From the epic music, to the charming art style, and even down to the animation, Brawlout is unabashedly a Super Smash Bros. clone, oriented toward competitive play. Originally released in April of this year on PC, Brawlout makes its way to Nintendo Switch, a platform whose fans are feening for a Smash-style game. Does Brawlout’s happy feet give it long legs, or will its ambition be punished and the game remembered as a knock-off? Read our full review below…
Going all out for Brawlout
Brawlout is a fast-paced platform fighter, playable with up to four players, where the objective is to knock enemy fighters so far off the stage that they are unable to return to it. Instead of health bars, each fighter has a percentage that increases from 0% upon taking damage. The higher the percent, the further the character is knocked back when hit, making it more likely they will fall off the boundaries of the stage. Those who are familiar with Smash (and honestly, who isn’t?), will be able to jump into the fray immediately.
Make no mistake. Brawlout isn’t just trying to make a game in the same genre as Smash Bros., but rather replicate the franchise’s best traits and combine them into a single package. While it lacks the mass appeal of pitting all of Nintendo’s most beloved characters against each other, it makes up for it with a solid cast of six original fighters, 10 variants of these characters with unique movesets, and two heroes from other popular indie games: Drifter from Hyper Light Drifter and Juan Aguacate from Guacamelee. That’s an impressive 18 fighters, for those of you not counting.
There’s not a bum character in the bunch, all complete with a built-out lore accessible from the main menu. Each fighter is fun to play and learning practical applications of their movesets is a real joy. Most fighters are Frankenstein versions of popular Smash Bros. characters, even down to the animations. Hyper Light Drifter is the birth child of Marth and Fox and the electric hedgehog Volt is a non-copyrighted take on, you guessed it, Pikachu. Playing as Juan will be a real treat for fans of Guacamelee as he controls almost identically as he does in his own game. It would have been nice for the characters to grunt or yell when giving or taking damage to better characterize them or during dialogue sequences in the single-player.
Character movement is fluid and wavedashing, a movement glitch from Smash Bros. Melee, is an actual mechanic in the game. Each character controls smoothly and uniquely, but there didn’t seem to be a lot of variance in their weights. Petite Sephi’ra was just as hard to knock off stage as big lumbering Olaf Tyson, which is a little disappointing.
The AI in the game is pretty stupid. They’re easily exploitable and often kill themselves. The only challenge they present is in Arcade Mode, the game’s single-player campaign. On the Easy difficulty, getting through the set is simple as pie after you’ve mastered the basics. However, the developers strangely chose to ramp up the difficulty by pitting you against two or three CPUs for Medium and Hard difficulties respectively. This immediately becomes a hide-and-shriek match of frustration because you’re constantly being pummelled by an endless barrage of attacks on all sides. I learned that by spamming Drifter’s high-priority forward smash, I could win most fights as long as I spaced myself well. As you can imagine, this isn’t a fun way to play, but the alternative of helplessly getting my face smashed in against unfair odds was less fun. I chose the lesser of two evils before electing to avoid Arcade Mode altogether.
Competitively Bred, Casual Instead
Brawlout wants so badly to be the next great competitive fighter and takes strides to do so. The Practice Mode, for instance, is fairly robust, letting you toggle on hit and hurt box visibility. All the stages are designed without hazards and even then, the game makes a distinction between which stages are competitively balanced. It even goes so far as to add a “competitive mode” in the options which disables the increased knockback for Rage Mode, which admittedly feels cheap in its default state. To suggest that Brawlout lacks the depth required for high-level competitive play would be a gross misunderstanding, despite my initial perception.
Even if you’re a Smash god, I still recommend going through the tutorial to become privy to the mechanical differences in Brawlout. The tutorial itself reveals some of the game’s design oversights, like when it asks you to let the CPU give you a beating to fill up a special gauge before allowing you a chance to use it, instead of just filling it up automatically for demonstration purposes. The computer player killed me several times while I let it knock me around, thus immediately resetting the meter. This section was both frustrating and demoralizing, and unfortunately would not be my only negative experience like this with Brawlout.
Brawlout swaps a block button for a Rage Meter, which is an interesting but overall lousy trade. Your Rage Meter fills up when your fighter takes damage and depletes when you use your special moves. Fill it up halfway and you can trigger a guard break, which will push opponents away if you’re stuck in a deadly combo or even completely cancel your momentum when sent flying offstage, saving you in a pinch. Fully fill up the meter and you can enter Rage Mode, which increases both your attack and defense for a period of time, making pretty much any of your smash attacks one-hit kill moves.
Fighting game fans will recognize this meter mechanic from traditional fighting games like Street Fighter and Injustice. Competitive players must learn to manage the meter at all times, balancing taking damage and conserving special moves to build “rage”. In theory, it adds a layer of depth for those seeking to master Brawlout’s mechanics. However, I found its implementation to be unbalanced as some characters are more reliant on their special moves meaning their meter may never fill up unless they risk taking massive amounts of damage.
