I remember when doing nothing but blocking in a game was considered cowardly.
Developed and published by Household Games, Way of the Passive Fist is a unique take on the brawler genre. It reminds me of Konami arcade classics like Turtles in Time or X-Men, but instead of punching and kicking anyone who stands in your way, you block and dodge attacks to wear your opponents out. I can’t help but think of the memorable Simpsons episode “The Homer They Fall,” where Homer becomes a boxer who succeeds by letting his competition tire themselves out from over-punching. The hero of Way of the Passive Fist, the mysterious Wanderer, does the same thing: gently pushing over exhausted foes much like Homer does.
Like with any brawler, enjoyment comes from how satisfying the combat is, and it might seem like playing defense would be less fun than going to town on every goon in sight. Fortunately, I can say that the timing and rhythm-based combat in Way of the Passive Fist is actually quite fun. Rather than mindlessly smashing your attack buttons, you need to discern enemy attack patterns and block their strikes, evade their grapples, and catch their projectiles. Successfully defending an opponent’s attacks reduces their stamina bar, and when the bar is depleted you can just nudge them onto the ground to kill them. You can also build up a combo meter that allows you to unleash special attacks, like a slam that takes out one foe and damages everyone else on screen.
The story mode consists of 10 chapters that each contain 4 to 8 scenes. Every scene features a series of opponents you need to take out before you can proceed. Between scenes you can activate checkpoints that save your progress, and if you die you can restart at your last checkpoint. Half of the chapters culminate in a boss fight, which adds much needed variety to the gameplay. The boss fights are quite challenging and require that you build up your combo meter so that you can attack the bosses directly; in other words, they aren’t going to get tired from pummeling you. You earn points in each scene from building up your combo meter and multiplier, and you can earn more points by finishing off opponents with a special attack. The scenes also award medals depending on how many points you earn, and these medals translate into experience points that can raise your health meter or unlock special attacks. Unfortunately, there are only three special attacks that you learn throughout the game and a max level of 5.
Adding replay value are 36 Challenges that can be achieved by, for example, racking up a combo of 50 or earning all of the gold medals in a given chapter. After completing the story mode, you unlock New Dawn and Passiverse modes, which throw slightly-altered random levels at you that contain new opponents, and these new modes are incredibly difficult. Passiverse lets you choose your own set of scenes on your path to defeating five bosses, but it also puts the game on the hardest difficulty level and gives you only a single life. New Dawn and Passiverse will put your skills to the ultimate test, but they are a nice little bonus you get for finishing the game.
The presentation of Way of the Passive Fist is pretty decent but not a major selling point. The music isn’t bad and the art style works well for the genre, but the screen is really zoomed in, which means there isn’t a ton of room to move around. Certain boss fights and scenes with multiple opponents become frustrating when your vision is obscured or your character gets boxed in. The enemy variety is also a little lacking, with many just being reskins of ones you’ve faced previously that now use a different attack pattern. It works well enough here, but the later story mode chapters don’t really introduce any new competition. On the plus side, the menus are really clean and easy to navigate, and the in-game text uses fonts that are reminiscent of Contra and some that call to mind Kung Fu movies.
One of the options that really stands out to me is that before you start a chapter you can customize the difficulty. There are sliders for enemy strength, encounters, combo mastery, and resourcefulness. These determine how hard your opponents hit, how many you fight at once, whether late parries add to your combo meter, and how many health pickups and checkpoints you find. The default setting places the marker at the midpoint of each slider, and it was fun to mess around with these settings to make the experience easier or harder. One boss fight in particular got me to turn down the settings the first time around, and it was great to be able to adjust the difficulty so freely and without any penalty.
What it lacks in gameplay variety, Way of the Passive Fist makes up for in its unique focus on defense and its accessible approach to difficulty. I enjoyed playing through the story mode and learning the different attack patterns of my opponents as each interaction felt like a mini-rhythm game. If you are looking for an arcade-style brawler that has achievements and a fun hook, there’s no need to be passive about downloading this one on the eShop.