Probably no post this week (22/04/2014) thanks to bank holiday weekend and my current playing habits being all over the place.
I told myself I wasn’t going to write a 2,000 word review about One Finger Death Punch, but here we are anyway.
Was it blind prejudice to expect One Finger Death Punch (or OFDP) to be a bit, well, shit? It’s a £4 game that looks like it could have been coded in Flash and whose primary use of art revolves around differently-coloured stick figures, an aesthetic I absolutely detest. The concept seems so simple it’s almost braindead, too: OFDP is a game with just two inputs, the left and right mouse buttons. You control a stick figure character who stands in the middle of the screen while other stick figures move in from the left and right. If they reach your stick figure they’ll hit him, so your job is to prevent this outcome by hitting them first; there are two bars on the ground either side of where your character stands, and when an enemy moves onto the bar it’ll light up either blue (left side) or red (right side). This is your cue to dispatch them by pressing either the left or right mouse buttons, as appropriate. Repeat this process anywhere between 50 and 200 times and you have a typical level of One Finger Death Punch.
It certainly sounds a bit shit, doesn’t it? It’s the sort of concept that’s fine to code a Flash game around, one that you play for ten minutes and then forget it ever existed, but surely, surely it isn’t enough to sustain a paid product over multiple hours of gameplay? And yet that’s precisely where I find myself; I bought OFDP purely on the recommendation of Everblue and Kenti in the comments for the review of Reaper of Souls, and I did so with a great deal of scepticism because it really didn’t look like a very good game at all, but it’s ended up sucking me in for six or seven hours so far with no sign of letting up. One Finger Death Punch is in fact an absolutely brilliant game, one that jiu-jitsus its weaknesses and technical limitations into distinct strengths, and which throws so much variety at the player that while there are admittedly parts of the game that genuinely are a bit shit you can’t help but find something you like in it.
Let’s start with the gameplay. From that simple seed of two-button gameplay OFDP builds up something with a surprising degree of complexity and challenge. For starters, the simple grey enemies that can be killed in just one hit make up maybe 70% of the enemies in a particular level. There are also coloured enemies of various types who require different combinations of button presses to defeat; these are helpfully labelled underneath them as they approach your position, and if you fumble one of these combos and miss you’ll leave yourself open for a counterattack that will deplete your life. A key mechanic is that the game’s internal logic of blue left mouse button presses hitting enemies on the left side of the screen and red right mouse button presses is almost never broken, except in one special case, so if a coloured enemy approaches from the left with a blue-red-red label and you press the left mouse button to strike him, he’ll dodge over to the right hand side of the screen for the next two right mouse button presses required to kill him. This seems like a small thing but it has a huge impact on how your brain parses these attack combos; the blows you deliver are always relevant to where your current opponent is on the screen, which means that if you see a blue-red-blue coloured enemy coming from the left and three simple grey enemies coming from the right you know you can (for example) do one left strike on the coloured enemy to get him to switch sides from left to right, and then follow up with four right strikes: one to make him switch back to the left again, and three more to kill the greys coming in from the right. Then you finish him off with another left strike.
This ability to dynamically chain strikes together in this fashion is made possible by yet another seemingly small gameplay element that has disproportionately huge impact: every time you successfully land a blow everything goes into ultra slow-motion for a fraction of a second, and this is the window you have to plan your next move. Not only is this a very cool addition that gives you a freeze frame of the action (mirroring classic kung fu movies like Enter The Dragon) but it also prevents you from being overwhelmed by the enemies’ numbers and speed. Speed is a key factor in OFDP; as you would expect, the game ups the difficulty both by introducing more complex types of coloured enemy and by upping the speed with which they approach and the reaction time required to hit them, but as long as you are doing something the chain of slo-mo effects will slow things down enough that you’ll rarely get mobbed by six guys at once with no chance of reacting.
Then there’s Brawler enemies, who function as minibosses and which are the exception to the blue-left red-right rule I mentioned earlier. Brawlers are identified by the crowns they wear, and when you engage a Brawler your view zooms in, all other enemies back away from the screen and you’re left to fight them one-on-one. Once again this is something that not only mirrors kung fu movies but which also enhances the action; you fight Brawlers by matching button presses that scroll down from the top of the screen a la Guitar Hero while your characters dodge and block their way through the fight underneath the button prompts. Brawlers vary dramatically in difficulty, with some requiring just three or four presses of a single button and others requiring 10-20 button combos, and as ever in OFDP if you make a single mistake you get hit and lose life. This includes hesitating too long and letting button prompts reach the bottom of the screen without you responding to them, so on more difficult levels you have to chain those combos together really fast. Fortunately they’re formatted in blocks that you eventually learn to parse as “2 left, 4 right, 1 left, 4 right” or similar, meaning that as long as you don’t misclick you can basically do them as fast as you can read them, and after a bit of practice getting a perfect combo on a Brawler in the space of a couple of seconds makes you feel absolutely awesome.
