The adorable Astro’s Playroom may have stolen people’s hearts at the launch of the PlayStation 5 (no doubt in part thanks to it coming along for free), but any 3D platformer fan would do well to not leave Sackboy: A Big Adventure locked in the toybox. This spin-off (which is available on PS4 as well) is relentlessly charming, bringing creative level ideas to a familiar format with a focus on co-op play, even if it lacks the same precision and depth of the most-loved games in the genre.
While Sackboy may have been cut from the cloth of the LittleBigPlanet games before it, A Big Adventure feels far closer to the likes of Super Mario 3D World, both in structure and design. Levels are generally wide-pathed, isometric dioramas for you and up to three friends to run all over, grabbing point bubbles, beating up baddies, and hunting for collectibles as you do. It also drops the level editor or community sharing that have been iconic to the LittleBigPlanet series, instead focusing on telling a simple story about Sackboy trying to save Craftworld from the evil Vex.
The story is a cute if generic tale, but Sackboy’s sense of style and presentation is intoxicating – a nonstop slew of fun, feel-good stages made out of cardboard cutouts and other household objects. It’s all just so dang charming, and it was only the occasional frustration of a missed jump caused by an odd camera angle or unexpected landing behavior that stopped me from smiling the whole time. World themes range from yeti-filled temples to futuristic rocket labs that have you walking around on giant, interactive touchscreens, but they all share enough stylistic elements to gel into an eclectic but cohesive whole.
A huge part of their charm comes from Sackboy’s incredible music. That includes its original score, clever remixes and reworkings of recognizable classics (you might find yourself unexpectedly noticing the melody of Madonna’s Material Girl in the middle of an otherwise orchestral track), as well as its handful of explicitly music-centered levels. The latter reminded me of similar stages in Rayman Legends, having you jump and fight to the beat of songs like Mark Ronson’s Uptown Funk – although, while they are undoubtedly a blast, these levels not being on rails like Rayman’s makes their use of those songs a little more repetitive if you’re taking your time to collect everything.
Most stages in Sackboy are relatively easy to get to the end of, but can be tricker to 100% – that includes finding all the cosmetic items, completing it without dying, getting enough points for a gold medal, and collecting all of the Dreamer Orbs hidden throughout (which are used to lightly gate off new levels as you progress). Thanks to a generous life and checkpoint system, I only outright failed a level once in my first run of the campaign, but I also rarely got everything possible on that first attempt. That made Sackboy feel accessible to complete while still having plenty to entice me back for repeat attempts. Later levels and time trials also amp up the difficulty a little bit, but still in a way where that challenge is generally there if you want it and optional if you don’t.
Not to overcompare, but the structure here really does feel derivative of Super Mario 3D World, and Nintendo’s platformer playbook in general. That’s not inherently a bad thing (it’s a good playbook!), but when put so directly in competition with a game like that, the spots where Sackboy falls short can’t help but stand out – specifically, the feel and depth of its platforming. This is undoubtedly a fun platformer, but its jumping can definitely be unexpectedly imprecise at times, especially when trying to bounce on enemy heads or certain objects. The little flutter you can do to stay in the air after a jump feels about half as long as I expect it to be, and Sackboy lacks additional techniques that could offer more nuance to his moveset like Mario has – you can extend your jump distance by using a punch and a roll midair, but that’s about it in terms of getting creative with movement options.
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Instead, what keeps the platforming fun is how often levels will shake things up and introduce new mechanics. One level might be a straightforward platformer, while another will have you herding adorable creatures into a pen, and another still will have you dodging spotlights while jumping from bubbles suspended in the air. Sackboy also swaps the camera perspective frequently, moving from isometric to side-scrolling to top-down as needed. One of my favorite levels has you riding a deep sea treasure trawler, with Dreamer Orbs earned by frantically jumping off of it to scavenge gold objects and bring them back to the ship in time.
Some levels will also introduce cool little power-ups that can alter the way you move or fight. Those include a boomerang, a set of hoverboots with a laser gun, and a grappling hook you can use to swing. My personal favorite was actually simpler than all those, though: just some yellow gunk that would get on your feet and let you walk on walls – not so flashy, but the way certain levels use that mechanic to hide collectibles or change how you interact with obstacles is very cool. None of these powers outright fix that fuzzy, imprecise feeling I got at times, but they make stages clever enough that I generally didn’t mind it (apart from during some of the harder stuff late in the campaign).
Sackboy’s levels are made even better when played co-op, and that’s not just because playing games with friends is fun – co-op can make a lot of games “better” without actually doing much, but these stages have been intentionally designed to be more enjoyable with more people. Apart from a few optional, co-op only levels, the entire campaign can be played solo and still be a fun time (and you’ll probably want to play the time trials that way), but adding in others lets you take advantage of each stage’s multiple paths full of collectibles. While slowing down and retracing your steps to nab them all alone can be tedious, they ensure everyone has more exciting stuff to collect when on a team. There’s also a bit of co-opetition for who can get the highest score, and of course there’s real value in the joy of hitching a ride on top of a rolling friend only to then pick them up and mercilessly throw them off a cliff for no reason.
On that note, it’s a real shame that Sackboy doesn’t support online co-op at launch. That’s reportedly coming before the end of the year in a free patch (and I was able to at least simulate online co-op using the PS5’s limited but fairly impressive Share Play option), but it still feels like a crucial missing feature for a game this inherently about playing with others. Thankfully, the local co-op that is here at least works great, allowing players to drop in or out even mid-level and giving each profile their own inventory of costumes to collect and customize.