Arms Review – Arm’s Length

Arms is a really strange game to try and write about because its disparate parts vary so wildly in quality. It has the core of an incredibly solid and accessible 3D fighting game, but is surrounded by missed opportunities and poorly executed aspects.

There’s an amazing game inside Arms, found underneath countless confusing design decisions.

Developer: Nintendo EPD
Publisher: Nintendo
Format: Nintendo Switch
Released: June 16, 2017
Copy provided by publisher to freelancer

It’s tough to imagine how Arms ended up the way it did.

At its core, Arms is a measured and deliberate fighting game, mechanically at odds with the silly over the top way it’s presented. Players are encouraged to keep their distance, not mash attacks, and carefully watch in order to react to one of three movement styles the opponent can choose from, reacting to visual cues on behalf of the enemy.

If someone punches, you block their punch.If someone blocks, you grab them and throw them to the floor. If someone tries to grab you, you punch them before the grab lands. At its core, that’s Arms.

There’s some additional complexity layered on top of this core loop, from character specific special abilities and customisable arms to dashes and the ability to curve punches, but no matter which character you use or how they are specced, you’ll ultimately be playing “rock paper scissors” between punches, blocks and grabs.

By being so mechanically simple, Arms has the foundations of a really solid competitive fighting game. The triangle of weaknesses and strengths the game is built on is easy enough to understand that it’s welcoming to new players and has the potential to see a strong playerbase quickly build, with growth room in terms of character build and skill at reading your opponent.

It’s all about watching for a set of tells that are consistent across characters, understanding those tells, and knowing how to counter the moves they signify – in theory this is a great way for any fighting game to be at launch.

The problem holding back Arms is its set of two control schemes, both of which are considerably flawed.

I’ll start with Arms‘ motion setup, because it feels pretty clear it was the intended way the developers wanted people playing the game.

Simply put, Arms‘ motion controls are too finicky and not responsive enough for serious competitive play. Actions have to be specific and precise to register correctly, but without a physical or visual marker to judge your own movements against, moves fail to execute properly often enough to be a problem.

It’s an intuitive enough control scheme in theory, and it’s the control scheme that most comfortably allows pulling off the full roster of available moves, but it sacrifices the accuracy needed for competitive play.

If Motion Controls are out of the question for competitive play, what about the more standard button controls? Well, controller players end up at a distinct disadvantage to motion players when it comes to that core “rock paper scissors” mechanic set.

When controlling Arms via traditional controller methods, curling punches and moving are both mapped to the same analogue stick, meaning that players physically cannot do both actions at once.

What this means in practice is that while motion players can throw a curved punch while continuing to move, controller players have to stop moving before throwing the punch. This creates a fairly clear tell that a punch may be incoming, and opens up for the opponent to block.

While over time we may see techniques grow out of this, players pausing as if they planned to throw a curved punch but instead waiting for the pre-emptive block from their opponent and launching an unexpected throw, the fact that throwing a curved punch while continuing to move is a part of motion players toolsets but not controller players is a problem for matched up competitive play.

You never want a competitive fighting game to give some players moves that others do not possess based on their willingness to use an objectively less accurate control setup.

Oh, and the controller setup is a bit weird and fiddly regardless.

Outside of control scheme, probably the biggest choice for players in Arms is which character to use and which arms to equip them with. Arms’ roster of ten playable fighters are all highly memorable and unique in terms of their visual designs, but it did often feel like the game failed to capitalise on the potential narrative hooks such a diverse roster could have fostered.

Each character has a pair of special abilities which are primarily what you’ll be picking them based on, from excessive numbers of mid air jumps to the ability to slightly slow down incoming attacks when blocking and get more time to react to them, each character has little quirks that will either boost up your strengths as a player, or help to cover up weaknesses in your play style.

These bonus abilities are easy to understand, unique enough to distinguish each fighter mechanically, and require such minimal input to pull off that players are able to reliably make use of them without needing to learn complex combos. It makes the challenge selection of the right power for you as a player rather than execution ability on that unique skill, which is refreshing.

There are also a number of stages themed around the character cast, most of which feature one form of stage gimmick or another. It’s unfortunate there doesn’t seem to be a single stage that’s equal footing for all fighters, so stage selection is likely to be a hotly contested part of competitive play.

Each character initially has three different arms available to equip, which can be mix and matched if desired to give additional options during combat. Some arms are faster than others, some hit harder, and some have special abilities or movement patterns connected to their use.

