Have you ever seen a new game that looked terrible, but hoped it'd wind up being good anyway? After all, you definitely can't judge a book by its cover, and by the same token, you can't assume a game that looks bad will be bad. The Xbox 360's Kinect-only games were mostly bad, but not because the games themselves were inherently bad. The issue was with the Kinect itself. The Kinect 2 changes all that, right? If only…
Fighter Within tries to justify its Kinect-only approach by allowing you to place yourself in the shoes of a fighter, where every punch and kick can be triggered on screen. It's designed to make you feel like there is indeed a fighter within you that's ready to be unleashed.
The problems start right from the game's take on a story mode, which is more or less a tutorial on the game's mechanics. You play as the cocky and completely unlikeable Matt Gilford, who spews cheesy one-liners and thinks he's better than the rest because of his knowledge of martial arts learned from the streets. Yep.
You go from bout to bout exchanging blows with various characters, learning the ins and outs of performing standard attacks, combos, counters, throws, special moves, etc. Whereas other fighting games use the story mode to get you acquainted with the characters by simply throwing you into matches against AI opponents, the story mode here is literally the tutorial.
The fighting itself is pretty bad, which is a shame, because Fighter Within contains some admirable mechanics that keep it from being a simple flail-fest. By throwing a few punches, be it high or low, the game will then go into a short cinematic which performs a pretty sweet looking combo. However, to keep players from simply performing a high punch over and over by simply punching the air repeatedly in the same spot, there are counter moves where you can duck and punch or sweep kick to perform yet another short cinematic. Basically, the matches equate to a sort of Quick Time Event fest, where everything you do triggers some sort of cinematic which can't be interrupted or broken out of. They look good, but feel out of place in a fighting game.
The bigger problem, despite the necessity of these counters, is that the Kinect doesn't always recognize that you want to perform these counters, negating their usefulness and essentially allowing another player to repeatedly use the same move over and over again. Even your standard moves can be largely misread. For instance, when trying to throw your opponent, you're required to do a hug of sorts with your arms out, but sometimes the Kinect interprets it as a hook. Even something simple as the difference between a hook and a jab gets misread.
Lastly, there are the special moves which require you to power up, Dragon Ball Z style, by holding out your arms to your side. It looks silly, but I'd be lying if I said it didn't feel kind of cool. There's supposed to be a risk/reward factor here, since powering up leaves you completely vulnerable. The best part of a super attack, aside from its devastating damage, is the spectacle of it all right? Sadly, the super moves here are extremely anticlimactic. For a game that already relies on cinematics to show a five-hit combo, you would have expected something a little cooler for special abilities.
The awkward controls even make their way into menu navigation. I was never a fan of navigating menus with the Kinect. The new Kinect does make it easier by allowing players to squeeze their hand and then 'drag' the menu over. I've also always had a problem with selecting menu items by holding my hand over them for a few seconds. Fighter Within tries to alleviate this by having you push in and then out of a menu item, but that sometimes makes the cursor fly all over the screen. It's replaced one navigation headache with another.
Not quite there yet…
Sadly, even multiplayer isn't as fun as it should be. It has all the right ingredients too. Two players, able to duke it The Island style sounds like a hell of a lot of fun. The problem is that the same problems translate to the multiplayer as well. Also, wouldn't it make sense to have both players face each other? Instead, both still have to punch at the TV screen.
Fighter Within really showcases the larger problem with Kinect only games: they just don't work. Ryse: Son of Rome and Crimson Dragon have seemingly avoided this fate, while games like Just Dance and Dance Central are of course the exception to the rule. Ultimately, seems like the Kinect is meant for the casual experience, rather than a hardcore game.