21st Jun2017

‘Arms’ Review (Nintendo Switch)

by Rupert Harvey

arms-switch-cover

Nearly four months after the launch of Switch, Nintendo’s system gets its first major first-party exclusive (let’s ignore 1-2 Switch) – and it’s a cracker. A cartoon one-on-one (or two-on-two) fighting game with stretchy limbs, bulging eyes, mad music and gibberish voices, it’s as colourful, accessible and unputdownable as anything the Kyoto gaming gods have created in the HD era.

Arms is essentially a ranged fighting game, more concerned with relative position and lateral movement than the complex move combos of Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, Injustice et al. It better resembles elder brawlers like Power Stone and Virtual On, as well as more recent fare like Pokken Tournament.

Arms is quite hard to learn and very hard to master. But it’s inviting and different enough that you will want to learn. This is a game built around motion controls, and they feel natural and responsive. However, if you prefer a more sedentary session, standard controls are also available, even if they lack the nuance – and frankly the fun – of beating the imaginary hell out of your living room space.

Tilt both joy-cons sideways to sidestep and tilt them together to block; the shoulder buttons dash and jump respectively; and of course you punch to punch. But then it gets deeper. You’ll discover that blocking charges your fists, as does landing a jump. Punches can be curved, allowing you to dash behind scenery and attack unseen. And with every strike you are building a power bar, which when full can be unleashed in a furious flurry, the like of which E. Honda could only dream of.

The character art style lies somewhere between the heavily caricatured style of Overwatch and the alien weirdness of Splatoon. The female characters are marginally more interesting than their male counterparts, but everyone will have their favourite. Do you go for the dashing dexterity of tiny Min Min, with her ramen noodle arms? Or the brute force of the colossal Master Mummy, whose undead wrapping projects his fists? Personally, I’m partial to Ribbon Girl’s ability to dash multiple times in mid-air.

Ten characters (until the upcoming free DLC is released, anyway) may look like slim pickings, but bear in mind that each character comes with a unique set of three arms, each of which has its specific benefits. It could be a standard boxing glove; a bird-shaped rocket for super-curved punches; or a giant mallet which is sluggish but will break through a block.

In terms of single player content, while we don’t get a proper story campaign like Splatoon, nor do we get a tacked-on mindless slog like Mario Tennis Ultra Smash. New players would be wise to play through the single-player Grand Prix tournaments with each character. This is a series of ten bouts: eight fights and two special games.

The specials are V-Ball (keepy-uppy with a ticking bomb), Skillshot (punch targets for the highest score) and Hoops (slamdunk your opponent). Alternatively, you can jump into a kind of endless mode, where you take part in a series of single bouts; the arms are randomised and the goal is to build a winning streak.

The main online features are Party and Ranked modes. The latter is not available until you have beaten the Grand Prix mode on level 4 (no mean feat for the beginner). Party mode is where the action is at for the regular player. This employs a wonderfully wacky lobby system, where you’re constantly shifting between randomised games, being paired with people depending on your skill level. In the meantime you can practice your strokes. It’s a great way of dealing with the natural downtime of the online experience.

Taking part in games awards points which can then be used to buy time in a further mini game, where you unlock the ability to mix and match arms – the purpose being that eventually you will have unlocked all arms for all characters. At this point (if you ever get there) you will have thousands of potential combinations. Admittedly, what distinguishes some of the arms is merely cosmetic. But more often the difference is stark, and it’s in the choice of weaponry that the game’s depth reveals itself. There is real joy in facing a loadout system which makes a genuine difference to the way you play.

Arms harnesses Nintendo’s hardware exquisitely – not just in terms of using the gyro controls of the joy-cons, but also in delivering rock solid 1080p/60fps action (720p in handheld, natch), even with two players. Any more players and the framerate is locked at 30.

It’s hard to say whether, with Arms, Nintendo have done for one-on-one fighting games what they did for racing games with Mario Kart. Time will tell. (My instinct is that it will be a gradual hit, as more and more people realise that “motion control” needn’t always be synonymous with compromise.) But for now this is a gloriously vibrant, playable, and wonderfully original new IP.

Arms is out now on Nintendo Switch.

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