Couch multiplayer has really been making an indie gaming comeback recently, with varying levels of success. The latest guest to the party is four-player space combat title Starwhal from Breakfall in which players control unicorn of the sea, the narwhal. In space. Obviously.
From the off, Starwhal will put a smile on your face as it's the most 80s looking and sounding game since the fabulous Far Cry: Blood Dragon. Starwhal's commitment to its 80s aesthetic is resolute, with painted backgrounds reminiscent of the best fantasy album covers hidden in your dad's collection, sitting subtly under a neon play area decked out in turquoise and pinks. The art direction is a joy to behold and is underscored by a suitably retro-sounding electro soundtrack which wouldn't be out of place in a 1980's sci-fi movie score.
There's no preamble or explanation, simply two game type choices; multiplayer Versus or single player Challenges and off you go to try to control a flipping, flopping marine mammal in space. First you have to customise your character's colour, headwear and body. There's a huge selection of customisations available as you may like your starwhal dressed as a bear, covered in bees or wrapped in bacon. Who are we to judge? The cosmetic enhancements don't offer any benefit other than making you giggle and making it easier to pick your starwhal out of the scrum in multiplayer, however, the range and flexibility is a welcome addition.
Once your Starwhal is suitably adorned, it's time to go to space! We'd recommend trying out the challenge mode first as an opportunity to learn how your starwhal moves and reacts to its surroundings, though it can be just as fun to jump straight into multiplayer with three other friends who don't have a clue and let chaos ensue. Challenge mode offers 32 levels to be completed against the clock in two modes - obstacles or targets. Players can access any level at any difficulty from the start or go through the difficulty curve as desired. Medals are rewarded for your speed in each level and increasing difficulties include the addition of increasingly dangerous obstacles such as lava or toxic sludge which will destroy your starwhal or impose a time penalty if not negotiated deftly.
Starwhals move by gliding along the walls of the game environment. They can manoeuvre away from walls, but this tends to result in a kind of frantic, out of control spinning unless you have managed to become attuned to the movements of the creature in a zen like way (we imagine most players will spend their time trying to get that crazy spinning under control.) The tricky movement sometimes makes it feel like you are fighting the game for control of your character, but since you're manipulating a space whale, there's an argument that this is exactly as it should be. The controls definitely ramp up the difficulty, but they really shine when playing in multiplayer.
It's clear that this was a title built for multiplayer however, with challenge mode built in merely to expand the experience when it isn't possible to gather four people in a room to play competitively. Once again, this is a title with no online functionality, but unlike many of the other couch multiplayer titles released recently, it does offer AI opponents to substitute for human players when you just fancy a bit of practice, or can't convince enough people that they should leave their homes and hang out in the real world to play some games. There are four multiplayer modes available which can be played as free-for-alls or in teams. Customisation is a big focus once more with score and time limits, number of rounds, levels and backgrounds all available for selection. This is where you'll learn the names of the crazy album art you've been playing in front of, with zones baring names like Spacetopus and Asteroid X.
Each starwhal wears its heart on its chest which takes on particular significance in competitive play as players eliminate each other by piercing their opponent's hearts with their tusks. In Classic mode, it's a simple battle to the death, with the last surviving starwhal taking the win, Score Attack is similar, but with combatants playing for points. Zones involves capturing points on the map and racking up points while Heart Throb is a king of the hill type affair where starwhals try to keep possession of a single heart for the longest time.
Multiplayer is frantic and silly, with burrito clad neon green starwhals chasing turquoise starwhal bears being ridden by viking snails. It's sure to make you howl with laughter if you can get enough people in a room to play. While the AI is serviceable, it often ends up flopping around on its back in a corner. This is a realistic representation of how a human player will experience multiplayer for the first few times, but what's hilarious when your mate Bob is doing it, falls a bit flat when it's the AI flailing wildly.
Starwhal is a decent multiplayer title which delivers on its promise of laughs and challenging competition. There's plenty of customisation available to keep it fresh and the inclusion of AI opponents and a challenge mode will give this more longevity than other couch co-op titles released recently. However, some will find the controls frustrating and it is likely that the frantic madness of multiplayer will have a limited shelf life once the initial surprise of the silliness wears off.