A few hours in
So, let’s talk punching. At this point in time I have about five hours of Spartan Fist to my name, which translates to roughly a dozen serious runs — two of which were actually successful. I’ve traversed several worlds, picked up and weighed and discarded fist after fist, punched young dudes and old dudes and a variety of animals in robot suits, and confronted some serious questions about the nature of the self. But mostly the punching, is what happened.
Spartan Fist is an interesting game. I’ve had fun with it so far, and I’m still at the stage of having fun with it — I definitely wouldn’t mind using it as podcast activity fodder for a while. It’s probably strongest in the early stage, when everything is still new and interesting and you’re working out what is happening and why is happening at the same time. My interest did start dropping later on, when I started to better understand the nature of Spartan Fist‘s longevity or lack thereof. But we’ll get to that when we get to that.
Early-game Spartan Fist is a game about learning how to punch, and it does a pretty good job at being that.
More to the point: Spartan Fist presents itself as an action-oriented roguelite, in the spiritual vein of… The comparison I keep coming back to is Spelunky. There isn’t really a story, and if there is, it’s off the side and doesn’t matter. The challenge is to learn how to understand the game, then beat the game, then beat the game well. You shouldn’t be playing Spartan Fist for a burning desire to find out what a Spartan Fist is, or why mouse robots rule the underground: You should be playing Spartan Fist because you enjoy punching dudes until they explode.
So, much like other roguelites, early Spartan Fist runs are characterized by experimentation, discovery, and the joy of play. And Spartan Fist in particular has some decent amounts of these.
First off, it’s fun to punch — it’s fun to punch! Spartan Fist‘s moment-to-moment gameplay is (generally) a fun, exciting, high-octane rush of first-person fist-slinging. Every new room packs plenty of enemies, generally spaced out so that you won’t be overwhelmed, but you do have to stay on your toes. There’s only a small set of enemies, six or so in total, but that’s actually a good thing. Since Spartan Fist is first-person and fast-paced, it wouldn’t be realistic to expect the player to tell apart dozens of different blocky models within seconds — particularly when they do start mobbing together. Limiting the different kinds of enemies means there’s a simple, but highly necessary learning curve: This is how I should with this enemy, this is a risk posed by that enemy.
Making matters ‘worse’, every room blends in some type of environmental twist: Flamethrowers, swinging pendulum traps, pits, trains, mountains of metal. You’re pretty much never fighting in Final Destination, if that’s still a cut that makes sense.
In this environment, it’s fun to punch. Specifically, it’s fun to learn (through trial and painful error) what it is you can actually do: What your stances mean, what your attacks are, what constitutes good ways of navigating the environments. How do you fight the dude between the flamethrower traps without getting roasted? Can you get them into the flamethrower trap somehow? Why do the mouse robots sometimes deal so much damage? Is it possible to get health upgrades from the train tracks before they’re run over? And so on, and so forth.
Probably the most fun aspect of this learning process is learning how to work with each of the eight different fist types, as each of them has its own attack patterns and special attacks. The Stone Fist throws heavy forward punches, but has an awkward Updraft attack and gets tired quickly when brawling. The Bandage Fist in Duelist mode can go into a Fist Of The North Star repeating attack that can kill enemies quickly — unless they shield — unless you then switch your stance mid-attack, which doesn’t do anything to interrupt the animation but will break their shield. But its special ability feels worthless. The Feather Fist lets you glide much further than usual, and has a special ability that launches you and sets up a swooping crash attack. The Rat Fist and Rocket Fist both have special abilities that launch you forward in a flurry of attacks. And so on. Picking your fists, and learning to play with different kinds of fists, is a ton of fun. There’s no upside to having two of the same fist, as far as I can tell, so it pays to mix and match. You’ll probably develop your own favorite combinations, but since you can’t always get what you want — it’s good to be flexible.
And we haven’t even gotten into the wild world of dips, which can upgrade your fists with extra damage, healing, knockback, or even an effect where you get stronger at the cost of losing health every punch. Yes, before you ask, I have killed myself by doing repeated-punch attacks while not noticing I was getting low on health.
The best moments in Spartan Fist are the moments where all of this clicks — when you find yourself moving from enemy to enemy, switching stances not just because different-coloured shields are up but because you actually want to use different attack patterns. This situation calls for a Bandage flurry punch, that situation requires a Rat fist-dash. If and when you reach the flow state where these decisions become subconscious, that’s when Spartan Fist shines at its most.
It’s a challenging game at first, when everything is new and unexplained and you don’t have any upgrades yet. Emphasis on the ‘unexplained’ here: Even during the fun early stages, it grates a little that Spartan Fist explains its systems so little. For instance: Through trial and error, you’ll figure out soon enough that you can dip fists in Dip for special upgrades. And fists that you find in later levels come pre-loaded with high levels of Dip, teaching you that it’s possible to double up — or triple up, of quadruple up, or 12-up, whatever you want. But it’s never explicitly taught that you can mix different kinds of Dip onto the same fist. You might assume that using a second type of Dip overwrites the first one. But no, it just works the way you’re hoping it works. Similarly, other things that are never explained include: How getting health upgrades from the audience works. The fact that you can actually switch back to fists that you’ve traded in, even though the tooltip won’t show up immediately — you have to leave the liminal room and come back. Or that Devil Dip is a goddamn trap.
