Lethal League is a game which is roughly defined as a Pong meets dodge ball crossover. Two or more people hit a ball around a 2D boxed arena, trying to get each other out. The more hits, the faster the ball gets and the harder the game becomes. The game plays similar to games like Nidhogg and Divekick with easy to learn controls, but a hard to master game.
Reptile Games brought the first prototype, a 1-on-1 version of Lethal League to UFGT9, a fighting game event in Chicago, to be the game to play in the grand finals of the Mystery Game Tournament, where it was enjoyed immensely. From this, they took the game and went ahead and developed a PC version for a Steam release two years later. This was then shown alongside other games like Nidhogg, Yatagarasu, and Towerfall Ascension in the EVO 2014 Indie Showcase, where independent developers can showcase their games at the biggest fighting game tournament in the world. Now, I didn’t keep up with any news of the game except for seeing it there, so when I saw a video pop up in my YouTube subscriptions showing Jesse Cox, TotalBiscuit, Strippin and The Completionist playing Lethal League with 4 people, it looked insane. So now I’ve got my hands on a copy, how does it fare?
First of all is the controls. There are two axis of movement and only three buttons, but while the controls are simple they allow for some tricky and tactical game play. The strike button does as you’d expect, it hits the ball. You can hold the button a little before releasing it to hit to give a bit more oomph behind the ball, or use up or down to angle your shot. The jump button does the jumping, but characters have different mobility options, which we’ll go into shortly. The final button is called bunt, which knocks the ball up into the air, and allows for anyone to hit it. What this also does is store the speed the ball was going before the bunt, so the next hit will be going as fast as it was before. This allows for a really quick game to be slowed right down, and then instantly sped up again, potentially making people misjudge their swing and then they get hit in the face. There is one more thing available during gameplay, the power shots, which are available once you’ve built up the gauge at the top of the screen. This is filled by hitting the ball within a round. The shots themselves performed by hitting the strike button the moment after you’ve already hit the ball, and vary greatly depending on character.
Going back to the characters as mentioned slightly before, there’s five currently available to play, all with a slightly different style of play. Raptor is your baseline character, a kid with a baseball bat Much like Ryu from Street Fighter , he’s a good all-rounder, with no real flaws and an ability which boosts the speed of the ball, so it’s pretty simple yet at the right time deadly . He is also the character who is available to play in the prototype. Next is Switch, the skateboarding robot, who has the ability to skate up the walls and on the ceiling. His ability is the only one (so far) which is triggered by jumping and then hitting jump again in mid-air. He performs a kick flip, which when it hits the ball, strikes it back almost instantly, so in a high speed game it’s deadly. Candyman is your next one, who is defined by his large floaty jump and his ability to when charged, hit the ball through the next wall it contacts and pop out the opposing side, leading to confusion if you’re not paying attention.
The next character is Sonata, a female who wields a large hammer. She has a double jump, and seems to be the slowest in her swing speeds. But her power lets her adjust the balls trajectory after it’s been hit, making the ball turn 90 degrees in the air is required. The final character available at the moment is Latch, a bipedal alligator, much like Vector from the Sonic the Hedgehog series. He can cling onto a wall and stay perfectly still, and his power allows him to grab up the ball in his mouth and then release it wherever he wants to.
One of the biggest reasons why this game was welcomed so warmly at UGFT and EVO is that it has similar concepts to how fighting games are played. The idea of getting people to miss their swings and then attacking them is a concept known as whiff punishing, whereby you successfully retaliate after a whiffed or missed attack. But there’s also other things such as spacing yourself out and putting yourself in the correct positions at the right times, timing swings correctly and getting a “read” on your opponent, that is, you predict what they’re going to do and then react accordingly. When playing the game you will undoubtedly do some or all of this without even realising it, but having a much better understanding of these, or having some prior experience with them will go a long way in this game, and shows that again, while the game is easy to play, you can go pretty in depth in terms of tactics and strategy in order to secure that win.
The game also has online play, utilising netcode which games like Skullgirls, 3rd Strike Online, and Divekick have all used called GGPO. GGPO is middleware designed to help create a near-lagless online experience for various emulated arcade games and fighting games. Regardless, if you understand how GGPO works or not, it’s fantastic and it works wonders in fighting style games where the game not registering your inputs in a situation can be drastic in fast games like Skullgirls, and Lethal League.
While the game plays fantastic, it does still have some flaws. First and foremost, while it might not be a gripe to everyone, it’s the art style for the characters. When you play the game in a small window they look just fine, but when you scale it up to full screen you can see that the animations and the characters themselves aren’t exactly the prettiest. I would imagine this stems back to the game originally being a flash based affair, so simpler animations and colour pallets would allow for more focus on the actual gameplay, which is understandable. Another issue, leading from this is the severe lack of video options in the menu. There’s a full screen, and a vsync option (which locks the fps to whatever your screen refresh rate is, usually 60), That’s it. No resolution selection, which is a bit baffling, as pretty much every game has that option now.
Despite those slight niggles, the game is fantastic. It’s fast-paced, party style gameplay which is easy to learn, yet hard to master. With more characters on the way, as shown at PAX, the game getting bigger can only add to the variety and make it more enjoyable. I’ll definitely be playing this for a long time, whether it is locally offline with a group of friends, or online to challenge the world.