Sony PlayStation 4Also available on PC
Didn’t your mother ever tell you not to run with scissors? Obviously the San Diego based developers at Dissident Logic forgot all about this life lesson when they created Paperbound - a 2D fast-paced arena brawler that puts pen to paper before throwing the whole inkwell at the page and ripping it to shreds. It makes for an entertaining fighter at heart, even if it is lacking some much needed subtext.
Set in a world where books can come to life, your goal in Paperbound is to take on up to four other players in a fight to the death. As an indie take on the classic Super Smash Bros. formula, racking up the most kill points overall and making a quick getaway through a small tear appearing at random in the pages of your chosen literary-inspired arena is all that stands between you and victory. If you die before your escape, you’ll have to take out another opponent before the tear reopens. The effortless combat combines melee and projectile attacks with the ability to alter gravity, turning the traditional beat ‘em up style of gameplay literally on its head and creating plenty of carnage in the process.
Focusing heavily on the dwindling genre that is local multiplayer, Paperbound is limited by its party game roots. With virtually no story or narrative to speak of and the lack of an online mode, the game is best enjoyed with a gang of up to four bloodthirsty friends. For those who wish to go it solo, the option is there to substitute human players with bots who have surprisingly good AI for this variety of fighting game. But even with the varying game modes on offer, there’s very little to keep just one person occupied for more than a few battles.
It’s a shame that the world of Paperbound isn’t explored further as there are over fifteen colourful characters to choose from right from the outset. From scrawly stickmen to vengeful Egyptian gods, each character is bright and stands out on paper with crystal clarity as they run, bounce and slice their way across the arena. The PlayStation 4 version of the game comes from some guest stars from other indie games such as Juan from Guacamelee and Captain Viridian from VVVVV which is a nice bonus but given that each character has exactly the same control and move set, this is more of an additional palette swap than a bold additional feature.
There aren’t any health bars or rising percentages to worry about in this game. Instead, one strike means death for your character, and a kill point for those responsible. You’ll almost immediately respawn right back into the middle of the fray, clawing your way out of a papery backdrop with a thirst for vengeance. Swift movement is the key to survival and it’ll take quick reflexes to jump out of the way of either your opponent's melee attacks or flying projectiles. The game’s simple but effective controls lead to some button-bashing madness, but you’ll pick up and make use of the game’s commands in absolutely no time.
Each time you spawn, you’ll be equipped not only with your designated melee weapon, but with a pair of scissors that can be hurled across the screen at another player by flicking the right analogue stick. It makes from some downright dastardly surprise kills provided you’re the one inflicting the damage. You can also pick up another pair of scissors dropped by fallen enemies on the battlefield, along with inkwells that explode upon impact and can take out a cluster of enemies while they fight amongst themselves elsewhere in the arena. Unlike the scissors, the ink doesn’t cut cleanly across the screen but rather moves in an arc, so landing these hits is that bit more challenging, but totally worth it if you can time them correctly. Other than that, it’s just your trusty pencil, sword or fists at your disposal and getting up close and personal can be a tricky affair, particularly if your opponents are armed to the teeth with projectiles.
The other main component in the gameplay is your ability to alter your character's gravitational grounding. By pressing triangle, you’ll hurtle upwards and stick to the closest surface you touch, whether that be the ceiling of the arena, or a platform in the middle of the room. It comes in handy for quick getaways but the more opponents in the arena, the more likely you are to wind up in the path of another character, who’ll dispatch you in no time. Some levels even contain dynamic platforms and obstacles that will move under the weight of your character, further adding to the sense of chaotic mayhem unfolding on screen.
There are fourteen arenas to choose from, spanning four different story book worlds and a further four maps to choose from a fifth book that can be unlocked at a later stage. Each one is designed for a specific number of players, but that doesn’t hold you back from having a one-on-one in the gigantic Labyrinth arena or challenging four players in the tight passages of the Book of Water level. Artistically, they are both simple and elegant in design, with some housing a few platforms and obstacles to either help or hinder your game.
To mix things up a bit, there are also a number of different game modes on offer. The standard Free-for-all mode is a classic PvP mode where you challenge up to three other characters in a no holds barred deathmatch. Capture the Quill mode works well as a new take on the traditional Capture the Flag match, where you work on a team of two to take out other players and capture a quill before taking it back to your ink pot. Survival gives you a handful of lives to play with in a last man standing type scenario but easily the best fun is to be had in the Long Live the King mode. The idea in this mode is to stay alive for as long as possible while illuminated by a shiny beam that points out to all the players that you are indeed the king. If you die, whoever stole your crown then becomes king. However, you can still kill other players even if they aren’t designated the monarch of the arena, and even though it won’t score you any points, it creates for some truly entertaining, if not rather frustrating moments, particularly with other human players.
The handful of game modes provide limited fun in Paperbound. Created to suit a party environment, it’s the type of game you break out when friends are over for a quick brawl or two before moving on to the next game. The fast-paced battles can be highly entertaining, even if they do cause the odd argument or two. Lack of a story mode aside, some crucial online features are sorely missed which is surprising for a beat ‘em up in this day and age. Rather than a Pulitzer prize bestseller or a timeless Penguin classic, Paperbound takes the Cliff notes of Super Smash Bros. and crafts its very own short story, worth returning to every so often when the mood suits.