September 29, 2014

Game Review: One Finger Death Punch

Today, I'll be talking about a game I recently picked up through the Extra Credits Humble Bundle, One Finger Death Punch. Here it is on Steam, and here it is on Silver Dollar Games' website. I first encountered this game in an episode of James Recommends, one of EC's new spinoff shows. They then later mentioned it again in their "Games You Might Not Have Tried" segment, which is also where they organized their Humble Bundle.

The main draw of this game is twofold: one, it's an indie game developed by two brothers; two, it's got a unique design and control scheme. The game is focused around a completely different mechanic, which defines the game in every aspect. This is a pretty remarkable achievement from such a small studio, but it isn't everything I want a game to be.

Gameplay and Mechanics

The core of this gameplay is on-rail fighting. On-rail fighting? Yeah. That. You play as a single stick figure, permanently stationed in the center of the screen, while enemies approach from right and left. You attack foes to your left with the left mouse button, and foes to your right with the right mouse button. This is exactly as simple as it sounds, and as a result this game is one of the easiest to pick up and play out of any that I have ever seen. This control scheme quickly becomes something beyond intuitive, in a way which all games should strive for but few can achieve. This is primarily because of how tightly timed and responsive this two-button scheme is - I haven't seen a control scheme this tight since Super Mario Brothers.

The game's tightness and responsiveness work well with its intended system: rhythm fighting. It sort of combines a fighting game and a rhythm game, like DDR meets Super Punch Out. In this regard, the music itself plays an integral role in the mechanics of the game. Enemies generally approach in time with the beat of the music - but not always. This is the largest flaw in the gameplay, that I can see. Whereas DDR flawlessly syncs steps with arrows on screen, One Finger Death Punch frequently has button presses out of time. This is partially because you have a range of choice in dealing with enemies - if an enemy is approaching from right and left simultaneously, you can hit either one first. As a result, it becomes harder for enemies to be precisely placed in time with the beats. However, it certainly feels off to play a rhythm game out of sync with the pounding beat in your ears. I'm not entirely sure that this problem was solvable with the limited resources the team had to work with, but it does create something decidedly off.

A major strength in this game is the range of application the devs found for such a simple mechanic. The first level of depth comes from enemies themselves, some of whom require multiple hits, others with larger ranges and weapons, and a third class with a "brawler" mechanic where you enter a one-on-one duel. A second layer of depth comes from different level objectives. Although the most common level is "kill this many enemies," frequently you find yourself doing something else: blocking incoming projectiles, smashing a certain number of background objects with defeated foes, or killing a certain number of enemies within a certain timeframe, for example. Additionally, a number of "skills" can be unlocked and equipped, permitting slightly different playstyles. These variations permit a wide enough play experience for several hours of gameplay out of an extremely simple base mechanic. This is a good thing - the gameplay itself is the engaging factor within this game, and so this is what they needed to do.

Plot - There isn't one.


The game's music is good for what it needs to be, but doesn't carry any deeper significance or unique characteristics. There are a variety of tracks which loop well and transition from one to the next nicely enough, but they are all the same stock stuff: vaguely Asian-infused techno with thumping beats and simple melodies. It does what the developers needed it to, but does nothing beyond that.

The graphics are of the same sort as the music. While they are functional and convey all the information necessary for gameplay flawlessly, they aren't in any sense beautiful. The backgrounds are stock, the characters are mostly well-animated stick figures, and the effects are basic. The graphics and music - the aesthetics of this game in general - are purely functional. They create a bit of mood for hacking and slashing stick figures, they convey gameplay information to the player, and that's about it. Nothing transcendent or ground-shattering here.


This game does not permit any meaningful moral choice. Decisions in this game are limited to which path on the level tree to take, and the order in which you attack some bad guys. There is not sufficient background story, artistic development, or context to really even call the fighting "violence." It's more of a button-pushing skill test than "fighting" or "killing." As a result, the agency provided by this game allows a player who successfully completes the challenge to get a feeling of accomplishment for doing something hard, but not any moral decision-making beyond that. There is no opportunity to explore the meaning of being a good guy or a bad guy here - just to figure out whether or not you are sufficiently good at clicking right and left mouse buttons.

Overall Thoughts and Recommendations

This game is a solid game. It accomplishes the gameplay goal it sets out to in a way that is engaging and fun. It implements a manageable and yet rewarding skill curve - something I don't see in a whole lot of games these days, which are either too hard up front in a throwback to how frustrating games used to be, or are too easily and practically beaten for you. It uses several mechanics to make a relatively deep gameplay experience out of one of the simplest possible control schemes. As a game, this one is successful. It does game things, and does them well.

However, it doesn't do anything beyond game things. There is no point of contact for transcendent experience, no deeper meaning, and as a result no lasting value to this game other than its technical aspects. To an extent, this is exactly what I expected - a studio consisting of two brothers can say they've accomplished a lot making a game as tight, smooth, and engaging as this. They accomplished what they set out to. However, simply providing an engaging experience is not all that games can and should do. The true division between a "good" game and a great one is exactly this: how much of true reality we can learn from it. A great game offers an experience of reality, drawing us into a story, world, characters, and situations which pull us out of ourselves to make decisions, ponder meaning, and encounter beauty. A game like that sticks with you. You wonder if you should have pulled the trigger then, or maybe if you should have taken mercy. You wonder why a certain game character chose to betray you, or what it means to have all the materia if it truly is sucking the lifeblood of the planet. One Finger Death Punch raises no issues like this. It succeeds on the level of gameplay and mechanics, but does nothing beyond that.

As a result, I would not really recommend this game in a universal way. It doesn't really teach anything, or offer a meaningful experience in a deeper way. It does, however, offer some more basic things to other people. Its accessibility and episodic levels lend themselves to something you can pick up and then immediately drop. Its novel take on fighting and rhythm gameplay can help designers think about their particular problems. Beyond that, however, it doesn't do much.



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