A rather critical review of the indie title Fatal Theory; a beat-’em-up with a lot of heart, but a lack of polish.
Before we get into the actual review that I doubt anyone will read (because who the hell has heard of Fatal Theory?), I need to take this opportunity to describe the circumstances under which this review was written. I was given a review code when I was asked to review this game, which means I didn’t pay for it. It was also a game that played a large role in testing who I actually am as a critic.
Fatal Theory was the first time I was saddled with the weight of ‘censorship’. Long story short, I was told that my views were too harsh and that I needed to tone down my opinion, or else I may hurt the site’s chances of getting review codes. I begrudgingly made a couple of small changes, but left the overall message completely intact. To my dismay, my article was STILL changed by my editors at the time. The only definite example I can remember of this happening in this article was in the final sentence, when I compare to the game to Castle Crashers. The word ‘lofty’ was put in place not by my own hand, but by the hand of others.
That’s not the end of the story. A week or so after the review was published, the site received an e-mail from the developers of the game, specifically thanking me for my harsh criticism. I wish I’d stored a copy, but unfortunately I didn’t have the foresight to keep one. It said something along the lines of, “Thank your reviewer Nathan Stiles for the harsh but fair criticism, which stood out from all the other praise we’ve gotten. Unfortunately we’ve moved on from this project and won’t be implementing the fixes he discussed”. I was practically paraded around the site that day, being pat on the back by the VERY PEOPLE who had asked me to tone it down and actually altered my words in the first place. Ironic doesn’t even begin to describe the hypocrisy at play here.
The point of this message isn’t to paint myself in some brilliant light. “Yeah, Nathan stood his ground against censorship! Good for him!” If anything, this was such a minor case of said word that it almost pains me to use it. What I did learn from the experience, however, is that if this is happening at such a small level (the site I worked for was NOT large, and even they were afraid of biting the hand that fed them, so to speak), then I can all but guarantee that it happens once money is involved. Your IGNs, Gamespots and the like all ADVERTISE the same games they are reviewing. I obviously can’t guarantee that this is happening because I have not worked for said sites, but my own personal experience has led me to believe that it is very much a real issue, and it is a huge part of why I am a freelance reviewer now. Even if I do sign on with someone in the future, I refuse to cave to the pressure of the publishers.
Anyway, enough of my ramblings; onto the review.
Have you ever played No More Heroes and thought to yourself, “Hey! I wonder what this would be like if it were 2D!” If you said yes, then Fatal Theory may be the game for you! This indie title mixes 2D beat-’em-up action with a comical story and unique art design in a way that I hadn’t seen before, and I was highly excited to check it out. Did it scratch that itch for more over-the-top action and mildly perverse comedy, or was I stretching my expectations a bit too far?
The graphical design chosen has a very rough, sketch-like feel to it, and while it all stays consistent as far as the style goes, the overall quality varies quite a bit. I was genuinely impressed by some of the background stills during cutscenes, while a few of the character drawings don’t hold up quite as well (though my favorite screen in the game is the loading screen, and, while that may come off sounding like a joke, I really thought it was well-drawn). The in-game sprites fare quite a bit better though, showing signs of creativity within their simplicity. The in-game backgrounds are passable, as well, but the overall design of the game is made to feel simple and bare bones, which does keep things from getting too distracting when there are a lot of enemies onscreen.
Fatal Theory’s sound design is a bit lacking, and doesn’t leave me much to talk about. There are only a few songs that play through the entire game, and by the end, I found it preferable to play the game muted because the tracks became a bit tiresome. The sound effects themselves are serviceable, and the game contains no voice acting, so there’s nothing to examine there.
Storywise, the game is not interesting, but I don’t feel it really matters. Since it’s attempting to play off of nostalgia for fans of old-school beat-’em-ups, the story isn’t nearly as important to the final product as the gameplay is. The story segments between levels are filled with dialogue that tries to be comedic, and succeeds about one out of every five times. Though it wasn’t often funny, it never fell into the trap of being annoying that other games have fallen into rather easily.
