LittleBigPlanet Vita review: Small wonders

Counting portable iterations and spin-offs, Sackboy has made a new game appearance every year since the LittleBigPlanet franchise was born. It's been easy to grow fatigued, adorable as he may be, especially as the series' major improvements came to its creative tools instead of its platforming chops. For the Vita version, co-developers Double Eleven and Tarsier Studios must have been studying the series' progression closely and taking notes, as they have produced the best LittleBigPlanet game to date.

That's not to say that it's terribly different from its predecessors. You'll still find the same physics-based platforming, robust building tools, and customization options as before. Rather than redefining the franchise, LittleBigPlanet Vita is more of a "greatest hits" compendium of everything Media Molecule built in previous incarnations, with a few welcome bits of tinkering to improve the already-strong formula.%Gallery-165047%
The most significant addition is the use of the Vita's touch controls, allowing an assortment of new mechanics. Unlike many Vita games, the touch applications are actually additive to the LittleBigPlanet Vita experience. These range from flicking timer switches or tugging on a spring, thereby pushing a block into the background and out of the way. Or, you might use the rear touch panel to push a block forward, creating a new platform. Stages that rely on a healthy mix of these mechanics are among the strongest in the game's repertoire.

Touch controls could have easily felt frustrating or out of place but, aside from the inevitable screen smudges, they were never distracting. It always felt like an organic part of the experience and added an active layer to the traditional platforming. Best of all, it made perfect sense in the context of the game, since the proportions of the found-object scenery usually conformed to the size of my fingers. It felt, essentially, like I was reaching inside the Vita to impact the world.

The touch features are also used to aid in the creation mode, which is largely borrowed from LittleBigPlanet 2. It features many of the same functions, albeit with easier photo importing thanks to the Vita's built-in camera. Editing can be performed by pinching or stretching using the touch screen, but I found the dual sticks easier to use and more precise. The touch functionality is a concession to the device's abilities, and I'm sure some creators will get more use out of it than I did.

LittleBigPlanet Vita also packs a variety of touch-based mini-games via the Arcade. Some of these are clear shots at popular games on the mobile market, and the whole notion carries a distinct "me too" feel. Many of the games come with similar level select screens and three stars to collect for a perfect score. "Tapling," in particular, feels like a darker incarnation of games like Angry Birds, which focus on planning the arc of a jump. The mini-games, however, also serve as a clever and subtle showcase for the robust creation tools, as pieces of the engine occasionally peek out from the periphery. No two Arcade games are alike, and none of them feel like the series' standard platforming. They range from a retro-styled space shooter to a quick-reflexes marble puzzle game, making the set as a whole an excellent display of LittleBigPlanet Vita's flexibility.

Arcade games are unlocked by completing the Story mode, which is true to its name for the first time. While previous LittleBigPlanets featured something akin to plot, LittleBigPlanet Vita is the first to feature a coherent narrative with substantial characters. An evil Puppeteer has turned the colorful planet of Carnivalia into a wasteland with his frightening army of Hollows, and it's up to Sackboy to restore the peace. Along the way, Sackboy meets a handful of delightful characters (each aided by excellent voice acting). They're a genuinely funny, likable cadre of friends who each guide Sackboy through their own set of themed stages – from the discarded doll Marianne Noisette and her land of junk, to the GI Joe-inspired Sean Brawn and his high-tech heist. Their stories all culminate in an ending that is both sweet and heartwarming, thanks in no small part to Stephen Fry's dependable narration.

Unfortunately, LittleBigPlanet Vita still suffers slightly from the series' endemic physics problems, particularly when it comes to swinging on a grappling hook and tense timing is involved. Thankfully, the level design largely compensates for those weaknesses – I hardly ever felt cheated out of a life, and checkpoints were generous enough that I got back into the action quickly. In short, LittleBigPlanet Vita hasn't solved the long-standing physics issues, but the patchwork covering them is so seamless that the hole itself is hardly noticeable. (Naturally, mileage with user-created levels on this front will vary.)

The culmination of these disparate parts is a game that stands on the shoulders of those that came before it. LittleBigPlanet Vita's level design boasts creativity unseen since the series' inception, while benefitting from years of lessons learned from sequels and the community. As a result, LittleBigPlanet Vita positively bursts with charm and cleverness. It's more refinement than revolution, but that also makes it the purest distillation of the concept's potential. Don't let franchise fatigue keep you from this latest incarnation; it's the best yet.

This review is based on a download of the final version of LittleBigPlanet Vita, provided by Sony.

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