Quite a lot of games out this year, but I stuck to my niches, so expect to hear a lot about fighting games.
About as soon as I got home from my vacation, I joined the rest of the planet playing Monster Hunter World. With a difficulty curve low enough for the average masher, Monster Hunter is now finally a household name, and I’m fine with the trade-off. The elements that MHW smoothed out — especially interface — were in desperate need of smoothing, and World still offers a very robust monster hunting campaign.
The endgame content is lacking and grindy, but it’ll take you 80 hours minimum to arrive at that point. I nearly made it to 300 hours this year, myself! The difference between this and other long-haul RPGs is that between planning the hunt, micro-managing my gear, and fighting the monster, World’s tasks are things I actually want to do.
Except Kulve Taroth. That’s pure grind.
Dragon Ball Fighterz was the big fighting game release of the year, and I don’t think anyone can overstate its impact on the genre. With beautiful graphics, simple controls, and extremely hardcore gameplay, DBFZ really blew the doors open for the genre to new audiences. By shamelessly copying the core mechanics of Marvel Vs. Capcom 2 and fixing them with their deep genre know-how, Arc System Works made a better game than Marvel and Capcom could muster themselves.
That being said, I didn’t stick with the game for long. The simplified controls, using a number of Dragon Ball gimmicks like ki beams, power dashes, and teleportation, allow players to move exactly like a Dragon Ball character with thoughtless ease. Anyone who can press buttons will feel amazing playing this game. That strength is also its weakness.
The catch is that high-level play feels a little one-dimensional as a result. With only a few variations in attack patterns and defensive moves, experienced players quickly “see it all”. In the Marvel style, the best characters are all strengths and no weaknesses, invalidating the rest of the cast by their existence. Your team has one or two of those, and then the rest of the team depends on who backs up the others the best.
Though players make constant breakthroughs in combo and offensive technique, everyone pretty much plays Dragon Ball FighterZ the same way, and tournament sets can get numbingly long.
DBFZ was the best thing to happen to fighting games this year, and a great Marvel, but it ain’t my game.
The Yakuza series deluge continued, a combination of an aggressive release schedule and a backlog of Western releases. Series newbies should start on 0 or Kiwami, but Kiwami 2 is a fantastic remake that adds every possible trimming to what was already a modern masterpiece. Play ’em all once you’ve started, but Kiwami 2 is a real highlight.
Yakuza 6 has two things going on. One: it’s a “first game on a new engine”, meaning it’s a bit lower on content than you’re used to from a game like 0. Second: Similar to Metal Gear Solid 4, it wants very badly to put a bow on Kazuma Kiryu’s story and give the character a well-earned retirement, but corporate interests will absolutely not allow this. Great story, amazing performance by Beat Takeshi. People who think badly of Haruka because of Yakuza 6 aren’t human.
My biggest disappointment of the year was the Yakuza team’s Fist of the North Star: Lost Paradise, a mere B-grade game in a sea of A to A+ masterpieces. I’m a big fan of FOTNS, but not of this game’s clunky progression or constant forced diversions meant to cover for its thin plot. It’s kind of a design lesson in how *not* to pull off a Yakuza game. Before this game came out, I said it was the one Yakuza I was willing to complete 100%. This year, I couldn’t bring myself to push through the main story.
Turning in work for every major fighting game to get released this year (and a couple of the minors) has turned me on to stuff I wouldn’t necessarily have cared about. Take Blazblue Cross Tag Battle. This was regarded with a lot of skepticism and confusion by fans as a cash-in on old art assets and a dumbing-down of Arc’s famously difficult fighting games… but really, it wasn’t any of that. BBTag made a truly new game out of old parts.
This game gives you easy basic controls, but its tag-team battles don’t hold back on heavy systems and mechanics at all: often you’ll effectively be playing both characters at the same time. Like DBFZ, there is a little bit of Marvel Vs. Capcom in there, but unlike DBFZ there’s a wide range of combat styles and tons of room for player creativity. In just a few short months of tournament play, BBTag was looking like a completely different game than at its launch.
I would have skipped this game if not for work. Instead, I chose it over Dragon Ball Fighterz and played 2000 matches. Good show, Arc.
On my way out of a particularly hectic stretch at work I realized I didn’t want to play a stressful video game. I wanted to relax. Even though I love arcade and fighting games, they take a lot of continuous mental exertion as opposed to other genres. You have to be at your sharpest to play at your best, and staying in the zone can be mentally taxing for something that’s supposed to be entertainment, a relief. What I needed was Dragon Quest XI. You probably need it too.
