Beat ’em ups are a genre of game that really took off about 30 years ago. Games like Final Fight, Streets of Rage, River City Ransom, and scores of others were being devoured by people who couldn’t get enough of punching and kicking baddies in the face. Then the genre fell off the face of the earth for a while. In recent years, these games have enjoyed a bit of a return to glory. All sorts of passion projects have come along reminding people how fun it is to clobber virtual street thugs.
As entertaining as all of this is, Way of the Passive Fist takes a very different approach. Here, players don’t punch and kick their way to victory. Instead they block and and dodge attacks until enemies become exhausted. When this happens, a simple poke is all that’s needed to defeat them. The game very much takes a “the best offense is a good defense” approach to how it plays.
The game takes place on the planet Zircon V. It attracted a lot of ambitious colonists eager to strike it rich mining up all of the planet’s valuable resources. However, there were some who warned that the planet was too close to the sun. As such, they feared that this would create incredibly harsh conditions on the planet. Upon arriving, colonists were greeted with the hard truth that Zircon V is a desolate wasteland and living there will be tough.
Amidst all of this, the player takes control of a legendary hermit known as the Wanderer. He’s been living by himself in a remote part of the planet and is known for his unusual defensive fighting style. Only now has he emerged to fight the various raiders and other troublemakers of the planet in an attempt to make Zircon V a slightly less terrible place to live.
The art style in Way of the Passive Fist is somewhat reminiscent of cartoons from the 70s and 80s. Character designs have a fairly Mad Max-like look to them. Meanwhile, levels themselves are varied ranging from deserts to mines to exotic jungles among other locales. The sprite work in the game is quite nice, and it manages to set itself apart from other games that use a pixelated presentation. The soundtrack is also very well done with much of the music being guitar-driven. Listening to the music, it feels just like something one would hear from an arcade beat ‘em up circa 1990.
Actual combat is the meat of the game, though, and as was mentioned earlier, it is very unique. While standard beat ‘em ups commonly have crowds of enemies swarm players, this isn’t the case in Way of the Passive Fist. Doing so would break the game. Instead enemies will take turns trying to attack the Wanderer. With that, they’ll give audio and visual cues that they are about to attack, then players need to block and dodge appropriately. As the game progresses, these enemies get smarter and will try to fake out the player. This usually happens with an audio cue, but a delayed attack. So, players need to watch out for this. As attacks are avoided, a stamina bar above enemies’ heads is depleted. Once it is empty, they are exhausted and all the player need do is poke them once to defeat them.
Even though players largely deal with enemies one at a time, they need to keep an eye out for ranged attacks and environmental hazards. These can still happen, and may require dashing away in order to avoid being hit by something, breaking a parry chain. These chains are important because they build meter. As the meter fills, increasingly powerful special attacks become available. With them comes a risk-reward system as players need to decide when best to utilize these attacks. These attacks are also necessary for inflicting damage on bosses, so building and maintaining parry chains is very important.
At its core, the game has a 10 chapter story mode. However, there are also additional chapters that are unlocked after completing the main game. Completing the initial game also unlocks a roguelite mode. There players take on all manner of additional battles, surviving as best they can.
As unusual as Way of the Passive Fist might sound, the game is a ton of fun. It takes some getting used to blocking and dodging attacks. There’s a bit of a learning curve to get used to the cues and adjusting as enemies try to confuse the player. Once the player gets a handle on this, blocking and dodging one’s way to victory is quite enjoyable, not to mention a humorous change of pace from basically every other beat ‘em up on the market.