Fighting games that feature indirect combat are a rarity, and even though Lethal League falls into that category — the players can’t hit each other — it’s far from a pacifist title. In this fighting game, combatants deflect a baseball back and forth in a hyper pseudo-sports like arena experience.
The game features up to four player, simultaneous combat with simple rules: Last man/robot standing wins. The preview build we took a look at contained three out of five characters; there’s Raptor, who seems like a regular kid with a baseball bat. Robotic Switch rides a skateboard that takes him up the stage edges, and humorous Candyman resembles a Lemonhead with eyes and fights with a cane.
Controlling each fighter with a Swing, Deflect, and Jump function makes Lethal League easy to get into. The hardest part is timing, since each swing makes the ball go faster until it reaches unreasonable speeds. The Swing can be held down to hit the ball harder, but as long as the swing is in active frames, the character is safe and will hit the ball back. This can also be directed up or down, so jump attacks are not only effective, but fun to do. Otherwise, Deflect is always an option, which pops the ball up and slows it down, giving some control.
The battles are fought in “bursts,” so once every fighter is knocked down and only one remains, everyone comes back on the stage for another bout, until life reaches zero for all but one. Four-player mayhem is reminiscent of Super Smash Bros., as it is more chaotic and unpredictable, and less fair. It’s better to keep some distance, since being close to another player’s point of hit may give too little time to swing. But that doesn’t take away much depth from the game. Its strategies are more subtle than obvious, and the more I played, the more aggressive and controlled I became with the ball.
Playing one-on-one gives a lot more playfield, allowing greater focus on the mechanics. Each fighter has a power bar under their health, and once it is maxed, it can be used up to do a special shot. It’s a little unclear how to perform it, since the Swing button does it, but not always (possibly depending on movement and jumping). Candyman seems a little overpowered at the moment, with his special turning the ball into, uh, his own face that passes through walls and comes out on the opposite end. However, he doesn’t have as many movement options as the other two. Playing duels is a great way to sharpen the reflexes and develop a ball strategy. For instance, it’s good to hit the ball against the wall by yourself, ignoring the opponent, to build up both the power bar and the baseball’s speed, making it difficult for the others to react.
Lethal League has a street hip-hop wrapping to it. Everything from the menus to the stages themselves resemble abandoned but stylish urban scenery. The four stages that are available include a training ground, a sewer-like area with dominating blue colors, and an abandoned swimming pool with a view of a rustic, corroding city. Even better than the environment is the music, as the boom-box display at the bottom serves not only as an informative dashboard, but also provides the engaging soundtrack. The varied hip-hop, remixed beats, different for each stage, hype up the fights and finish off Lethal League with a compelling theme and audio-visual style. This is bound to appeal to the fighting game scene, and not only.
Other than Versus, the game will feature Online play and “Extra” mode. There is an experience bar that goes up for each completed battle, but the preview build doesn’t have that feature finished. The longer I played Lethal League, the better I got with the controls, however, I feel that they could be made just a little bit more precise. Since the play mainly revolves on pressing a direction and the Swing button, sometimes it seemed to take weird priority over my inputs. While I’m sure there are a few kinks to work out, I could definitely see an increase in my own skill as I played.
The core gameplay of Lethal League has that balance between a casually fun game, and some of the qualities that deeper fighting games have. While it abandons most of the systems found in traditional fighters, that doesn’t necessarily make it any less viable, as games like Divekick enjoy success as a quirkier option at tournaments and gatherings. Lethal League will have a chance to shine at this year’s Evolution Championships, as it will be one of the titles featured at the Evo Indie Showcase.