I never really was a fan of beat 'em ups. Sure, I enjoyed them back in their heyday, but I've never held them to the high, high pedestals of platformers, RPGs, and the like.

Scott Pilgrim, though, changed that, a good 15 to 20 years after the peak of the brawler's popularity. It is by far the best beat 'em up I have ever played. Everything is balanced, cheap tactics can't be abused, and the game throws a high level of difficulty at you without being unfair. That's not to say it isn't frustrating - but then again, frustration is one of those things I associate with the genre. It wouldn't be a beat 'em up if you couldn't get pummeled by four guys at once because you mistimed a counter or punch.

Right off the bat, Pilgrim establishes a firm mastery of the genre. The first level recaps the events of the first book loosely (in other words, you fight Matthew Patel). You travel through the streets of Toronto, beating the hell out of anyone that dares attack you - and all the enemy types are different. You have the standard mook in a blue cap and white jacket who serves as the game's Goomba - he never blocks and has low damage and health. You have a guy with a flat top and brown shirt who is much more formidable, chaining attacks together, using aerial moves, and blocking frequently. Then there's one of my most dreaded enemies - a blonde-haired guy who blocks almost everything and only stops to run away and grab a random object to throw at you from far away. Then you have giant, muscular guys who deal a ton of damage and have unblockable attacks, and a fat dude who only is hurt by heavy attacks. An emo guy who is ridiculously fast appears not long afterwards. This is still the first level, by the way. Moving on, you'll find a ton of environmental hazards as well, in the form of speeding cars and lumbering buses. Eventually, you'll finally reach Patel, and it's here that you'll get your first taste of the incredibly fun boss battles. Patel, fittingly, is a pushover, but his flaming attacks and demon hipster chick summons all make for one hell of a great fight.

The first level was pleasantly surprising, but the game only gets better. In the interest of not transforming this from a review to a summary, I'll stop going through the levels, but know that the other boss battles are just as fun, if not more so, and the coming stages more creatively designed than the first.

The mechanics complement the system perfectly. You start off with pretty much three attacks - light, heavy, and aerial. Fortunately, a system of experience which correlates to how much damage you deal is incorporated, and every time you level up, you gain a new move. Level 2 gives you a new light and heavy attack while running. Other notable attacks which are unlocked in this manner include an aerial stomp (which bounces you back into the air in position for another stomp), a double jump which also deals light damage, a counterattack, and a "tech attack", which is an extremely powerful, often unblockable attack which is unique for each character. Alongside this is an RPG-esque stat system. You collect coins from defeated enemies, and buy food, drink, and accessories at stores. These heal you and boost your stats - strength, willpower, defense, and speed. By the time you cap these stats out at 100 each, you'll be hitting for five to six times your standard damage, be many times as fast, and take about eight times the damage before losing a life. If you spend your money wisely, it's entirely possible to beat the game without returning to previous levels to grind money, even on the hardest difficulty setting.

For all the merits of the main game, multiplayer is where Pilgrim shines. Plugging in extra controllers causes additional enemies to spawn and gives bosses additional minions. Teamwork is essential. A downed player will begin to die (in a manner similar, of all things, to Borderlands). After 10 seconds, they lose a life, but a player who is still alive and well can still rapidly tap O to revive the player with minimal health. This is harder than it sounds, since a single attack will interrupt the resurrection. Additionally, a new, awe-inspiring band attack can be used in multiplayer by taunting at the same time - and it is awesome. Aside from the additions to the gameplay, multiplayer is just plain fun. Beating up dozens of guys by taking turns juggling them in the air is great, and so is rescuing your pal from being mauled by four or five guys. Fortunately, drop-in multiplayer was added in a recent patch, but no online play is available - truly sad, as this game would have benefited immensely from it.

This game is so great, and I truly cannot recommend it any more. Nonetheless, there are some flaws which I feel I should point out. They are all the more evident because the rest of the game is so God-awfully good.

  • Again, no online play. This doesn't make the game any worse, per se, but it still would have been welcome.
  • Brevity. I understand it's a downloadable game, and well worth the $10 price, but the second and third levels are very short. The first and sixth levels aren't much better. Even the longest level - the final one - probably lasts 30 minutes, tops. A good player can clear the game with a fresh character in under 90 minutes relatively easily.
  • Side-screen ambush. A great deal of beat 'em ups suffer from this. It's when enemies spawn from the sides of the screen and instantly attack you before you can realistically defend yourself. The solution is simple in theory - stay in the center - but that isn't always easy. Also, the ninjas in the fourth level are so fast that even if you stand in the center, they can still rush in and deal hefty damage before you can react. Definitely annoying.
  • Side-screen aggro fail. This only happens rarely, when an enemy beyond the sides of the screen simply won't come into the field of play, and you can't advance. Simply waiting a few minutes usually causes the enemy to wander into the field, but still, it's annoying.
  • Difficulty. This one didn't affect me much, but players new to the genre, and even some who have played brawlers before, will still get torn up after playing on the lowest difficulty. I'm not criticizing the higher ones here - they're supposed to be extremely hard, but "Average Joe" should be a good deal easier.
  • Throwing objects can hurt teammates or yourself. Not a big deal early on, but when you gain strength, you throw things faster. This causes them to hurt you a great deal, and at higher levels of strength, if you miss an enemy after throwing something, chances are good that the object will rebound off the screen boundary and hit you in the face.

I highly, highly, highly recommend this game to any fan of Scott Pilgrim, beat 'em ups, or both. Have fun!