Having played side scrolling brawlers all through my wasted years in the arcades, I was quite excited about the new title coming from Household Games, The Way of the Passive Fist. Having been raised on a diet of Final Fight and Streets of Rage, the idea of a ‘90s side scrolling beat ’em up I could play sat on my sofa without a pile of 10 pences sounded very interesting. I settled in, made myself comfy, then headed out into the wilderness to see what was happening.
The first thing to address is that title, The Way of the Passive Fist. Despite sounding like the sort of dodgy translation usually found in the Martial Arts movie genre, the idea behind it is genuinely new and exciting. The idea is that The Wanderer, our hero in the game, uses the enemy’s strength against them by deflecting their attacks until they are out of stamina, then using a simple shove attack to finish them off. What this translates into is a fascinating game, with the requirement to learn different attack patterns, then, as they attack, either deflect an attack with the X button, or dodge with the B. Certain enemies go in for wrestling style grab attacks which can’t be deflected, and must be dodged. This dodge button also comes in handy when the female enemies throw things at you, as the weapons can be caught and thrown back, dealing an instant KO. Each time you are successful in a block, you’ll find that your foe’s stamina bar is reduced, until they are tired and can be finished with a Y button shove. The shove can also be used to clear yourself a bit of room if you are getting swarmed. And you will be, make no mistake. This is 1990’s style gaming after all!
Luckily, defeating opponents allows The Wanderer to gain experience, which in turn allows him to level up and gain new abilities. The first of these is a dash which allows you to get out of, or indeed into, trouble faster. After this, delights such as the Power Fist and Power Slam become available. But there’s a catch – as each level of power attack is only activated when you smash a certain combo of blocks and attacks. The Power Fist comes in at 5, the Power Slam at 12, and so on. If you are hit, if a block misses, or even if you aren’t attacked for a few seconds, the combo meter resets, and any saved power attacks you have are lost. You’ll therefore need to use ’em while you’ve got ’em, because it only takes one sneaky jab from behind to lose your 75 combo streak. And no, I’m not bitter. Why do you ask?!
In a true reflection of the ‘90s, the enemies are largely differing colours of the same models, so the differences can be quite subtle and hard to spot. An example is that the robot enemies that appear in the later levels can only be distinguised from each other due to the colour of their cuffs; one being orange and the other, green. Importantly, the orange enemy tries to grab then swings its arm three times, whereas his green cuffed buddy tries to hit you six times – hence the timing and maintaining of any combo becomes very important. In effect, what Household Games have done with The Way of the Passive Fist is mix a side scrolling beat ’em up with a rhythm action game, and the mix is a heady one indeed. Seeing the combo counter climb, and keeping it going while being swamped by the bad guys is a real challenge and very enjoyable.
The structure of things sees Passive Fist split into chapters, with each further broken down into scenes, with manual checkpoints between them. Also hidden in the background are stashes of health giving items that have to be spotted and opened. This helps to add interest to the backdrops between the scenes, keeping you on your toes and paying attention.
There are between 7 and 12 scenes in each chapter, with a boss fight coming in every second level. These bosses are very well designed and incredibly difficult to take down, with long range and fast blockable attacks, in addition to all the other characters that they call in. Once you’ve unlocked the Power Slam – which is a very good tool against the bosses – the only challenge is to keep a streak of at least 12 going in order to use the attack!
The graphical style found in The Way of the Passive Fist is straight out of a ‘90s arcade, having a very cool 16-bit pixelated style, which took me straight back to my 20s. The animation is period correct as well, and the whole game looks like a love letter to the arcade scene from decades past – it all just works. The soundtrack is similarly correct with lots of power chords and rock music, particularly in the boss sections. The crunching power attacks, the swoosh as you slip the enemies attacks, and the overall presentation of the game as a whole is very good indeed.
There are however a couple of things that niggle, but they are only minor. Sometimes you’ll find explosive mines on the floor as you walk between scenes, and it is quite tricky to see where it is safe to walk. When you stand on a mine, it blows you off your feet, and if you are unlucky (as I seem to be, most of the time), you are bounced from mine to mine, reducing your health a great deal. The other niggle is that sometimes, the controls seem to just have a fractional delay to them, so The Wanderer doesn’t react to turn around when an enemy sneaks up and punches you in the back of the head. It’s not all the time, and thankfully it doesn’t spoil the game, but can be quite frustrating.
All in all and The Way of the Passive Fist is a very enjoyable game, with the seamless fusion of fighting and rhythm executed brilliantly. As a concept, it shouldn’t work, but it just does, being a lot of fun and a real challenge. Small control niggles aside, this a very good game indeed and I recommend it to any retro gamers out there. Even if you aren’t a retro fan, but are looking for a different challenge, then this is the game for you!