The final element to OFDP’s basic gameplay are the weapons. These come in many different flavours – swords, clubs, spears, staves – but basically boil down to melee or ranged. Melee weapons are time-limited and won’t give you any extra hitting power, but they will extend your reach – the size of the bars beneath your character that tell you when you can hit people – giving you more margin for error when timing your strikes. By contrast ranged weapons will instantly kill any enemy they hit, even a Brawler, but you usually only get one shot. Weapons are dropped by enemies and picked up by moving towards them and pressing (duh) the left or right mouse buttons.
Wait, moving? I never mentioned any movement keys and your character is seemingly immobile, but here’s the really clever thing about OFDP: you can move around in a limited fashion because executing a successful strike will shift your character a small distance in the direction of that strike. This means that if there’s a weapon lying just out of your reach on the left side of the screen you can get to it by focusing your attacks on enemies who come in from the left; similarly you can put a bit of distance between yourself and the horde of enemies who entered from the right by doing the same, and it’s a perfectly valid tactic to strike one way until there are no more bad guys to hit, and then repeat the process on the group of enemies who have been chasing you across the screen while you’ve been doing this. Again, it’s something that ensures that despite OFDP’s simplicity you can make intelligent decisions as to where you focus your blows
Now, the reason I just spent 1,400 telling you about OFDP’s basic gameplay mechanics in excruciating detail is because if I just showed you a video of what you get when you put them all together, as I am about to, you would probably have the same reaction that I did when I first looked at it, which was something along the lines of “Looks okay, I guess, but I don’t understand why people are recommending it.” The action in OFDP is very fast and very fluid, and disarmingly so; you need to understand how it works and all the little touches that have gone into the game to make it what it is because actually watching the thing in action is so smooth that it’s difficult to see the joins. Anyway, this is me earlier this evening playing one of OFDP’s basic level types, the Mob Round:
(No, it’s not a perfect run, but I’m not that good and I wanted to demonstrate everything including what happens when you fuck it up.)
This should hopefully illustrate the remaining points I want to cover in this review, which are in no particular order:
- The animation. Yes, it’s all stick figures. I hate stick figures. But stick figures are very easy to pose, and OFDP’s use of slo-mo and freeze-frames means there’s little actual animation in the game, turning this limitation into an asset; as an added bonus there’s plenty of different kung-fu styles in the game, each of which has a different set of action poses which are very well represented.
- The finishing moves. OFDP is an astonishingly violent game, as evidenced by the bit twenty seconds in where I punch a Brawler’s heart out of his chest, and if it wasn’t all stick figures it would seem more than a little gratuitous. As it the game’s cartoonish nature means it gets away with it.
- The music. While there isn’t quite enough of it what’s there is almost universally excellent and consistently energetic, which is exactly what you want from a game played in short frantic bursts1.
One Finger Death Punch does not get everything right, mind. It has an astonishingly bone-headed approach to difficulty, choosing to babysit the player through a set of compulsory tutorial levels that take far, far too long to finish and which are comparatively dull when set against the ridiculous fun of the later game. Its insistence on using two buttons for everything may be conceptually elegant but introduces annoyances such as trying to punch a guy only for your character to pick up a dropped weapon that was infinitesimally closer and which you couldn’t see because the enemy was standing on top of it; I’ve fluffed so many combos because of this and I think it’s something that would have been easily fixed by assuming that when given the choice between punching a man and picking up a club, I will choose to punch the man. Some of the finishing moves may look cool and all, but what they actually do is break your concentration and your flow and I would have liked an option to turn them off. And then there’s the sheer number of levels you have to work your way through to progress; there is a huge world map filled with more than a dozen level types, approximately half of which are great fun (I like the Speed and Thunderstorm rounds especially), but the other half are incredibly gimmicky and end up being a chore that has to be suffered through before you can get to the good stuff.2
But hey, these are all comparatively minor niggles when set against the frenetic moments of action a single level of One Finger Death Punch will provide you with. It may look simple, but the core mechanics are extremely well-thought out and polished to the point where I simply don’t care that I’m just making stick figures punch each other. It’s a fiendish gameplay challenge which results in scenes of beautiful, balletic violence, and one with a surprisingly amount of longevity; I wouldn’t expect to play One Finger Death Punch for more than ten hours or so, but for £4 that’s a better time played/money spent ratio than most AAAs manage. And if you think, despite all of this, that One Finger Death Punch still looks a bit shit, you should remember that that’s what I thought when I bought it and here I am singing its praises. Not many games manage that kind of complete 180 degree shift in my initial opinion. It’s pretty damn good.
- The best of it is from an album called Chinese Dance Machine, which I’ve since bought to use as a running soundtrack. ↩
- I try not to assume too much about developers these days, but as long as I’m listing gripes I might as well mention that the developers of One Finger Death Punch – an outfit called Silver Dollar Games — come across as far too goddamn pleased with themselves. That they are coming across in the game at all is something of a warning sign – the loading screen “tips” alternate between patronising remarks on the correct way to enjoy their game and a series of pretentious and egotistic comments on how awesome indie developers are, which are precisely the sort of thing that makes me roll my eyes whenever “indie” is mentioned like it is its own separate, precious thing – and the general tone oscillates between smug self-satisfaction that they made a whole game all on their own and sycophantic platitudes to the player for playing the game in the first place. That game may be awesome, Silver Dollar, but you should know that if you carry on down that road you’re going to make an enemy out of me. ↩