The first five months of the Playstation Vita’s lifecycle have been a bit rocky. While I’ve been thoroughly satisfied with mine, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the software lineup has been a little hit-or-miss. After a strong initial launch, the release list of Vita titles has been a bit spotty–Gravity Rush and this week’s Sound Shapes being a couple of notable standouts. A number of solid looking titles have been announced or at least hinted at, but few have been given concrete release dates for game-hungry Vita owners to look forward to. Thankfully, LittleBigPlanet PS Vita is now officially slated for a September 25th launch in the U.S. and if my limited time with it is any indication, it’s shaping up to be the next great flagship title for the Sony’s handheld.
The preview build of LittleBigPlanet PS Vita that I went hands-on with contained the first chapter of the game’s all-new story levels. Just like its predecessors, this new incarnation uses its story mode to tell a whimsical tale full of bizarre characters–this time set in the circus-themed land of Carnivalia–while simultaneously teaching platforming basics, layering on new play mechanics, and showing off impressive examples of what can be achieved using the in-game creation tools. In this regard, not much has changed, really. You’ll still watch some silly cutscenes, you’ll still venture into the occasional mini-game bonus level, and you’ll still play through a series of platforming stages before reaching a more challenging boss stage. From a technical standpoint, I came away quite impressed with just how familiar it all felt. Everything from the visual fidelity to the controls felt almost identical to LittleBigPlanet 2, a commendable feat in itself, considering the disparate hardware and the fact that a different developer crafted this new handheld iteration.
The primary means by which LBP PS Vita distinguishes itself is through the use of touch-based controls. While touch controls in other Vita games have often felt gimmicky, everything here seems to feel natural and make sense. The “popit” and other onscreen menus are easily navigable via swipes and taps, but the most interesting bits are the in-game touch elements, some of which feel like spiritual successors to elements from the PS Move DLC for LBP 2. Special blocks in the environment can be dragged and dropped from one place to another, grabby wheels can be spun around with a single flick, and obstacles can be pushed into the background or even popped back into the foreground with a tap on the back of the Vita. Taking your hands off the controls to touch the screen certainly has the potential to feel cumbersome, but it never became an issue for me during my relatively short time with the game.
The niceties afforded by touch controls also carry over into the level creation mode. The game’s capable, yet approachable toolset is just as robust as its console brethren. It still presents a rather large learning curve, but manipulating the tools can now be done more naturally with touch controls. The ability to create stickers by taking photos of real-world objects is still included, only it’s even more convenient now with the Vita’s built-in cameras. Between the new touch gizmos and the added ability to store saved data, it’s even possible now to create the types of games you might find on a modern smartphone. The preview included one such game called ‘Tapling’ which tasks the player with controlling a rolling blob and tapping the screen to make it leap from place to place. It’s comprised of eight distinct levels, all tied to a level select screen which keeps track of which levels you’ve played even after exiting out to your pod and returning again later.
The only downside I’ve noticed so far is a lack of backward compatibility with levels created in previous games in the series. I was so impressed by this new handheld version’s prowess that I was honestly a little bit surprised to learn I’d be unable to play levels that were created in LBP 2 in it. I’d imagine there are technical explanations for why that is, but I haven’t been able to think up any of them on my own yet. It obviously still remains to be seen how fervent of a community LBP PS Vita will garner, but if the recent news of the seven-millionth level being published is any indication, I doubt there will be any shortage of user-generated levels to play once Vita owners start to dig in.
LittleBigPlanet PS Vita launches on September 25th in North America.