At first glance, ARMS seems like another new Nintendo property made specifically to show off the new features of its latest console. The Switch’s motion control abilities via its Joycon controllers are clearly how the game wants to be played, even though other modes are just as viable. Punching through the different game types can still be fun for a while, however, even when those motion controls that don’t always work the way they should -- but the experience can wear thin after extended play. ARMS may be the start of a compelling new series for the young Switch console, but it’s hard not to come away feeling like it falls short of its full potential.
ARMS’s starting character roster offers the player a fair amount of diversity with play style. Spring Man and Ribbon Girl are the Ryu and Ken of ARMS, the beginner-friendly characters who are for the most part passed over once the player is comfortable enough to start experimenting. Master Mummy is a heavy character with slow and powerful attacks while Ninjara is the lithe ninja that specializes in speed. The usual fighting archetypes are all here, and tired as some of them are, they all work in the world of ARMS.
Players can choose how they want to control the game through the Switch’s multiple play formats, some of which feature motion control elements. Unfortunately, those motion control options became more nuisance than novelty when I played, as they don’t well-calibrated to the kinds of movement they’re meant to detect. Using both JoyCons tp dash by flicking them to one side seems fine, but pulling them in toward the body in order to block has yet to work properly for me, despite practice. Blocking is obviously pretty important in most fighting games, so the inability to do so here was a major deterrent to playing with motion controls enabled. The far more responsive Handheld mode or JoyCon grip provided me with a much fuller ARMS play experience, still showing off the different Switch play modes without worrying about whether it would register the controllers’ movements.
ARMS’s different game modes vary from standard fighting game fare to some unique choices. The standard versus modes are nothing fighting games haven’t seen before, pitting either two or four players against each other in 1v1 or 2v2 standard matches. Far more interesting are modes like Hoops, a basketball contest where players try to knock their opponents through the basket, and a full volleyball mode where the ball is actually a bomb. The switch in focus from just punching an opponent into submission to adding a different type of goal is where ARMS gets really interesting. Slamming an opponent into a hoop is definitely more entertaining than just punching them repeatedly.
All of these modes transfer to online play as well, where they are further split into Ranked and Party matches. Party Mode matches players together in a random versus mode format, which some players might find a turn-off, if you were hoping to play online with friends. However, Party Mode lobbies can hold up to 20 players, so while you’re still playing with randos, at least the amount of potential opponents keeps things interesting. Ranked Matches, on the other hand, are only open to those who have finished the single-player Grand Prix at difficulty level 4 and above -- an odd choice given that many hardcore fighting game enthusiasts might prefer to get into ARMS’s Ranked Play right from the jump.
Limiting Ranked Play isn’t a totally bad idea in theory, because it at least requires players to learn the ropes before jumping in. But the Grand Prix suffers from a strange difficulty spike, one which may frustrate even dedicated players. Of the seven difficulty levels offered, I had a few runs on levels 3 and 4 where my AI opponent would always seem to wait for me to press a button and consistently respond with the perfect counter. If I tried to grab, the AI character dodged and punched. If I blocked, the AI character grabbed me. Even the in-match powerups seemed to be against me, with health and super meter regen power-ups always landing near my adversary, while the bombs always found their way to me. There’s a difference between a challenging AI and an unfair one, and there are times when ARMS goes too far over to the wrong side. It’s easy to see why mandating this single-player mode before ranked online play would be a huge source of frustration for many players.
The biggest issue ARMS has, though, is longevity. Fights start to feel repetitive after a few consecutive matches, and even though the game’s other modes mix things up a bit, there’s only so much punching, grabbing, and slam dunking to be done before the experience wears thin. Digging in for multiple hours at a time really brings this simplicity to light. The game is far more suited to bite-sized play, a half-hour here and there, and ARMS can indeed be enjoyed this way pretty well. But seasoned fighting game players looking for more complexity would be better off looking elsewhere.
ARMS performs well as a new take on a well-worn genre, even if some of its elements aren’t as revolutionary as billed. The motion controls aren’t effective in the least and the Grand Prix mode is sure to raise the player’s blood pressure, but there’s enough fun mixed with the frustration for content-starved Switch owners to have a good time. ARMS may grab your interest for a while, but more complex fighters on other consoles are going to take some of that attention away pretty quickly.