ARMS is going to be a divisive game with the public.
Within my circle of friends who play video games, which includes players of various skill levels and who favour different genres, the game has a mixed reaction. The friends who prefer fighting games like it to an extent, but feel that it’s limited. Those who are more into turn based and strategy games are frustrated with the lack of explanation of the key mechanics despite the fact that the game is marketed as accessible. However, I absolutely agree with the critical praise it has been receiving and personally side with them more (if the fact that I have happily and continue to play Ranked matches is not an indicator of that). In short, I really love ARMS.
ARMS, in one sentence, is a simple 3D fighting game with controls more akin to a third-person shooter. You can choose from a roster of unique characters each with their own individual abilities, such as healing when blocking, or being able to deflect your opponent’s attacks with a dash in the air. From there you can customise your fighter further by equipping the titular boxing gloves; then duke it out with your opponent and see who is the better spring-armed (or in one case spring-haired) pugilist.
It does indeed seem simple at first, but with the previously mentioned customisation via equipping different ARMS, there’s more strategy than first appears. Each ARMS has a different weight class which leads to the heavier gloves to overpowering the smaller ones, but with the latter being faster. In addition to that, each ARMS has its own individual quirks and effects, such as the parasol ARMS that is slow but blocks a large area of damage, or one that shoots multiple smaller electrified-fists. This all in turn puts emphasis on each individual player’s preparation and knowledge of each ARMS prior to the matches themselves. This does indeed dampen the experience of newcomers or more casual players who don’t play the game as much – since they won’t have the knowledge necessary to really take advantage of the customisation options.
However when it comes to the fights themselves, the in-fight mechanics can mean that some of the pre-fight preparation goes out the window. The preparation does help, such as equipping ARMS that you know can counter your opponents’ loadout, or ones that specifically cater to your playstyle, but with the hectic nature of the fights themselves it comes down to how well you react to your opponents’ actions. Honestly, this is an amazing aspect of the game for me. It’s nice knowing that no matter how well equipped an opponent is against you, simply having faster reactions, baiting them, dodging and reading your adversaries’ movements can still lead the poorly-equipped to a victory.
However this does leave a bit of a poor taste in my mouth – it leads to the pre-match planning being wasted, but this usually happens only when I play with my friends since in online matches this problem doesn’t seem to occur as often. In addition to this, the core gameplay does have some other flaws that might dampen some peoples’ experience of the title: Firstly grabs are too overpowered, which leads to matches where your entire opponent does is grab you and you can’t escape from that loop. This could easily be fixed, of course, in a later update so it’s not too much of a problem. However my biggest frustrations from the game come from the control schemes. In short the default motion control scheme is not the best way to play, despite being advertised as such. Movement is difficult, actually punching requires more effort than it should, accuracy is also hindered and just overall it is the worst way to play the game. I understand this is here for those players that are more casual than me, and I would absolutely want to play it this way with people who aren’t so skilled at video games, but for any significant level of play it is not worth using.
These issues are rectified through using the more traditional controller layouts, which are achieved through the Switch’s fantastic design and controllers, but some of the issues mentioned prior transfer over as well. For instance blocking is now made a bit more difficult as there is no dedicated block button, but rather you need to hold down the analogue stick on your controller which is rather difficult to do in the heat of battle. In addition to this, the subtle aiming one can do after launching their fists is still tied to the analogue stick, so aiming and moving become uncomfortably linked together. Yet in the end I can honestly overlook these quirks of design since they don’t affect the overall experience hugely. They hinder at most and can be ignored to have an overall enjoyable experience.
But what about the rest of the game surrounding the core experience? Well firstly the overall aesthetic and look of the game is fantastic. I love the minimalist, but still cartoonish look the menus and text have; it looks good and is easy on the eyes. I also adore all the characters (bar a joking hatred of Helix). They all look so unique and have individual styles and silhouettes, whilst all still being in a similar enough art style to maintain a cohesive aesthetic and look to the game. Apart from the aesthetic and superficial qualities of the game, the title also offers a plethora other modes that are less intense but just as fun; with my personal favourite being the Hoops mode where you get to dunk your opponents into a basketball hoop.
The online functionalities are also surprisingly competent, good even, for a Nintendo game. The core online mode of Party Match where you, and potentially another friend, are thrown into a lobby and matched randomly to other players in random modes is genius. It leads to lots of different combinations of modes and skill levels being thrown at you and with its simplicity and ease, the mode simply shines as an example of what non-competitive play in online games should be like. The fact that you don’t need to wait in a menu for ranked matches is also fantastic as you can still play single-player modes as you wait for your next opponent. ARMS simply has the best online mode Nintendo has created to date and I am extremely appreciative of it.
As I said at the beginning of this review ARMS might have a mixed reaction with the wider public. Its’ middle of the road approach to the fighting game genre may alienate the more hardcore fans, and those who may be confused with the more detailed aspects of the game such as the customisation. However, for someone like me who likes the competition and excitement of the fighting game genre but hates the severe learning curve of such games, this game is perfect. It scratches the itch of beating people up whilst still being accessible and simple enough to not frustrate, while also still being deep enough for those wanting more than just a souped-up multiplayer punch out. It’s a wonderful addition to the Switch’s library and one that I will keep coming back to when the free updates hit and I inevitably want to punch more friends digitally with comically oversized boxing gloves.