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
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.