by Jed Pressgrove
Whether the game is Double Dragon or Castle Crashers, the appeal of the 2D beat ’em up has remained the same for decades: clobbering gangs of adversaries with one’s fists, feet, and weapons. Way of the Passive Fist doesn’t subvert this approach so much as change the focus from offense to defense, requiring the player to anticipate and react to every single attack from foes. While this shift comes with the contrivance of bad guys attacking the hero one at a time, developer Household Games brings an unforeseen type of intensity to the genre with its greater emphasis on hand-eye coordination.
As beat-’em-up custom dictates, you walk from right to left in Way of the Passive Fist, and the scrolling only stops when the game sends a group of enemies for you to dispatch. But unlike the usual routine, you can’t proactively punch your targets into submission. Instead, you must tire your opponents out with parries and/or dodges before shoving them to the ground. As in rhythm games, there are degrees of timing here. If you barely counter an attack within the window of opportunity, you lose a slight bit of health. If your timing is good or “perfect,” you not only keep all of your health but also increase a combo meter that, once filled to certain levels, can allow you to perform a single offensive move, such as a body slam that hurts nearby foes in addition to the one being slammed.
This combo dynamic, in addition to encouraging an aesthetically appealing type of play, reveals the unique strategic identity of Way of the Passive Fist. Since you gain experience points (which unlock new abilities) the faster you defeat your opposition, the best strategy is to build defensive combos to unleash techniques that topple multiple enemies. This goal is easier to state than execute, as enemies have a variety of attacks to throw off your timing. The game starts off simple with its lessons: parry slow punches, dodge grappling moves, and catch projectiles to throw them back at their sources. After you advance to later stages, your defense must account for more complicated patterns, such as double projectiles and six-hit combinations. One mistake — from a missed dodge to an unnecessary parry — resets the combo meter. Way of the Passive Fist pushes for restraint, careful observation, and accuracy within a genre that usually rewards spamming and aggression.
To a large degree, Household Games mixes up the obstacles enough to keep you alert throughout Way of the Passive Fist. As you fight faster opponents later in the game, it can be jarring when an earlier, slower kind of threat returns to the fray, as sudden decreases in speed can disrupt your regular rhythm. Initially, the game also introduces environmental factors to compromise your comfort during battle. For example, in one early stage, you have to fight in sand storms that make it harder to see your adversaries’ nonverbal cues, which are critical when it comes to knowing what kind of counter you need to perform.
To its detriment, the game largely abandons environmental dangers about halfway through. There are 10 levels in Way of the Passive Fist, and each one has numerous waves of baddies, so a greater variety of traps and distractions could have reduced the repetitiveness of the proceedings. The final boss is disappointing as well: his pattern is too predictable, and he conveniently places himself in front of you after you fill up your combo meter by blocking his combinations. Despite these shortcomings, redirecting momentum as a defender in Way of the Passive Fist is a distinctive kinetic pleasure in a gaming world full of copiers and clones.