By William Haderlie / January 9th, 2018
One of the genres that hits me right square in the nostalgia button is the sidescrolling brawler. Sadly, it seems to be a genre that has largely been abandoned to the annals of time. While some of the earlier genres (such as the sidescrolling platformer and space shooter) are still alive and well, it is extremely rare to see a brawler these days. It could be said that it is a very simplistic genre that we have largely grown beyond, but I still remember how much fun they were in the past. There were a couple entries on the Atari that could be referred to as nascent brawlers, but the main location where the genre really picked up steam was in arcades. Double Dragon was an early series that really became a phenomenon when it was released on the NES a couple years after its arcade run. Even though Double Dragon was a lot of fun for me, it never compelled me to invest quite as many quarters into it as the next phenomenon did, Final Fight. Until Street Fighter II arrived, also from Capcom, Final Fight was the arcade cabinet that I spent the most time and most quarters on. Not only was it beautiful to look at, featuring huge character sprites and a distinctive art style, but it also had a skill barrier that was rather addictive to pit yourself against. But after many entries in the Double Dragon, Final Fight, and Streets of Rage series the genre seemed to largely disappear. That is perhaps the main reason why, from the first trailer, I have been very excited to get my hands on Way of the Passive Fist.
Way of the Passive Fist is a new sidescrolling bralwer being released early 2018 from Household Games. It’s set to be released on Steam for the PC (the version that I demoed), PlayStation 4, and the XBox One. The first game that I thought of when I saw any preview images or trailers was Final Fight, not only because of the genre but also because of the massive pixel characters on the screen. Unlike the games Double Dragon and Streets of Rage, one of the initial draws of the series were those massive and interesting character models. However, unlike the desolation of a city gone foul, the desolation in this game is more comparable to Mad Max or Dune. Into this environment you enter as the mysterious Wanderer, and much like Kenshiro (Hokuto no Ken/Fist of the North Star), you take it upon yourself to clean house on all the mad bandits and raiders of the post-apocalyptic world.
The title of the game, Way of the Passive Fist, is not merely a pun on the word pacifist. Your primary way of fighting the waves of bad guys out to injure you is to parry and dodge their attacks until their stamina bars run out, then to basically push them over with your fingers. That may be some tongue in cheek fun on the surface, but it does also drastically effect the flow of the game as well. Unlike brawlers of the past, you don’t move towards any enemy and start attacking them, you instead wait for them to enter your space and when you see them about to strike, you parry with good timing. Also when you see them about to throw or make a strong attack, you dodge but with slightly different timing. This does two things: it exhausts their stamina gauge and it also builds up your combo meter. When an enemy’s stamina bar is exhausted they will bend over and start breathing heavily, at which point you can knock them over with a two fingered strike, or they will fall over when another enemy touches them. As you level up you will also be able to use your combo meter to unleash devastating attacks such as a power punch and a power grab. Each of those attacks will take out a massive chunk of enemy stamina and will usually one shot a standard grunt.
At the end of odd numbered levels there is a boss waiting, and each of those Scenes (the divide between fighting sections within each chapter) plays out a bit differently than what came before. First of all, they each have a bit of entry dialogue (once again reminiscent of Final Fight). But, more importantly, their stamina does not work the same way that your average grunt does. They don’t lose any stamina by parrying their attacks, and they each have an attack that also just has to be avoided by moving around. Instead, each of the two bosses that I’ve faced against also comes with a retinue of guards that you will need to take out in order to build up your combo meter. Once you have built up to a power punch or power grab, you have to use that on the boss in order to take down their (much larger) meter. Of course, the tricky part of this is that on standard difficulties your combo meter will be lost when taking a single hit after building it up. So you will need to take out at least two or three of the minions without being hit a single time and then not get hit again while you make your way back over to the boss to strike them. It can make those fights pretty long until you get all your timings down.
One of the more modern innovations in the game can help you if you absolutely do not have the reflexes or rhythm to build up your combo meter, and that is the difficulty menu. Instead of just having the standard difficulty selections that have been around since the late 1980s, you can instead go much more in depth with the areas in which you feel that you are the weakest and the strongest. You have this screen available to you before every Chapter, and you can also use it to slowly adjust your practice when you replay levels as a way to train your reflexes. When you click on each of those bars on the screen it will describe to you what you are changing. For instance, the combo mastery will allow you to not lose your combo meter entirely when you are hit by an enemy, and resourcefulness will alter health pickups and checkpoint saves. Also a fun little aspect to this screen is that your character sprite on the left changes with each of the many different combinations that you come up with. No doubt a lot of work went into this nice little bonus, and I appreciate the developers for putting in the time.
I was only able to test out the first three Chapters of Story Mode, but there is also an Arcade Mode that will be available with the release. But even with my limited time in the game, I was really happy with what Household Games has produced thus far. The pixel art was especially fantastic, but the music was also fun and reminiscent of the old brawlers. Each level only takes about 15-30 minutes to complete, so this is potentially a very good game to just pick up and play. You can already pre-order the game over at the Humble Bundle site for $14.99, so I would expect that to be the price on the PlayStation 4 and XBox One as well. Even from the hour or two that I’ve played, that seems like an extremely reasonable price. Pixel art is often said to be very time consuming and expensive, but when it’s done right it can be a very wonderful aesthetic, so that price is quite good for the amount of effort that this developer is putting in. And not only does it take an old, and underutilized, genre into the modern age, but it also innovates on it. I’m left, after this impression playthrough, with the overwhelming desire to continue playing this game when it is fully released.
brawlerHousehold GamesPCPlayStation 4sidescrollingSteamWay of the Passive FistXbox One