Originally posted at G4@Syfygames, 4/26/15.

Paperbound, Released: March 31, 2015, Reviewed on: PC, Also available on: PlayStation 4, Genre: Arena Multiplayer, Developer: Dissident Logic, Publisher: Dissident Logic

Every so often, I play a game where I feel like something is missing. Maybe it’s the gameplay, maybe something feels off. Maybe it’s the music. Maybe it’s the look of the game. In any case, it feels like something is holding it back, because the rest of the game is actually quite good and a lot of fun to play. And, trying to enjoy it otherwise can be a maddening prospect when you’re able to identify what it is that’s keeping you from loving the game.

Paperbound is one of those games.

The premise is simple enough: take doodle characters and pit them against each other inside of classic books that hold gameplay stages inspired by said literary works. Two to four players duke it out and score points for each kill, then when a threshold score is reached, an exit opens up for a particular player. If that player makes it to the exit, they win the match. If the player gets killed before reaching the exit, the exit closes, the match continues, and the next person to score a point above the threshold gets to make a run for their exit. That’s pretty much it.

Sounds like a recipe for fun? Well, it is, so long as you experience the game the way it’s meant to be experienced. Paperbound is extraordinarily limited, and it’s going to show if you lack the ability to have four people play on one PC. For starters, there’s no online capability present in this game at all. It’s a game that’s all multiplayer with zero single-player component, and if you don’t have four controllers to play with (because I wouldn’t wish keyboard controls for a game like this on my worst enemy) you’re going to be staring at playing bots over and over again.

I guess that’s my largest gripe about the game, by far: a title built with a sole focus on multiplayer and offered for purchase through an online digital distribution outlet is only playable locally. Unless you have three friends and controllers for them to use, you’re out of luck for a full match. It’s just you versus the CPU, and for $10, you could get a whole lot more gameplay out of your money on Steam.

However, that’s not to say that the game isn’t worth playing. It is. It’s a lot of fun. And I’m sure if you have the people to play it with, it’s a blast like no other. However, I spent my time fighting the AI, and they behaved as AI tend to do — they’re a little too accurate and well-timed. See, you have throwing weapons in the form of ink bombs and scissors, and you can throw them to take out enemies from a distance. The AI aims those weapons with accuracy bordering on the supernatural. Your other attack is a physical hit, which is a basic “press this to slash at the enemy” attack, but when two attacks collide, they negate each other, whereas if one of them is mistimed, the hit results in a one-hit kill. In fact, all slash hits are a one-hit-kill, which does keep points scored and the fight moving quickly. So, CPU opponents tend to aim with preciense, and they seem to parry an inordinate amount of melee hits. Your key to victory is wait until two AIs fight it out, and wipe them out while they’re “distracted.” And that’s not very good in terms of metagame, in my opinion.

The other part of the problem is that the controls are constantly fighting you. See, the gravity in this game is yours to control. Every surface is one that is able to be run on. So, you’ve got a platform in the middle of the stage, and a box that forms the stage itself. Pressing the right shoulder button inverts gravity, taking you to the other side of the stage, or even onto the bits in the middle. Now, let’s say the bit in the middle is round, so you can run around that piece in the middle and fend off attacks from the outer walls. Sounds awesome. But it isn’t awesome in practice.

You land on your feet, and run in a direction. You expect to keep running in that direction. You stop midway, and just stand there. Your thumb is still tilting the stick. And there you are, just standing at an idle position. Tilt the stick in the other direction, and you continue along the path you were just running.

Complicated explanation: So, there’s an invisible line of demarcation on surfaces that tells the character when to stop running, because the game isn’t programmed to allow someone to just keep running and let the controls reset their directional orientation based on the position a player is in the next time a neutral input is recorded.

Simple explanation: When trying to run on objects and walls, your character will come to a screeching halt at the most inopportune time, every time. Guaranteed. 

Little things like that tend to break my immersion with the game I’m playing. Fighting the bots around me is tough enough, but when my character just up and stops — and it’s always long enough to get a ninja star in the back thanks to psychic bot aiming — well, it literally ruins the fun. Plus, if you have three bots running around, things tend to get incredibly chaotic to keep track of. With human players, it would be madcap fun. But with CPU opponents only and with no chance of playing online, it simply becomes stressful.

I’m not in a situation where I can have people over to play at night. I have two small kids that go to bed pretty early, so if I play anything, it’s quiet and it’s likely online. For anyone in the late 20s to early 30s age bracket, you’re probably in the same boat, and that’s going to bar you from playing this game. Unless, of course, your wife and kids are playing with you, and then the game is probably a lot of fun.

What is cool is how many bonus characters there are in the game. Captain Viridian from VVVVVV, two chaps from Monaco: What’s Mine Is Yours, and my personal favorite, Juan from the untouchably brilliant Guacamelee. Picking Juan and going to town on fools was a treat. I only wish I could do some of his famous moves, but under the confines of the game itself, he’s locked into doing the same things as everyone else. I also wish said fools I was going to town on were real people, but that nail’s been driven to death as it is.

All in all, Paperbound is a fun game. It’s got a lot of potential to be a staple for anyone who has friends that come over and play games on a regular basis. But if you’re not willing or able to play the game as intended — four-player couch versus only — then you’re going to be equal measures bored and frustrated, and painfully so, at that.

The review copy of this title was a digital code provided by the publisher.