Game Review: ARMS (Switch)

ARMS, for all its comparisons, is a boxing game. If the colorful and vibrant characters of something like Overwatch were to exist in an equally colorful and vibrant version of Nintendo’s own Punch-Out, then it might look a little something like this. Nintendo has been breaking free of its comfort zone of producing countless Mario titles with the plump little plumber partaking in a variety of sports, party games, and laps around the track, to break into genres not normally particularly known for the publisher. Splatoon was their attempt at creating a tactical multiplayer shooter, and ARMS is Nintendo attempting to get a piece of the more traditional ‘one on one’ fighting genre, while still feeling entirely different than their own Smash Bros franchise.

ARMS delivers a very light jab with its content, a ten-round Grand Prix with no story to go along with these ten wonderfully designed characters. It’s the same issue I have with Overwatch, a game bursting at the seams with some of the most well-conceived characters in gaming, minus the narrative; it’s style over substance and it’s unfortunate.

The ten fighters that you can choose from will grow with future DLC, but what we have here is a selection of fighters that all have a little something that separates them from one another. Each fighter has special abilities that will assist in complimenting your style of play. Ribbon Girl can jump multiple times in the air to gain some height and distance away from your opponent. Ninjara, who can warp around as he dashes can also break free of grabs if you are fast enough. Master Mummy can take regular punches without even flinching, or retreat back and heal while blocking. There is also Min Min and her devastating Dragon Arm attack that can deal out some pretty decent damage.

The simplistic nature of how ARMS plays is reminiscent of fighting games during the Street Fighter II era, where it was simply who can get a few solid hits in and survive the match. The back and forth attacks weren’t dressed up in super flashy specials or learning complex controls. ARMS is at its core, Rock, Paper, Scissors. Its triangle system of Punch, Grab, and Block is essentially what it all comes down to. It’s rather hard to button mash in the game due to how this system works, making it more a game of reading your opponent and waiting to strike. Max Brass, the final boss in the Grand Prix mode, and the next free DLC character, was challenging until I notice certain movements he did that left him open for a grab, of which was his downfall. Charging in and trying to beat him on the offensive was the bad play, you need to be patient with him, wait to strike, and he’s yours.

While ARMS is being promoted with a heavy emphasis on motion controls, the game is still fully playable, and quite enjoyable, without them. I’ve played through the game’s Grand Prix mode entirely with motion controls and several times without, and I have to say that while the motion controls do add much to the game’s boxing premise, as motion controls are literally a ‘hands moving in the air’ type mechanic, they don’t quite nail the precision of playing with a controller. My recommendation of playing ARMS with a controller aside, there is one controversial element to motion controls vs controllers that needs to be addressed.

ARMS is clearly something that Nintendo wants to see join the ranks of other e-sports fighting games, and it easily looks the part. The problem with this is that motion controls and the more traditional controller setups don’t share the same way that curved throws are handled. Using a controller, the moving and curve throws are mapped to the same analog stick, meaning that if you want to throw a curved punch, you almost have to slow down or stop moving to do so, but this isn’t the case with motion controls at all. The reliance on a controller can leave you at a partial disadvantage, and given the fact that most e-sports bouts can see one player win by pulling off a move that is literally a frame of animation ahead of their opponent, it can be a serious issue in this case, but maybe not a deal breaker to those just looking to play some video games.

Apart from the curve punches, I do vastly prefer playing the game with a controller and have opted to leave motion controls behind for the time being. I found my punches a bit more precise and exceedingly more responsive with the use of an analog stick than the spotty waving around of my Joycon’s. The motion controls themselves are performed by holding the Joycon’s in a thumb’s up position, with the system connected side of them away from your palms. This way of holding the controllers has you punch with each fist, perform blocks, and unleashing special moves, jumps, and dashes, with the top buttons.

The core combat of ARMS is throwing punches with your left and right fists, or together to perform a throw. You can block incoming blows, or dash out of the way to target that much-needed opening. You can also jump, giving you a bit of a height advantage, with Ribbon Girl easily having a clear advantage there. A lot of mastering the game comes with learning the animated ‘tells’ of certain characters. These are moments when the character is performing an idle animation, or about to attack, giving you a split second to take advantage of it. There are far more elements to battle like parry attacks, charged moves and air dashes that take a while to learn and a long time to master.

The levels themselves have a bit of character as well, and often are supplied with various bits of cover; cars, pillars, and various box-like objects that are placed around the level to help in dodging an attack, or using it as a platform to get some decent height from. There are other types of levels that have breakable floors, floating platforms and are usually tailored around the characters themselves.

