The beat ‘em up is a genre that, unfortunately, never truly evolved in the way that many others have. I’ll give credit where credit is due and say that Castle Crashers did a FANTASTIC job of trying to push the genre forward with its inclusion of light RPG elements, some non-linearity and impressive roster of playable characters over a decade ago. With the release of Wayforward’s River City Girls (which I can’t comment on- I haven’t gotten to play it yet) and the upcoming Streets of Rage 4, it seems like we’re starting to see revived interest in the genre. For those eagerly waiting to take on Mr.X , there’s one title worth your attention that expands upon the groundwork set by Behemoth’s chibi knights in 2008. Its name? Fight ‘n’ Rage.
Originally released on PC, this brawler recently made its way onto Switch/Xbox One a few months ago and manages to retain the traditional beat ‘em up formula while injecting a number of new additions to keep the feeling of redundancy at bay (something a lot of beat ‘em ups have trouble doing). While the roster of playable characters for the “arcade” mode sits at three, there’s a total of 60 different endings thanks to a multitude of branching paths available to the player right from the very beginning. Do you escape the burning city full of mutants hell-bent on destroying the human race, or do you escape? Every choice you make will affect what environments you’re placed in, what kind of enemies and bosses you’ll be up against, and in many cases, the overall difficulty of the adventure. Some paths will lead to an easy route to a one-credit-clear, whereas others will require mastery of whichever character you’re using.
The game is presented with a 16-bit aesthetic and (initially) a CRT filter for maximum nostalgia. That said, I found the filter to be a bit overbearing and opted to just play with the visuals in their natural state. The detail and spritework is exceptional- this truly does look like an early-to-mid 90’s arcade game aside from the occasional showings of “fan service” that likely would’ve kept it from hitting North American shores some 25 years ago. The soundtrack generally consists of heavy metal tracks, but there’s a bit of jazz tossed in where appropriate (such as a casino board). The only thing that I imagine will bother some people (beyond the overbearing filter which can be disabled) is the aforementioned “fan service”. As for me? It’s something I’m quite indifferent to as a writer and player- it’s how the game plays and handles that really matters…not whether or not I’m seeing TnA.
This brings us to the characters themselves. Gal is deceptively the hardest character to use, as she’s more or less the “technical” among the three. You’ll need to master her bevy of combos and take full advantage of her mobility and air time if you plan on having any success whatsoever. F.Norris is about as close as you’ll get to a “well rounded” character akin to Axel from SOR, packing a little less mobility but still capable of pulling off impressive combos. Last, but not least, there’s Ricardo serving as the “power” class. While slow and a little clunky to use at first, he’s arguably the best character for beginners and has no problem tossing around even the strongest enemies. If I had my say so in the matter, I probably would’ve marketed the game with Ricardo or F.Norris taking center stage on the cover since I imagine most (including myself) will pick Gal at first and find themselves frustrated after one or two stages.
Regardless of your choice on the character select screen, this is not nearly as laid-back of a beat ‘em up as the aforementioned Castle Crashers or even the game’s primary inspirations (which appear to be SOR, Final Fight and TMNT: Turtles in Time). Enemy AI is fairly impressive, and almost every enemy outside of the grunts have some sort of attack that can easily slice your life bar in half if it lands successfully. Bosses never fight alone, and unlike Streets of Rage where you may have to fight a single trash mob alongside the big guy, you can expect wave after wave of them acting as a buffer.
In addition, some even have what the game refers to as “wakeup attacks” to prevent you from wailing/spamming on them. For instance, the Electricats spring back up with an electric forcefield if you’re standing next to them after knocking them down. Chances are, you will get your ass kicked the first time no matter how you approach the game- there’s a lot to learn here. Once you do get the hang of things as your character of choice, however, the game really does open up and becomes satisfying on nearly every branching path you might take. At the very least, there’s infinite continues and coin payouts per Game Over so that you’ll never have to fear starting over from scratch if you don’t want to.
The coins you receive for finishing the game or continuing can be used to purchase upgrades, character costumes, tips and additional modes (including CPU controlled allies, training/tutorial and an “easy” mode). While it’s arguable whether or not locking the Easy difficulty setting is a questionable design choice, it baffles me that you have to pay to unlock the tutorials. There’s a difference between the “hand-holding” nature seasoned gamers groan about and simply withholding important in-game information, and this kind of crosses the line. Thankfully, it isn’t a grind-fest if you want to learn how to properly play as each character as well as master the “parry” mechanic.
Naturally, this game lends itself to couch co-op. Although the developer of the game has mentioned that the the game was designed with a single-player focus, it’s still an enjoyable multiplayer experience even if your partner isn’t well-versed. Like Castle Crashers, you’re able to revive your fallen friend an infinite number of times so long as you stay alive to do so. This, in turn, may make the game a little easier for some. Furthermore, multiplayer is incentivized with its own set of unlockable endings.
All said, I’ve probably pumped about 30 hours into the game (at least according to my Switch) and while I’ve managed to 1CC quite a few of the paths as both Gal and Ricardo, I do have some qualms with the overall game design. First and foremost, there are some enemy waves and stages that feel intentionally designed to rob you of a life or two regardless of what you are or aren’t doing. The most prominent of these is a stage taking place on a raft, which has been critiqued in other reviews as well as message boards. The main issue with this area is that falling into the water will automatically take off half your life. Considering that both Gal and F.Norris are twitchy and encourage the use of aerial combos (and get knocked back a lot)…it feels like something a quarter-sucking arcade game would pull to keep you investing in a way that a home console game shouldn’t. Even after doing this section without death plenty of times, I still cannot see it as posing a legitimate challenge. Thankfully, you’re not going to have to face this section on every playthrough as it only appears when certain paths are taken…but it’s still worth bringing attention to.
If you’re willing to look past its beginner’s traps and the occasional cheap segment, Fight ‘n’ Rage truly is one of the best modern beat ‘em up experiences and can easily keep you coming back in a way that its contemporaries would be hard pressed to. As I mentioned earlier- I’ve sunk some 30 hours into it in preparation for this review and don’t plan on stopping anytime soon!