As the first original, wholly exclusive Nintendo developed title to hit the Switch, it's fair to say that Arms has some high expectations to live up to. Proudly boasting on the box that it comes from the producer that brought us Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, Arms is perhaps the first game to test what Nintendo's developers can really do with the system - and especially with its unusual, detachable controllers. But despite having a great concept, and Nintendo polish by the bucketload, Arms is a game that ends up feeling like its missing something beneath the surface - and really, what it's missing is something to actually do.
Play quizzes, win prizes! Test your knowledge with our quizzes, and you could win £/$/€ 20 of PSN/XBL/eShop/Steam credit!
A 1 v 1 (or 2 v 2) beat 'em up, Arms is a game that pits elaborately quiffed, poster paint coloured characters in a close quarters contest of haymakers, uppercuts and knock out blows, as they hurl lefts and rights at each other with overly elasticated arms. Intended to be played with a Joy-Con in each hand, letting you box as you would in real life, Arms is a game that feels like the love child of a wild three way fling between Wii Sports boxing, Rock 'em Sock 'em Robots and Stretch Armstrong - and, let's face it, that's as good a starting place for a game as any. The fact it has an absolutely stonking theme tune that'll be stuck in your head for hours after you've finished playing doesn't hurt either.
But while the basic control scheme may be simple, Arms is actually a little harder to pick up and play than you might imagine, with a lot of gesture related controls squeezed onto the two tiny controllers. Along with using the Joy-Cons to throw lefts and rights (or using both together to perform a grab, and throw your opponent across the arena for massive damage) how you tilt the controllers actually makes a big difference too. Tilting them in the same direction will let you strafe left and right; tilting towards each other lets you block, while tilting after throwing a punch lets you apply a kind of aftertouch, and haphazardly swing your shot towards your foe. Meanwhile, pressing R lets you jump, L lets you dodge, and ZR lets you trigger Rush mode, when you've managed to fill its respective gauge, letting you unleash a devastating flurry of punches on your opponent. As you can see, there's plenty to keep in mind.
One of the biggest worries we'd had with Arms was that it had always seemed to be very local multiplayer centric - and while that's usually actually a good thing, in the case of Arms, it had us worried, due to the game's very specific control scheme. While we're always happy to see local multiplayer options, we were more than a little bit concerned that Arms would end up requiring a second set of Joy-Cons to actually play with a friend (setting you back an extra £70 on top of the price of the game itself), which could easily have been a PR disaster. Luckily, Nintendo have twigged that would be a bit of a hard sell - and so Arms actually comes with a wide range of alternative control schemes.
If you're less of a fan of motion controls, you can plug your Joy-Cons into the controller dock to play using the buttons alone, with punches being handled on either A/B, or ZR and ZL depending on your preference. Of course, that doesn't solve the local multiplayer quandary - but impressively, you can actually play Arms using only a single Joy-Con. Twist the Joy Con sideways, and you'll find yourself using X/A to punch, and Y/B to jump/dash respectively, meaning two people can face off against each other, even if you don't have any extra controllers. Unfortunately, though, the general clunkiness of how the Switch handles controllers means it's still nowhere near as easy to switch between these control schemes as it should be - having to head back out into the console's main menu, and then into controllers just to be able to switch from motion controls to sideways single controller play is awkward at best, and frustrating at worst.
It's in terms of the actual modes that Arms really starts to show its weaknesses, though, as unfortunately, there's simply not all that much to do. The main mode here is called Grand Prix, which sees you simply face off against a sequence of 10 computer controlled opponents in 8 straight battles, and two bonus stages, whether it's Volleyball (try to hit the bomb so it lands on your opponent's side of the net), Basketball (grab your opponent to slam dunk them), or a target challenge called Skillshot, where you compete to smash the most targets against a tight time limit. Beyond the two bonus stages, though, this is simply a straight procession of 1 on 1 fights, with nothing that really changes - no branches, no real storyline (beyond a few flavour lines a commentator bot trots out at the start of each battle), and perhaps most disappointingly, no unlockables. In a nice twist, though, the Grand Prix mode is playable in co-op, which winds up making it a lot more fun, but also a lot, lot harder.
And that's another big issue with Arms - the difficulty here very quickly ramps itself up, with particular sadisticness saved for those playing in co-op. With a whopping 7 difficulties to choose from, level 1 will give you a pretty easy ride if you're playing on your own - but team up with another player, and you'll find yourself either blazing through rounds taking only a few hits, or having to retry again, and again, and again, and again, against computer opponents that seem to know exactly how to curve their shots, and dodge yours.
In terms of the characters you can play as, too, Arms is something of a mixed bag. While there's plenty of variation in the roster in terms of physical forms (small characters are actually a lot harder to hit than you might imagine), there's actually surprisingly little difference in terms of actual gameplay, with each character playing eerily similarly to the last. While all characters have a choice of three different arms, which each work in a slightly different way, you'll likely find yourself sticking with whatever the most basic, standard punching arm is, because the others are too pernickety to really make work. And while there are some really nice designs in here - like Byte and Barq, a robotic policeman and his robo-dog buddy (who'll automatically throw punches at your enemies mid fight, too), most of the characters seem to be cut from the same mould, with few real stand outs in terms of design.
But really, though, the main thing that lets Arms down is the lack of unlockables. As you play through the game's Grand Prix mode (or any of the other "Party" modes - like single battles, 2v2 battles, volleyball, basketball or skillshot), you'll earn points, which can then be exchanged for a go on the Arms arcade - essentially a game of Skillshot, where random presents will appear from time to time. Hit the presents, and you'll unlock some new arms - but not actual new arms. Instead, you'll just unlock the ability to use another character's arms with your character.
What that means is that if you can clear Grand Prix mode once, you'll have seen almost literally everything Arms has to offer - and that can be done in a single sitting, and even in under an hour. While the main gameplay itself may be reasonable enough, what Arms desperately needs is some reason to keep you coming back - and while you may well find yourself bringing it out for a few multiplayer ding-dongs here and there, there's really very little here that seems like it's going to have much in the way of sticking power. The mini-games don't have that "one more go appeal", the single player is a "do once and your'e done" affair, and the base game itself really isn't fun enough to persuade you to dig it out on a weekly basis, as you would with a Smash Bros or Mario Kart game. Really, then, Arms feels like a tech demo for the Switch that got turned into a full price game a little bit too prematurely. As a free bundle with a new pair of Joy-Cons, or a discount release to show off the hardware, this would be well worth a punt - but at £50, it's hard to recommend.
Format Reviewed: Nintendo Switch