Fighting games and Kinect should go together like chocolate and mint. Hell, dancing is only a few withheld punches away from full-blown wrestling and they work a treat on Microsoft’s all-seeing eye! So it was with some trepidation that Fighter Within released to little fanfare alongside the Xbox One, despite being the only Kinect-dedicated game at launch. Coming from Ubisoft, a spiritual successor to Fighters Uncaged wasn’t what most people were clamouring for but, given the technical leap between Kinect 1.0 and the new model, there’s every reason to bring motion-sensor combat back for one more try.
Things immediately look shonky as the game manages to stray beyond the confines of the television, with menus, buttons and other HUD elements cut off at the edges. A quick check in the setting menu reveals this can’t be fixed so already proceedings pointed towards another soulless Kinect cash-in. Initiation Mode – essentially a tutorial and story mode in one – pits you as Matt Gilford, a fighter working his way up from the bottom of the pile in an effort to become champion. The story is inconsequential, beginning as a simple, uninvolving rivalry between fight schools and ultimately devolving into cod-Oriental nonsense involving magic artefacts. It’s all bland phooey, with cutscenes limited to static shots of each character alongside a phrase or two of awful dialogue.
Initial impressions paint Fighter Within as a competent brawler with uninspired but serviceable art direction. A few minutes with the game ruin whatever benefit of the doubt exists as Matt’s opponents reveal a laziness in character design that borders on offensive. Oh hey, the Scottish character is a big, fat man with a terrible brogue and a kilt! How original! And this man is evidently from London – where else could he come from with that abysmal Mockney accent? Each character apparently has their own fight style based on a real discipline but you’d be forgiven if this passes you by, considering the amount of poorly detected move-spamming that every fight eventually becomes.
Were a poor story and characters the only problems with Fighter Within it would likely be passable. Unfortunately the game is so inherently broken, even down to menu navigation, that there is literally nothing to recommend. Before a fight has even commenced you’ll wrestle with the menus – each ‘button’ on screen can be pressed by hovering your hand over it and pushing slightly towards the screen. This rarely works, the hand-shaped cursor flying about the place or not recognising the ‘push’ gesture, ultimately resulting in turning to the Xbox controller to navigate the menus. Not the greatest advert for the power of Kinect.
Things worsen once combat starts. Fighter Within is still gesture-based – it’ll be a long time before one-to-one motion comes to fighting games, thankfully – with each match adding some new thing to learn. To begin with, flailing punches seem to get the job done and it almost feels responsive. High and low attacks need a little bit of pantomime exaggeration but it works. Then blocking is explored – again, this is simple enough that it doesn’t go as wrong as everything else. Counters, the next move introduced, see the game fall apart. If an opponent hits high, ducking low and hitting will trigger a more powerful counter. Vice versa for low blows. Only the game rarely succeeds in correctly recognising your moves. Once throws are introduced – sticking both arms out in a v-motion – the game becomes a tiring slog of failure. Even blocking offers no respite given that this sets you up for an easy throw.
There’s also Ki – a mystical energy that can be acquired in game and used to turn the tide of fights in the form of special moves. It’s another pointless set of moves that don’t register. Three matches in you’ll have worked out what countermeasures are needed to defeat your opponent, making it doubly frustrating as you stand there, trying to initiate the right move while the game stares at you blankly. It’s not a withering look of disdain, more a gormless incomprehension; semaphore at an airplane piloted by a damp tissue. Actually, that’s disparaging to tissues.
The simplicity at the core of Fighter Within becomes its own worst enemy. Fights can be won by forcing your opponent to step out of the ring, something that a flurry of janky punches can achieve with ease. Successfully block a set of punches and your fighter will automatically counter with a damage-dealing barnstormer. It’s a basic system that’s easy to learn on paper but laughably broken in practice.
Multiplayer, a simple player vs. player brawl, suffers from the same problems but becomes a tragic, so-bad-it’s-almost-good comedy of errors. Aside from the inherent (comedic) dangers of two people flailing in close proximity, the hit-and-miss crapshoot can results in some genuine hilarity. As long as you can get over the shame of actually buying Fighter Within it harbours the smallest glimmer of fun but it suffers in comparison to proper party games. If you’re looking for a decent and hilarious multiplayer fighter you’d be better off picking up Nidhogg. Your arms will hurt less at the very least.
Fighter Within doesn’t just tarnish the tenuous franchise that Ubisoft seems to be attempting to forge. It does motion-controlled brawlers a disservice, writing off a genre that probably shouldn’t exist anyway. Even worse it tarnishes Microsoft’s shiny new Kinect as well as the black box to which it’s leashed. As the only exclusive Kinect game at launch one can only imagine the crushing disappointment of witless punters who’ve bought this cash-grab, now wondering whether their console is broken or, worse, not the huge leap forward touted by Microsoft. When a game is so poisonous that it infects the very platform on which it resides, it becomes far more damaging than can be ignored. Fighter Within on the Xbox 360 would be a disaster reduced to a footnote, ignored and left to wither. As a launch title for the new generation it’s worse: a parasite, feeding off the goodwill and desperation of early-adopters. Avoid, avoid, avoid.