Editor’s note: Interview responses were shortened and reworded in places for clarity. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the writer, and do not reflect Shoryuken.com as a whole.
Between getting utterly destroyed at the Tekken 7 booth and queuing for big games like Battlefield 1, most of my time at EGX 2016 was spent playing Brawlout, a new contender in the race to be the next big platform fighter. Nestled in the Rezzed area of EGX alongside other indie games, this fighter is trying to go up against the likes of Rivals of Aether, Brawlhalla and Wavedash Games’ unnamed platform fighter as the alternative to Smash. Based off the couple of hours I spent with the game at the booth and some lab time with the build they showed off at EGX, I have to say that while showing some promise, Brawlout has to go through some substantial changes and soul-searching if it really wants to challenge other contenders to the throne.
But, how much like Smash is it? Well, talking to the CEO of Angry Mob Games Bodgan Illesiu–who was helping exhibit the game to passing punters–the team deliberately did not play a lot of Smash while developing Brawlout. “We tried to look at the most iconic fighting games outside of Smash for inspiration,” Bodgan stated, when talking about what inspired Brawlout. “We looked at games like Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, Tekken, Pokkén Tournament, and even Rising Thunder to help drive design of certain moves… We tried to stay away from playing too much Smash or Rivals as subconsciously, you’ll end up taking elements from those games and putting them in without thinking.”
This became evident when playing characters like Sephi’ra, who has an up-tilt similar to Sonya’s Vault Kick from Mortal Kombat, but there are still some platform fighter influences in the mix. Beefy walrus brawler Olaf Tyson has an up-special which summons an ice pillar to help aid recovery, very similar to Kragg’s from Rivals of Aether and Chief Feathers’ up-special has him bursting into flames and soaring upward, much like Fox or Falco in Smash. In terms of combat flow, it is more like Rivals than it is Smash, with its lack of ledges for players to grab, no shields and a focus on faster grounded combat than long edgeguarding sequences.
This move away from edgeguarding was a conscious decision by the design team as, according to Bogdan, while watching “the finals from Smash events like at Evo and see[ing] people off stage and edgedguarding a lot… it gets pretty boring” for the average spectator. Instead they chose to stick primarily with making on-stage play very fast and furious. Recoveries are not fantastic in the current build, so if you mistime your spike on an incoming player or flub your up special back to stage, you are straight up dead. This is somewhat counteracted by the huge side blastzones, which meant that I was surviving to 200+% with good DI and making it back to stage fairly easily. This creates something of a catch-22 in the current build as you want to go offstage to edgeguard someone and secure the kill, but doing so will probably result in you killing yourself, rather than finishing your opponent off.
While edgeguarding may be left by the wayside, Brawlout is keeping certain aspects of the platform fighter playbook in its mechanics. Mobility is still king, with wavedashing being present in the demo (in an albeit early stage of development), as well as platform cancelled normals like Sephi’ra’s dive and vault kick, along with reverse aerial rushes and acting out of air dodges. Haters of air dodge spammers in Smash 4 will be happy to know that you only get one air dodge in Brawlout, so no need to deal with that one player running the way all the time and just hammering the shield button. “There is going to be something like a Combo Breaker which will use your half your Rage Meter,” Bogdan added when talking about other fighting game mechanics that are present in Brawlout, meaning there will be a way to escape massive combo strings if you are being overwhelmed by an opponent. As for the Rage meter, it builds as you get hit, similar to X-Factor, “increasing knockback you deal while decreasing the knockback you take, as well as making smash attacks quicker to charge.” Unfortunately in the current build, Rage seems quite ineffectual when used, with Rage activation lacking a clear audio cue and simply surrounding your character with a red aura. I would like to see Rage be renamed to something like Fury, as Rage already exists in Smash 4 and Tekken and in its current state, it is almost identical in function. If it was something like V-trigger or Instinct, where each character had their own unique Fury trait, it would go a long way in differentiating the gameplan of specific fighters.
Beware Sephi’ra in this build, she’s deadly.
There were four playable characters in the playable build, which is roughly half of the planned cast of around 10 characters that will be in the final release. It is still in development so it is understandable that there are still quirks and elements to be improved but bar one character, each character’s kit feels disjointed and lacking utility. Take Olaf Tyson, the walrus mob boss who seems like the designated heavy character. His movement speed is good, along with his jump height so he doesn’t feel that heavy in motion. His moves are all centered around ice, with his main gimmick being his ability to freeze opponents in place for a follow up. However, most of his moves have so much knockback that you can’t effectively follow up after a freeze as you whack your opponents so far away. He has a wind up punch similar to Donkey Kong, which seems perfect to use after a freeze but not only are you unable to store a charge of this punch, but you can also overcook the punch and cause you to fall over and suffer tons of recovery. The two elements simply do not work together and as a result the wind up punch has no utility outside of using it as an occasional kill move.
This fault also applies to eagle warrior Chief Feathers and whip wielding monkey King Apu, who have no real sense of combo flow or utility. Chief Feathers has a throwable lava ball as his neutral special, but it is awkward in play thanks to a weird throwing arc. His down-special throws this lava ball straight down but again, it has no real application outside of an incredibly situational edgeguard. He does have multiple jumps which make his recovery better than the majority of the cast, but his aerials and up special don’t link into a kill very well. His kit is the most disjointed and as a result, there is absolutely no reason to play him. His down-air is pitiful too, with him having over a second of recovery if he hits the floor while using it. Why would anyone use the move?
