PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: Four Kratoses are fighting in Hades. Suddenly, a bunch of Patapon show up in the background and launch volleys of arrows at them. Kratos wins.

This is pretty indicative of my experience in the beta for PlayStation All-Star Battle Royale, developer SuperBot’s upcoming four-player fighting game. Somehow, my three opponents and I had all managed to pick the God of War series’ antihero during character selection, and chaos followed.

The beta let me choose between six characters from a variety of properties, matched me with other players, and then turned the four of us loose to duke it out. The game awards two points for each kill and subtracts one for dying, and the player with the most points when time expires (or the least low score, in some cases; you can still win with a negative total) wins the match.

After you choose your character, the game randomly selects an arena. In addition to God of War’s underworld, the available levels also include a LittleBigPlanet map that builds itself around you as you fight, a stage full of constantly shifting conveyor belts and platforms from developer Insomniac’s Ratchet & Clank series, and an island from Naughty Dog’s PlayStation 2 platformer Jak & Daxter.

All of the levels presented their own strategies and surprises, including bizarre cameo appearances from other game characters. In the middle of a round in that LittleBigPlanet area, the background dropped away, revealing the “set” from Buzz!, Sony’s series of quiz games.

“Huh,” I thought. “That’s weird.”

It was at precisely that moment that Buzz presented a multiple-choice trivia question; four possible answers, each on a different platform in the level; and a timer. Everyone who wasn’t standing on the correct answer when the timer expired received a pie in the face and damage.

PlayStation All-Star Battle Royale

Minigames like this only make the already frantic matches in Battle Royale crazier. Not only are you expected to fight and kill your opponents, but you also have to prepare to answer quizzes at the same time or dodge rains of golf balls from characters from the Hot Shots series.

It’s not surprising, then, that the game is often confusing, and not just in the “too much stuff happening at once, and where the hell is my guy?” way that Battle Royale shares with its partner in inevitable comparison, Nintendo’s Smash Bros. series. Even once I’d played a few matches with the same character, I was never entirely sure what would happen when I pressed an attack button.

Square, Triangle, and Circle control different attacks, but sometimes I’d push a button expecting to do a shotgun blast, and my character would do something else entirely, like a chain saw spin move. Some attacks are continuous if you hold the button down, and others deliver ongoing damage to opponents.

I’m not ascribing my confusion to any inherent flaws in design but rather to my general lack of ability at fighting games and the sheer amount of options SuperBot has crammed into Battle Royale. Every one of my losses taught me something (most often that the Twisted Metal series’ insane clown-jockey Sweet Tooth is a little unbalanced), and I could tell that I was improving. OK, maybe I didn’t improve enough to actually win a round, but I occasionally convinced myself that I was doing well. But I still died a lot, and often in strange ways.

As you damage your opponents, a meter fills up. When you complete a “level” of this bar — up to three in total — you can unleash an unblockable finishing move that kills anyone it hits. Low-level finals include dash moves or devastating melee attacks, but if anyone fills up their meter completely, it’s not good for the rest of you. My causes of death in the beta included the chaingun on Sweet Tooth’s armored mech, Killzone 2 villain Colonel Radec’s dude-seeking rocket, and a rap from original PlayStation rhythm-game superstar PaRappa.

A rap, people.

What I’m getting at is that this game is often the best kind of completely nuts.

Sony is launching a public beta for PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale this fall, and the game comes out for PlayStation 3 and Vita on October 23.