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Run, Sackboy! Run! review

Strung out.

A pleasant but generic endless runner that fails to engage with the heart of LittleBigPlanet.

There's something rather endearing about Sony's determination to turn Sackboy into a classic console mascot. Only Mario has been able to retain that level of devotion, and connection to a platform, while Crash Bandicoot is MIA, Sonic has lost his way and dozens of other hopefuls have long since been forgotten.

Sackboy already has one of the pre-requisites for such ubiquitous status - a kart racer - so here's a more modern requirement: the free-to-play endless runner. It's a somewhat natural off-shoot for a side-scrolling platform series, but visuals aside it rarely grapples with the features that LittleBigPlanet fans will expect.

The impetus for Sackboy's marathons is that old foe, the Negativitron. It comes chomping onto the screen from the left, you start running away from it and don't stop until you hit a fatal obstacle or are slowed down enough to be caught. Control on the Vita is exactly as it was on the game's earlier iOS incarnation. Tap the screen to jump, swipe to dash forwards and escape the Negativitron's clutches.

Collecting sequences of bubbles powers up a shield that can be triggered to make you invulnerable for a short time.

To begin with, it's all warmly familiar and passably amusing. The randomly generated levels are put together using algorithms that create lots of organic paths and hints - follow a line of bubbles, for example, and it will end neatly on top of an enemy, whose head you bounce off, landing on a higher platform. It's never so overbearing that you feel like control or choice has been taken away, but it creates a reassuring confidence in the game's layout that it will go out of its way to help, rather than hinder, you.

Hazards are limited in number. There are spikes, the aforementioned enemies, electrified floors and missiles that will roar across the screen in the straight line. There are also gobs of pink goo, which slow you down. Hit one of these and the Negativitron immediately starts breathing down your neck. Dash forwards and it groans and disappears again.

It's all so very accessible, to the point of being overly simple. This is a game where the initial charm is very quickly replaced with repetition. There are only three worlds - the bucolic Garden, the high tech Avalonia and desert-themed Canyons. Cycle through these in one run and you just loop round and start again. It will be more difficult, but given the sheer wealth of worlds and styles that LittleBigPlanet has woven into its fabric across three console games, the limited scenery leaves this spin-off feeling very small and half-hearted.

What depth the game does have comes from its constantly evolving web of goals, collections and systems designed to entice you into coming back for more. From daily rewards, to random free power-ups, to ambient missions that level you up and increase your score multiplier permanently, there's always something in the near future to be earned or received.

You can share scores with your friends, and post to Facebook, but they're slim pickings compared to the community features LBP fans expect.

Those tactile bubbles that you collect, their plip-plip-plip noise no less uplifting than it was on the PlayStation 3, are your in-game currency. They can be used to upgrade the handful of pick-up abilities that occasionally appear in your path, but these fail to surprise. A magnet, a jetpack and a hang glider are all basic requirements of the runner genre than LittleBigPlanet features that have been cleverly reworked. Cashing in your bubbles makes each last longer, but you probably guessed that.

Also unlockable with bubbles are new costumes, which also apply hefty boosts to your score multiplier, and treasure chests which bestow a variety of random bonuses. You can also buy these with real money, but it's hard to be too outraged by the F2P model being used. You can pay to apply permanent perks to the game, invest in the treasure chests or buy bundles of stuff that give you enough bubbles and other resources to splash out in the in-game shop.

None of it is essential, which leaves it falling into that same trap as most benign F2P systems. You're not really buying any advantage, only speeding up the acquisition of stuff you would be getting anyway, one way or another. There's no cynical energy mechanic to keep you on the hook. The closest to that the game gets is the Save-Me hearts which act as Continue tokens should you die during an impressive run. It's no great hardship to live without those though.

There are also stickers to collect, and it's here that the game's core weakness is exposed. As you run along, you'll sometimes find stickers floating in traditional LittleBigPlanet pods. There are numerous themed sets of stickers - Food, Weather and Mexico for example - and collecting all four stickers in a set will earn you another bonus. Some special sticker sets will even unlock costume items in other LittleBigPlanet games.

Costumes and alternate characters boost your multiplier but otherwise offer no gameplay benefit.

It's cute idea, but the fact that the stickers are entirely abstract collectibles betrays the shallowness of the Run Sackboy Run experience. LittleBigPlanet is a series built from its foundations to encourage a tactile hands-on personal investment. You find stickers and stencils, and you can slap them all over the game. Except here you can't. You can even tap on them to look at them in more detail. They might as well be icons marked Collectable One, Collectable Two and so on.

For a game that sorely needs a point of difference to stand out from a crowded genre, the decision to ignore this key aspect of the parent franchise is especially bizarre. Even just the chance to use your stickers to customise your game would offer some connection to the other titles. Even better would be the option to design your own self-contained levels and share them - there are indie iOS games that do this, it's a central element of the LittleBigPlanet community, yet there's not even a whiff of such creativity in Run Sackboy Run.

As a result, it's hard to avoid feeling that this is a slightly more cynical "brand extension" than its fuzzy craftwork exterior suggests. There's an unwillingness to truly adapt LittleBigPlanet into a new form, instead offering a standard experience dressed up much like Sackboy himself. Whether cosplaying as a jockey or princess, he doesn't change underneath. Nor, sadly, does this game. Pretty, but shallow.

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