Lethal League is a fighting game based on an endearingly simple premise: you must hit a baseball into your opponent’s face while they try to do the same to you. The ball ricochets around the arena as you fight, and you’re only safe from its careening path if you were the last person to hit it. Every time you hit the ball it moves faster and faster (eventually breaking the sound barrier if you can keep going that long), until it becomes nigh-impossible to hit with normal human reflexes. It’s a delicious mix of Smash Bros. and Pong, with a dash of Jet Set Radio for flavor.
If you’re anything like me, that probably sounds like a recipe for the greatest party game ever. Indeed, Lethal League oozes style, and exemplifies the “pick up and play” philosophy that’s allowed Smash to dominate living rooms the world over. It has the heart and soul of a truly great game. Unfortunately, it seems to be missing a lot of other bits.
Lethal League is built around a pretty simple set of mechanics. You can run (or jump) and either hit or bunt the ball when it comes toward you. Hitting the ball allows you to send it flying off in one of three directions (either straight forward or at an angle up or down), while bunting it slows it down for a more precise swing. Doing either will change the ball to your colour, and if it hits a player of a different colour, it kills them instantly. If you hit the ball four times in a row you can use a special attack, which varies from character to character. Compared to, say, Blazblue, it’s very easy to get these fundamentals down, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. A game can be less complex than its contemporaries and still match them in terms of depth.
The trouble is, Lethal League can’t match any serious fighting game – or even a silly one – on any level. With only four modes (online/offline versus, practice, and an arcade-style “challenge” that’s hidden in the extras menu), it doesn’t offer much in terms of variety – especially if you don’t have a friend to play with. Online play is stable, but Lethal League’s community isn’t all that big, and it can take forever to find a match. You’re going to need a reliable friend or three to play the game with you if you want to get much out of its multiplayer.
As for single-player content, practice mode is a bit of a joke, and “challenge” mode is a boring slog. You need to get through ten fights with only two lives, and you have to start over if you lose them. That wouldn’t be so bad if the fights were randomized, but every run through challenge mode is identical to the last, meaning you have to suffer through the same fights that you’ve already won over and over again to get back to the part that gave you trouble. It feels lazy and cheap. The enemy roster doesn’t even change based on your character choice – which would have only required five variants in the first place.
And that’s the real crux of the problem: Lethal League has only five characters. While I’m all for fighting games with simple mechanics, and I realize that it’s difficult to make a lot of characters feel unique in such titles, a roster this small is absolutely unacceptable. As a point of comparison, DiveKick’s system makes use of only two buttons, and its development team managed to create 13 distinct characters. And not only is this game’s eponymous league light on competitors, the ones that are there only feel nominally different from one another. Outside of their different special attacks and some variations in movement ability (one can double-jump and another two can cling to walls in different ways), there’s not much that sets any one character apart. With that said, they do all have pretty distinct personalities.
Lethal League renders its characters in a cartoony style reminiscent of Jet Set Radio, and as in that game each character comes packing attitude. The game’s hero-apparent is Raptor, an all-american kid with a wooden baseball bat and a mad glint in his eye – he’s the least interesting member of the bunch. Beyond him there’s Switch, a skateboarding robot in hip-hop garb, and Sonata, a hard-hitting songstress with a boom box hammer. Then we have Candyman, an insane mutant with a giant yellow smiley-face for a head and more swagger than you can shake a stick (or pimp cane, in his case) at. My favourite character of the bunch is Latch, a wall-crawling cyborg crocodile whose name and theme song pay obvious homage to the Latch Brothers, who composed much of the score for Jet Set Radio.
Music is the one place where Lethal League really shines, with an eclectic medley of dutch hip-hop and techno. Sadly, though the music is great, there isn’t much of it at all. The game’s soundtrack is comprised of only five songs – one for each character – and none of them are good enough that you can listen to them forever. This is also a problem for the game’s sound effects and voice clips. You’ll get sick of hearing “HOW COULD I LOSE!?” awful quick if you play Lethal League for over ten minutes at a stretch.
Repetition, really, is what kills Lethal League, and the lack of varied aesthetics, modes, and characters is only symptomatic of a deeper problem. Though its combat system is indeed easy to pick up and fun to play around in (for a bit), it’s not as fine-tuned as it needs to be to compete with other multiplayer games. With its one-hit-kill play mechanics it actually fells a bit more like Nidhogg and Towerfall than it does Smash. Were it as refined as those games the lack of content wouldn’t be as much of an issue – neither has any character variety to speak of, and Nidhogg only really has one mode.
But where both Towerfall and Nidhogg make it seem as though a match could swing in either player’s favour at any moment, Lethal League matches end up feeling decidedly one-sided as they go on. There’s a slight rubber-banding mechanic in that losing players are allowed first swing at the ball (theoretically dictating the tempo of the round), but it only benefits the loser of the last round, rather than the player who’s behind overall. Given that the game uses a fixed stock system, with all other things being equal, whoever scores the first kill is very likely to score the last. I’m not suggesting that bad players be given unfair handicaps, but to develop any sort of serious competitive scene Lethal League needs some kind of system to ensure that even matches don’t always boil down to whoever claims initiative. The game already borrows a lot of concepts from tennis, so perhaps some sort of deuce mechanic (where players need to win by at least two points) would help to make it more interesting.
Lethal League is built on some neat ideas, and its simple mechanics and funky aesthetics make it quite appealing and accessible, but it isn’t capable of holding players’ interest for long. With few characters and no modes to speak of, there’s not enough here to satisfy fighting game aficionados. More casual players, on the other hand, will likely be turned off after a while by the way matches tend to snowball. It’s the intense back-and-forth that makes contemporary party games like Towerfall and Nidhogg so exciting. With more fine-tuning and content, Lethal League could have been a home run. Sadly, it balks the opportunity.