LittleBigPlanet 3 Review: Bunkum and Beyond

Sackboy bounces back onto our screens this year, and this time he’s brought three friends along for the ride. At the hands of SumoDigital – as opposed to original developer Media Molecule – LittleBigPlanet 3 hopes to capitalize on the added potential of next-generation systems through an expanded, powerful new toolset and subsequent overwhelming increase in creative capacity. Whether this is enough to sustain the series’ relevance as we move forward however, remains to be answered.

From the outset you’ll observe the retention of LittleBigPlanet’s staple charm and character. Stephen Fry returns as our beloved narrator and guide, and accompanied by Hugh Laurie they comprise an entertaining cast that manage to pull you into the experience and guide you through Sackboy’s adventure on planet Bunkum. LittleBigPlanet 3 places greater emphasis on its narrative this time around, and finds itself a more engaging an experience for doing so. Cutscenes that precede and follow chapter conclusions feel genuinely rewarding to spectator, and each serves as an incentive to progress, something that, at times felt absent in LittleBigPlanet games prior.

The quirky soundtrack you’ve come to expect from the series returns, as LittleBigPlanet 3 incorporates catchy tunes from a wide variety of era’s and genres. Aesthetically the series keeps its almost hand-crafted stylization, with Sackboy’s world being seemingly constructed predominantly from materials like cardboard and cloth. The Playstation 4 version of the game genuinely pops visually, and the game is considerably more detailed visually than its predecessors. Stickers and textures in particular are of considerably higher resolution, and this contributes to crafting a believable, immersive playground for Sackboy and friends.

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In regards to gameplay, LittleBigPlanet plays towards the strengths of the series. The controls have been fine tuned, although you’ll find nothing radically different within its core gameplay systems as you progress from A to B by hopping from platform to platform, and layer to layer. There are many more layers to traverse this time around, but it makes little difference to the games feel.  However, visually it’s considerably more of a spectacle as a result, indeed the ability to access 16 layers gives each level considerably greater sense of depth and character. Issues with layer selection while platforming have been reduced, and during my time with the campaign I found Sackboy consistently, and intuitively moved to the correct layer when required within the games platforming segments.

The singleplayer levels themselves are some of the best the series has seen. With each centred around a single mechanic which feels almost built for the specific level. This creates a consistent sense that you’re playing something new, and every twist or turn offers a surprise as you find yourself wanting to push forward to the next level. Although most of these mechanics are well conceived, there are a handful that are perhaps less enjoyable. Fortunately these rarely last longer than a few minutes rather than see themselves adopted as a recurring mechanic.

Between levels, veterans of the series will notice the structure is a little different this time around. As instead of traditional chapter-esque progression, we have 3 ‘books’. Each of these books is effectively a chapter of the story, so it’s a little odd that they’ve been named differently in this way, however it’s the presentation that’s endearing. As you open a book you’re presented with your own little miniature world with its own unique layout and aesthetic. This then contains each of the books levels, which can either be interconnected or transition linearly, in the fashion of previous games. For the singleplayer story mode all of the books take what can perhaps be best described as ‘metroidvania-lite’ approach, where you find yourself in a hub world with interconnected sub-levels to explore. As you progress through these connected levels you unlock powers and abilities that allow you to further explore the hub, to get to even more sub-levels and rewards. It’s an interesting system and although far from unique, one that’s very much a new approach for LittleBigPlanet.

Of course the three new characters deserve a mention too, but unfortunately these each play an incredibly small role in the core campaign. Only featuring as the sole character in 3 of the main levels, Swoop, Toggle and Oddsock are used more as means of adding brief variation to the mechanics of an individual level, rather than twisting the traditional LittleBigPlanet experience on its head. In the context of the story, the manner in which each character is applied may make sense sense, yet it’s still disappointing to have so little game-time with each of them. This is especially so because the gameplay of each is incredibly refined, and enjoyable as a result. Oddsock for instance plays as a faster version of Sackboy, with added walljump ability. His levels take a much faster paced approach to the traditional LittleBigPlanet gameplay and proves to be a real game changer for the brief instance you get to play one of these characters. It’s simply a shame they’re individual segments feature so briefly in the campaign.

The time you’ll spend with LittleBigPlanet 3’s story is also disappointingly less than that of its predecessors. With only around 12 main story levels it doesn’t take any longer than three or four hours to beat the game. There are side-quests for you to complete in the form of collectibles in each hub world, and additional mini-games and missions, however these don’t constitute enough content to satisfying for anything longer than a weekend. Each level has the staple collectibles – materials, costumes, stickers etc. – however as the number of story levels has been considerably reduced, so has amount of time you’ll spend replaying these. It’s a shame because what’s there is incredibly fun, yet there’s simply not enough of it.

In many ways it feels as if the games story is merely intended as a taster, or demonstration of what you can achieve with LittleBigPlanet 3’s creation tools. The loading screens continually remind you that everything present has been built with the materials you can collect by playing the game. The manner in which each level adopts a new mechanic appears to be an effort to appeal to the individuals sense of creativity, as if striving to be an eye-opener of what you can achieve, perhaps even offering suggestions on what levels you should build. For instance if you enjoyed the brief underwater segment where Toggle is used to craft a gravity alternating platforming segment, then the inspiration is provided to you to create a whole level centralised around that mechanic alone. It’s an interesting approach, but one that can’t help but leave consumers feeling short changed around launch day, as there’s very little in regards to new community creations to sink your teeth into.

