I grew up with the Asterix & Obelix series. Where other kids around me were more into the American superheroes, the very French antics of these very French characters were much more my thing. Consistently hilarious and nonsense but also full of big adventure and fisticuffs, I read and re-read these things, and I have been waiting for a video game that does them justice for a very long time now. To me, it couldn’t be an easier or more obvious game development job; make it a brawler. Take the likes of the Simpsons or TMNT arcade games, and give us the Asterix version of that. The comic and the genre would go together perfectly.
For whatever reason, however, it has been a long time since anyone tried that. The last time there was an Asterix game that even tried to have a brawler component was the Game Boy Advance’s Bash Them All!, and it was inhibited by being a GBA game, and therefore not the ideal console for these things. Since then, though, the publishers of the Asterix games have been focused on the XXL series, which are action/platformer/adventure/puzzle things, and while they’ve been playable enough, they’ve never quite captured the spirit of the actual comic.
Slap Them All! is on the right track. For a start, it is a proper and no-frills brawler. Across the surprisingly-generous 50 levels, you’ll move from one side of the screen to the other, beating up hordes of enemies. There are a couple of basic combos to use, but this is neither a fighting game nor a modern action thing. Rather, it’s a purely retro-style button masher. The thing is, though, that’s all an Asterix & Obelix game ever really needed to be. Silly, chaotic, comedic, slappy brawling.
It helps that the game is backed with an impeccible art style that looks like it has been lifted directly from the work of René Goscinny Albert Uderzo. Every single background pops with vibrand colour and while they’re simple and obvious scenes for the Asterix series, there’s a nice variety between them. Characters had slick animation and share a lot of personality in how they move around (which is just as well, since they don’t talk much), and when the screen fills with enemies, the chaos is beautiful to behold. You know this development team know their way around the brawler because you’ll neve lose sight of the action or be left flailing around and hoping for the best, but at the same time, the pace and action is relentless.
What is disappointing is how limited the effort that went into the cut-scenes was, which are little more than a few stills of the characters talking at one another. I know that it suits the comic book presentation on the one hand, and that as a fan of VNs I don’t inherently mind this approach to storytelling, but the “narrative” is only ever a couple of sentences long, and this comes across as a very cheap effort that clashes with the lavish effort elsewhere. This is a brawler. They didn’t have to put cut scenes in at all, so why would you undermine the rest of the presentation like that?
However, the biggest and most disappointing thing about Asterix & Obelix is even more simple than that: it’s two-player, maximum, and as anyone knows, brawlers get exponentially better when you add the third and fourth players. I’m sure some would defend this by pointing out that the very title mentions how many playable characters there would likely be, but the comic books make it quite clear that every single villager in Asterix’s village is a capable fighter, so there’s no practical excuse to not allow four players to team up and slap their way through the hordes. With the level design, it might be a little tight as the combat areas tend to have small width, but it would be a delight nonetheless.
As a single-player game, Asterix & Obelix tries hard to make you play multiplayer. Even on the lower difficulty settings, you really do want someone watching your back because the hordes attack in some annoying patterns, with ranged enemies being able to rapidly whittle down your health while a shield wall doesn’t let you mast the melee fighters. Neither Asterix nor Obelix are particularly nimble around the battlefield, making it difficult to bypass the front-line fighters. Special abilities can help, but are a clumsy replacement for a dash button, too. Most egregiously of all, however, is that there are very few working defensive options. When played in single-player, all of this makes the game painfully difficult on anything but the very lowest difficulty setting.
However, the design of the game makes much more sense when you rope someone else in to play with you (and it won’t be hard, because this is the kind of game that you do want to pick up and play with). In that context, it’s an uproariously funning and furious experience, and while the game’s length does actually work against it here (a brawler really should be over in a single play session, not there or four), spread over a few play sessions you’ll still not regret a second of time in this one.
Slap Them All is by no means perfect. It’s shallow, even by genre standards, lacks the all-but mandatory four-player option, has been balanced for two players to the point that it doesn’t really work as a single-player game, and fails to give players any reason to give it a second go once powered through. And yet at the same time, it is the best use of the beloved Asterix & Obelix property that we have seen in years and for us long-suffering Asterix & Obelix fans, for that reason alone Slap Them All is a gift.
– Matt S.
Find me on Twitter: @mattsainsb