You’re killing me, Smalls
At first, I loved Lethal League. It has plenty of style, it has a fun central mechanic, and it filled my need for a chaotic yet accessible fighter to bust out at parties – now that I no longer have access to Smash Bros.
But as I made my way through the game’s Arcade mode while I waited for the PS4 version to launch, I started having less and less fun as I went up against computer-controlled opponents with a preternatural ability to tell exactly where the ball was going to land. Single-player Lethal League became a chore. “Wait a minute,” I said to myself as I lost to Mirror Candyman for the umpteenth time. “This sucks.”
I held on as we got closer to release, hoping that the online multiplayer would be better. It was, briefly. I won a decent amount of matches, all before the netcode decided to give up on me. Now I can only connect sporadically, and even the matches I’m able to find can end in a disconnection.
I do not much care for Lethal League anymore. I don’t hate it, I’m just disappointed.
Lethal League (PS4 [reviewed], PC, Xbox One]
Developer: Team Reptile
Publisher: Team Reptile
Released: Aug 27, 2014 (PC) May 9, 2017 (PS4 and Xbox One)
MSRP: $14.99 (PS4 and Xbox One) $13.99 (PC)
Lethal League is a fighting game in the very broadest sense – it reminds me more of Towerfall, in that both games have very difficult single-player modes and you need four controllers if you want to play it correctly. You’re put in an enclosed space with up to three other competitors, and you’re trying to spike a ball into your opponent’s body. If your opponent gets hit as a direct result of your actions, you win the round. There’s more to it than that, but you get the idea. It’s like racquetball, but you want to hit the other person with the ball. Also, the “challenge” mode is not fun at all, at least once you start getting into more advanced AI opponents.
After days of trying to figure out what about Lethal League‘s high-level play was so vexing, I came to a realization: the AI can predict where the ball is going and is fully aware of the intricacies of its animation. The late-game opponents countered shots with a regularity that human players in the game’s online multiplayer never managed to replicate. When I would try and set up shots I was positive would net me the win, my foe would do a pixel-perfect about-face and send the ball right back at my gourd. Great.
That’s part of what makes Lethal League so unpleasant to play when you’re going up against the CPU: the animation. There were many instances where I was absolutely positive I input the commands to whip around and hit the ball, yet the ball still hit my character and I lost the round. I never managed to properly account for the length of the animation, so I was often punished by the AI. That sort of difficulty might be fine in a game sold on that level of intensity, but Lethal League is advertised as a wild pick-up-and-play party game. It’s just curious to find something so unreasonably difficult in such an offbeat package. Sure, when your opponent is charging up a powerful shot, you can see their meter in the bottom of the screen so you know when to counter, but it’s rarely worth the risk to take your eyes away from the action.
On the occasions where I managed to counter my opponent’s shot and return the ball, the AI would often react with pixel-perfect timing and a much harder shot. Most of the time, it’s difficult to ascertain where a ball is going from your opponent’s animation alone, if you’re not willing to risk getting up close to a charging shot for a counter (And I wouldn’t recommend it, since there were times where my character was sucked into the orbit of the ball like some kind of black hole, messing with my timing and costing me the round). So, really, there was never a chance. As a regular human, I’m not good enough to be a Lethal League pro – but neither are my equally human opponents.
I had plenty of fun with Lethal League‘s online portion when it worked. As it turns out, the game’s engaging core shines when everyone’s on the same playing field. Countering a powerful shot feels like an event, because you’re not sure how you did that and you have no idea what your opponents are going to do next. If they’re not perfect robots, then that adds tension! But the online multiplayer doesn’t work all that well anymore, is the thing. And I’m sure I’d really enjoy playing this game with my friends, but it would be a while before I could wrangle enough people to give the couch competitive side a real shot. I live in Los Angeles, you see. People don’t like to drive more than a couple miles to visit friends.
I’m sure people who live in dorms or have a similar level of access to three like-minded people are screaming at their screen right now about how I’m being unfair to Lethal League because I can’t test every possible permutation (because they scrolled down to read the score and didn’t bother with the text), but I’m not in the habit of giving high scores because something might be good. The game’s probably just as fun in person as it is online, but I couldn’t tell you for sure. Plus, controllers aren’t cheap, so good luck if you don’t already have more than one.
The multiplayer works about 45% of the time. The “challenge” mode is more like a training simulation for Skynet. 2/3rds of this game are not up to par. I cannot get three other people together to play Lethal League on my couch. My experience with Lethal League is valid even though I didn’t contort my life to satisfy a hypothetical. Some other people might be in the same position, and I hope this review is useful to them.
Oh, real quick before we get to the score, let’s save everybody some time.
“Maybe it’s your internet!”