Sometimes, in moments of particularly focused age-related bitterness, I wonder if the kids these days have it too easy. They live in a world of Ninkynonks, Fimbles and Ballymory - hanging around in Lazy Town eating space fruits and befriending lime-green time-tigers. Of course, my own generation wasn't that hard-done-by either - I lived in Cities of Gold with Wizbit and Morph. SuperTed was my homeboy.
Way back in the pre-TV mists of civilisation, children were kept out of trouble in more direct ways, usually via the medium of terror. Bedtime stories populated with child-eating witches, ravenous wolves, marauding giants were the norm, and even I can still remember my grandmother telling me that unless I behaved, the Scissor Man would come and cut off my thumbs. Back in the day, kids were fed nightmares, not Knightmare. It's these bloodthirsty and often disturbing tales to which Fairytale Fights owes its heritage, and which it shows no shame in emulating, albeit with pudgy tongue firmly placed in cutely rendered cheek.
Set in a world of classic fairytales gone bad, Playlogic's brawler is part Happy Tree Friends, part Streets of Rage. Vividly bright and edge-of-delirium cute, its a world of drunken Goldilocks, gormless woodland animals and sociopathic lumberjacks. Controlling either Red Riding Hood, Snow White, clotheless Emperor or Beanstalk-climbing, giant-slaying Jack, players must hack and slash their way through themed levels which loosely relate to various classic tales of myth - dismembering minor characters in fountains of gore and body parts in an attempt to regain the fame and glory of their literary past.
Four-person multiplayer is an intrinsic part of the design - adding to the chaos. Thankfully, friendly fire is a toggle-option. Weaponry for the cause is wildly varied, with over 140 instruments of destruction falling into edged, blunt, ranged and potion-related categories. These go from mundane branches, clubs, bows and swords to mailboxes, wooden chainsaws and even fallen foes. Tellytubbies this is most definitely not.
It's telling that a large portion of Fairytale Fights' development time has been dedicated to its blood-propagation mechanics. Every kill paints the cheerfully rendered landscape with pools of claret, scattering limbs and piling corpses to all sides. Especially brutal kills, realised through charged attacks or the use of accumulated fame, fill half of the screen with a close-up of your victim as they're rendered asunder, segmenting or bludgeoning them in real time as you dish out the punishment.
As the puddles of plasma collect, your winsome avatar skates around in a slippery fashion, a look of devilish and yet childish glee on their face. The horror remains lighthearted, however, and defeated foes still pump out piles of shiny treasures to collect once they capitulate. Backgrounds and environments are more Tim Burton than Enid Blyton, ramshackle and twisted - not a million miles away from those of Double Fine's super-fine Psychonauts.
Death in this dangerous world is fairly common, either thanks to clusters of enemies, series of fiendish, bladed traps or, annoyingly regularly, falling from the edge of the environment. Penalties for expiration are suitably light, however - lives are infinite and death really only means a reduction of your stock of treasure and fame. Even when dying becomes frustratingly commonplace thanks to the slidey controls (left stick manouevres, right stick attacks), it's never a rage-quitting affair unless you're particularly anal about stockpiling gold and gems.
Combat itself is pretty straightforward. Stabs of the right stick mean an attack in whichever direction your character is facing, and simple combos can be constructed with a little timing. These attacks are reliant on relative direction of movement to the enemy, and juggle combos are unleashed by striking upwards, launching enemies skyward in a gruesomely charming take on Devil May Cry's aerial shenanigans. Staying airborne means you'll deal a lot of damage to your selected foe with no chance of response, as well as staying out of the reach of earthbound enemies. Whatever the scenario, holding the analogue in a direction charges your next attack, useful for clearing crowds if you can squeeze it in.
There's also a rudimentary blocking system. It's immediate and initially satisfying, but feels like it could lack the depth to really hold water for long sessions. Character models are small, meaning that exactly what you're doing is often obscured in a frenzy of red mist. Thankfully, this has little bearing on success - wild flagellation is usually enough of a strategy to survive all but the most intense encounters. The action also tends to be neatly parcelled into discrete waves, giving time to take a breather, gather collectibles from cadavers and chests and gird your deranged loins before continuing.
It's all good, messy fun - strategy and planning are swept aside to make ample room for the simple pleasures of bashing and chopping. Cutting swathes through crowds of even the most basic enemies is a satisfying experience, and the Carpenter-zoom power-kills are amusing even if they do obscure a disproportionate percentage of the playing field. There are many nods to influences, both tacit (Castle Crashers, any number of side-scrolling ass-kickers) and implied (one particular boss, a giant beaver, is a definite homage to Gears of War 2's lake monster), and the characters the game lifts from actual fairytales are easily recognised and strangely consistent given their distorted nature and the variety of their origins.
Recent whack-'em-ups have trended towards the mindless and dreadful standards of execrable movie tie-ins like the two Watchmen games rather than the acquired-yet-inspired taste of Castle Crashers, so there's no doubt that Fairytale Fights could be a refreshing take on what was once a vastly over-populated genre. But there's a feeling that there might be a little too much recycling going on here, platforming and beat-'em-up clichés reskinned for a blood-thirsty and ironically knowing audience. With the game due out in a month's time, we'll soon find out whether it all lives happily ever after.
Fairytale Fights is due out for PS3 and Xbox 360 on 23rd October.