PlayStation Studios may now have its own mobile wing set to start adapting its IP to phone and tablet users, but that doesn’t mean it won’t still licence out its properties to third-party mobile developers.
Ultimate Sackboy, then, isn’t a PlayStation Studios title, but is instead the work of UK/Malta studio Exient, which already has previous experience working with Sony IP with its mobile take on Lemmings.
Long-time Sackboy devotees may be aware that there’s already a mobile game starring the cloth-eared chap, but whereas 2014’s Run Sackboy! Run! is a side-scrolling endless runner in the style of the LittleBigPlanet games. This is an over-the-shoulder effort more in line with Sackboy: A Big Adventure.
Rather than endless running, this time players take part in small stages lasting around 45-50 seconds each, and are tasked with two things – collecting as many coloured bubbles as they can, and surviving until the time runs out.
Once time’s up, the player’s points tally is calculated (different bubble colours are worth different scores) and they’re then placed on a leaderboard against a bunch of fictional players to see if they made it to the top.
The aim, then, is to score enough points during a run to at least make it to the top three of this leaderboard, with first place awarding the player a loot bag too. With a timer, naturally, because mobile.
The actual gameplay itself is enjoyable. The controls don’t reinvent the wheel – swipe sideways to move between three lanes, up to jump and down to slide – but they’re responsive enough to let you quickly perform last-second dodges.
Stages, as is the way with games like Sonic Dash, are procedurally generated using premade chunks, meaning over time, you’ll learn some of the patterns of obstacles and will know the best way to take them on in order to get the high-scoring bubbles.
As you level up you’ll unlock new stage designs, and some of the layouts will start getting slightly more complicated. Finish 3rd or higher three times in a row and you’ll get a one-off battle against another Sackboy on a more challenging stage, with the chance to unlock a piece of exclusive clothing.
This is particularly important because it’s the large number of collectible accessories that drive the entire game’s progression system. Your Sackboy is fully customisable and every piece of clothing, fabric colour, wig, hat, shoe type and the like can be levelled up by collecting duplicates and then spending coins on them.
The player’s current ‘power level’ is determined by the total level of every accessory they own, all added up – this is a good move because it doesn’t force the player to equip their highest level stuff all the time. If you’ve grown attached to your low-level banana costume, that’s fine; levelling up the devil costume will still raise your overall power level even if you don’t equip it.
The general idea is that as you collect more stuff and your power level increases, so too does the value of each bubble you collect. Whereas early in the game, you’d do well to hit scores of 20,000 in a single run, that continues to increase over time – our power level is currently 2,215 and we can regularly reach 400,000 in a run now.
As you top more leaderboards and your rank increases, the power level of your fictional opponents also increases. The point, then, is to keep collecting and levelling up accessories so that as you rank up – and the score targets set by your competitors rise – you can continue to have a fighting chance at competing.
“There were times where we felt we’d put in as close to a perfect run as we could, but were still nowhere near beating the alleged AI score sitting at the top of that stage’s leaderboard.”
The issue with this is that the game is a little too heavy-going when it comes to what these ‘opponents’ are capable of. The fact you never physically race against other Sackboys (and are instead just shown the scores to beat at the start of a stage) suggests the game is creating arbitrary estimates based on the course layout, and sometimes these are way off.
There were times when we felt we’d put in as close to a perfect run as we could, but were still nowhere near beating the alleged AI score sitting at the top of that stage’s leaderboard.
Naturally, the way to overcome this is to increase the power level, which means unlocking more stuff, and that’s where the free-to-play element finally rears its head. The loot bags you collect for winning races are on a timer, ranging from anything from 90 minutes to a number of hours, and you can only hold four at a time.
If you win a fifth, you either need to ditch it or spend gems to open it, and that’s naturally where the microtransactions come into play. Gems are used to speed up the opening of loot bags, give you the coins you need to level up accessories quicker, and revive Sackboy if he dies on a run you think you have a chance of winning. And, of course, if you don’t have enough gems you can buy them with real money.
Then there’s the obligatory Season Pass, which costs $7.99 / £7.99 and gives you better rewards for doing Daily Tasks throughout the season, including an exclusive astronaut costume.
What this boils down to is that Ultimate Sackboy is still an entertaining game, as long as you treat it the way you’d treat other free-to-play titles and spend what you’re willing to spend on it.
It’s certainly not the most egregious example of a free-to-play game we’ve seen – there are no in-game ads and no energy timers, so you’re free to play for as long as you like.
Of course, if you do this you will eventually hit a wall where your opponents are at a power level you can’t quite meet without unlocking more equipment (which means you have to wait for your loot bag timers to run out, or pay to speed it up).
We’ve been playing the game for three weeks now and haven’t missed a day of Daily Tasks, which suggests there’s certainly not a bad game in there. Ultimately, your enjoyment comes down to what resources you have – in terms of both patience and money – and whether you’re willing to regularly spend either of them to make progress.
At its core, Ultimate Sackboy is a fun mobile platformer with charm and responsive controls. Its progression system, however, has that tell-tale restrained feel of a free-to-play game, where progress is slow if you keep your wallet in your pocket.
- Controls are responsive and satisfying
- Looks wonderful, nails that Sackboy aesthetic
- A wide selection of customisation options to collect at launch
- Player progression can hit a wall far too easily
- Requires either patience or payments in abundance