Way of the Passive Fist is the kind of game that seems like it was conceived in response to a dare (or at least a game jam prompt). Specifically, is it possible to make an action video game with a non-violent protagonist? The retro beat ‘em up uses clever sleight of hand to answer strongly in the affirmative, delivering a fresh, fun, and fascinating take on one of gaming’s oldest genres.
Developed by the Toronto-based Household Games, Way of the Passive Fist is a loving throwback to the 16-bit era of arcade brawlers, with audiovisual cues that will be familiar to anyone who grew up on Streets of Rage. You play as the Wanderer, a mysterious nomad on the desert planet Zircon V who moves from left to right while taking on hordes of violent enemy sprites. The game has everything you expect from the genre, from the colorful array of palette swaps to the ‘Go’ that flashes on the screen whenever you clear another wave of baddies.
The twist is right there in the title (say “Passive Fist” out loud – preferably as one word). The Wanderer is a peaceful individual (a pacifist, if you will), and has to defeat his enemies without resorting to violence. You stand still and block incoming attacks until your opponent gets tired, at which point you push them over and wait for the next challenger. It’s the video game equivalent of Homer Simpson’s boxing career, starring a protagonist who knows that it’s better to deflect punches than it is to take them.
It might sound like a silly gimmick, but the finished product reflects a profound understanding of the beat ‘em up genre. Though many action games will reward players who are able to execute precise combos, they’ll also allow you to spam attacks until everything around you falls over dead. Way of the Passive Fist is not so forgiving. The game does not have any basic attacks. Instead, you have a block button, and you need to be good with it in order to survive. The Wanderer’s small set of offensive abilities can only be used after parrying multiple consecutive attacks, which makes it nearly impossible to button mash your way through an encounter.
The baddies attack one at a time, so the game never becomes overwhelming. However, you do have to wait for them to come to you. Chasing enemies down and trying to force the issue just isn’t very effective, a fact that completely inverts the typical pacing for the action genre. You can often play through an entire scene without moving from one spot. In that regard, Way of the Passive Fist is reminiscent of Drinkbox’s Severed, another game in which enemies surround you but attack in turns (it’s worth noting that Household founder Jason Canam is a proud Drinkbox alumnus).
The difference is that Way of the Passive Fist is more defensive. You can’t impose your will on your enemies, and must instead study and understand their tendencies. The only thing that matters is blocking the next punch. If you keep doing that you’ll eventually prevail. As a result, Way of the Passive Fist plays more like Guitar Hero than it does like Streets of Rage, a rhythm game in which you have to press buttons in time with the beat set by your opponents.
The retro stylings are there to convince you that you’re playing a brawler, and the trick works remarkably well because the protagonist is non-violent. That’s the game’s subtle genius. Turning a brawler into a rhythm game eliminates luck as a significant gameplay factor. The core challenge is pattern recognition, and Household is able to set the tempo based on the number and types of enemies that show up onscreen. The studio hands that same control over to the player, offering more than a dozen unique difficulty options spread across four separate design axes. The highest settings require something bordering on perfection. The lower settings are much more lenient, but still require a certain degree of competence.
That allows Way of the Passive Fist to deliver the same qualitative experience to players across the difficulty spectrum. The combat is satisfying because it demands mastery, but the player gets to determine what that mastery looks like. You know you did something right whenever you succeed, and that remains true regardless of your chosen path. Way of the Passive Fist lets everyone feel like a badass in much the same way that Guitar Hero lets anyone be a rock star.
The stellar artistry simply completes the illusion. The backgrounds and music are fantastic (Zircon V feels like a wasteland version of the crumbling research colony in Benjamin Rivers’ Alone With You), while the enemy design is at once creative and utilitarian, communicating everything the player needs to know about each type of enemy. The cumulative effect feels a lot like dropping a cartridge into a Sega Genesis knowing you only have a handful of lives at your disposal.
Of course, Way of the Passive Fist is not a perfect game, if only because there’s not enough of it (which admittedly isn’t much of a critique). The Arcade Mode that you unlock after completing the Story is a one-to-one recreation of the campaign with lives instead of checkpoints. It’s fun, but it would have been nice to see a bit more variety, or perhaps something with a bit more pace for those looking for a more intense challenge.
The boss fights are a more legitimate point of concern. Unlike regular enemies, the bosses won’t tire themselves out with basic punches, so you need to charge and connect with your special abilities in order to defeat them. Unfortunately, pacifists are not built for pursuit. The core mechanics assume that enemies will wander into striking distance. Bosses break that trend in a way that feels like it’s at odds with the rest of the game, and it can be frustrating to chase down a boss only to restart the process when you misjudge the range of your attack and lose your combo.
Thankfully, the boss battles are fair once you figure out their patterns, and they don’t detract from what is otherwise an innovative and elegant design experiment. Way of the Passive Fist is an ethically conscious brawler that proves that it’s possible to make an action game in which the hero acts in self defense. It challenges convention while still providing an engaging and accessible experience, and that’s a stellar achievement that should never be taken for granted.
Way of the Passive Fist is out now for on PS4, XBox One, and PC.