More than most series, and ironically given its emphasis on creativity and vision, LittleBigPlanet has quickly become paint-by-number. Media Molecule created a series with its own special charm, but the elements of it have grown rote--as evidenced by the revolving door of developers who have made passable facsimiles over the years. Sumo Digital's entry into the series marks the latest incarnation, and while it shows a few very significant improvements, many of the pieces are still in place. Pristine, just as charming as ever, but just a little too familiar.
After some of Stephen Fry's brief narration, the story begins with your Sackperson meeting Newton, a selfish bumbler who wishes to control all creativity in the land of Bunkum. He tricks Sackboy into helping him unleash three evil Titans, which quickly corrupt him, turning him from petty liar to a genuine threat. The Titans had terrorized Bunkum once before, but had been captured by three legendary heroes. As you might imagine, Sackboy sets off on a quest to find the heroes and put a stop to Newton.
The simplistic, storybook plots of LittleBigPlanet have always appealed to me as sweet and good-natured. In this case, it's also necessary setup for one of the largest changes to a LittleBigPlanet game: multiple playable characters. While Sackboy's multitude of customization options has made him an adorable player avatar, Sumo seems to have recognized that the physics-based gameplay is severely limiting. Sackboy has had trouble gaining momentum and traction--true to real-life physics, but not nearly as fun as contemporaries like Mario or Rayman. While past LBP games have attempted to design stages around Sackboy's strengths, Sumo simply gives us new characters more suited to the task of modern platforming action.
Stuffed with Heroes
Enter the trio of legendary heroes: Oddsock, Toggle, and Swoop. Oddsock, a canine-like Sack-creature, marks the most drastic changes to the staid LittleBigPlanet gameplay. He's extremely agile, and not bound by the same physical limitations as Sackboy. He can run up surfaces and wall-jump, and his segments feel so much more fluid and dynamic than the standard stages it's a wonder he wasn't given his own game. With Oddsock, LittleBigPlanet finally feels like it could go toe-to-toe with the manic action of recent Rayman titles.
The other two are more specialized. Toggle has the ability to (wait for it) toggle between a hulking, heavy Sackperson and a tiny light one, so puzzles are built around switchiing between the two. You might, for example, turn heavy to sink to the bottom of some water, and then switch to the small light character to shoot out of it. It makes for some nice puzzle-platforming, even if he controls more-or-less like a standard (slightly over- or underweight) Sackboy. Swoop, the bird, is the most specialized of all, and is relegated to special flying segments.
All that said, you do spend the majority of the game playing as Sackboy, as you retrieve the legendary heroes one-by-one. Even still, Sumo found a way to circumvent his limitations. Rather than the sometimes frustrating gameplay that would rely mostly on grabbing and platforming mechanics to which Sackboy wasn't well-suited, it puts much more emphasis on a handful of specialized gadgets given at a regular clip, and kept in a radial menu. Instead of precision platforming, Sackboy will often be solving puzzles by blowing air at obstacles, latching onto special poles, or doing a mid-air dash with special boots.
Navigating the Worlds
Exploring those stages has been given a revamp as well. Rather than disconnected stages selectable from an overworld map, each chapter in the short campaign takes place in an open hub level. Each has its own collectibles to find and sidequests to take on from mission-givers; the kind of extra challenge stages that would similarly be selectable from the map in previous LBP games. Since you go straight to different areas from one hub, completing a chapter feels much more like a cohesive whole. It's a minor revision, and functionally isn't all that different than the old way, but it gives the whole experience a better flow.
The other half of LittleBigPlanet has always been its creative tools, and the introduction to those is much more thoughtful this time around as well. A series of "Popit Puzzles" effectively make a game out of learning the creative tools. It's less stodgy and dull than the straight-forward tool lessons, and at times it was easy to forget that I was essentially playing a gussied-up tutorial. I've never made much use of the creation tools myself, but I'm curious to see how creators make use of Oddsock's agility. If players latch onto him like I did, I can look forward to a potentially infinite stream of content that finally makes good on its potential as a top-tier platformer.
I hope it does find longevity with user-created stages, because this isn't a game that will sell on its technical prowess. The visuals appear about on-par with the old games even on PlayStation 4. The art style of LittleBigPlanet games has always been colorful and included rich textures, so it's too bad the PS4 version doesn't go more out of its way to show off that art style. I also, disappointingly, ran into a few bugs that prevented me from respawning upon death. The only counter was to start the stage over.
LittleBigPlanet 3 is perhaps a little too comfortable imitating the same basic hooks and simple storybook appeal of past ventures into the world of cloth and yarn. Sumo Digital has made some very sharp revisions and additions that correct some of the series' historic weaknesses, but those all fit into a familiar package. This is the most daring the series has been so far, but it's still very much cut in the cloth of Media Molecule's pre-made pattern.
This review is based on a PlayStation 4 retail copy provided by the publisher. LittleBigPlanet 3 will be available for PS3 and PS4 in retail stores and on the PlayStation Network on November 18, for $59.99. The game is rated E.