Brawlout really put forth a strong attempt to join a popular genre. When there is an earnest effort made, people tend to be more forgiving of shortcomings. Even if your kid can’t cook, it’s very obvious they put in the time and effort to attempt to bake cookies, so you smile and bite through the charcoal and say “thank you.” Afterwards, you can let them know what went wrong and how they can improve, but you praise the initial attempt. Steam’s Early Access, sadly, is like a bake sale at the elementary school. You have to buy another child’s burnt sweets, swallow them down and then give some pointers, knowing that they may not take your words because hey, they got your money. And Brawlout is like getting hollow fondant shaped like a cookie. Sweet, pretty but completely unfulfilling.
Brawlout is a arena-based 2D fighter that clearly has a lot of influence from games like Super Smash Bros. and Rivals of Aether. You decide on one of (at the time of this article) six fighters, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. Go up against one to three other fighters on a stage that has different aesthetics and technicalities and do your best to throw, punch and grapple to be the king of the hill. Everything here is pretty straightforward; either last person standing or highest number of take-downs when the timer runs out. You get the idea.
To its credit, Brawlout does a very good job of executing the core idea of the arena fighter. There is a good balance of long and short ranged damaging, and players will probably gravitate towards a character that best suits their style and personality (though you might automatically want to try the luchador frog, Paco, just for giggles). You have the speedy Chief Feathers, the bruiser, Olaf Tyson, the…well, you end up with a pretty balanced if simple set of characters. I tried everyone in turn, and they all seem to have found a niche in the game and filled it out nicely. The Brawlout developers have promised three additional fighters in the future, and I imagine they will also fit into the world well.
The stages are alright, at best. With the exception of a desert land that has crumbling ledges, you get exactly what you see with each incarnation. Some upper area platforms, a larger lowerbase, and a lot of edge guarding that will be the determination of each match. I guess I would suggest to try and pick a character that contrasts nicely with the stage so that you don’t lose track of where you are when things get frantic. Volt, a weird combination of Blanka and Vertigo (from Primal Rage) feels like he starts to blend into the ice stage, a feeling only moreso when you have a full four fighters on screen.
I never felt like there was much of a strategy in my own experience playing Brawlout (more on that in the multiplayer aspect). Generally speaking, if you were in the center of the stage, you were alright and usually combat was pretty give-and-take as far as punching and kicking. Once you got to the edges the tension broke out and things became a bit more frantic, which is great for veterans of the genre. You don’t need to have the precise timing needed to keep yourself alive, but getting down a good combination of recover/strike will enable you to lord over the pit and keep your opponent down, as long as he’s the last one standing. If someone else is also there, good luck trying to battle back attacks from both sides.
The biggest misstep, for me, is the respawning. As soon as you get knocked out, as long as you have another life in you, the character almost IMMEDIATELY regenerates into the middle of the platform with just a second or two of invincibility to get your bearings. I had almost no time to understand what was happening before I was getting a shot to the chops by a walrus. Of course you want to make your game unique, but I feel like an indicator of some kind that you’re about to bounce right back into the fray would have been nice. Also, if the other players are going after you gangland style, you’re essentially screwed. One knocks you off, the other is waiting with just enough buffer space to wreck your day. The CPU can be absolutely brutal when it colludes with itself.
I enjoyed how Brawlout presented itself. It was colorful and popped well without being too cartoony. The aforementioned Volt had a very familiar feel to him, but was still standalone enough that I could recall without needing to dig through the website to find his sprite. Sephi’ra and King Apu are way too close in their base color tone, but every fighter has a palette swap that allows for three color variants in case you all want to be the same damn character. Still, in the heat of the moment, I wouldn’t confuse a giant monkey and an Egyptian cat.
The stages, if simple, at least have enough variety to appear to be different places in the world, from a jungle ring to a Incan-esque ruin. OK, bad example: those two stages are actually pretty similar in tone and appearance. Each stage is supposed to be indicative of the fighters’ homeworlds, so I suppose that there might be some overlap. I think I’m being a little generous with critique about underdeveloped aspects because of the Early Access label, even though it flies in the face of what I’ve been saying this whole time. I want to like things about this game, and I feel like I’m struggling. Not a great feeling.
It’s ok? This is embarrassing. The soundtrack is ok. The music is completely forgettable. It matches the mood of where I am well enough (fighting other anthropomorphic beings) but I wouldn’t put it on my stereo to jam out when I’m cleaning. The SFX work well enough with the general hit/shock/explosion. There wasn’t anything that caught me off guard, but there also wasn’t anything that impressed me. Basically this was a game with sound. That’s all.
This is the nail in the coffin for Brawlout. I had a pretty good time fighting the CPU, and got in some decent practice while I waited for a match. I do enjoy that they let you do trivial AI matches of your own design while you wait for a live match. So I played while I waited. And waited. And waited. Ultimately, I never found another player to Brawl against. I tried multiple servers. I checked at different times of day from morning to night. I connected to the US server, arguably the most popular, and watched over a half hour tick by without a connection. Nothing. Frustrated, I checked the leaderboards about popular matches and found that everything from recent days were private matches, meaning that there was a clear invitation sent out and received in order for this to happen. To be clear: the only way it appears people are finding matches is if they already know someone who owns the game and are making a conscious effort to arrange dates and times to play.
This is where the fondant cookie crumbles. There is nothing inherently bad or wrong with Brawlout, but there is nothing inside it whatsoever for a newcomer who may not be in the same timezone as the average playerbase. If you have a friend who’s also interested and willing to drop on this game, then you may be in a prime position for a good time. If you live in a different country or prefer to PC game alone, you might be totally out of luck. This wouldn’t be a problem for Brawlout if the market didn’t already have quite a few games that have a heavily established playerbase that you could jump into at nearly anytime and have a great adventure. Deformers, for all its shortcomings, at least gave me a chance to play online against some people a couple of times. I was able to watch a whole episode of the Simpsons with commercials, grab a snack, eat it and still not connect to another player.
Early Access works well when you rely on the community to critique your game, not to build it. With the number of players available and the lack of any kind of solo adventuring, I would have hoped Brawlout would be either totally polished but barebones, or novel and interesting with room to grow to entice a rapid growth. Instead, in its busted state, Brawlout has nothing new to bring to the table in comparison to other indie fighters like Rivals of Aether, which has both a significant playerbase and is finished with early access. The only way I could suggest Brawlout is if you were willing to buy one to three extra copies and seed potential players yourself. Otherwise, keep your time invested elsewhere and wait to see how early you can access this game when it’s playable.