick to the series standard 2D platform jumping, but this time there’s a bit more depth, with levels stacked along up to sixteen parallel planes. The upgrade allows for level designs that can stretch much more freely, looping around themselves as the action shifts in and out of the screen. Just like in the past LBP games, however, I found the psuedo-3D controls trickier than they’re worth. Instead of being able to run freely in three dimensions, your pocket character can only clumsily switch in and out between different planes of gameplay, a process that never goes as smoothly as it should. I often missed a jump because I somehow got on the wrong plane or had trouble figuring out which parts of the background were and were not accessible.
More worryingly, I ran into quite a few serious glitches during my adventure mode travels. About once an hour I got stuck in the scenery or fell through the scenery into the background, or couldn’t restart at the last checkpoint after I died. The developers promise that many of these issues have been fixed with a day-one patch, but it’s still a bit off-putting to see them in a game so close to release.
The controls are generally the same as the previous ones LBP games feel a bit too floaty for their own good – it’s hard to precisely position Sackboy or get a precision jump on points. And while it’s nice to have objects that react with semi-realistic physics, this model makes it hard to judge exactly how a character or object will react in certain situations. For example, to swing a piece of sponge over a pit, you often have to release at exactly the right part of the arc to fall at the right speed and angle.
Outside of standard platforming, there are a host of Adventure Mode levels that show off other types of gameplay that can be built with the LBP tools. This includes a level that flips gravity periodically, another that turns gravity off altogether for a space adventure, and another that takes place in full 3D from an overhead perspective. Then there are the completely crazy levels where your sackperson is in a tank or where you control eight sackboys at once. It’s never boring, that’s for sure.
And then there are the levels that give you new pocket creatures to control. Oddsock was probably my favourite, a big, super cute dog-like doll who can jump super fast, even climb curved walls and ceilings and jump over walls endlessly. Toggle can, um, switch between being a small shape that fits through small passages or expanding to break through objects or weigh down springs, but most of the puzzles that used this switching ability felt a bit forced. Swoops the bird can fly around at will, but is most interesting in situations where he needs to dive a bomb, sacrificing height for speed in timed scenarios.
It’s nice to have more than just Sackboy to play with, but the new additions felt a little perfunctory since they’re used in Adventure mode. You can only play each of them at specific levels that are explicitly designed to make clear use of their skills. Each character gets a short, tutorial-style introduction, followed by a boss battle to try out their new moves. After that, the new characters are all forgotten about until the mode’s final sequence, where they must all be used in order and in combination to get through some fairly difficult challenges. I’m sure the community will come up with great uses for these characters and their abilities, but the Adventure mode just doesn’t seem to use them as well as it could.
The vast majority of levels where you control Sackboy allow you to use various handheld items. There is the gun that can blow or suck specific blocks. There’s the teleportation gun that lets you warp in very specific places. There’s the helmet that lets you travel along bendable rails like a zipline. There’s the hoverboots that give a targeted double jump, which really feels like it should have been available from the start. The new options add some variety to the somewhat repetitive run-and-jump sections, but the puzzles using these new items rarely feel like they’re past a tutorial-like “here’s what you can do with them” stage come.
Outside of Adventure mode, LittleBigPlanet3 also introduces a great new level building tutorial, the Popit Puzzle Academy. This mode not only shows you how to assemble the dizzying array of connectable pieces, but also asks you to use your construction powers to solve several simple puzzles, learning by doing. Most of these building tools will be familiar Little Big Planet 2 creators, but there are some welcome new tweaks this time around, such as the ability to connect levels via a world map, multiple missions in one area, and buildable items.
LBP3 is certainly not worth buying based on the offline content alone, but what is there serves as a good introduction to the universe of online content that we’ll see when creators get their hands on the game. I’m hopeful that the new characters and items will help unlock many exciting new opportunities and ideas from those creators. Meanwhile, we can all enjoy millions Little Big Planet 2 levels that now work on the PlayStation 4 LBP3‘s recently renewed engine.