One Finger Death Punch is a brilliant game that manages to wring every drop of entertainment and excitement out of a simple concept. It’s a 2D martial arts fighting game that evokes nostalgic memories of those pre-YouTube viral videos Xiao Xiao, which show stick figures battling it out in impressively animated and choreographed action scenes.
You are a student of the martial arts, on a journey to… y’know, it doesn’t matter. You travel around a map and get in lots of fights. The story is nonexistent. One Finger Death Punch is about the visceral, addicting, and euphoric pleasure of a fight. It’s about the beauty of violence, the ballet of combat, and every system in the game works to reinforce these ideas. As such, One Finger Death Punch may be the most mechanically perfect game since Fez.
So, on to the combat. Your stick figure stands in the center of the screen as enemies charge at you from the left and the right. You can’t move. All you can do is attack left or attack right. This is a game played entirely with two buttons, yet manages to be tense and tactical in a way that never gets old.
First of all, you can only attack enemies within a certain range, which means you can see who’s coming at you and from what side before you have the chance to act. This allows the player a moment of observation and planning: Three guys are coming from the right and one is coming from the left. Do you take out the one first, or the three, or do you alternate between them? This system makes the game more than just a twitchy test of reaction speed, it’s about crowd management.
At first, enemies will go down in one hit, but very soon the game adds harder foes that take two, three, four, and eventually five hits to kill. These special enemies are color coded according to button patterns. Green requires two hits on the same side, left-left or right-right. Blue requires alternating hits, left-right or right-left. Red requires three hits on the same side. Purple requires three alternating hits, and so on. The patterns get more complex the deeper you get into the game.
This is when crowd management becomes essential. Are four guys requiring one hit each more or less of a threat than one guy requiring four hits? Answering that question means understanding your limitations. Personally, I find it difficult to split my attention between enemies, so I prefer to clear each side at a time. This decision making occurs in a split second. Each level is an onslaught of tactical prioritization.
Then there’s the Brawler, a kind of mini-boss character. Attack him once and the camera zooms in, the other enemies back away, and you enter a one-on-one fight. Button prompts fall from the top of the screen. Land them all, and you win. Miss a prompt, and he gets a hit. When the fight is over, the camera zooms out, and you continue with the larger battle.
Brawlers offer a risky respite. If too many enemies are surrounding you, hitting a Brawler forces everyone to back away. The action pauses as the camera zooms in and out, giving you an extra split second of planning before the fight resumes.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a proper martial arts game if it didn’t include some weapons, and One Finger Death Punch includes a lot of weapons. Most melee weapons — swords, staffs, and clubs — increase the range of your attack, allowing you to become more offensive. Ranged weapons — bows and daggers — are a one hit kill for every enemy. However, all the weapons have a limited number of uses. Blades break, and you quickly run out of arrows. But for brief few seconds, you’re even more dangerous than normal.
Weapons give each fight a sense of rising and falling action. When you’re doing it poorly, they offer a genuine advantage that can turn the tide of battle. When you’re already doing well, they give the chance to do even better. Either way, you’re gaining and losing multiple advantages over time, so the fights never fall into a monotonous pacing.
Then there are the special abilities that you can unlock and equip that activate after a specific number of kills. These might destroy every enemy on the screen with a powerful ground pound or slow the onslaught or turn everyone into a one-hit grey guy. In terms of pacing, these abilities have the same effect as the weapons. In terms of gameplay structure, they’re timed to unlock just as the difficulty is increasing to help you keep up with the game.
As if all that weren’t enough variety to wring out of a two button fighting game, there are several different kinds of levels, including a clever twist on “boss” levels.
Throughout all this the stickman Xiao Xiao combat is flawless. The animation is smooth and instantaneous, never getting in the way of gameplay. The choreography of attacks is amazing to watch. You don’t choose what kind of attack you do, you just click left or right, but your hero still performs a variety of punches and kicks. Watching him dance gives the player the illusion of supreme competence. It’s clear that this little guy knows what he’s doing.
Like all games, the patterns within One Finger Death Punch eventually become second nature, and it starts to play like a rhythm game without the rhythm. It’s actually more like reading sheet music. You come to associate colors with patterns, and as the colors scroll by, you input the patterns accordingly. At first, this requires conscious thought, but at its most sublime, you don’t notice the inputs, your hands move on their own, you read the colors, and skip that step of conscious thought to kick so much ass.