Nintendo decided to surprise us with a shockingly early review code for ARMS, their latest new IP which focuses on characters punching each other to oblivion with spring loaded slinkies instead of limbs. This was actually my very first time trying out the game, and after hearing the absolute gushing over the motion controls, I was obviously very excited to try out this "second coming" after Nintendo's failed attempt at making a compelling fighter with Wii Boxing.
I'll split the preview into two sections, what I like so far, and what I dislike. Keep in mind that I've put in about 10 hours into the game, with 2 of those dedicated to motion controls, and the rest using a traditional controller. During this time I've put the game through its paces with the single player offerings of the Grand Prix as well as the slew of various modes like Hoops and V-Ball, and I've played some online matches with others who have the review copy in hand.
First and foremost, I have to absolutely praise the art-style. Like Splatoon, Nintendo once again nailed it with the look of ARMS with characters that range from charming to menacing and even outright goofy. Master Mummy, for example, is a hulking fighter that packs a mean punch due to his large stature, accentuated by his evil eyes and gritting teeth. Ribbon Girl and Spring Boy, the poster fighters for the game on the other hand scream 'Saturday Morning Cartoon.' Then there's Barq and Byte, the robot cop and dog duo which look completely goofy and yet somehow manage to fit in with the whacky roster of fighters.
It also helps that each character has a corresponding arena which can add to the game's "lore" if that's something you're into, but they also help add to the character's personality. For example, Min Min's stage looks like a giant ramen bowl which makes sense considering one of her ARMS is basically a giant noodle. Twintelle, who is basically a celebrity within the game's universe, her stage is a red carpet event with a bunch of limousines parked out front, serving as obstacles for players to get around.
Secondly, the game's mechanics also have a very strong competitive foundation. They basically revolve around a rock-paper-scissor mechanic, much like other 3D fighting games where guarding can block punches, punches can break through throws and throws can cancel out a guard. Couple that with the ability to dash and jump around the arena, as well as "steer" your punches in various directions, and you have a very competent and competitive fighter on your hands.
Each character also has a different playstyle, which makes the albeit limited roster of 10 fighters, still seem extremely varied. For example, Ribbon Girl has the ability to jump multiple times mid-air, Ninjara has the ability to "ninja disappear" and dodge in a cloud of smoke, Twintelle has the ability to slow down enemy punches, etc. Couple the differences in fighters with the various different ARMS that all behave differently, there's a lot of room for experimentation to see what combo works with what character, and literally, create unique gameplay styles based on those combinations.
There's also plenty to do, which I won't really get into here (have to save something for the review) but rest assured that even if you plan to play the game solo, you won't be disappointed with the amount of content. Whether it's the multi-staged Grand Prix with various difficulty levels to play through, or the fun modes like Hoops and V-Ball, or the 1-vs-100 brawl which has you picking off easy enemies to get to the final boss, you'll certainly be pleased with the variety and number of modes available. What's great is that all of these modes, even the Grand Prix, can be played with another player.
Lastly, online matchmaking is fast and fluid. Once you're in a lobby, you'll see other players looking for matches, and the game will automatically match you, as well as set the type of game. You're constantly being matched with new people, or often the same people if they're willing to keep fighting you.
What's not so great…
While the motion controls are "fine" when played for fun against a friend, I truly believe that standard controls are far superior, at least when it comes to competitive play. There's nothing inherently wrong with them, and for the most part, react just fine. There have been a few instances when I tried to grab an opponent by extending both arms forward, though the game registered it as a single punch instead. Other times I tried to block by tilting the controllers together and it threw out a grab instead. It's these instances where the game doesn't react a 100% to what I want it to, where I believe that in a competitive scene, that would be unacceptable. However, if both players have the same handicap, meaning both players are using motion controls, then I do believe the game can be fair, and probably more fun, since punching and seeing that immediately on your screen is not only rewarding but satisfying as well.
The problem I see with these control schemes extends to the online play. When getting matched against other players, there's no way of knowing whether the player is using standard or motion controls, and the game doesn't tell you whether it's matching you only against those with the same control scheme. Because of this, I'm under the impression that those playing with standard controls have a much bigger advantage against those with motion controls.
Also, from what I can tell, the type of game that's selected while playing online is always random, which means that when you just want to throw down with another player 1-v-1, you might get matched into a V-Ball game, or a 2-v-2 match, or a 3 player free-for-all.
It's also rather disappointing that there's no "real" tutorial system here. Sure, the game gives you a very brief overview of the controls when you first boot up the game, but there's nothing really beyond that. Sure, the training menu has a whole slew of exercises like "Advanced Punches," "Guard Breaking" or "Don't Get Thrown," all great topics to learn the intricacies of the game more, however, upon selecting these, the opponent just stands there (or does an action in relation to the topic) and the game leaves you to figure out what to do. Those looking to learn more advanced techniques will either have to figure them out for themselves, or wait until other skilled players post videos of themselves on YouTube, and that seems like a somewhat missed opportunity.
So far so good
It's clear that ARMS has the foundation of a great fighting game, one with enough depth to guarantee longevity. I'm not sure whether motion controls will have their place in the competitive scene, especially when matched against standard controls, but they do work and are fun enough to use when playing head to head with someone or taking on the CPU by yourself.
Even though I've had bouts of frustration where I've wanted to throw my JoyCon against the wall, I can't blame my shortcomings as the game's fault. I do wish there was a better tutorial system to teach the more intricate strategies, but as most games with little guidance, once enough time passes and players get used to the controls and various techniques of each fighter as well as the various ARMS, high-level play is going to be certainly a joy to watch, not to mention pull off.