‘MultiVersus’ preview: clever character design shines in a brawler fit to take on ‘Smash’

Tom and Jerry take on Taz in Player First Games’ inventive, noob-friendly beat’ em up

I’m a Velma main. Instead of using punches and kicks to take down foes, I spout bubbles of sass and collect evidence in order to unmask them. And when I’ve got enough clues, I reveal their true identity and send them barrelling off the map with a police escort. Such intricate, character-driven stories sound unlikely in the chaos of modern competitive fighting games, but not in MultiVersus, Player First Games’ ambitious entry into a genre currently dominated by Nintendo’s Super Smash Bros.

We’ve had a few games try to tackle this hegemony as of late, with varying levels of success. Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl and Brawlhalla have been labelled as ‘Smash Killers’, whether they like the title or not, and I’m sure MultiVersus will suffer the same fate, even if it just wants to make a dent in a market ripe for innovation. It’s a multiplayer beat’ em up with a Warner Brothers roster, after all. But it’s also really fun…

Arya Stark teams up with Bugs Bunny, who shares a stage with Steven Universe and Wonder Woman. Looking through the entire roster feels like being thrown recklessly between the past and present, but the art direction holds it all together. Somehow, Superman doesn’t look too weird standing next to Shaggy, and Tom and Jerry feel like a solid pairing with Harley Quinn.

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The first thing to notice when playing MultiVersus is how kinetic it feels. Even in the Closed Alpha, there’s a lot of competitive movement technology baked into the game. Dashing and edge guarding feel fantastic, and the way that these advanced concepts are signposted in battle or taught to the player from the jump makes MultiVersus feel more accessible than most of its genre colleagues. Defensively, MultiVersus feels fluid and very similar to Smash with its air dodges and upward-special recoveries. It is most different on the offensive though, where you have to be a lot more accurate with your attacks. This may be hard to get used to for some Smash converts, but I liked how it kept the pace down so you have time to think about how to use your abilities, which are generally more convoluted. You can trip over your fingers sometimes if you try too hard to stick to the move list, but once you learn to let go and focus on a few key attacks, the combat is joyous.

Adept fighting game players will love its complexity, but kids who just want to jump around and see Finn do a BMO chop can have a lot of fun too. And if they do stick with it and find their main, I get the feeling that they’ll pick up the trickier side of the game in no time. I’m not the best at fighting games but within a few short hours, I was already singing MultiVersus’ praises and exercising some cool combos. The Alpha is honestly quite limited, so I’m stoked to see how the game will adapt and grow with a big community in tow.

One of my favourite MultiVersus features is likely to be quite controversial. There are co-op focused characters and abilities in this game. Everyone seems viable, sure, but some characters like Reindog feel designed around helping others, whether that’s pulling them from certain doom or providing buffs. I love this as the game is at its best in co-op with two duos duking it out, and it feels like a way for those who don’t want to throw down to join the fun. However, I acknowledge that without careful adaptation, this may cause havoc with the balance, because what happens to these co-operative skills in a pure one v. one matchup? The addition of pre-match equipable perks that affect the team as well as your character further complicates this, but it’s way too early to call on whether this will cause a problem for matches.

I’m also a little concerned about how the focus on character storytelling will interplay with the balance. There are so many status effects and abilities in MultiVersus, and some of them play off of each other within singular character builds, like the ability to lower your own cooldowns as Velma or collect coins and buy items as Finn. Bugs Bunny feels particularly overwhelming at first due to the sheer variety of his skillset, involving underground hidey-holes and golden vaults. Player First Games’ have – for the sake of quality character design –  set themselves up for quite the challenge here, but I can’t say I’ve come up against any really ‘broken’ characters just yet in matchmaking.

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The best news is that while passive abilities are tied to individual characters, most of the status effects are transferable across the roster, so you do start to pick up how they work as you play, with handy text on the screen to show you what is happening and why. Characters feel less gimmicky than DLC Smash Bros. characters as a result. Of course, you’ll recognize some character type inspirations, like the Fire Emblem sword-wielder in Arya Stark or the Animal Crossing characters in Tom and Jerry.

Tom’s fishing rod move is very similar to Isabelle’s, for example, but I didn’t really mind this given how inventive the Tom and Jerry character is. All of their moves are about Tom fighting Jerry and other players being caught up in the crossfire, which is a genius way to tie character narrative into a beat’ em up. It’d be hard to call MultiVersus a ripoff when there’s so much love and passion in these characters, down to the original voice actors putting charming shifts in. Hearing Tom yelp like the old days when he gets booted off-screen is awesome, as is the odd Matthew Lillard Shaggy quip. Arya Stark leaves a pie when she kills someone, and Taz walks like he’s looking for food, to name a few nice touches.

The stages have small easter eggs and meme references but are generally a little lacklustre at present. The bouncy trees in the Adventure Time stage just don’t work, but it was fine to pivot away from it and stick to the standard maps for now. Elsewhere, the game has a fun approach to metagame cosmetics with themed announcers and stat tracking items provided as you master characters a la Dota 2. The MultiVersus’ battle pass is buffeted by generous challenges also, as you strive to unlock Ringout VFX (Porky Pig’s ‘That’s All Folks’ is a smart one) and skin variants like Uncle Shagworthy (steady on, British readers).

Even though I’ve only had a few days of play, I’m already thoroughly impressed with MultiVersus, and excited to master my favourite fighters as the public joins the Alpha over the next week. Balance concerns will come out in the wash, but this is a character brawler teaming with clever design, one that feels more accessible than most modern fighting games. The fact that it’s free to play feels like the cherry on top. Warner Brothers is onto a winner with this one, and if the roster rumours turn out to be true, MultiVersus seems destined to break the internet, at the very least.

Multiversus is coming to PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S in 2022

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