Most criticism of this game brings up how antiquated the game is, but I see it as classical. Don’t get me wrong: I think the interface needs help, and so do the weird brass noises that pop up throughout the game’s SNES-era synth soundtrack.
But more often than not, Dragon Quest’s “if it ain’t broke” attitude works out. It has a perfectly self-adjusting difficulty curve: fight excessively to make yourself overpowered for the next boss, or play the game in “Hard” mode by deliberately avoiding battles. It’s got a perfect party and character building system that allows you to fight and win any way you want to. And “young hero versus demon lord” stories aren’t the freshest material in RPGs, but the Dragon Quest XI world is so full of warmth and life that you’re compelled to save it.
Though the game is gorgeous, it’s not the technology that makes it so good. It’s all of the oldest tricks in the book, applied with extreme thought and care by veterans. The reason the tricks lived long enough to get old is that they work.
Like many arcade-bred fighting game fanatics, I tend to ignore Smash Brothers. There’s a real rift between these fan bases and even some animosity. Smash players only play, know, or care about Smash: they walk out of Evo before the main event en masse because “who cares, Melee is over”. That attitude offends the traditionalists, fighting game omnivores who are still loath to even call Smash a “fighting game” at all. It’s easy to forget that 15 years or so ago Street Fighter players refused to acknowledge the existence of any game that didn’t have the word “Capcom” on the box.
Well, this year I played Smash, and it finally all clicked. Is it my favorite? Nope. I’ll never truly love analog controls versus the extreme precision and level of control that digital controls give you… no matter how good the Switch Pro pad is. (Other people probably feel the opposite way!) But I do love what 1v1 no-items Smash does on a fundamental level. It’s a zoning game. It’s Kirby with punches and kicks. How can I hate that? I’ve sunk deep into online play with random people and I’m actually getting… close to Elite Smash? (It helps that Peach is as strong as she is.)
I guess the other stuff is fine, too, but as soon as I unlocked that last character I walked away from single-player entirely.
Koihime Enbu is really hard to sell people on because you have to at some point acknowledge it’s based on an adult visual novel, which is why I never said went anywhere near that subject when I wrote it up for Polygon.
If that doesn’t bother you, this game happens to be one of the finer pursuits in life. Modern game developers can’t make a simple fighting game like this because of constant pressure to have more for the sake of more. It can’t just be two characters poking each other with sticks the whole time. But Koihime is an indie, so it *can be*.
In the mode of the all-time masterpiece Samurai Shodown 2, just walk back and forth and try and stab each other. Attacking from the proper range and reading your opponent’s movement wins the day here. Big fancy combos exist, but they don’t dominate. Classical fighting, easily understood, and the number one fighting game I would give to a beginner.
Soulcalibur 6 made me realize what a blind spot this series has been for me. I’m not at all opposed to Soulcalibur, but the last time I bought one was the second, fifteen years ago. After that, SC had a long run of messed-up or competitively broken games that I stayed away from on reputation, and then one solid entry I missed. By contrast, I was into SC6 from the first tournament build and I eagerly pushed for a guide for the game at Polygon.
Now that I’ve put some real time into both Soulcalibur and Tekken, it strikes me just how good SC’s core systems are. This game explicitly simplifies Tekken, taking the wave-dashing movement techniques that have to be mastered in Tekken and simply making them basic movements that anyone can do. The attacks do exactly what they look like they do; the blade trails were such an innovation. The game lays out everything so clearly without having to actually explain itself.
SC6 does a lot of refinement and the result lands right in the sweet spot of things I enjoy in fighting games: big damage, heavy zoning and hard reads. I love shuffling around the ring. Though as a newbie, it really confuses me why you’d even make a character as strong as Ivy…
Fighting EX Layer is an actual 90s videogame released in 2018, and that’s not a knock. Arika, developers of the Street Fighter EX series, have gotten the band back together and put out a Street Fighter EX update without all of that Capcom-owned Street Fighter. It plays mostly like you remember it; nice and simple with some small modernizations and new ideas.
Some of the new ideas are too crazy to come out of a modern fighting game. How about a gem that gives you super armor if you lose the round and super combos if you win?! Players can choose legitimately wild powers like homing jumps and invisibility that they must activate slowly over the course of the match. It gives players a meta layer without over-complicating things too much, and it gives them power to build up to without it dominating the entire game.
Go into the options and turn up the volume on the music. It’s awesome, and they’ve got it way too low.
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