Developer Bloober Team have made a name for themselves with 2016’s Layers of Fear, but like many others, they started off on a shaky ground. Their 2014 Bomberman clone, Basement Crawl, was hardly well-received, a set of circumstances that set the stage for its recently-released spiritual successor, Brawl. And while I can only speak for the latter, I can definitely say that if you find Bomberman R to be a little too cutesy, this is a decent alternative for multiplayer. We all deserve a second stab, right?
This theme of redemption seems to be woven into the game’s plot. Brawl features eight characters, ranging from a disgraced clown to a living crash dummy, all of whom have something to prove in the mysterious Emporium. Like in a fighting game’s arcade mode, each character’s story is told in about an hour - and less so if you’re good at these blast-y grid titles. Once you’re done with those (or, more likely, long before), you’ll want to dive in and try the game's challenges and multiplayer modes.
Character stories are divided into five or six sections, the first couple of which serve as tutorials. As you navigate the lonely grids of the Emporium, the Avatar will send waves of minions out to drop bombs and kill you on contact. Bombing in the four-way junctions ensures maximum spread, but you really won’t get far unless you break the crates and collect powerups. They give you another hit point, max out your explosion radius, or allow up to four ticking bombs at once. This aspect is excessively easy, however, which means that when boss characters are afoot, both you and the enemy will jump to max power in a minute or so. Hence, the board quickly becomes a plane of horizontal and vertical fire streams that kill you off easily. This wouldn’t be a problem if the bosses weren’t quite so beefy and smart. In contrast to the minions, they really know how to drop those bombs effectively, and they have a lot more health than you.
This is where the characters' unique specials comes in. The clown pushes bombs forward with a sneeze, the little girl on a teddy bear throws a knife that dazes opponents, and so forth. Truthfully, it’s not enough to compensate for what feels like trial and error each time. Whether you're solving extremely easy puzzles, blowing up gangs of minions, or facing off with questionable bosses, the main story just isn’t very enjoyable. Couple this with the fact that it's almost copy-pasted from one character to the next, and it's something that will burn you out long before you unlock all the characters.
True to their roots, Bloober Team have infused Brawl with a grungy, horror-inspired vibe. Unlike your typical horror titles, though, this game also incorporates a comic book look and feel. The Avatar of the Emporium taunts you incessantly, having some kind of remark for every time you die and reset. Even as you make your way from room to room, he's always teasing. Every switch you pull brings out a derisive remark. He isn’t as irritating as he could be, but he’s definitely too talkative. These anecdotes, in combination with the explosions and special attacks, typically drown out the already-understated music. The characters’ stories are presented in dark, hand-drawn vignettes reminiscent of early Twisted Metal titles, although even these too have their issues. They tend to waver on the short side, ending just as they get interesting, and a few of the characters have plot points that come off abruptly darker and more serious than the rest of the game. Perhaps the most annoying aspect of the game’s presentation is its tiny HUD, which isn’t a problem on the big screen, but gets squint-inducing in portable mode and local multiplayer.
You heard right; local multiplayer. No online here, but if local is all you need, there’s plenty of fun to be had. My favorite challenge, Sheep, can also be played alone. There, you protect a slowly-growing flock of wooly livestock from the encroaching minions. On the strictly multiplayer side, you get four variations of Deathmatch and a couple special modes. In Sumo, you gain powerups to blast opponents off the board, and Color Domination resembles Splatoon. All of these are fun, but I found myself partial to the classic mode, which uses a myriad of exclusive powerups. Incorporating these into the singleplayer story would’ve gone a long way towards improving it, and it’s another example of multiplayer’s glaring superiority here. Wisely, Bloober Team have opted to make all characters unlocked in multiplayer straight away. When you have a friend or two handy, this game can be a real party.
Brawl’s two aces are its price and, in this case, its platform. The game is a cheap buy on a system that makes local multiplayer easier and more practical than anything else on the market. Even on the dinky little Joy-Cons, it’s very accessible and easy to pick up on. Yes, lackluster singleplayer and the lack of online harm the game, but not as much as they would have in more typical circumstances. The multiplayer is genuinely fun, with a surprising longevity thanks to its more unique modes. If you’re looking for a solid party game and don’t mind dropping ten bucks and a bucket of blood, the Emporium is a good place to be.