Ninja Theory is one of the most interesting developers in the business. They have the opportunity to develop high-budget, low-grossing games more often than pretty much any other studio in existence -- then move on to another publisher to try their luck, where almost any other studio would have gone bankrupt.
But still, they persevere, and somehow, someway, they always come back for more. So how do they fare with a mobile free-to-play energy-filled freemium brawler?
Fightback (Android, iOS [reviewed on an iPhone 5])
Developer: Ninja Theory
Release Date: December 19, 2013
MSRP: Free-to-play (the bad kind)
Fightback makes no grand promises of offering up in-depth adventuring or exploration -- it's a single-player fighting game through and through, with elements of the brawling genre. You can't actually move, as everything is done on rails. By swiping or tapping at certain parts of the screen, you can throw punches or kicks, duck, and jump. The result is a game that feels arcade-like in nature, but doesn't really bring anything unique to the table.
If Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon is the perfect example of how to do an '80s action homage right, Fightback is the antithesis of said homage. Everything from the incredibly generic hero and villain (the latter of which just looks like Mundus from DmC), to the "your sister has been kidnapped" story arc is painfully bad, and not in a "so bad it's good" kind of way. At any given point I can't tell if Ninja Theory is paying respect to brawlers like Final Fight, or ripping them off.
Instead of offering up fresh takes on these tropes like the Matt Hazard series attempts to do, Fightback kind of just copies and pastes them with reckless abandon. It's depressing, because it's entirely possible to do irreverent comedy these days and pull it off. Blood Dragon did it, so did Shadow Warrior. But Fightback's dialog and setup are so lazily executed, that it actually disgraces the source material.
Having said that, the touch controls actually work, despite the shallow nature of the fighting mechanics. Enemies will come at you on the left or ride side the screen, and all you have to do is tap or swipe on the correct portion to attack. Tapping throws a punch and swiping executes a kick, while tapping high or low on your character will jump or duck respectively. It's pretty cool to duck under a punch, have the game slow down a tad, and Double Dragon-knee an enemy in the jaw.
The combo system is swift and fun, as you can basically just tap the screen to juggle or pummel foes into oblivion. There are also some old-school weapon mechanics as well, allowing you to pick up bats and other objects from fallen foes. The major holdup is with the automated movement, because enemies can just run out of your field of view, then come in for a sneak attack. Since Fightback is on rails, you have to sit there and watch it happen. It's not a deep system by any stretch of the imagination, but it makes for some arcade-like fun.
Sadly, the shadow of "freemium" rears its ugly head -- most likely compliments of publisher Chillingo, who feels the need to monetize every single one of their games through any means necessary. As a $0.99 download or even as a fair free-to-play game, Fightback would have been a fun "why not?" impulse buy for a silly afternoon. But it's a bit tougher to justify a playthrough, because not only does the game have heavy amounts of IAP that can upgrade your character, but it has boosts, and the dreaded energy meters as well.
At every turn, Fightback wants you to spend money. Before a stage, you can spend tons of in-game cash (with lots of reminders that you can buy more for real cash) for a temporary one-level boost. After a death, you can come back to life with premium currency. You can also equip and level-up your character through in-game currency, which you don't get that much of. All of that is somewhat manageable if you have some patience. But the energy mechanic that limits the amount of time you can play with a "finite" counter is the final straw.
That's not even including the constant "link your Facebook!" messages with promises of extra premium currency, and the ads that run on the game's title screen. I'm fine with the tasteful monetization of certain games that deliver value on their own, but this is nothing of the sort. To see a developer like Ninja Theory shackled to an energy-based game feels wrong.
Fightback is a waste of time and money. As a full premium game for a buck or two, it could have been a decent brawler to pass the time with. But as it stands, you're going to be waiting to play it more than actually playing it. At the end of the day, this is just another depressing chapter in the book of Ninja Theory.