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Touch controls make LittleBigPlanet Vita the series’s definitive entry (review)

Full disclosure: I’m a LittleBigPlanet fan. I’ve played both LBP entries on the PlayStation 3 as well as the PSP version, and I’ve most recently played LittleBigPlanet Karting for a preview. I enjoy the platforming style (just a little bit floaty) and the joyous, warm, cuddly vibe of the LBP universe. My children and I thrill to the local multiplayer in LBP 2, and I frequently find my son searching through the community tags to find some odd “versus” level that he can jump around in, even to this day.

It’s with that in mind that I say that LittleBigPlanet Vita may be the best version of the game yet. Of course, the flip side is that it isn’t any great leap forward in LBP gaming design, but rather a strong iteration that makes use of the Sony PlayStation Vita hardware in brilliant and definitive ways.

WHAT YOU’LL LIKE

The Story
Similar to LittleBigPlanet 2, the Vita version has a distinct storyline that helps shape the point of the running all around, bounding off of things, and the like. In summary, the Imagiverse is in danger yet again; this time from the evil Puppeteer, who is stealing the joy from the universe, using his Hollow Men creations to do his bidding, and just generally making life miserable for the planet sponsors, each of whom have unique and fully-voiced cutscenes and roles to play at the beginning of each level set within their realm. The final denouement is at once charming and clever, tying all the characters together with the LittleBigPlanet concepts of creation and joy. Well done, indeed.

Crash Test Dummy World Curator

The Platforming
The fun of LBP is the soft, floating, toy-like feel of it all. The jumping is less than precise, and the hazards are both forgiving and burtal at times. It’s all great fun, though, as Sackboy swoops, runs, hops, and grapples his way through each level. In several spots, I realized that I was grinning while engaged with a rapt Zen-like concentration, tapping into the flow of button presses and timed jumps, hurling my little cloth person through tubes, across chasms, and into more and more tactile environments.

Use of Vita Hardware
Here’s where the Vita shines: with a touchscreen, a touch-sensitive back, and a camera, Sony’s handheld hardware is the perfect complement to the game itself. Players will need to make good use of the front touchscreen to move gears, slide floating platforms, and tap buttons along the way. The rear touchpad is also significantly utilized, similar to that of Escape Plan. Little round shapes appear on the screen wherever fingers tap the rear of the Vita, creating even more of a three dimensional feel when pushing out hidden platforms to jump onto, or popping gears into place.

The Vita’s built-in camera is the killer feature here, as PlayStation 3 fans needed to have purchased the EyeToy camera to ever take photos for the console versions of LittleBigPlanet. And seriously, how much variety do you find in your TV room to take photos of? With the portable nature of the Vita hardware, pictures can be snapped and brought into the game with no problem at all. What better way to decorate your Pod, the spot where you begin your adventures, than with pictures of your friends, pets, and family members?

Create and Share
The tools to make your own levels have been a main feature of every LittleBigPlanet game since the original installment. LittleBigPlanet 2 improved on some of the kludge involved in optimizing the creation tools for a video game controller. The Vita version of the game adds touch, and boy is it a winner. Having the ability to tap on the screen to move things around, select items with a tap, or draw a photo-editing-style lasso around several objects is the best thing since the tools to create levels themselves.

I spent my time with LittleBigPlanet Vita before its general release, so there were very few Community levels to speak of  (mostly just worlds named “Test”). I look forward, however, to the exceedingly talented group of LBP world creators getting their hands on this game.

LittleBigPlanet Vita MiniGame Airhockey

The Mini Games
While many of these truly seem like simple tech demos, it’s clear that the developers had a lot of fun coming up with new ways to challenge the Vita hardware while adding some fun little single and multiplayer challenges along the way. Many of them require you to re-orient the portable device to a portrait layout and ask that a second person play on the opposite end of the screen. It’s welcoming, inviting play that fits in extremely well with the overall universe design and thematic elements.

Stephen Fry & The Soundtrack
The loquacious and charming narrator is back. Fry brings a wit and diction to the LittleBigPlanet universe that continue to bring a smile to my face. The experience wouldn’t be the same, to its detriment, if he wasn’t the voice behind the tutorials or the introductory movie. The music, while not as specifically recognizable as the first LittleBigPlanet soundtrack was, keeps up its quirky and eclectic pace throughout with some stellar pieces set as backdrops to the fine visual goings-on.

WHAT YOU WON’T LIKE

Inconsistent Difficulty
The pedagogy of LittleBigPlanet remains in full force here; the Vita version takes players by the hand at first, teaches them all they need to know, and then lets them practice those skills in ever less supported ways. Each major world section has a boss to get past at the end, and these are all fairly straightforward but for a couple of significantly difficult passages. To go from “relatively easy with practice” to “fiendishly difficult with excessive re-tries” is a harrowing experience, and it may discourage some players from their efforts to complete the story. While this isn’t a deal-breaker — there’s still plenty of fun to be had in multiplayer and Community levels, not to mention the creation tools — cleaning up the difficulty spike in these couple of spots would have fit in better with the game as an inviting place to play.

The Little Screen
For a game that encourages sharing and creating, it would be fantastic to have the ability to get the small screen up on a big screen in some way. I like to show my kids what I am creating and make a social event of a speed run through a difficult section on the console version of the game, and with the added functionality the touch screen brings to level creation, I wished I had the ability to display the onscreen goings on up on a larger screen for some same-room sharing. I can only hope for some sort of Cross-Play functionality to come to the title soon.

CONCLUSION

LittleBigPlanet Vita Grapple Train

Bottom line: I thoroughly enjoyed my time with LittleBigPlanet Vita. Being able to use my fingers to manage items onscreen in both story and creation environments is a significant upgrade in the playability of the title. The story is enjoyable and unique, the characters, including the narrator, are quirky, and the toolset for creating and sharing new experiences continues to mature. I sorely wish I could project this up to the big screen to allow others to watch and help the process, and some of the tougher sections were more tough than necessary as compared to the rest of the game, but these are small, niggling criticisms. LittleBigPlanet Vita is my favorite iteration on an already fantastic universe which was built in no small part by the community that loves it.

Score: 93/100

LittleBigPlanet Vita was released for the PlayStation Vita on September 12, 2012. The publisher provided GamesBeat with a downloadable copy of the game for the purpose of this review.


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