Nintendo hopes to maintain the momentum of the Switch with Arms. Is this yet another success story for the new console?
Let's first take a look at what Nintendo's big new IP is all about. Arms is a fighting game where in 3D arenas you'll go up against a single opponent, and you'll beat up each other by using combination attacks, grabs, charged strikes and well, that's pretty much it, at least at first glance. Every character naturally has a unique fighting style, movement pattern, visual design and fittingly uninteresting backstory, and you can take one of these 10 characters into online matches, a single-player Grand Prix mode, or regular offline versus fights.
Structurally, the nature of the content on display is fairly familiar, but Arms attempts to make up for this by twisting your expectations. You see, in Arms you don't punch with your fists per say, or... you do, but rather you fire your fists as projectiles at your adversary. A tiny elastic rope is tied between said fists and the remainder of your arm, and so it automatically ropes them back in once fired, so you can keep punching at a distance. This tiny mechanical addition doesn't sound like much, but it fundamentally changes your approach to one on one combat. Instead of getting in close at the offset of battle, it's more tactically sound to distance yourself from the enemy, allowing you more time to dodge or block an incoming attack. Perhaps your foe makes the critical mistake of firing both his or her fists at you, and you can exploit this by dodging or jumping over the incoming fire. It adds a massive tactical dimension to otherwise well-known proceedings, and often you'll find yourself marvelling at the fact that this simple addition makes for a completely different mechanical experience.
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Nintendo is once again showing us how innovation is done. But, with added depth comes a learning curve, and in Arms there's much to learn. When we first jumped into the Grand Prix, we optimistically selected difficulty 4 out 10, and we had to call it quits after four matches. To put it mildly, you'll be beaten to a pulp.
In our case it was all about being properly introduced to one particular character, and sticking with them to learn the various moves, combinations and the like. As fighting game aficionados can testify to, it can be difficult to keep track of many characters at a time, and so we fell in love with a mummy, and an angry one at that. Apparently, according to the generic introduction texts, he's searching for his long lost family (it's unclear how partaking in a martial arts tournament will solve that problem), and so we teamed up for what would ultimately become a fruitful collaboration. After a match or two you start to get the hang of the setup. The key is to be way more defensive than you otherwise would be, opting for a more passive strategy, moving sideways around the arena and waiting for your opponent to make a mistake. The AI-controlled enemy does the same, however, and so it's crucial to know when to strike, and not fall into the trap of trying to deal a lot of damage, but waiting for the ideal window and inflict short small bursts. Still, our opponent proved too much for us, and it quickly became apparent why.
In Arms, your fists are not only fired like projectiles, they are also interchangeable, and through this system it's possible to drastically adapt your style to any given situation. Perhaps you'd like a left fist that fires three small projectiles, while your right hand has a laser which fires from a safe distance without seeking out your target. There are shields, stun moves, fists with more spread, and much more. There are many fists to choose from, and they all fundamentally change the way you do battle. These are unlocked by earning points from the various modes, and you'll earn a small amount from winning fights, partaking in a Grand Prix and the like.
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When you've gathered enough points, a short target practice mini-game determines how many new fists you can unlock. This system works well for altering your mechanical setup quickly, but offers little to no customisation for the characters. In terms of diversity, Nintendo has attempted to alleviate the lack of structural variety by including little distractions in-between matches, giving players the chance to play basketball where you have to dunk your opponent with a grab, or volleyball where you fire your fists at the ball. However, it does little to shield the fact that beyond adding new fists to your characters, Arms ultimately offers the same experience across all of its modes. The 10 matches of the Grand Prix are the same, every time.
And here we arrive at the root of the problem. You see, Arms works brilliantly as a fighting game, and over the course of the described learning curve, it was incredibly entertaining to be thrown head first into this tactically deep experience, grow with the task and ultimately succeed. The problem is that Arms is a fighting game, and despite its obvious innovative hook, it's launching alongside other games of the same ilk which offer a wide variety of structurally varied content, customisation options and epic campaigns. If you're a fan of the genre, you'll sorely miss these features, and while you may enjoy fighting in Arms, the nature of pitting the same 10 characters up against each other over and over under the same circumstances, gets frustratingly, resoundingly samey.
Now, bickering over what's the "proper" amount of content for a premium video game is not the most intriguing debate you'll hear, but in this particular case it's tempting. The Grand Prix is identical every time, with the same end boss, the Versus mode is just sectioned off versions of the Grand Prix, the character count ultimately feels tiny as you're forced to fight the same opponents over and over, and even online is just that... only fighting online. The lack of variety really ends up hurting the experience, and despite the excitement of unlocking new fists, and an even match online that can be exhilarating, Arms lacks something. Whether that is an attempt at a satirical campaign that attempts to contextualise the characters and the tournament, a kind of points ladder with modifiers which would add more meaning to the Grand Prix, or more customisable characters from a visual standpoint, we don't know, but the rather than just lacking mere content, Arms lacks breadth.
You won't grow tired of the looks though, luckily, and despite its lack of breadth, it's worth complimenting Nintendo for once more finding a visual style which uses colour to perfectly express joy, creativity and beauty. All of it running at a silky smooth frame rate of 60fps, which is, of course, an industry standard for proper fighting games, but still, Arms is beautifully smooth.
In a way though, Arms fit right in with something like Snipperclips: Cut it out, together! and Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. It's a great local multiplayer game, and sitting in front of the screen with a friend can be incredibly entertaining. It's an experience that's been designed to be had with others, but Arms falters in providing you with a varied enough experience to warrant your attention for more than a few days. Once you've played for a few hours, you've seen all there is to see, tried all there is to try and experienced all that the game has to offer. There's not customisation, 10 characters are not enough, and there's no reason to go back into the Grand Prix once you've experienced it. In this particular case, Nintendo may have succeeded in innovating a genre, but ultimately failed to provide players with enough meat on the bone.
7 / 10
Great visual style, Tactical depth, Solid mechanics, Perfect for local multiplayer.
Not enough structural variation, No character customisation, No ranking system.