The cast of ARMS can swap out different ARMS, hence the name, to add variety to how silly and goofy the game can be. There are dragon-head ARMS that shoot lasers, spinning blades that fly back to you, and snake-like ARMS that almost look to seek out their prey. There are dozen’s of different types and you can mix and match to find a combination that works for you. Each character starts with three different types, giving you a small sample of what to expect, and considering that each character on the roster has a slightly different set than the others, it’s easy enough to try out a character that has that ARMS setup that you may want for your main, keeping it in mind that you’ll need to unlock that style for each character; ARMS are not universally shared.

Unlocking ARMS is a slow and grindy process, and is solely a game of chance. You will earn coins during each of the modes the game offers, but at such a snail’s pace that it makes me wonder if this game was even tested during development. It takes either 30, 100, or 200 coins to enter into a mini-game that allows you to unlock items. Most matches will award 1 or 2 coins, with the odd match awarding 3. The mini-game itself has you clearing targets to have gift boxes enter the playing field. Once you’ve knocked them down and earned your prize, the round continues until the timer reaches zero. You can extend the time should you hit the clock items that will randomly appear. The items you earn are for every character in the game, so finding that set of ARMS for a character you want, can be a time-consuming challenge. I have to really compliment Nintendo on not opening this game up to microtransactions, a move that nearly any other publisher would have made without blinking an eye.

ARMS, like Splatoon, will dish out more content sometime after launch, giving us more reasons to jump back into the game after we’ve moved onto the next. This new content will be new characters, new stages, and more, all at no cost. While this promise of new content should make people excited, the content we have now, at launch, is fairly thin. I’ve talked briefly about it so far, but let’s get into exactly what we get.

The Grand Prix is a 10 round battle that is announced by Bif, a small character with a fist on his head. In a previous Nintendo Direct, this character had a comical voice and had some very well delivered lines and it was rather shocking that the character in-game is mute, with any and all dialogue in the game needing to be read. He will make jokes and comments about the pairings of fighters and some of them are rather fun to read but would be far more effective if fully voiced, especially the puns.

There is the standard versus mode that will pit you against another character, either in regular battles, volleyball, basketball or break the target. Volleyball has you simply punch a ball back and forth to the other side of the court, with points scored if your opponent can’t get it over the net. Basketball has you dunk your opposition into a net with the grab mechanic, and is probably my favorite mode in the game. Break the target has you competing to break popped up targets in succession, earning more points should you hit multiple targets in a single punch. There is also a 1 vs 100 mode that has you trying to take on waves of generic enemies one after another.

The online portion of ARMS has worked perfectly so far with not a single dropped match or any sort of issue that normally comes with launching a game designed around online competition. When you enter an online lobby, you’ll share it with other players, each of them selected to join various matches around you. You’ll be randomly put into a match, whether it’s a one on one fight, a tag-team battle, or you and two other players taking on Hedlok, a six-armed beast that can take you down several pegs with just a glimpse. These matches are intense, thrilling, but frustrating if you can’t catch a break. Otherwise, the same matches that you have offline are here, just with other players.

I did find that the 3 player and 4 player matches that are free-for-alls, and even the team battle modes for that matter, are almost too frantic, making the ‘tell’ reading nature of this game absolutely not matter and it becomes something of a frenzy of people punching at random and getting cornered or attacked from behind as you are trying to play somewhat strategic against another player. It’s a bit of a hot mess, but I am not sure how this sort of match could be improved.

ARMS is a gorgeous title that runs a solid 1080p and 60 fps either docked or on the go. This will obviously lower once you hit 2 players (900p) and 4 player battles (900p 30fps) to keep a solid flow in battle. The detail given to each fighter is stunning with nice little details throughout the entire roster like Master Mummy appearing to be wearing some sort of sports jersey, or that Min Min has these small little flowers on her shoulder. Even expected things like the bouncing of character’s ARMS and hair, everything is so wonderfully animated that it makes it even more unfortunate that these characters have no story mode to flesh them out. Audio is fairly limited to the hits and music, as characters have very minimal audio. There are victory cheers and a few rare quips, but that’s about it. The theme song is incredibly catchy and will stick with you long after you’ve turned the system off.

ARMS is a fun and enjoyable experience that has all the makings of a great franchise, but just not yet. Once more modes and characters are added then I can see this game gaining a bit of traction. It is blissfully fun but can become a bit tedious in how stingy the coins are earned to unlock new ARMS. The initial cast of characters are really well done, without a single poor choice among them. The sheer variety in their move sets, arm selection, combined with the nuance of mastering grabs, parry attacks and charged strikes, ARMS has a lot to master.

ARMS was reviewed and played via a purchased retail copy for the Nintendo Switch.

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