"Imagine having a kung fu fight with string puppets, except you don't have to worry about getting the strings tangled up, and you don't have to have a kung fu fight."
So said Mark Healey, the brains behind Rag Doll Kung Fu, a physics-based brawler out now for the PSN. Don't know who Mark Healey is? Shame on you. He's co-founder and creative director of Guildford-based Media Molecule, the developer behind defining PS3 title LittleBigPlanet. You know, the game with Sackboy in it.
That quote up there at the top of the page was Mark's pitch for the original Rag Doll Kung Fu, which he made in his spare time as a designer at Peter Molyneux's Lionhead Studios (Fable II). It was released on PC in late 2005 as the first third-party game on Valve's all-conquering download service Steam, and made quite a splash among hardcore PC gamers to boot. Now, nearly four years later, it's been re-jigged by little-known Swedish developer Tarsier Studios to work with a Sixaxis pad, and given a sub title: Fists of Plastic.
It's an interesting experience playing Rag Doll Kung Fu in 2009. It feels so much like LittleBigPlanet it's almost unreal. Of course this betrays the fact that the game came out on PC way before MM's game, but the reality is more people will be exposed to and interested in it now LBP exists. Healey's work on the game clearly laid the groundwork for LBP: the controls are almost identical, and the stereotypical martial artists fling themselves about the eight Chinese-themed stages like Sackboys clinging on to rockets for dear life. The floaty jumping, ledge hanging with R1 and cute, almost hyper-real art style is instantly familiar. Yes, there's more of a focus on brawling, with a button each for punching and kicking, and even special moves triggered with flicks of the Sixaxis pad, but blink and you'd be forgiven for thinking Rag Doll Kung Fu nothing more than a Super Smash Bros. Brawl-themed user-generated LBP level.
Which is the big problem, really. The game's so slight on features and modes that its £7.99 price tag can't be justified. There are eight stages, as mentioned, and four game modes, Deathmatch, King of the Hill, Capture the Fish and Dodgeball, all for up to four players. Deathmatch does what it says on the tin, as does King of the Hill (holding L2 and R2 and swinging your character's arms with the thumb sticks while standing on the hill increases your score multiplier, and takes the piss). Capture the Fish sees you grabbing a fish and chucking it into a basket, and Dodgeball sees you grabbing a blue ball and taking rival players out with it (you can generate one of your own by shaking the Sixaxis, then let fly by pressing the square button, one of the Chi-powered special moves).
They're all fun when played with friends, but on your own you'll quickly grow bored playing bots, a feeling that's made worse by the inexplicable absence of online play, a feature promised in all the pre-release promotional material. The game's eight single-player challenges, while fleetingly amusing (Acrobatics, which asks you to swing from platform to platform without touching the ground with your feet, offers alternative, "in the zone" fun in the same way that Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2's Pacifism mode does), don't come close to making up for the lack of online play, despite the inclusion of leaderboards. Neither does dressing up your character in unlocked clothing.
Put simply, if you reckon it'll be a rare occasion indeed when you'll be in a position to play the game locally with friends, it's not worth getting. There's depth to the combat system, in that there are weapons and special moves to master, and a rudimentary combo system, but on the whole the game's best played in a throwaway fashion, with friends button bashing as they down beers. Ultimately, Rag Doll Kung Fu comes across as something of a tech demo, the kind of thing you might expect Healey and co showed to Sony executives when trying to get LBP off the ground.