While in theory each character’s three arms are unique initially, many differing arms are ultimately just thematic reskins designed to fit a new character. Many arms unlocked will function identically, simply recolouring the weapon or changing the colour of an elemental swirl around it. The wide selection of arms in the game isn’t actually as daunting to learn and memorise as it initially seems due to this mechanical overlap.

One problem however comes from the way additional arms are unlocked. In theory, any character can unlock any other character’s arm to make use of in competitive play. In order to unlock these additional arms for a given character, you’re going to have a long and stressful road ahead of you.

Let’s say for example you decide that you wanted to play Ninjara for his ability to dash out of a block, but you wanted to equip him with Min Min’s Dragon arm in order to follow the block dash with an unexpected large charge attack. You’re going to need to specifically unlock the Ninjara Dragon arm.

In order to unlock that arm you’ll need to play Arms’ single player modes repeatedly, over and over, seeing very little variation from one playthrough to the next. You’ll painfully, slowly earn in game currency, which is thankfully not available as a real money purchase.

This money can be spent on increased time in a stationary target destruction minigame. The prizes for that minigame are entirely random, so each slowly earned loop of this earning system more likely than not won’t reward you with the unlock you want. There is no system in place to allow purchasing a specific arm for a specific character.

Considering how pivotal arm selection can be to competitive character building, the fact that many effective combinations can only be unlocked via random luck is infuriating, as it randomises people’s ability to spec themselves the way they want for competitive play.

Also, as we touched a moment ago on Arms’ single player content, we should probably dig into how abysmally bland it is.

Single Player Grand Prix mode is the core single player mode, seeing your selected fighter compete against the other nine fighters one after another. There is incredibly little variation from character to character, which is a real shame. Arms’ cast is so eye catching, unique and memorable that not featuring a properly developed story mode or story was a big missed opportunity.

Volleyball mode feels incredibly easy and mindless, it’s really not worth bothering with.

Target practice is interesting initially to practice aiming shots, but quickly loses its appeal.

2V2 or 4 player free-for-all fights are just not enjoyable. In a game about reaction and careful observation of a single enemy – introducing additional players makes it impossible to do anything without opening yourself to attack from another player. It’s not tactical, it’s not fun, it’s a chaotic mess.

Arms is a really weird game. At its core it’s a simple, accessible fighting game with a really strong gameplay loop and room for player growth competitively, but a pair of fundamentally flawed control schemes, a lack of decent modes and a glacially slow random unlock system for items that fundamentally change how characters can function make it a really tough package to recommend.

Which is a shame, because there’s such a good game in there.

6/10
Alright

Smokey Blunts
Guest
Smokey Blunts

These are my favorite types of reviews.
Really interesting to see someone get all up in that game and break it down like that.
Even with a 6 I’d have bought it if I had a switch just because it sounds so interesting, and execution holds me back in a lot of fighters. I don’t, though. A couple games aren’t enough to sell me on a console that still seems to be ironing out the kinks.

Rcc
Guest
Rcc

I’m not a fan of the Big N, but I gotta say I actually like how this game looks. A lot. I like the concept, but if it’s so flawed… What a shame!

Saftschnitzel
Member

The game really get mixed reviews, some give it a 6 others an 8, I’ve only seen one 10 so far and only one 5, so I guess it comes down to preference?

From what I’ve played during the testpunch I can’t fully agree on the part with controls not being spot on, as they are pretty much and I’ve played the game for 10 hours already.

George
Guest
George

….Am the only one who finds this game repulsive to look at? And I’m talking design wise too. I find it gross.

Lloyd Arold
Member

Nintendo is the embodiment of why “innovation” for the sake of it is a bad thing.

Griff -
Member

Bright Spark
Member
Bright Spark

Oh no! You only think that it’s “Alright”! Clearly that means that you are in cahoots with Sony – which also explains the Mario + Rabbids leak – and of course Jim, who OBVIOUSLY hates Nintendo because he doesn’t think that they are perfect in every way and has some bad things to say about their business practices at times! Clearly that is the logical explaination, and has nothing to do with the flaws and/or shortcomings you may have mentioned within the review – which, of course, I hadn’t read, I just jumped straight down to the comments, took a… Read more »

skulloking
Member

Laura: There’s such a good game in there.
Comments: I KNEW IT’D BE SHIT

Akuma Kris
Guest
Akuma Kris

This is one of those games I’d really like to try but doesn’t look like it’ll hold enough lasting appeal to justify me buying it (especially as I don’t actually own a Switch yet).

