I’m sure I’ve said this before in some other reviews, but side-scrolling beat ‘em ups were my bread and butter growing up in Jersey. Whether it was X-Men or Turtles in Time, I would spend the majority of my quarters at the Electric Circuit arcade on those machines (and still fall into the trap at some of LA’s finer barcades that feature those cabinets now). So, it was with a childlike fervor that I jumped into Way of the Passive Fist, a love letter to those old-school brawlers that also offers a few unique twists that help solve the problems those classic beat ‘em ups faced.
Players take on the role of The Wanderer, a product of the volatile but mineral-rich planet of Zircon V who stalks its nearly uninhabitable wastes. Those minerals have lured in many from across the galaxy looking to get rich quick off the planet’s resources, but few are prepared for what the wastes hold quite like our protagonist. You see, The Wanderer has mastered the Art of the Passive Fist—a defensive fighting style that allows him to absorb and channel the energy expelled towards him to wear his opponents down. However, the balance is shifted when foes stronger than any he has seen before arrive on Zircon V—foes which wield enhancements similar to The Wanderer’s own mechanical gauntlet.
Way of the Passive Fist gets right to the point when it comes to what it’s about. Like the cartoons a lot of those late ‘80s/early ‘90s beat ‘em ups were based on, there isn’t a lot of story in this game—beyond telling you right away that you’re an anti-hero of sorts who is forced to save his hellish world because it’s all he’s got. Of course, older games had cartoons and comic books to help flesh out the story for potential players, so filling in narrative gaps wasn’t always a necessary task for the game. We don’t have that here with The Wanderer, and it’s sad, because it feels like a terrific world that would be ripe for further development if it wasn’t so focused on tapping into nostalgia. I could easily see the Wanderer as the star of a Saturday morning cartoon with his own action figure line, or even teaming up with other popular heroes in weird crossovers. As is—and without all the benefit of transmedia—I would’ve loved if Way of the Passive Fist could’ve given me just a tad more than it does in terms of The Wanderer’s tale.
The main reason why I want to know more about The Wanderer and Zircon V is because the rest of Way of the Passive Fist is so good. The bright, bold colors, variety of locations across the game’s 10 stages, zany henchmen that cross The Wanderer’s path, and surprising amount of enemy variety (even with the prerequisite palette swaps to signify a harder variation on each) gave Way of the Passive Fist an authentic cartoon vibe that was a feast for these older eyes. It emulates that early 90s aesthetic perfectly, as does the music, which features a tubular tempo that will get your foot tapping while the Wanderer dispatches the brightly-colored foes in his path.
What’s most impressive, though, is beyond these surface aesthetics. As hinted at in the game’s title, The Wanderer is a passive hero—instead of throwing a flurry of punches, kicks, or offensive special moves at his opponents, he lets the fight come to him. Every time an enemy tries to punch you, your job is to parry it. A successful parry will drain the stamina of the enemy, and if they run out of stamina, they will hunch over exhausted, meaning The Wanderer only has to tap them to knock them out. Some enemies will try to grab you, requiring you to dodge; others will throw things at you, which you can either parry or dodge (though a successful dodge on most of these items will let you throw them back for massive damage). Every enemy (and palette swap) has a different pattern to their attacks, so learning these patterns and how to react accordingly is necessary for success. This idea provides a fresh challenge on what is otherwise an always-straightforward genre.
While you parry your way through the adventure, you’ll also build up a combo counter. Longer combo chains will power up The Wanderer’s power gauntlet, allowing him to unleash rare offensive moves to expedite your fights. For example, a Power Punch is great for taking out a single enemy, whereas the harder-to-charge Super Slam is effective at crowd control. And, later in the game, you can unlock the Gravity Well, a screen-clearing super move that requires a combo of 25 or higher which is best reserved for dire straits. Of course, if you miss even a single parry or dodge, the counter resets, and so does the power meter—making that pattern recognition all the more important and raising the stakes for when exactly to use your special abilities.
What might be the most impressive thing about this parry-only system, however, is that it solves long-time issues found in those old-school beat ‘em ups. There is nothing more frustrating in these types of games than to think you have an opponent lined up for an attack, only to whiff because your character is slightly out of alignment with your opponent, with poor hit detection meaning your attack was for naught. Instead, enemies always having to attack you means the AI takes care of this as the enemy is always going to be aimed right at you, and all you have to do is time your button presses properly. And, even if you break that line, most times the enemy will reset, or a different, closer enemy will move in to attack. It’s a simple solution to a problem that has plagued beat ‘em ups for as far back as I can remember, and it was welcome because it really allowed me to focus on my timing more than anything.
There were a couple of hiccups with the system, however. When looking to go on the attack myself with a super move that wasn’t Gravity Well, I’d still occasionally miss if I didn’t wait for the enemy to come to me. Also, when you get later in the game and start dealing with enemies with more complex patterns, you might be tempted to position yourself so that weaker enemies with easier patterns can be used to build that combo meter again. Sometimes multiple enemies would activate, however, and two enemies would attack me simultaneously. While The Wanderer is very adept with Passive Fist, it does have the drawback that you have to always be facing your opponent to properly parry, and can only parry one move at a time. It’s a small glitch, and it didn’t happen often—but when it did, it was frustrating.
Way of the Passive Fist also solves another problem those old-school quarter munchers have had in recent years: replayability. When X-Men and Turtles in Time were recently re-released on home consoles with unlimited continues as an option, the charm and replayability that came about due to a lack of lives went by the wayside, leaving their lack of depth to become startling apparent. There’s already a lot more depth of gameplay in Way of the Passive Fist to start with, but it goes so far as to also offer four special sliders that can change the way you play each and every time.
I beat the game on “Way of the Warrior”, which is basically as “Medium” as you can get in Way of the Passive Fist. But, if I wanted, I could’ve cranked the Enemy Strength and Enemy Encounters number way up and turned it into “Way of the Bold Eternal Warrior” where each chapter would have extra scenes (each chapter’s smaller sections) and enemies with stronger stamina bars. I could also have made achieving combos easier by turning down Combo Mastery, so that even late parries add to my combo meter, or turned down Resourcefulness, which would have given me more health items and checkpoints. There’s any number of combinations between these four meters that make each time you play Way of the Passive Fist different than the last. And, once you beat the 10 chapters in Story (including the somewhat disappointing final boss fight), you also unlock Arcade Mode, which channels those quarter-munching days of old by giving you only a certain number of lives to try to complete the game, adding more challenge and replayability to the experience for us arcade veterans.
Way of the Passive Fist is a beautiful ode to a genre whose glory days are behind it. It’s inventive solutions to problems that have been around for generations should be appreciated, and it’s a terrific opportunity for those of us who grew up in arcades to experience something new that would’ve fit right in three decades ago. I’m not sure if the new generation of gamers will be as into it, but it made me crave a slice of greasy pizza and a soda while basking in a sense of nostalgia like few games have been able to give me recently. So, if you love beat ‘em ups like I do, Way of the Passive Fist is a unique challenge that you should definitely check out.
Way of the Passive Fist is a game out of time (in a good way). It feels like it would’ve fit right in alongside arcade cabinets from 30-years ago, with its cartoon color scheme and over-the-top soundtrack. But it’s got a modern twist that solves a lot of old-school beat ‘em ups’ biggest problems and delivers a terrific overall experience with a cornucopia of options to keep you coming back for more.
T – Teen
|Way of the Passive Fist is available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC. Primary version played was for Xbox One. Code/hardware was provided by Household Games for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.|