When finding the basis for your 2D local multiplayer brawling game, one of the last places you’d expect to go for inspiration is within the pages of old books. But it’s here that Dan Holbert found the basis for the stages and some of the characters in Paperbound, and it’s definitely a unique and quirky setting that works well for the game.
Clear inspiration has also been taken from titles such as Towerfall and Super Smash Bros. but Paperbound’s topsy-turvy fighting, in which you’ll walk on walls and fight upside down, switching gravity as you go, really make it a much more dizzying and frantic affair. Scissors – your main ranged weapon – will be thrown around as well as ink bombs, which can lead to some really cool Towerfall-esque action, while your melee attack can always get you out of a close encounter.
In each match, once you’ve reached your goal number of kills – at least in standard versus mode – a tear will appear in the page, and then it’s all about getting to the exit before your foes can kill you. It’s an interesting dynamic which really sets the game apart and creates some extremely fast-paced action, as all the players seek to take out the winner before they can claim their victory.
This only adds to the rather large list of reasons of why Paperbound works as a local multiplayer game – you’ll have a blast with friends as you scream, laugh, and try to stop each other from winning. The last man standing mode then turns this on its head, as you try to avoid dying rather than simply racking up the kills, and then the king of the hill mode blends these, as you try to kill others then avoid being taken out.
As a four player game it really works, and there are even stages which will feel better suited to two or three player action – the only place you feel as though you need a quartet of players is with the team-based Capture the Quill mode, which is brilliant in its own right, but even then you can simply add an AI player or three.
See, while Paperbound basically has a complete lack of single player content, the AI bots are competent enough to keep the game fun even if you aren’t with a group of your friends. They’re easy to distract once you get used to them, and their programming feels a bit off when they collide with obstacles constantly in a later stage, but they’ll sometimes be quite devious in their execution, standing still or flanking you.
It’s the books themselves that are the real stars of the show, each being the basis for several multiplayer levels, and each having a unique aesthetic and – at times – extra mechanics. Firstly, there’s A Journey to the Centre of the Earth, which features realistic, earthy stages often focusing on mysterious lands, while Skull Kingdom features a more abstract horror style.
Beyond that, there’s the oriental and beautiful art of The Book of Five Rings, followed by the stark contrast of The Book of the Dead, which features more realistic visuals in a notably Egyptian style. Finally, there’s Inferno, which puts more than a visual twist on proceedings with blood-soaked walls instantly killing a character that touches them. All of these different collections of stages have their individual merits, and they’re all certainly inspired.
In each of these, there are some stand-out levels, and you’ll want to experiment to find which works best for each mode. The Void level in The Book of Five Rings’ collection, for example, has no edges and only floating platforms in the middle, meaning that projectile will exit the arena and fly back in on the opposite side, while Inferno’s levels make the gravity mechanic harder to use, some of which only feature floating platforms and instant-kill walls.
This all comes together to make a rather pleasant looking game, which satisfies the barmy set-up. There are nice animations, a lot of particle effects, and overall it runs quite smoothly, although there is noticeable slowdown when playing on four player in the later stages with moving obstacles.
You’ll also see character designs inspired by these book settings, such as Egyptian creatures, hell-spawn and ninjas, along with some original creations. The rest of the roster is made up of characters borrowed from other indie games, such as VVVVV’s Captain or Guacamelee’s Mexican wrestler hero, Juan.
While this does give the game a Smash Bros. vibe, movesets are identical across the board. This means that, no matter which character you’re using, it feels very balanced, but leaves something to be desired in terms of the actual fighting mechanics which boil down to pressing the same buttons over and over, rather than getting to learn and work with a specific character.
Thankfully, the gravity shifting mechanic as well as the combination of melee and ranged attacks is enough to make it an enjoyable affair over and over again, though some item pick-ups or modifiers would have been another welcome addition.
If you’re looking for a new local multiplayer game for you and your friends, then Paperbound might just be the right one, with its fresh take on the genre and brilliantly inspired aesthetic. If you’re not the type for local gaming, then while the AI works well enough, the lack of single player content may get old fast, though the PS4’s SharePlay feature could be a welcome solution.
Version tested: PS4