MultiVersus is by no means the first game to unashamedly mimic the successful formula of Nintendo’s long-running Super Smash Bros. series. But while previous efforts, such as last year’s Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl or the ill-fated PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale, made critical errors that crippled their long-term potential, MultiVersus feels like a genuine contender for the platform-fighter throne.
Tom’s Guide recently received early access to the MultiVersus closed alpha, which gave me the chance to go hands-on with the crossover fighting game ahead of its general early access launch later today (May 19). Right from my first bout, I was impressed, but not necessarily for the reasons you might expect.
Yes, there is an inherent joy that comes from seeing Shaggy Rogers and Batman team up to brawl against Bugs Bunny and Arya Stark, and MultiVersus gets plenty of mileage out of its ludicrous pop culture mashups. However, underneath the vibrant art style and the absurdity of its core premiere, MultiVersus offers a level of depth that is sure to keep genre fans hooked for hundreds of hours.
You’ll come for the chance to wallop Superman as Jake the Dog from Adventure Time, but you’ll stay because of how consistently rewarding MultiVersus is to play.
The fighting fundamentals
MultiVersus focuses on a 2-vs.-2 mode, which sees two teams duke it out across large, mostly open arenas. Knock your opposition off the edge, or beyond the boundaries of the screen, and you’ll score a point. The more damage you do to your opponent, the more their hit points increase. This in turn makes them more susceptible to flying off the map. The first team to score four points wins. Simple.
It’s the exact same formula that has made Super Smash Bros. a party favorite for more than two decades, and MultiVersus wisely doesn’t make any efforts to substantially shake things up. Sony’s PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale made the fatal mistake of unnecessarily attempting to innovate, and the game received a lukewarm reception as a result. I’m pleased to report that MultiVersus plays exactly how genre fans would want it to.
Don’t expect the level of variety you’ll find in something like Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. There’s no single-player story, arcade challenges or ancillary modes, such as Home-Run Contest here. If you want to switch things up from the standard mode, you can fight 1-vs-1 or in a four-player free-for-all. However, the game is clearly designed for team battles so you may want to make peace with fighting alongside a companion.
This is primarily because characters have specific moves that are most effective when used in harmony with another player. For example, Reindog, an original character created for the game, can use its laser lasso to prevent a teammate from falling off the edge of the arena. Similarly, Bugs Bunny can dig an underground tunnel that both players can use to dodge incoming attacks. If you want to make the most of your whole arsenal of abilities, you’ll need to buddy up.
Like most platform fighters, you’re going to want to spend plenty of time in the MultiVersus training room, learning each character’s individual move sets and specific quirks. Sure, you can jump straight into a match and start button-mashing, but you’ll have far more success if you take the time to really understand each fighter’s strengths and weaknesses. The game’s most satisfying moments come when you perfect a strategy in the training lab and then effectively deploy it in an online match.
MultiVersus also allows you to augment your fighters with various perks. While most of the upgrades I encountered were straightforward — a reduced cooldown timer on special moves, for example — there is the possibility that later unlocks could significantly change how a fighter plays. This could frustrate purists who like to know exactly what they’re going up against every time.
Perhaps MultiVersus’ biggest misstep, based its first few hours, is its decision to place each character’s hit-point counter directly underneath them. This regularly results in an overly cluttered screen. Often, in the thick of battle, I couldn’t immediately tell which counter belonged to which player. This problem even led to a few embarrassing occasions when I thought I was dominating, but really, I was the one being destroyed.
A whole multiverse of fighters
Any fighting game is only as good as its roster of characters, and in this area, MultiVersus definitely excels. The game includes picks from a range of iconic Warner Brothers franchises, including DC Comics, Looney Tunes, Scooby-Doo, Steven Universe and Adventure Time. There are also some unexpected options, such as Arya Stark from Game of Thrones and The Iron Giant. (Because who doesn’t want a 50-foot tall mech capable of reducing grown men to a blubbering mess on their team?)
While such an eclectic mix of pop-culture favorites is fun on a surface level, what really helps elevate the roster is how each character plays significantly differently. Certain characters are trickier to learn — surprisingly, Velma Dinkley is a tough nut to crack — but you’ll quickly find a preferred combatant that fits your playstyle. I found myself gravitating towards Bugs Bunny because of his arsenal of cartoonish abilities, including throwing dynamite and launching an oversized ACME rocket at foes.
One of the biggest complaints about last year’s Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl was the lack of voice acting, but MultiVersus thankfully doesn’t make this same mistake. Each character spouts a range of situational lines. Even better: Most of the actors have voiced previous incarnations of the characters, including Kevin Conroy as Batman and Matthew Lillard as Shaggy.
Developer Player First Games has already confirmed that the roster will continue to grow in the run-up to the game’s full launch, and via post-launch updates. This is good news, too, because right now there are a few curious holes in the game’s selection of fighters. (Fingers crossed for some representation from The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter later down the line.)
Can MultiVersus be a contender?
Based on my hands-on experience with the game so far, MultiVersus definitely shows plenty of promise. Could Super Smash Bros. have finally met its match?
Perhaps the biggest sticking point will be MultiVersus’ monetization. The game will be free-to-play from day one, which will almost certainly ensure it has a sizeable community of players right out of the gate. However, the gaming market is already littered with “free” games that aggressively incentivize extreme spending. Hopefully, MultiVersus avoids this pitfall, as it would be a shame to see so much potential squandered.
If MultiVersus can find the right monetization balance and continue to add more well-designed characters to its roster, then it should strike a chord with competitive and casual players alike.
MultiVersus will launch later this year for PS5, Xbox Series X, PS4, Xbox One and PC. Its closed alpha runs from today (May 19) until May 27, with an open beta set for July. You can register to play on the official MultiVersus website.
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Rory is an Entertainment Editor at Tom’s Guide based in the UK. He covers a wide range of topics but with a particular focus on gaming and streaming. When he’s not reviewing the latest games, searching for hidden gems on Netflix, or writing hot takes on new gaming hardware, TV shows and movies, he can be found attending music festivals and getting far too emotionally invested in his favorite football team.