I’ll just keep my eye on it for now.

Zebetite
Guest
Zebetite

Fair points. At least this game is taking the Splatoon approach to DLC (which turned into a beast of a game), so hopefully within a year most of these concerns could be addressed.

LKD420noscopeit
Guest
LKD420noscopeit

have you tried playing it with another person locally its online mode? because let me tell you something brother, its probably the best way to experience the game, its so refreshing to actually have somebody near you when playing a game online in fact any game that is on the switch gets an immediate boost when played with somebody next to you, it evokes the past memories of when games were more than just games, they were bonding devices, ah, the good old days.

BAH!
Member
BAH!

Question: is the non-motion shceme intended for a single joycon for local competitive play? Because that’s what it sounds like.

Regardless, that is some REALLY bad design to not use, say, the right stick for curving punches- something that would make complete sense. But then, Nintendo has proven themselves more than willing to ignore sensible design choices if there’s a frustrating, ass-backwards alternative.

JDINCINERATOR
Guest
JDINCINERATOR

How many of you are judging ARMS based solely off this review?

Theo Hamilton (linky00)
Member

God, I really hope they patch either one of the controls. How about a hybrid, button controls for movement and throwing punches, but tilt joycons separately for curved punches?

Keanen
Guest
Keanen

I never personally had issues with the motion controls, and found them to be the superior control scheme in terms of controlability. I never encountered inaccuracy in my experience. Since I’ve only played the Testpunch, my experience of the game is of course limited but I enjoyed most gamemodes they showed off, excluding the dreadful Volleyball mode. Either way, it’s a shame to hear that the singleplayer is bland and unlocks are done in such a bizarre Nintendo way. I’ll probably get the game anyway judging by the fun I had from the Testpunch, but this review has definitely been… Read more »

eve
Guest
eve

They really didn’t learn their lesson from the problem with custom moves in smash 4.

KassFireborn
Member

I admire Laura’s dedication to getting the booty shot in there. (This is not sarcasm.)

Nobodyimportant
Guest
Nobodyimportant

Wait…is there any sort of story to thse characters to follow? i mean, i don’t exactly own a Switch but i keep on hearing (and in this case reading) about the “totally cool unique characters”, like, is there some sort of “story mode” where you explore a character’s story and personallity as you progress or anything? or everything is on the “side material”?

Nick Henry
Member

I’m so glad it wasn’t just me who had this experience with the game. I really thought I was missing something with the reviews going up for it. I persona can’t get past the fact that this is pretty much the same mechanic as Wii boxing with a few bells and whistles on it. It looks better and allows you to do more but it plays messier and honestly I didn’t have a fun time with it. And when I think of it as Wii boxing I come back to the thought that this game definitely isn’t worth the £45-£50… Read more »

Sean Phillips
Guest
Sean Phillips

Can you not get the currency from online play as well? Idk if that would be enough to change the overall tenor of the review (plenty of other complaints here) but surely that would negate or ameliorate the grinding-on-repetitive-singleplayer-mode issue. I mean, I guess that can be repetitive too, but if the core game-mode is too repetitive that’s a whole other, much bigger problem.

Steven White
Member

I knew this day would come. From the moment their Switch presentation brought up the “see how Wii our controllers are” I knew we’d get another StarFox Zero. Not a bad game by design, but half of it’s woes are how you actually play the damn thing. Before that show I was super excited that motion controls were finally going away, but Nintendo still holds a torch for them because Nintendo.

Paul Foster
Guest
Paul Foster

Fair review imo… butthurt Nintendrones will be here in force soon though, lol.

TransComics
Member

Arms always looked pretty bad to me and this review pretty much echos everything I was thinking about when seeing the gameplay. I have a feeling Nintendo hard cores will “love” this game until a month from now when they all play splatoon 2 and forget this exists. The game is only bound to get worse as less people play online and times to get into the only meat of the game increase.

vexer
Guest
vexer

Sounds like Nintendo should just stick to Smash as far as fighting games go.

Hermeneinbundilde
Guest
Hermeneinbundilde

Hmmm, but when you’re using motion controls, then you also can’t move and punch, because moving requires you to tilt both joycons, right?

Anyways, maybe it’s because I’ve enjoyed both testfires so much, but I can’t wait to play more. I had no problem with controls, but I guess it’s always risky with motion – some people will be ok with it, some will struggle, some will be pulling great moves all the time.