You don’t need to do any research on Starwhal to realize what Breakfall’s primary inspiration must have been. Once you’ve got your hands on a controller and experienced the ludicrous flip-and-flop mechanics of the titular narwhals-out-of-water, you know: this is a game meant to recreate those multiplayer nights, gathered on the couch with your friends, laughing so hard you find it difficult to breathe. It’s a bright, endlessly silly indie with love showing in every inch of screen space, and that makes it kind of hard to fault in any sort of serious critical way. If you’ve got some friends with great senses of humor to join you on the couch, you’re in for a real treat. If not, well, you might want to wait to jump in.
The action in Starwhal takes place across a number of bright neon arenas. Up to four players can select a color-coded narwhal and deck them out in any number of goofy accessories — afros, headphones, bat wings, and the like — to duke it out across four different Versus modes: Classic, a basic Deathmatch mode; Score Attack, where points matter instead of lives; Zones, your standard zone-capture mode; and Heart Throb, a capture-the-crown-esque mode. In all of these, an interesting dynamic is at play: each narwhal has a big beating heart on its chest, which can be pierced by other narwhals’ tusks. As you flop around the arena, you’ve got to consider both the best way to puncture the hearts of your opponents while simultaneously protecting your own.
This flipping and flopping around the arena, brought about by a deliberately tricky control scheme, is really the heart and soul of the game’s fun and humor. Like a lot of great local multiplayer games, there’s something ludicrous about the way the narwhals move around, and the mechanics — against which you have to fight to gain any sort of forward momentum — bring a real sense of anarchy and helplessness to the battles. Rather than inviting hardcore, super-serious competition, Starwhal makes everyone look equally dumb. It’s brilliant, especially during your first hopeless attempts to get your poor player character to cooperate. Once you’ve got things down pat, though, your mileage with the game as a multiplayer favorite will greatly vary — in all likelihood, some will find themselves returning for more, while others will bow out after the initial shock wears off.
Local multiplayer is great, of course, but what about the solo players out there? Well, considering Starwhal’s inception as a party game, it’s a good bet that most single-player junkies will want to give this one a pass. The game does provide some basic challenges for you to complete for achievements, such as navigating mazes and busting targets, but these feel like afterthoughts compared to the four-player mayhem of the main mode. You can try to take on AI-controlled opponents there, of course — but again, there’s something missing compared to sharing the experience with other people.
Whether you’re taking a crack at it by your lonesome or with a living room full of pals, however, there’s no denying the sharpness of Starwhal’s visual aesthetic. The cumulative effect brings to mind the metallic, electronic, neon-tinged days of the best 1980s schlock, and it is glorious. Thanks to an expansive selection of stages, there’s no lack of variety, and the artistry on hand is always a delight to behold — especially when it comes to the detailed backgrounds and flashy particle effects. Thankfully, the audio presentation fits right along with this, even if it’s a bit more contemporary; while this reviewer personally would have loved to see the ’80s cheese go all the way in the vein of Hotline Miami or Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon, the game’s energetic, electro-tinged tunes serve perfectly well as a backdrop to the brightly-colored battles.
Starwhal serves up a charming, affectionate tribute to the days when local multiplayer was the standard — and it’s so effective in its wringing of nostalgic memories that it’s difficult to fault it on more serious critical grounds. If there are a few points to gripe about, it’s that the longevity of the title as a replayable multiplayer favorite is sort of questionable, and that there’s really not much the game has to offer for those going it alone. But this was built from the ground up for more than just one player, after all, and it does capture the ebullience of on-the-couch chaos at a time when that cherished tradition seems to be fading in favor of online competition (Halo 5, I’m looking at you).
This review is based on the Xbox One version of the game, which we were provided with.
Starwhal was built for local multiplayer, and that's where it shines best. Its hilarious flip-and-flop gameplay gets a lot of mileage out of the numerous modes and stages, and the bright neon graphics are delightfully '80s.