If you want to play a fighting game, but don't want to scale the high barrier of titles like Street Fighter or BlazBlue, Nintendo's Super Smash Bros provides a nice alternative. Smash has its own high-level technical scene, but for the average player it's much easier to get into. Special attacks are performed by mixing a direction and a few attack buttons. Items add a bit of flavor to a match.
The problem is if you want to play a game like Super Smash Bros, you need to play on a Nintendo platform. The only other major alternative is PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale, but even then you need to be on a PlayStation system. Brawlhalla from Blue Mammoth Games seeks to rectify the issue for PC players, bringing 2D multiplayer fighting action to Steam.
Brawlhalla has its origins in Dungeon Blitz, an earlier Flash-based side-scrolling MMO from the same developer. When it came time to create a PVP mode for Dungeon Blitz, the development team found the prototypes were a ton of fun on their own.
"We started tinkering with that and it didn't take us long to realize 'This game is awesome! We love it! This needs to be its own game.' We decided that there's really not much like this on the PC and it kinda spun up into its own project from there," Brawlhalla executive producer Zeke Sparkes tells me.
The framing of Brawlhalla has great heroes from every era, fighting it out to... okay, it's really not important why they're fighting. The point is you've got knights, cowboys, ninjas, and pirates all together in one place. Every character in the PAX South build also has a number of costumes and colors to completely change their look, but there's no word as to how many of those are in the current Steam build.
I know what you're thinking. Brawhalla looks a lot like Smash Bros. It plays largely the same, with weak and strong attack buttons that work in tandem with various directions on the joystick. You can pick up various items on the battlefield to give you an advantage beyond your character's basic abilities.
"The physics, how you move," explains Sparkes, "it's a little more deliberate and slower. Smash is really, really fast. One of the things we noticed is when you see new players come up to Smash, it's kinda hard for them to tell what's going on. We toned it down a little bit, but we didn't want to lose that chaotic fun of the game, so we also brought down your health. You go from fine to really dead very quickly, so kills still happen fast."
There's also a shift in the game's combat. The characters all share an unarmed moveset, but their playstyle is augmented by weapon pick-ups. In addition to bombs and mines, there's a glowing sword pick-up that gives you one of two character-specific weapons. The Viking, Bodvar, has a hammer and sword as his two weapons of choice. His moveset changes depending on which weapon he gets: he can be the beefy hitter with a hammer or a faster duelist with the sword. This is true for every character, so there's a bit of variance that occurs when you play any match in Brawlhalla. Imagine if Pikachu had a 50 percent chance not to be able to use Quick Attack, and you get the basic idea.
You can throw any weapon you're using, meaning you can switch fighting styles on the fly. Sparkes says high-level play in Brawlhalla involves this weapon switching, moving from one of your character-specific fighting styles to unarmed and back again.
Brawlhalla also changes movement up slightly with wall-jumping instead of Smash's ledge grabbing. This gives you new options when you're knocked over the edge, meaning there's fewer deaths when the ledge was just that close.
The biggest gulf between Super Smash Bros and Brawlhalla is in the business model. It's a PC title on Steam, but Brawlhalla is also free-to-play. That's part of Blue Mammoth's history and the team is sticking with it going forward. They want all players to be able to play Brawlhalla.
"We're a free-to-play game," says Sparkes. "We want everybody to get in and have a good time. To us, that means no friction points, no pain points, no paywalls. Everybody has access to the whole game." The game will make money on those new costumes I mentioned before and new looks for your character-specific weapons. When you die, a Valkyrie-Bot brings you back into battle; you can pay for a new look for the bot. There's also new taunts you can purchase, like the Twitch-inspired "Salt" taunt the team just added to the game. Basically, cosmetic items, not gameplay changers.
"You get a huge community and then you make cool stuff that people want to invest in. Stuff that they want to get so they stand out and look awesome," he adds.
Brawlhalla isn't done yet though. The game is only on Steam Early Access and Blue Mammoth has a ton of other features they want to implement. That means more heroes, more levels (there are only six in the PAX South build), more weapons, tournament options, and more game types outside of free-for-all. They've prototyped most of the game types proposed by the community, but those modes haven't been balanced and tested yet. There's also more social features in the pipeline, as the game currently requires lobby codes for multiplayer.
One of the better features in the latest Super Smash Bros for Wii U is the level creator. I ask Sparkes if a level creator is on the table for Brawlhalla.
"We would love to [have a level creator]. We like the idea of user-generated content; giving tools to the players so that they can make the kinds of content they have in their head," he replies. "It's on our list to think about and see what that could mean for us. How we could do it. We don't have any concrete plans yet."
The current concrete plan is to continue development on the Steam version of Brawlhalla, but Blue Mammoth isn't ruling out console versions in the future. The key is that the game remains free-to-play. If you're interested in the game, you can jump on Steam and pay $12.99 for the Founders Pack, which gives you a founder's nameplate, a Steampunk skin for Valkri, and 315 coins of in-game currency. Otherwise you can sign up for the closed beta and hope for the best.