Fatal Theory’s gameplay is pretty standard for a 2D beat-’em-up. The game takes place on one plane, not allowing for up or down movement, so all you can do is move left or right (usually right) as you blaze a path through armies of enemies. There really isn’t much skill involved as you button mash your way through combat, hitting either the heavy attack button or the light attack button as you see fit. The game would be unbearably repetitive if it weren’t for the addition of special attacks you can perform by inputting button commands as you would in a fighting game — things like the standard ‘forward circle heavy attack’ input that allows for a much more powerful ability. What makes this system much more fun and balanced, however, is the addition of a stamina meter, making it so you can only perform certain attacks when you have built up enough energy to perform them. Once you add in the fact that you can have two weapons equipped at a time, and that the push of a single button allows you to instantly switch between them, the combat becomes quite a bit more interesting than it otherwise would have been.
The mindless drones you have to power through don’t hold much challenge, but the first few bosses really do. There was one particular boss fight early on that I had to start over repeatedly because I just couldn’t get the perfect timing to dodge one of his special attacks. Despite my repeated deaths, I never once felt like I was being cheated. I wanted to retry it over and over again, and felt like I’d genuinely achieved something when I finally won. I just wish there had been more of these moments. Shortly after defeating this boss, you gain a weapon that allows you to use two swords at once, and along with it a neverending and unbreakable combo attack that makes the rest of the game pathetically easy. So much so, in fact, that I completely filled up the combo counter and made it flip over and start from zero like a car odometer.
I would go through entire levels spamming this one attack so effectively that neither I nor my enemies ever got to touch the ground… and this even happened on the last boss. That first boss fight had me excited for the rest of the game, but that excitement was never realized, which was truly disheartening. The developers really did have an understanding of good game design and what made those old school games they took inspiration from so great in the first place. The rest of the game just didn’t live up to that same level of quality.
One thing I found really exciting about Fatal Theory, however, was the inclusion of the multiple game modes it provided. Aside from the standard Story Mode, the game also contains an Arcade Mode and Versus Mode. Arcade Mode is a coop or single player run of the entire main quest without any story, but the most satisfying part about it is that you can play as absolutely any character from the game, whether it’s the hero, mindless zombie or even the last boss (my personal favorite was the giant pink tank). It was fun to be able to play even with ineffective or overpowered characters at my leisure, and I got quite a bit of entertainment out of it because of the absurdity of it all. Along with that is the Versus Mode, which, admittedly, I feel this game could have done without. I like the ambition put into it, allowing the hybrid beat-’em-up and fighting game mechanics to be put into a standard fighting game mode, but there really isn’t enough depth to the movesets of the characters or any real strategy, beyond who can jump around more and land more hits, to make this an interesting competitive mode.
The game has a few odd quirks in its current form, and I’m honestly not sure if they are bugs or just poorly-defined, but intentional choices. For example, the game implements a feature where your weapons gain experience and level up, allowing for more special attacks. When checking the status of your weapons, there will be a a status bar saying it has, for example, 900/1200 exp. The odd thing about this is that your weapon does not level up once the bar is filled to 1200/1200. It isn’t until you surpass the 1200 experience point mark that it levels up, so you actually need 1300 or more. It’s not that big of a deal, but it’s a bit of an inconvenience when you are always given a set amount of experience points after each level. I also had several moments where enemies would respawn with only 1 hp left, and this would happen a lot, especially when I walked to a point where the enemies were no longer onscreen. I can see this being intentional because most of the enemies you fight are zombies, but it makes little sense for giant tanks or gas-spewing machines that you’ve destroyed to come back for no reason, and it can be frustrating when the entire goal of the level is to destroy these machines. It’s by no means gamebreaking, and generally even after the enemies have respawned in this way the game still counts it as having completed the objective, but it was still an odd occurrence that should probably be looked into.
I guess the most important question about Fatal Theory is whether the game is fun or not, and the verdict is… kind of? The first half of this rather short game had me so entertained I didn’t want to put the controller down, but, as soon as I got the Twin Swords, that was kind of the end of it. It’s very clear to me that this game is a labor of love, and there is a lot, I repeat, a LOT of potential here to be something great. I’d love to see this gameplay engine expanded upon, but, as it sits now with a five dollar price tag and little-to-no replay value (not even a score counter to beat your old records), it’s a way to kill an afternoon, but not much more. I recommend trying this game out if it sounds at all interesting to you, and I look forward to seeing what the studio comes up with next. If they continue to build upon their work, I could see them creating the next Castle Crashers, but their first venture, sadly, missed that lofty mark.
Originally Posted on April 23, 2014 on operationrainfall.com
Review copy provided by publisher.