This presents an issue that I alluded to earlier. Without a true way to block, you are reliant on having enough rage built up to stop an otherwise lethal string of attacks. The absence of a block button, for example, gives the sword-wielding Drifter a major leg up on the other fighters. His mid-range and projectile attacks make it difficult for everyone else to get in close enough to strike him without a block to protect them. Drifter’s moveset is hard to punish even when predictable.
Additionally, there are no grabs or throws either which means there is no “fighting game triangle”. I’m referring to the rock-paper-scissors style of gameplay common to most competitive fighting games that states that blocks beat strikes, strikes beat grabs, and grabs beat blocks. This is a tried-and-true system that increases a player’s options in any combat encounter, truly testing a player’s ability to both read and react to a situation. But it’s implications go far beyond just that. It’s a system present in genre staples like Tekken and Mortal Kombat, but you even see it in less traditional fighting games like Ubisoft’s For Honor and ARMS, which have both struggled to rally a strong competitive community around it. While the metagame is still developing, I think trading blocks and throws for a poorly implemented rage mechanic is a bum deal that will limit the game’s competitive potential.
That is not to say that Brawlout isn’t worth a chance. Aesthetically, it is one of the best-looking indie games I own on Switch. The main menu alone proves that the game has a strong visual design. The character design is absolutely great in this game. All the fighters have identifiable silhouettes, including the variants of the core six fighters. Most impressively, is how well the art team translated the guest characters into Brawlout’s art style. Drifter, who is rendered as pixel art in his own game, is a natural fit for the Brawlout universe. Similarly, Juan from Guacamelee makes one of the most graceful jumps from 2D to 3D I have ever seen.
The stylized art direction is perhaps most impressive on the stages themselves. The backgrounds, even though they’re mostly rendered in 3D, look like paintings due to the soft gradients, stylized architecture, and artistic use of lighting. Great use of color theory and framing help keep players focused on the foreground where the action is. Even then, I still get distracted appreciating the little details of the stage.
Specifically for Switch
The Switch version of the game runs at 1080p and 60fps docked and 720p and 60fps handheld. I ran into performance issues in both modes which included a couple of hard crashes. In addition, and most annoyingly, the game sometimes lags by full seconds in offline play. I’ve ran off the edge to my death multiple times because of this. The developers said this would be addressed in a patch, but several days after launch and I’m still experiencing these interruptions. Also, don’t plan on taking this on the road with you without a battery pack because Brawlout will drain your battery quicker than you can build up your Rage Gauge.
Several aspects of the game are needlessly complicated. Using the joy-con sideways as two separate controllers requires you to go to the Switch home screen and configure them in the settings as opposed to an in-game prompt like most other games. It’s also weird that you can’t use the D-pad to navigate menus, which are confusing in and of themselves.
But perhaps the biggest culprit of complication for complication’s sake is the progression system. All unlocks in the game from characters, to stages, to skins, and even taunts are acquired randomly through piñatas. Piñatas can be purchased with two unique currencies, coins and gems, while character tokens can be used to unlock a specific character. You can earn all of these by completing challenges, some of which cycle out daily. But unlocking anything is a slow and arduous process if you’re not intentional about it. I wasn’t for my first 10 hours with the game, but after I figured out the best way to earn each currency, it was a matter of mindlessly grinding until I could earn enough to buy a piñata for even the chance of getting something I wanted.
It’s a convoluted system that, while at times encourages unique styles of play, isn’t rewarding. Like a slap in the face, it was particular underwhelming after exploiting CPU AI to earn currency for hours only for the piñata to burst open with little fanfare. Like any fighting game, BRAWLOUT is intended to be played indefinitely for hundreds of hours during its lifespan so in time a player would naturally unlock everything in theory. But letting players see the content and locking it behind a randomized system is a bit degrading. And while I commend Angry Mob Games for not putting in microtransactions into the game, I’m surprised to admit that I actually would have preferred to spend extra money to buy the locked characters and stages. In fact, one of the reasons why this review took so long to publish is because I didn’t want to post it until I had unlocked at least one character.
My constant comparison of Brawlout to Smash Bros. might seem unfair, but it is the lens in which most consumers will view the game, which is why I am attempting to temper expectations. This is certainly not the Smash successor die-hard fans are looking for, but for $20 you could do a lot worse.
In fact, the folks at Angry Mob Games should be praised for what they’ve achieved with the title, and given the opportunity, I would have been willing to spend more money on Brawlout. Given the team’s size and resources, the game is way better than it has any right to be.
Despite some frustrating design and technical issues, Brawlout is loads of fun. You can easily lose hours playing with your buddies, which is the most important aspect of games in this genre. It’s a game that becomes more enjoyable the more you invest in it. Brawlout ultimately makes some head-scratching decisions that alienate the folks it tries to cater to. Rather than make a competitively rich experience, Brawlout finds its sweet spot in casual play. For most people, no matter how pro they think they are, that is perfectly fine.