It lacks in single-player content, with Grand Prix mode and various mini-games that become tiresome quickly. It is yet to be seen how long this can hold the interest of any one playing alone. That said, it is a meaty fighting game and, under the cartoony visuals, lie some interesting and complex mechanics.
Developer: Nintendo EPD
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Release Date: 16th June 2017 (WW)
ARMS is a strange beast. On the one hand, it has all the fundamentals to make a strong fighting game. It has deep yet simplistic mechanics – easy to pick up and play but will take you a long time to fully master. Conversely, it has a series of game modes that, beyond the first playthrough, aren’t much fun, and a grand prix mode that runs out of steam very early on.
As Nintendo’s newest IP, ARMS looks to do for fighting games what Splatoon did for the third-person shooter – make them more accessible. Arms certainly does that. It offers up a range of cartoony and bizarre characters to pit against one another in a variety of different arenas, each offering a strategic difference over the other. The selling point is that each fighter has springy, extendable arms to batter each other with, with battles that are fought from the distance as opposed to getting close to your opponent. This results in an interesting concept for a fighting game, the thing is though, for as whacky and zany, or whatever fun adjectives you want to throw at them, there’s just not a lot to the fighters.
I guess that is a banal criticism to throw at ARMS, considering the primary focus is on fighting and not characterisation, but it just seems a missed opportunity. The Grand Prix, being the centrepiece of the single-player content, offers slight backstory to each fighter – but not much beyond that. Each fighter also comes with a set of ‘arms’ to choose from when waiting for each fight to load, but even these do little to differentiate fighters as all fighters can make use of the same arms once you have unlocked them all. For balancing the game, this makes sense, but just makes them all feel so samey.
While we’re on the subject, the arms you can choose to, well, arm your chosen character each deliver different effects. For example: Some arms act as rockets, some as wrecking balls, some electrocute and freeze – you get the picture. They are unlockable by in-game currency, earned by winning battles in Grand Prix, versus mode and some of the mini-games. Earning these coins is a decent way of incentivising replay if the collectophile in you wants to unlock each arm variant, but again, that just depends on what kind of gamer you are. For those with more ‘casual’ sensitivities, the variety of game modes wear thin quickly.
There are several, smaller in-game modes, such as volley ball, hoops, skill shot and 1 in 100. By description alone, they sound simplistic and that they require little in the way of instruction, but by bizarre controls, they can be a bit frustrating on the first go as the game drops you into each one with little by the way of tutorials. They serve as a good breakway from the Grand Prix mode, although after you’ve played a few matches of each and gotten used to how they all work, they become tiresome.
This seems to be systemic of ARMS’ control-system, which results in an odd learning curve to overcome. Nintendo clearly want to make the JoyCon the main control system, but the motion controls are just too finicky and require too much precision to truly be used in competitive play. I stood in my room on a hot June afternoon, sweating and getting angrier by the second when my fighter just wouldn’t move or block, resulting in a few cheap losses. Switching to the pro-controller provided much more flexibility in how the game played and, as a result, a more enjoyable experience.
The real bulk of fun will come from the online party mode, which can feature lobbies of up to twenty players over ten systems, randomly pairing each fighter. Ranked matches also allow for competitive online play and Nintendo’s apparent aim is to make ARMS the next big, online game – much like Splatoon. But unlike Splatoon, online functionality seems to be where the main appeal lies and, even more unlike Splatoon, it seems a very unwelcoming game for anyone interested in a single-player experience with some longevity. Sure, you can complete the Grand Prix with each different fighter, at each different difficulty, and unlock each different arm variant, but for how long that will hold interest, remains to be seen.
Still, despite all of this, ARMS is an incessantly fun game to play. Its combat, which is slow-paced and methodical, in contrast to the game’s bright and colourful appearance, is addictive and when things are going well, it offers that kind of heart-thumping, adrenaline rush offered by the best fighting games. If nothing else, ARMS is mechanically sound and requires some real mastery to effectively curl your punches, dodge and block your opponents moves, and to ensure each blow connects at just the right time. It would be easy to dismiss ARMS as a revamped Wii Boxing with a bit more flair, but Nintendo’s first new IP since Splatoon and first big exclusive for Nintendo Switch has value. It just depends on your priorities and sensibilities as a gamer. For the first time, I’ve encountered a Nintendo title that I can’t genuinely say is going to be accessible to everyone. Again, that’s not really such a bad thing – you just need to be aware of what you’re getting into.