Sackboy: A Big Adventure Review



Sackboy finally has a game to call his own. The smiley mascot for LittleBigPlanet and, occasionally, the PlayStation brand has always been treated as more of an icon than a character, a cutesy tabula rasa through which all video-game-related things are possible. In Sackboy: A Big Adventure, his purview is much more traditional. He’s a jumpman, a platformer in the tradition of Mario, Sonic, Crash, and all the other mascots that came before him. Sackboy, both the character and the game, rises to succeed the mascot platformer mantle well in many respects. Though its aesthetic often feels bland, its solid platforming makes for a worthy challenge.

Like many platformers, story is not Sackboy’s strong suit. You’re jumping around Craftverse, the world of LittleBigPlanet, to save it from a villainous jester doll called Vex. Though you’ll get a fairly steady stream of updates reminding you of Vex’s evil presence, there’s not much you need to know. You could say the story is a waste of Sackboy’s surprisingly compelling cuteness. On the other hand, you could argue that Sackboy’s cuteness keeps your interest in the game afloat, even without a compelling story.

Sackboy regularly evokes LittleBigPlanet’s arts-and-crafts visual aesthetic. Sometimes, the motif works well. There are great visual details in many of the levels, like hard-drawn cutouts of animals in the backgrounds or platforms made from stacks of books, which imply that the levels were set up in a child’s bedroom. More often, though, it leads to generic “imagination-world” design. Most of the enemies are multi-colored animals or blocks with cute but angry eyes. And, even with those craftsy details, the basic level settings–space, the jungle, under the sea–all feel vague.

Sackboy: A Big Adventure’s visual design on the generic side, but the art itself is stunning on PS5.

While the visual design is generally uninspired, the art itself shows off the impressive technical capabilities of the PlayStation 5. The bright and colorful levels, full of spinning platforms, lasers, and all kinds of moving parts, make for a visual feast in 4K. The movements of the gracefully weaving camera feel notably smooth. Lasers and metallic surfaces–like ruby armored crabs–shine. It may not give Craftworld a strong sense of place, but the art looks adorable.

It also helps that the game has a great soundtrack to keep you moving. Each level’s catchy, upbeat track feels good to jump along to. Some of them feature riffs based on pop hits and classical scores you may recognize. I rarely take a moment to stop and just listen to game music, but I frequently found myself wanting to take these tracks in, either because they were songs I recognized or because they simply had me bouncing my head along.

Sackboy’s core competency, platforming, is quite strong. All the moves in Sackboy’s core arsenal–a jump with a secondary flutter, a punch, and a roll–all feel responsive and precise. Like the LittleBigPlanet games, Sackboy’s jump is a little floaty with a full button press, but having a flutter ability gives you more control over when and how you land. Despite its storybook appearance, Sackboy does feature sequences that present some significant challenges, particularly if you’re trying to collect every item along the way. But the levels are built around Sackboy’s particular jump, and the game’s demands are based around it.

Sackboy’s multi-faceted levels are the real stars, though. It feels like every part of each level serves up a new challenge, which keeps things fresh. Some areas are straightforward, pushing you to string together jumps as if you’re running an obstacle course. Other areas are more self-contained. In some levels, you’re forced to search a larger area for a set of hidden keys to advance. Some are built around items you find at the start of each level, like a boomerang, which allows you to hit enemies and collect items from afar, or anti-gravity boots, which let you float at the height of your jump for an extended period of time. There’s an incredible amount of variety within each level and from one level to the next.

Not every concept level works, though. Each world has a musical level, where all the elements of the world–enemies, platforms, and background objects–move in time with pop songs like “Uptown Funk,” which are playing, lyrics and all. It’s an interesting concept, but ultimately jarring. Different level elements move in time with different parts of the song, which made it hard to track at times. There’s a moment of recognition when each level starts, which is pretty neat, but that quickly falls away. By the end, the lyrics are so distracting that it can be difficult to keep track of everything going on. Obviously, this is in stark contrast with the standard soundtrack, which is impressive with and without a pop connection.

Gallery

Sackboy is a hoarder’s platformer. Every level is chock-full of things to pick up: score bubbles, a LittleBigPlanet holdover; collectibells, which you use to buy costumes between levels; dreamer orbs, which you need to collect to unlock the final level of each world; and costume parts. Bounding through each level, you’re constantly grabbing items and scouring the levels for more. To find it all, you need to keep an eye out for alternate paths, extra spaces, and hidden rooms housing self-contained minigames and puzzles. At the end of each level, you’re given a trophy based on how many score bubbles you got. (It takes a picture of your Sackboy with the trophy. It’s cute.) While you can technically complete a level with very little, the expectation is that you will make an effort to find most, if not all, of it.

And lowering your score is the primary form of punishment. You start each level with five lives, which you lose by getting hit by enemies or falling in pits. When you lose a life, you lose a percentage of your score bubbles, making it harder to get a high score. When you lose all your lives, you have to start the level over. Having a limited number of lives is rarely an issue–even when you die frequently, extra lives start popping up frequently from enemies and breakable items the moment you lose one. The real impact is how it affects your score.

So the goal is to master each level, completing it with the highest possible score, collecting all the important items, and without losing a life. It seems fairly attainable at first, but by the halfway point in the game, Sackboy ramps up to offer a pretty significant challenge, even without the score chase. Mastering most levels should take a couple tries, and there’s always room for improvement. That said, the game kindly avoids penalizing less competitive completionists; other than score bubbles, once you acquire an item, you have it for good. Even the dreamer orbs and costume pieces you’ve acquired before dying mid-level count as acquired.

The story may not be incredibly interesting, but the adorable art carries you through.

In addition to the standard levels, you can unlock short but extra challenging time trial levels that really push you to make every movement count. Even these levels feature a collectible-hunting component–most have clocks in the world that shave seconds off your time. Short and precise, these challenges feel very different from the long, winding campaign levels and give you the chance to mix things up if the standard flow ever starts to feel stale.

There are also optional co-op-only Teamwork levels, which feature puzzles that require a certain amount of coordination. (In the interest of full disclosure: I’m quarantining solo, so I’ve only played one of these, just to get a sense of how they work. I’ll say this: The puzzles are trickier when you’re holding two controllers at once.) You can also play the core Sackboy campaign multiplayer via local co-op all the way through with up to four players. Everyone plays as Sackboy, but with different outfits, so you can put that wardrobe to good use. According to Sony, cross-gen online multiplayer is coming later this year. Personally, I prefer to play platformers solo, so I didn’t see not having access to co-op as a real loss.

Sackboy is a solid platformer and, despite its rote art style, makes great use of the PS5’s enhanced visual and technical performance. It’s a fun little romp of a platformer, with lots of interesting moments. At times, the visual design can look a bit flat. Even in those moments, though, the tight controls and interesting level layouts create gameplay challenges that make those flaws easy to overlook.



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