First announced way back in 2016, Sony Interactive Entertainment’s China Hero Project has sought to support the game development industry in China by backing new titles from start-up Chinese studios. Putting these projects on a global stage is not just a boon for local developers but has brought them to the attention of audiences the world over, with games like Lost Soul Aside and ANNO: Mutationem sharing the marketing spotlight with other well-known PlayStation titles. F.I.S.T.: Forged in Shadow Torch from TiGames is upon us even sooner though, and it’s a great example of why initiatives like the China Hero Project are well worth pursuing.
The Metroidvania genre might have become something of a staple in the indie video game sphere in recent years, but how many can you say star an anthropomorphic bunny wearing an exosuit with a giant robotic fist attached? That’s pretty much F.I.S.T.’s entire pitch – put said rabbit in a sprawling, labyrinthine dystopia where animal ‘furtizens’ are oppressed by a robotic legion and have him punch his way out. Ex-revolutionary rabbit, Rayton (Ray for short), is swept up in another fight against the Legion and its Iron Dog soldiers when his friend is kidnapped and he learns of secret plots between the machines and the city’s seedy underbelly animal organisations.
To be perfectly honest, I stopped keeping track of exactly what was going on in F.I.S.T. after about the halfway mark, mostly due to some fairly awkward dialogue that may have been lost in translation. Thankfully the setting of Torch City is interesting enough on its own to stay engaging, and it’s easily the star of the game thanks to the part it plays in F.I.S.T.’s Metroidvania status. The winding pathways stacked with hidden secrets and plenty of reasons to retread old ground with new abilities are a given, but it’s all dressed up in some astonishingly-good visuals. Utilising the Unreal Engine, it looks far better than a side scrolling action game should have any right to, with the backdrop of the enormous Torch City at the top level and industrial greens and oranges reminiscent of Midgar in Final Fantasy VII Remake really driving home the dystopian, diesel-punk vibe.
The real make-or-break in a game like this is the level design of course, and F.I.S.T. mostly nails it in that regard. The game consistently throws new ideas and challenges at Ray, and subsequently builds on them over time to give the player a sense of progress even when they’re not collecting new gear. Platforming sections in particular are quite the thrill with Ray eventually picking up a very Ori and the Blind Forest-esque repertoire of jumps, double jumps, dashes and hook shots that can be strung together gracefully to maneuver around hazards. There’s a definite satisfaction in soaring gracefully over electrified panels and threading through perfectly-placed openings and being rewarded with something new and shiny (or just a bunch of cash).
If F.I.S.T.’s overall structure is typical of the genre though, its combat is anything but. As the it gradually introduces new weapons and abilities, from the titular Fist to a Drill and Whip as well as extra gadgets and moves, its combat quickly morphs into something akin to an arcade fighter. Complex combos and lightning reflexes are the key to success – though thankfully you can get away with mostly the latter – as is switching between your three core weapons on the fly in the midst of a fight. The game isn’t afraid of throwing up some pretty steep challenges, especially in a few of its boss fights, but forgiving checkpoints and a real sense of accomplishment when overcoming them makes figuring out where you’re going wrong a fun and satisfying exercise – and if all else fails there’s likely a bunch more upgrades to go find in areas you’ve not visited for while.
I’m convinced how much content is packed into this modestly-priced romp, I’m not quite at 100% completion of the game yet but I’m fairly close and can safely say I’ll slide in at the 20-hour mark by that point. For $45 AUD and given the production values on show it’s an impressive package. For everything it does right though, F.I.S.T. does have a handful of frustrations. I found the in-game map to be clear and easy to navigate, but mission markers and descriptions were often unclear or just broken. There’s no difficulty settings either, which isn’t so bad given how finely-tuned the difficulty curve is overall but there are at least a couple of noticeable spikes that might turn some off completely. There’s also the matter of the narrative, which loses steam right as it starts to make a push toward its conclusion – but your mileage will probably vary there.
F.I.S.T.: Forged in Shadow is a very competent, very good-looking foray into the Metroidvania genre with solid platforming and exciting, demanding arcade combat. Torch City is a wonderfully-grim place to get lost in and it's rendered gorgeously, despite some awkward signposting at times. Most of all, it nails the sense of exploration and steady progress that's a hallmark of the genre and it does all of that with a kick-arse rabbit in a mech suit for a protagonist. If this is the level of quality that studios backed by the China Hero Project are going to deliver then the program has more than made a case for itself.
Unreal-engine powered visuals are fantastic
Challenging combat with a satisfying, high skill ceiling
Nails the Metroidvania level design and progression
Torch City and its animal citizens make for an interesting setting