Way of the Passive Fist – the not quite a pacifist brawler, not quite a rhythm game

By Neil Merrett

Way of the Passive Fist, released on Nintendo Switch in 2019, developed by Household Games

It’s not quite a scrolling Beat em up brawler such as Streets of Rage or the intense rhythm dance combat VR game Beat Saber, but in skirting a range of different genres, Way of the Passive Fist is an interesting new take on some tried and tested gaming mechanics. In short, DON’T GET HIT…

All too often in gaming, particularly with Indy titles, bloggers and media outlets will try describe a new title by comparing it to a number of popular or not so popular games.  The intent is to describe the mechanics of a particular game in line with some aesthetic or gameplay similarities it has with other software you may have liked.

For instance, Squareblind recently looked at the fast-paced 2D action hack and slash/shooter hybrid ScourgeBringer. We considered how it directly evoked and perhaps even refined some of the combat and style stylish mechanics of the Devil May Cry series with a slight homage to the more modern, skill-focused platformer Celeste.

Way of the Passive Fist is almost, but not quite like a number of different genres.  It is not quite a game about the virtues of pacifism and trying to adopt a zen-like approach to blocking and managing your opponent’s attacks to outmanoeuvre and outsmart them.

It is almost a slightly revised take on the older school arcade brawlers and the graphical style of a vast number of colourful fighting games on the Neo Geo console in the 90s and 2000s. But it isn’t quite these things either.

Most interestingly, it is not quite a rhythm game, despite allowing players to use audio cues to perfectly time their blocks, dodges and bobs in order to let your opponents tire themselves out in a flurry of attacks.

It is almost like playing out one classic episode of the Simpsons where Homer, the patriarch of the post-modern all-American family, briefly becomes a heavy weight boxer based on his capacity to seemingly take endless punches to the head without ever being floored.  Almost every opponent he faces is eventually exhausted into defeat, their energy spent futilely trying to puncture the literally thick-headed papa Simpson.

A stylish hodgepodge

Sometimes not quite being a range of different things can make for very interesting media and Way of the Passive Fist is an arresting concept if nothing else.

At the start of the game, you are a classic unnamed wanderer. Your aim is to walk across a desolate post-apocalyptic world and be set upon by a range of its feral, mutated or tech enhanced inhabitants that seek to knock you out.

As with any classic brawler game.  The player can be set upon by multiple opponents on a screen at once. This forces the player to manoeuvre around the level while coming under attack from a range of punches, kicks, sharp objects, as well as aerial bombardment and even the weaponised rays of the sun.

Rhythm is a fighter

Unlike classic brawlers, the onus of the game is less about timing your own punches and kicks, as it is about parrying and ducking and bobbing to avoid taking hits. This in turns lowers your opponent’s health/stamina while letting the player build up their own combo metre and power attacks.

As we said, not quite a pacifist game.

A vaguely timed block will for instance give you a small score and potentially see a tiny bit of health lost. Meanwhile, a perfectly timed parry – synched satisfying to the wider rhythm of combat against multiple foes – will reward the player with a sense of being in control and earning greater experience. 

Once you have knackered out some kick boxing desperado or a balletic female attacker, the player can gently prod them into oblivion or unleash a powerful counter.

The whole ordeal becomes quite rhythmic as you learn to better time your blocks and dodges to deflect attacks at the very last minute and gain more points to upgrade your abilities.

Unlike a Rhythm game, there are a range of level hazards and moves such as a shoulder barge to push away a more powerful opponents for a brief second.  This can allow you to focus on weaker enemies in order to power up your special attacks before engaging thew big boss once again.

What this translates into, is a sometimes-stylish game of timing and trying to look effortless as you stylishly ward off armies of post-apocalyptic attackers by learning learn their different attack patterns. This involves through multiple playthroughs learning when to block or dodge or perhaps push a bad guy into some oncoming death trap.

An awareness simulator

As a martials arts simulator, it is a game much more about awareness of surroundings than it is learning how to perform a super elaborate somersault kick or a flurry of punching combos.

Audio and visual queues can be as equally important in the game as you seek to more stylishly dispose of opponents to get higher ratings and new abilities to make the game a little easier next time round.  Some of this comes from understanding how different colour opponents differ in attack patterns compared to others – a classic staple of brawler games.

For instance, a certain colour of female knife thrower can be dispatched by dodging and catching their blade in the air, before throwing it right back at them.

However, other similar opponents may use multiple weapons that may first need to be blocked and avoided in combination to avoid losing health and your combo metre.

It is all quite choreographed, and pattern based, rather than letting a player truly improvise and experiment in the way more modern one-on-one beat em ups require you to be – especially against other human opponents.

To be fair, even the most spontaneous movie battles will be heavily pre-planned and rehearsed – the art is often in hiding the strings.

Don’t get hit

Writing about the game for Rock, Paper, Shotgun, Dominic Tarason said that Way of The Passive Fist is best viewed not as a traditional brawler in the vein of the recently resurrected Streets of Rage series.

He said, “Taken at face value, it doesn’t quite live up to the heady standards set by the likes of Konami, Capcom and SNK back in the day.”

Instead, Mr Tarason said it functions as if a kind of marathon endurance test of learning and responding to different patterns and attack prompts – perhaps more Beat Saber than beat um up.

He said, “No matter how many enemies are around, they’ll politely line up to approach you one at a time and begin their attack, each swing depleting their own stamina bar. Depending on whether the attack is a strike, thrown weapon or a grapple attempt, you parry or dodge – each a one-button action – until they run themselves ragged enough for you to cheekily knock them over with a little finger poke.”

Looking at the game last year, Andrew Brown of Play Critically viewed the game as requiring the player to prioritise endurance and agility over raw strength.

He said, “Way of the Passive Fist is a beat ‘em up with the twist that I never beat anyone up. I couldn’t if I wanted to: The Wanderer’s only abilities are to parry, dodge, and shove. Rather than hit points, enemies have stamina bars which deplete when I successfully counter their attacks.”

At a relative budget price, Mr Brown said his initial experience of playing through the game was one of delight by offering a ‘fresh spin’ on the arcade brawler.

Some may initially find their own experiences being a little more frustrating as they seek to avoid taking hits as the foremost premise of Way of the Passive Fist.

Yet as a player begins to learn the attack patterns of opponents and savour an incoming knife that they can through back as its dispatcher with the push of a button – there is satisfaction as a near perfect fight concludes.

For what purer gaming lessons can there be for real life than staying steady on your toes, keeping cool under pressure and, most importantly, don’t get hit?

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