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For many however, LittleBigPlanet 3’s creation tools will be its highlight, and this is where the experience really shines. The Playstation 4 has granted the series a new lease of life in this regard, and many sprawling, complicated level structures that were simply not possible on previous incarnations of the series can be easily constructed without bringing the engine to a crawl this time around. Many of the new tools focus on enabling you to create an increasingly cinematic gameplay experience, and as these creative tools get more advanced LittleBigPlanet’s levels get further and further away being seemingly ‘homemade’. It’s very possible to create an experience on par with the quality seen in high-budget platformers like Rayman Legends or Super Mario, yet with an injection of your own imagination.

The extent to which you want to be creative is entirely in your control. You can take a staple gameplay mechanic and adapt a level around that – for instance there’s a particularly popular ‘Tower of Swoop’ level based on simple platforming mechanics and an aesthetic from LBP2 – or you can even go as far as to build your own mechanics from the ground up. LittleBigPlanet 3 accommodates creators attempting to do the latter by simply making things easier with features like the ability to choose what object to spawn as, or transfer microship commands from one object to another, remotely. Little things like this help veteran creators achieve what may have previously required an extensive work-around and there’s there’s obvious merits to this accessibility for players struggling to understand the more advanced technical underpinnings of LittleBigPlanet 1 and 2’s levels.

Accessibility is in fact a central focus of LittleBigPlanet 3, as many of the more simplistic tutorials have been condensed into pop-it puzzles, interactive pop-it enabled levels where tutorial and gameplay are combined. These may appear boring for more advanced creators, however there’s a set of more traditional tutorials for all of the new tools that they will want to get to grips with. You can even choose to skip the tutorials this time around, and jump right into creation with the full set of tools at your disposal. This makes a lot of sense as I’ve always found it easier to learn as I go, and as the number of tutorials increases with each iteration, they can be rather gruelling to have to make your way through, all at once.

The time it takes to build a level in LittleBigPlanet has always been a recurring criticism of the series, however it really depends on what you wish to build. Crafting a simple platformer could be achieved in less than an hour, but it’s when you begin to have mechanics interact that things get complicated. Someone pointed out as I pondered over LittleBigPlanet’s menu, “wouldn’t it be easier to just learn C++ and build your own game?”, indeed while his suggestion perhaps has more applicable merits, LittleBigPlanet 3’s toolset is still accessible enough to make it simple to build mechanics that would take days if not weeks from a programming perspective. Alongside its built in physics and incorporated art assets, LittleBigPlanet remains a viable toolset for consumers wanting to build high-quality content in a comparably short-time frame. That doesn’t mean building the next-best thing in LittleBigPlanet is easy of course, just considerably easier than learning C++, building or borrowing a game engine, and hiring an artist to stylize your game.

Unfortunately it would be unfair to conclude this review without a mention to the games technical issues. While LittleBigPlanet has always been known for its relatively quirky mechanics, things seem more temperamental than ever in LittleBigPlanet 3. For all your basic needs the game will function, but even in the story mode levels there’s occasional variability to the successful implementation of more advanced mechanics. For instance on two occasions a scrolling level and dynamic thermometer interacted in such a way that a portion of the level that I required in order to respawn seemingly disappeared before it was supposed to – preventing me from respawning appropriately. The engine itself seems to function consistently and one could argue these technical issues as problems with the design of the level rather than LittleBigPlanet’s creation engine, however this then begs the question: If the developers can’t get it right how can they expect players to do so?

Despite these issues LittleBigPlanet 3 remains a compelling offering and indeed, the best in the series from a creators perspective. It’s unfortunate that the same cannot be said for the games story mode, which while entertaining, fails to deliver the quantity of content which came with LittleBigPlanet games prior. There is, however a bounty of user generated content available for consumers not interested in creating their own, with a seemingly endless stream of new levels being produced it’s unlikely to see anyone getting bored of LittleBigPlanet 3 in a hurry. Of course it takes time for creators to hit their stride with the new mechanics but LittleBigPlanet 3 also supports the several million levels craft in LittleBigPlanet 1 and 2, so there’s always plenty to see and do.

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Good

  • Diverse level design
  • Charming aesthetic
  • A soundtrack packed with character
  • Creation tools provide near limitless potential to generate your own content
  • Enjoyable mechanics and additional characters
  • Increased focus on narrative and voice acting makes for a more engaging story mode

Bad

  • Occasional level-breaking bugs force restarts in singleplayer
  • Singleplayer is simply too short, with too few opportunities to play as Sackboy’s new friends

 

 

 

 

LittleBigPlanet 3 is a great entry in the series and SumoDigital have done a brilliant job bringing our favourite knitted mascot over to the Playstation 4. While the game falls short in regards to the length of it singleplayer offering, the increasingly powerful creation toolset makes for an incredibly compelling experience. Whether you’re a budding creator looking to craft the next platforming masterpiece, or merely want to spend your evening replicating the interior a McDonalds outlet in LittleBigPlanet (indeed people actually do this), creation feels almost as if limited only by your own imagination. Yet if you wish to resign yourself from LittleBigPlanet’s technical underpinnings, the game remains an entertaining platformer at heart and there’s a bounty of content – user created or otherwise – demonstrating this. You’ll find yourself continually in awe of what LittleBigPlanets community is able to achieve, and in turn LittleBigPlanet 3 offers incredible bang for its buck as its endlessly evolving universe always has something new on offer.

 
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Author: Jozef Kulik

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