King Apu fares a bit better, with his whip allowing him to mix up long range keep away with close quarters combat. However, you’d think due to the spiked appendage on the end of his whip, there would be some sort of tipper effect but that’s not the case–yet. His side special was also not working as a command grab similar to Scorpion from Mortal Kombat, so most of his specials involve him just cracking the whip. As with Chief Feathers, there is no sense of combo flow with his kit, as he cannot use the whip to knock out projectiles or be rewarded for spacing his specials correctly. His up-special also looks really odd, as he just kind of flails the whip around and gains height from doing so. His down special is an interesting overhead swipe which can spike opponents coming back to stage but it is so slow and telegraphed, that you can easily air dodge through it. I spent most of my time with King Apu and besides his godlike up-air, nothing about the character stood out in his current state.
The most developed and thus most interesting character to play out of all four was Sephi’ra, a humanoid cat with control over sand. According to Bogdan, “at Smash Con in particular, the top Smash players were using Sephi’ra, as she’s the combo character.” This was evident after spending about 15 minutes with her. She takes some elements of a zoning character like Kan-Ra from Killer Instinct, with sand traps to lock enemies in place, multi hit tilts, dive kicks and a teleport similar to Zelda’s from Smash. Unlike the others, her kit does flow together, as you can use her side special sand ball to knock someone into the air, chase them down with her superior mobility, combo them with forward air and then kill them off the top with her sand teleport. Her smashes are also different as rather than adding raw damage, they add additional hits to her tilts; combined with her neutral special sand trap which forces opponents to jump out to escape, she is borderline broken in this build. Her sand trap highlights how powerful jabs currently are in Brawlout, with everyone’s jab doing a flat 5%. Combine that with the sand trap which locks someone in place and assuming they don’t know that you have to jump out, you can rack up 50% just off jabs. That is insane.
Enough about characters, let’s talk stages. Brawlout’s stage system is going to be pleasing for anyone who worries about legal stages. Every character will have their own stage, with Bodgan adding that there will be three versions of these stages, “a dynamic one, a standard platform one and a flat level, similar to Omega mode in Smash 4.” In the demo, we saw the standard and flat level sample, with Olaf’s ice stage having a standard four platform variant and a flat variant with walk offs which was primarily designed for combo testing. In this case, the dynamic variant would have players breaking the ice to create new platforms, which would be more suited for casual play.
Online is planned to be an integral part of Brawlout with “online tournaments [being] there day one, using stuff like Xbox Arena and PlayStation Tournaments,” with players levelling up their characters and “unlocking new moves” when playing by themselves. Bogdan did say that in tournament mode, these new moves would all be unlocked but “if you go to a friend’s house and just want to mess around, you’ll be unlocking everything as you go.” This does sound worrying, as having to unlock a core part of a character’s kit by playing continuously does put a massive advantage on players who have played longer than others and meaning you have to grind out moves in order to unlock the full potential of your character. This is not set in stone as a feature but alarm bells did go off in my head, similar to how they did when NetherRealm announced the Gear system for Injustice 2. Brawlout will have a closed beta “but only once we have good networking and AI working,” so that people aren’t becoming frustrated when they go online for the first time. This will apparently take another month or so, so expect the closed beta to begin in November sometime, with the full release being scheduled for late March/early April at this point.
So, what is my gut feeling after playing Brawlout for a while now? While it has potential to become something great and the team are certainly open to suggestions and community feedback, there is nothing currently in Brawlout that would take my attention away from Rivals of Aether or Smash. It has no unique selling point, no unique mechanic that places it ahead of other platform fighters out there. The character design, both in terms of gameplay and visuals, is uninspiring at this stage and the combat really lacks the weight and polish that even Rivals had when it was in Early Access. There is a major problem with determining attack size and strength as well, with down-tilts lacking obvious markers to determine their hitbox size, while smash-attacks have no obvious visual tell beside a small cloud of dust kicking up behind the charging character. I feel in their desire to not copy Smash too much, Brawlout has missed what makes Smash so appealing to play, and failed to add mechanics which make its combat system equally as engaging.
The team is still hard at work though, as more characters are to be added and tweaks will be made. There will be “between 8-10” characters on launch by current estimate by Bogdan, and we know the details on six of them so far. “We going to have stuff like a sword fighter in there as you kind of have to have that in but expect some other surprises in there,” so don’t be completely put off by the small character slice from this early alpha impression. Angry Mob are receptive to feedback as well, as seen when top Smashers got to play Brawlout at other events. According to Bodgan, “we had Ice play the game for about an hour and he came back to say “Chief Feathers is really boring, all the others are better.” At the moment, Chief Feathers is one of the slowest characters in the game so we’re probably going to change that up but we want to be careful that all the characters don’t move the same way.” As I say, this is still the early days of development and Angry Mob Games are actively taking on criticism and tuning Brawlout to make it a proper competitive platform fighter. Hopefully, with a few more months of polish and a mass of good feedback from their first closed beta, it will shape up to be a proper standout of the genre.