While promotional materials of the Dreamcast boasted of the potential of six billion players sharing the online experience together, online was a poor substitute for the frenzy that was jostling the expletive next to you with your elbow when they directed a cat into your rocket in Chu Chu Rocket, a quick swipe of a giant axe that launches you into Pharaoh Walker’s laser vision in Power Stone 2 or sharing the dysfunction that was playing Quake 3 Arena with those terrible, terrible controllers.
Nor is the Dreamcast an aberration. The Micro Machines 2 multitap cartridge, Smash Bros’ enduring community and even the simple truth that split-screen Halo was always more memorable than any online experience. Online has an indisputable presence in gaming, but it is my insistence that it is better when in that same tangible space that lets you swear blue and throw real punches at your once-friends, and it is great to see the indie space taking up the mantle.
Paperbound, a competitive multiplayer arena fighting game from developers Dissident Logic, pits players as characters from classic fiction – as well as a range of indie games figureheads – battling across literary landscapes. In the vein of modern arena battlers Nidhogg and Towerfall: Ascension, one-hit kills prevail in a multitude of modes and options including variations of King of the Hill, team battles and the classic deathmatch.
The feather in this cap is that each character maintains their own centre of gravity that can be reversed at the touch of a button, making for erratic movement and exciting chases. Players weave and bound across stages, throwing scissors as throwing stars and maneuvering through gravity reversals becomes more important than the neglected jump button.
As such, the tone seems more in keeping with Nidhogg than the latter despite the encouragement of four participants, and with the pace of games extremely fast and frenetic, there is a steeper learning curve than most arena battlers. However while the pace of the game is relentless, match times are unpredictable and the victory condition of two of three game types – winning players must exit the stage through a temporary portal that will disappear on death – will easily test the patience of most. Paperbound will undoubtedly be a hard sell for those casual, substance-fueled weekend multiplayer sessions or discouraging to new players weaned on Smash Bros.
Nor will dissenters find much to love from the art and sound efforts, with a forgettable soundtrack failing to cement itself with the same authority as Paperbound‘s strong art style. Broad strokes and pastel shades lend a tangible, textual quality across its five tomes inspired by 16th century Japan to a more convincing portrayal of Dante Aligheri’s 14th century epic poem Inferno than the million-dollar budget, EA-published Dante’s Inferno.
Unfortunately the art style is let down by a Flash game quality, occasionally to the detriment of gameplay as characters can be hard to distinguish in some of the larger stages. Not that many of the designs make things easy on players – one stickman variation will look much like the other, not matter how many bells and whistles are added.
Paperbound has a lot holding it back but at its core it’s is an inventive, feverish multiplayer game that has in it the magic to inspire the same kind of cursing and joy as the best multiplayer game – it is the magic of the formula.