The best combat mechanics in games are often the ones that place emphasis on reading enemy attacks and then countering or dodging them at just the right time. Dark Souls, Bayonetta, Punch-Out, and more operate with this philosophy of taking advantage of enemy assaults to supplement your own. But what happens when countering and dodging isn’t just a supplement to combat but the only way to dispose of opponents?
Enter Way of the Passive Fist, an independently produced, arcade brawler-style game developed by Household Games Inc. The developers were kind enough to give Heavy.com a preview build of the game to check out their innovative take on the brawler genre.
The game puts you in the sandy boots of the Wanderer who travels across the forsaken planet of Zircon V while battling against legions of raiders, mutants, and sun-worshiping fanatics. Though you don’t really battle, per se.
As a follower of the Passive Fist technique, you block or dodge the attacks of enemies until they run out of stamina, at which point you can topple them over with your shove move. So instead of draining the enemy’s meter through your punches and kicks, they drain their meters with their own punches and kicks.
However, there’s a bit more to it than that. As you parry and dodge enemy attacks without getting hit, you’ll start racking up a combo meter. This not only makes your XP meter grow which makes you level up faster, but also allows you to actually fight back. Blocking five consecutive times grants you a Power Punch special move that can knock out an opponent instantly. As you level up, you’ll gain more special moves such as a slam attack that knocks out a grabbed opponent and damages opponents nearby.
In addition to that, you’ll have to contend with certain enemies that have grab attacks that can be dodged but not blocked as well as projectile-throwing enemies.
This concept of parrying and dodging to outlast an opponent while building up an attack to use at just the right moment can make for some really fun gameplay. It’s satisfying to block the patterns of an opponent at just the right time and then turn around to block a knife throw or to keep blocking an opponent and then immediately counter their attack with a massive punch. The whole combat system iterates on the classic brawler genre in a way that feels fresh and new. I’d be remiss not to mentioned how much you can customize the difficulty, with the player being able to raise or lower enemy groups size, enemy strength, health and checkpoint availability, and how strict the timing needs to be for a block to drive up the combo.
I also have to complement the art direction of the game. The graphics have a vibe akin to 90s LucasArts games, with a catchy soundtrack to boot. It definitely sticks out from the dreary mood of most post-apocalyptic games.
However, a good idea can only get you so far. From the preview build I played, I can see that this innovative idea quickly falls apart.
Every enemy has one attack pattern that they keep repeating over and over again. Since their animations are so exaggerated it’s relatively easy to figure out their attack patterns. Once you figure it out, combat essentially boils down to a memory game as you input the same button combinations over and over again for the corresponding enemies. It doesn’t help that many enemies are just recolored versions of a previous enemy with slightly harder attack patterns.
The game gives you a dash move to help you dodge attacks, but there’s little incentive to use it. Since you only get combos for blocking and dodging in place, you don’t use the dash move for much except for moving up to an enemy for a Power Punch or dodging mortar and laser fire.
In fact, the game often encourages you to stay in place. For some reason, enemies will wait to take a turn at attacking you. They will dash right in front of you, attack, and dash out of the way so that another enemy can do the same. Sometimes you don’t even need to switch directions to block attacks. For ruthless bandits, the enemies of Way of the Passive Fist are surprisingly polite and considerate. Brawlers like this are best when you’re constantly repositioning yourself to attack opponents and avoid attacks more efficiently. But this enemy behavior really kills that kind of flow.
What started out as badass, ninja-like dodging and parrying skirmishes devolve into you doing the same things over and over again. The repetition of enemy patterns and the almost orderly fashion in which they attack you ensures that you get bored early. This is further compounded by palette-swapped enemies with only slightly more difficult attacks and stages consisting of one long stretch of land and eight fights with little variance between them.
Let’s talk about bosses. The only way to defeat bosses in Way of the Passive Fist is to attack them with super moves. Since your super dissipates the moment you get hit, it can lead to some frustrating gameplay. And nothing illustrates that point further than the second boss.
The sun-worshiping fanatic has two speedy poke attacks and then moves out of range to deliver a laser attack. For some reason, you cannot dash directly downward or upward – only horizontally and diagonally while moving up or down incrementally. Which means that if you’re stuck in a corner and don’t react soon enough to the lightning fast laser, you’re going to take a hit and lose whatever super you built up. On top of it all, you’re constantly harassed by the zealot’s two henchmen. I eventually figured out that you could dash into the boss before he fires off the laser and punch quickly, but the boss was such an uphill battle.
The preview build gave me three levels to play through but honestly I’m not too interested in playing the rest. I will commend Way of the Passive Fist for giving a genuine effort to stand out from the brawler crowd with both its fresh take on combat and its art style. But unfortunately the experiment didn’t exactly pan out thanks to its repetitive and easily exploited gameplay as well as how frustrating it can be. It took away the brawler genre’s more active parts of attacking while retaining the passive ones of blocking and dodging, but didn’t really fill in the gap it left. And the few times you can attack just feel like a bandage meant to keep the game from feeling too inactive.
Way of the Passive Fist came close to being a fun, exciting new take on brawlers, but its problems make it miss the mark.
If you want to check out Way of the Passive Fist for yourself, the game is releasing March 6 on PS4 and Steam. Check out Heavy.com for more gaming previews, reviews, guides, and more.