Ask any Smash Bros. fan, and they’ll tell you that SSB Ultimate’s online mode leaves a lot to be desired. It’s often laggy, it takes forever to get into a match, and your options for customization are limited at best. So, despite loving the game, I haven’t played it seriously in months.
But while doing due diligence on testing NVIDIA’s new streaming service, I found an alternative that gives me the same satisfaction without the empty Nintendo calories. Brawlhalla, a free-to-play four-player fighter that wears its Smash Bros. inspiration proudly, leaves out all the extras that the real thing has accumulated over the years. The result is a surprisingly tight and accessible party fighter that I can’t put down.
Refreshingly Balanced Combat
I first tried Brawlhalla while it was still in beta several years ago. I found it pretty limited at the time, and didn’t proceed much past its free download. But after playing the PC version to test out GeForce NOW, I discovered its online game is much faster than Smash Bros. Ultimate—you can hop in a casual match in just a few seconds, and at the end, it’s just a few seconds more to get into another.
What’s more, the fights are actually pretty even. Lots of players enjoy the wide roster in Smash Bros., but its extreme variety tends to descend into clear “tiers,” with some fighters vastly outmatching others. Brawlhalla mostly avoids this problem by sticking to normal and “smash” attacks, leaving the more bombastic special attacks out of the equation. It’s a lot closer in feel to something like the original side-scrolling beat-em-ups, but its been reborn as a player-versus-player fighting game.
Instead of trying to find the most exploitable characters and attacks, or in turn, trying to learn how to counter everyone else who’s using the same ones, Brawlhalla is all about timing and intuition. There’s a bit of that in Smash Bros., especially if you’re fighting veteran players and you turn the items off, but limiting the characters to more toned-down attacks in Brawlhalla keeps the fights even. For me, at least, that means that neither victories nor defeats feel cheap.
There’s an awful lot of repetition in the characters, or more specifically, in their weapons. Each match starts all the players off “unarmed,” and they have to pick up generic weapons as they spawn to access their fighter’s unique attacks. Each character has access to one of two weapons, and said weapons repeat—lots of characters use similar but not identical spear attacks, similar but not identical sword attacks, etc. The weapons you pick up are randomized, and you have to wait to find a new one if you want to switch to your other weapon.
That said, the combination of weapons is what gives each character its fighting flavor. No two characters have the same two-weapon combination, so you can generally find a mix of characters you’re good at. While the stats for the characters vary a little—one might be a little harder to knock out or a little slower in attack speed—they’re all on a generally even playing field.
With only a limited variety of weapons, it’s possible to quickly develop a feel for each of them, both playing as and against them. As a result, fighting genre fans can become competitive for online play in a few short hours. It’s an impressive achievement for such a simple game, and one that’s free to boot.
Brawlhalla isn’t much to look at. It’s 2D animated in a very cartoony style, with all the characters looking like a cross between Funko Pop figures and Popeye the Sailor Man. Because they’re all using the same weapons and many of the same animations, there’s zero variation in body style.
But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t see occasional flashes of charm in Brawlhalla’s presentation. Some of the special attacks and ring-out explosive effects have a lot of personality, like Cross’s demon-haunted punches or Petra’s Super Saiyan orb attacks. But between the puppet-like characters and the very flat lifeless stages, the game isn’t exactly a visual delight.
Unless you’re in it for one of the crossover characters, that is. Just like Smash Bros., Brawlhalla has greatly expanded its roster with a selection of B-grade “stars” from the world of television, comics, and other video games.
Characters from Shovel Knight, Rayman, Hellboy, Adventure Time, Steven Universe, and WWE (yes, the real-world wrestlers) fill out about a third of the current roster. They get custom sound profiles and some very cool animation effects, though all of them except Rayman are merely reskinned versions of existing fighters.
Free to Play, Surprisingly Okay
Brawlhalla is free to play, and that comes with baggage. At any given time, you only have access to a handful of fighters for local or online play, and that shortened roster rotates every week. You’ll need to spend the game’s freebie currency to unlock them on a permanent basis.
However, the game’s free-to-play setup is pretty fair, at least in terms of the actual gameplay. You earn enough free currency to unlock a new fighter every couple of hours, and you can try before you buy in the game’s training mode. With the way the game is set up, none of them have any inherent advantage over the others—the newer ones don’t all get a free super attack like some DLC characters that I could mention. Correction, that I will mention—Hero.
If you’d like instant access to all the heroes, present and future, you can pay $20, which seems reasonable enough to me. Less reasonable is the game’s numerous cosmetic upgrades. If you want access to the coolest character skins, emotes, ring-out animations, and more, you’ll have to pay up—a lot. A single skin for my android gal-pal Val, my only purchase in the game so far, cost $5!
But again, all of the upgrade options are entirely cosmetic, so it’s easy to ignore them. At least until one of your opponents busts out a flaming energy drink on the post-match screen.
Choose Your Platform Carefully
Like many smaller games, Brawlhalla is available widely: you can get it on the PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and Switch. And the game’s internal matchmaking supports cross-platform play, so if you’re on Xbox and you want to play with your buddy on a Switch, you can.
But be aware that your Brawlhalla player profile is matched to your system. So, all the stuff I’m unlocking on my Steam account on my PC can’t be transferred to my Switch—a real bummer for a game so heavy on the artificial grind. I have the same problem with Overwatch.
Even so, I have to praise Brawlhalla for giving me the simple balanced platformer combat I’ve been craving. I could go on about its focus on mobility over power attacks, its simple but combat-focused item system, its deceptively deep meta, and its thriving esports community. But suffice it to say, you should give it a try, just make sure you start as you mean to go on.
Here’s What We Like
- Super-tight combat
- Excellent online play
- Free on all platforms
And What We Don't
- Graphics and audio are generic
- Tons of free-to-play grind for cosmetics
- No account syncing