Fights in Tight Spaces is so contrary; there’s no way it should work. It aims to capture the speed and visceral nature of a John Wick/Jason Bourne fistfight by using the most boring and static of all game components: the playing card. But there’s method to the madness. Fights in Tight Spaces manages to be tense, claustrophobic and elegant, and that’s because of the card gaming, rather than despite it.
Fights in Tight Spaces is the latest from Frozen Synapse and Tokyo 42 publishers Mode 7, and you can see their fingerprints all over the minimalist art design. There’s some James Bond opening-sequence here, some SUPERHOT there, as the characters are nothing more than animated silhouettes, out to punch the living daylights out of you. These threatening little marionettes work a treat, giving the animators room to focus on making them move, fight and rag-doll with grace.
You can also see the influence of Mike Bithell and Bithell Games. Throughout his career, Mike Bithell has been straining to use the simplest building blocks to convey elaborate ideas. A game of Solitaire becomes a heist in Solitaire Conspiracy. A turn-based strategy game becomes a John Wick movie in John Wick Hex. His determination to bring cinematic fullness and action movie chops to prosaic game mechanics has been an ambition for a while now, and it’s no surprise to see his name attached to Fights in Tight Spaces.
But unlike Solitaire Conspiracy and John Wick Hex, Fights in Tight Spaces isn’t a half-measure – it gets almost everything right. This is a deckbuilder that leaves you panicked and bruised. It’s a brawler where every move has to be planned in advance, lest you get clotheslined over a railing.
The broader structure of Fights in Tight Spaces will be familiar to anyone who has played Slay the Spire or Monster Train. Games are broken up into ‘runs’, and those runs are presented as a path, which branches occasionally. On that path are battles – the games of Fights in Tight Spaces – but also events, hospitals for healing, and shops for upgrading and removing cards. And like those other games, you are looking to progress, rogue-like, as far as you can down that path, nursing a persistent health pool. Sometimes, things will click into place and you will push past your personal best. Other times, your deck won’t synergise, and you’ll barely make it out of your first battle.
The battles are where Fights in Tight Spaces wildly deviates from Slay the Spire and Monster Train. There’s some deck building and card game elements, but there’s far more stirred into the pot. The battles look more like a turn-based strategy game, which wouldn’t be too far from the truth. You drop onto the grid, and enemies drop down too. You’re then shown what your enemies are going to do on their turn, whether that’s fire a gun or punch you. With that information, you can make your move.
You have a limited number of action points in a turn, and your cards are where you will spend them. Very broadly, they come in Movement, Combat and Blocking varieties. By moving, you can evade attacks and put yourself into a more tactically advantageous position. There’s nothing worse than getting swarmed, ensuring the title ‘Fights in Tight Spaces’ becomes starkly true. Some moves let you reposition enemies as you move yourself, so you can put them in the firing line of a shotgun. It’s a tactic that never grows old. But running away isn’t always the best approach, either: each move reduces a ‘combo’ stat, which can be a requirement for playing some of the best attacks in the game.
Combat cards are how you will chip away at the health of your enemies, and most won’t go down after a single attack. It’s not as simple as bopping them on the head, either: each combat card has a range, a potential knockback effect, an ability to hit more than one person, and many, many more effects. You might even be using the environment, propelling yourself from a wall or smashing an opponent’s head into a worktop. So, you’re analysing your position, your enemy’s, and what’s in the environment to make your best choice.
Finally, there are cards that block and counter, waiting for your opponent’s move before you react. Some decks that you will unlock are focused on counter-offence, and they’re some of the most potent in the game.
Fights in Tight Spaces does such a good job of keeping you on your toes, because the gameplay could have swiftly become repetitive. There are a huge range of enemies, all with different abilities: calling in reinforcements, stunning you, hiding behind riot shields and spraying the immediate vicinity with shotgun fire. Each of the game’s levels (Fights in Tight Spaces is chunked up into chapters that are forever unlocked once you reach them for the first time) has a different set of backdrops and enemies, and those levels mix it up nicely. You might have levels with sheer drops, allowing you to one-hit enemies or be one-hit yourself. There’s cover, open spaces, buttons to hit and traps to avoid. It’s a fairground of fisticuffs.
Should you succeed in the levels, it’s the customary deckbuilder approach of offering you cards and seeing if you will take them. Managing your deck – including upgrading and removing them – is vitally important if you want to stay ahead of the curve. There’s no use keeping all your default front kicks in the deck: they don’t do enough to control the board, so you need to start experimenting.
Fights in Tight Spaces nails it’s ambitions. While the fights don’t have incredible amounts of flow – you can rewatch your battle once it’s finished, with all the moves in sequence, but it’s too stilted to really fulfill that fantasy – they are always visceral. The punches and recoils are solid, and you begin to feel like you’re at the centre of a melee. The difficulty is perfectly pitched too, as you can sense a rising tide. If you don’t manage the number of people in the fight (reinforcements are added regularly, and you can postpone their inclusion by standing on their entry points), then things can quickly become too much. You begin to get kicked about the arena like a pinball, and that precious persistent life pool goes down and down.
It’s tactically superb too. In a given hand, there’s usually a way out of your current fix. You just need to spot it, get the cards in the right order and pull it off. There’s little randomness here, so your destiny is with you. So many factors make up a turn – the enemies, their moves, the reinforcements, the environment, your cards and your stats – that the skill ceiling is deceptively high, something that you don’t often see in a deckbuilder. But mastering it feels so much more rewarding as a result.
There are a few counterbalances, which Fights in Tight Spaces tries to address but can’t solve. The cards can have five or six different effects, particularly in the endgame, and it can be a touch overwhelming. With so many levers to potentially pull, it can feel like you’re playing four dimensional chess. Once you learn the cards and have full oversight of the game, it’s less of an issue, but that takes days.
The bigger issue is how it handles replay. Once you die and restart, you have an option to play from the very beginning, or to hop into one of the game’s chapters, presented one after the other. But starting at a later checkpoint means you skip a host of progression – upgrades, added cards and more. Effectively, your choice is to play at the very start and work through hours of content to build a better deck, or hop into the later game and most likely die immediately. The conundrum is not helped by the speed of Fights in Tight Spaces. A battle can take ten minutes or more, and you might need to complete dozens before you get to where you were.
Fights in Tight Spaces does it’s best to help here, unlocking increasingly playable decks for you, and making each chapter procedurally generated, meaning that you will still have a host of different experiences. But if you’re motivated by getting further than before, and who isn’t, then this gnaws away at you.
Luckily, when you’re in the melee, surrounded, with the shadow of the enemy’s next turn looming over you, and you pull off a sequence of moves that not only keeps you safe but points the bad guys in the firing line of a shotgun, well, it almost doesn’t matter. This is a stupendously rewarding hybrid of deckbuilder and turn-based strategy, and we’ll take some replay niggles if it means leaping up to try to touch its skill ceiling.
If you’ve ever had fantasies of being John Wick, but can’t be bothered to step out of the armchair, then we would fully encourage you to have some Fights in Tight Spaces.
You can buy Fights in Tight Spaces from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S