But challenge exists to be met through effort, and if you’re into Spartan Fist enough to keep playing it, you’ll eventually figure out all of this unclear stuff — I did, so you can, too. You’ll die, but dying is just an excuse to spend your GUT$: Upgrade your health, stamina, healing items, and the punching power of individual fist types. You can even buy Spelunky-style level skip gates, which are just as bad an idea in the grand scheme of things here, as each boss you fight gives you a free power boost. But you’re totally allowed to go deeper.
So you’ll fight, and grow, and proceed. Beat a few bosses. Maybe even beat the final boss, which is something of a cut above the rest — and there’s at least one giant robot piloted by cats in this game, so take that into account. But you’ll beat the final boss eventually, and win!
And then… go back in and do it again, I suppose.
There’s a reason I pulled Spelunky as a spiritual comparison earlier on, and it’s not just because both games have a four-world structure and angry shopkeepers. Spartan Fist is one of those roguelites that doesn’t actually change as you win. Like, one of the defining traits of The Binding Of Isaac is that your early victories throw open more levels and items and storylines. I was also tempted to pull Rogue Legacy as a spiritual influence, due to the whole ‘lasting upgrades over time’ thing, but that one too has you work towards a final resolution goal. But like Spelunky, Spartan Fist does not roll this way: Victories are nice, sure, and you’ll get money and stuff off them, but they’re primarily valuable as personal achievements and bragging rights. You should be happy you won because you won. And you should want to try again to see if you can do better this time, not because there’s a secret fifth level all of a sudden. Achievement should be its own reward.
While this is a valid approach, Spartan Fist does start fraying at the edges in second-and-onward runs. The fact that there’s no all-around score or leaderboard means that you’re really only playing for the pleasure of winning over and over, which as a type of enjoyment might run out fairly soon. Its gameplay is interesting, but not necessarily interesting enough to sustain dozens of runs without meaningful changes — and the upgrades in its shop aren’t particularly meaningful, unless you consider ‘this weapon now does more damage than before, but we won’t tell you how much because all the internal systems numbers are hidden’ to be meaningful. I like and appreciate the simple possibility space of eight fists, six enemies, but eventually that flow-inducing simplicity comes out the other end and starts getting a little dull.
I’m not going too hardball on Spartan Fist because I realize that judging it for longevity is sort-of missing the point. It’s not a game built to be played over and over, I don’t think. Or rather, it’s not a game to be played over and over intensively: It’s something that you can pick up and play every now and again, when the urge to punch dudes becomes overwhelming. So saying that it runs out of steam after five hours of uninterrupted play, and then intending that as a criticism, seems unfair. It’s still valid to point out: Don’t expect this game to be a 40-hour extravaganza. Expect this game instead to be… well, itself. A game about punching dudes so hard they explode.
One final piece of commentary: Spartan Fist‘s default movement and targeting controls are… a little weird. It attempts to auto-target to nearby enemies, and there’s some sort of gesture-based system for swapping styles that never worked for me the way I wanted it to. My advice to you is: Turn off the auto-targeting and the flick style switching, and find the manual targeting button to something easy to reach. I like F, myself. Lock onto targets when you want to do cool strafing tricks, and go free-aiming mode if you’re intending to brawl with whole groups of enemies.
At this point in reading the review, you should probably have an idea of whether or not Spartan Fist is the game for you. If the idea of exploring procedurally-generated labyrinths, avoiding traps and punching dudes, and dipping fists into elemental soups for increased power doesn’t appeal to you, then it just won’t. That’s okay: Spartan Fist is unabashedly its own creation, and it was never going to be everyone’s cup of tea.
If all this exploring and learning and punching does sound like your thing, Spartan Fist‘s fifteen dollar asking price is honestly more than fair. It has a lot of love, and care, and punches — and it’s being tweaked and further developed as we speak, which you can track in the Steam forums. It’s a cool little game, and it might be going places — but even if not, it’s still a fun excuse to listen to some tunes and land some fists on some faces.
Jarenth was going to talk about how the fist-eating door feels like a strange holdover from an earlier design iteration, something that suggested a Spartan Fist that no longer was. But then he realized that wasn’t actually a very important point to address, because if you haven’t followed this development history, it’s a meaningless piece of trivia for you — the door is there, that’s what matters. Follow him on Twitter or hang out with him on Steam for more cut review content. And if you dig Indie Wonderland, the word ‘liminal’, and Ninja Blues in general, why not consider supporting our Patreon campaign?