F.I.S.T.: Forged In Shadow Torch PlayStation 5 Review
Developer: TiGames | Publisher: bilibili Game | Genre: Metroidvania | Platforms: PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, PC | Reviewed on: PlayStation 5
When an artist wears their heart on their sleeve, it means that their inspirations are easy to identify. Being open and honest about what makes the artist excited can also influence those who view their art. A give-and-take is established, where the creator reflects their inspirations which are then freely shared with everyone else. In F.I.S.T.: Forged In Shadow Torch, TiGames never hide their inspirations. Instead, they are celebrated with every mechanic that is introduced during gameplay. Metroidvanias may feel like an oversaturated genre, but F.I.S.T. manages to feel fresh even as it treads very familiar ground.
At a glance, it is easy to write off F.I.S.T. With Metroid Dread mere weeks from release and Axiom Verge 2 successfully shaking up the formula for exploration-based 2D action-platformers, F.I.S.T.‘s adherence to the traditional structure established by Super Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night sounds counterintuitive. After all, why play something that apes the style of those classic games instead of a game that tries for novelty all the way through? But for fans of the genre, skipping F.I.S.T. would be a mistake. While hardly original, F.I.S.T. expertly executes almost everything that makes this type of game addictive and entertaining.
Rayton, the player character, is a gruff anthropomorphized rabbit soldier in a world ground down by war. Think Redwall meets The Matrix, a dieselpunk universe full of biomechanical animals called furtizens with politics and motivations of their own. An ex-pilot of a special team of mech warriors, Rayton seems to rub everyone he meets the wrong way. It’s understandable; after all, at the start of F.I.S.T., Rayton and his comrades are living in a world where they lost the only war that matters. The narrative starts from a dark place, in a world where robots are slowly but surely displacing all animal lifeforms. But Rayton’s journey to finding a spark of hope that ignites the fire of revolution is stirring. It might not be the most original tale, but the aesthetic and style of F.I.S.T.‘s world are instantly iconic.
In F.I.S.T., players traverse a giant map, hunt for collectibles, battle enemies in arcade-style combat, engage in platforming, solve puzzles, and incrementally upgrade Rayton’s skills. They’ll talk with NPCs, who will often ask them to gather specific items out in the field and bring them back. There are secrets to uncover that only the most dedicated players will find. It has all been done before, but rarely with such panache. If the player somehow got their hands on a shiny new PlayStation 5 and have not played a Metroidvania in a while, Forged In Shadow Torch will absolutely satisfy.
Environments are packed full of scrumptious detail. The Iron Dogs, F.I.S.T.‘s bad guys, have designs on taking over all of Torch City but they can’t do so without squashing all furtizen resistance. The weight of the encroaching Iron Dog army is always felt. Though Joffre Street, the main hub area where Rayton can visit shops and participate in combat training, is free from the Iron Dogs, the NPCs residing there aren’t exactly optimistic for the future. But furtizens get by doing whatever they can, whether it’s Chuan, bent on making the best noodles in Torch City, or Flip the Flying Mouse, a self-proclaimed expert thief who sells helpful skeleton keys if Rayton can sniff out his next location. There are even furtizens who fight on the Western Range, defending themselves and others from the Iron Dogs and scraping out a hardscrabble existence among the ice and snow. Art direction and character design are some of the best parts of F.I.S.T., and every claw, horn, and scruffy patch of fur is lovingly rendered.
The world itself is gorgeous, if a little segmented. Drawing heavy inspiration from other games of its type, F.I.S.T.‘s map is large to the point of awe. Eventually, Rayton unlocks a rudimentary teleportation system that can take him quickly to other locations, but it is limited, and even the subway system that runs East-to-West only has a handful of stops. But these traversal drawbacks are hardly dealbreakers, as F.I.S.T. is genuinely beautiful, in a grimy sort of way. Rayton only moves on a 2D plane but backgrounds are bursting with life and every new area is packed full of secrets to explore.
Characters are visually compelling but do not have as much depth or interior life as the player might hope for. Interactions are fleeting, and players might be left wanting more. Relationships are hinted at, particularly between Rayton and members of his former team. No matter how pained Rayton sounds when talking to his ex-comrade Cicero or how annoying he finds Rat Gang leader Duke, players are left wondering what the real nature of those relationships are. The stilted dialogue is repetitious and not particularly memorable, but these are ultimately minor critiques. Objectives are always clearly marked on the map, even if the motivations for reaching those objectives occasionally needs to be inferred.
Where F.I.S.T. shines is its gameplay, which is utterly rock-solid. Despite its many obvious references to other material, F.I.S.T. feels fresh in action and movement.
Punch, Drill, Whip, Repeat
F.I.S.T. shares most of its DNA with Super Metroid and Hollow Knight, but it differs almost immediately in how movement options are doled out and how combat is engaged in. In other games, a double jump or a wall climb are mid-to-late-game unlockable abilities. In F.I.S.T., the player can perform these actions almost immediately. This goes a long way towards giving F.I.S.T. a sense of urgency, encouraging players to press forward.
The first third of the game flies by. Rayton is a fierce combatant, but he doesn’t only rely on his wits and his paws. Instead, he wears part of an exo-suit, where he can control a giant arm that reaches out of his back. This is where the weapons are, and though there are only three, each is distinct and incredibly awesome. Instead of quick slashes with a sword or a built-in gun for an arm, Rayton swaps between a massive fist, a dangerous drill, and, later, an electrical whip. He gains access to the first two weapons almost immediately and learning to master each weapon is a delight.
The fist is a blunt instrument that relies on easy-to-learn, tough-to-master combos to smash enemies. It’s weighty, and every connecting punch feels devastating. Rayton rarely encounters just one enemy at a time and learning how to dart between foes and flatten them one at a time is a delight. He can even use the fist to chuck smaller enemies across the room or into pools of water, an instant kill. The drill is first and foremost an excellent combat option, especially after unlocking a few special moves. The drill also doubles as a glider and an underwater propeller, making it an invaluable exploration tool.
Combat grows in complexity as the game goes on. There is a skill tree with unlockable combat abilities, purchased with currency dropped by enemies and data discs, which are squirreled away in secret rooms or held by powerful enemies. On top of the button-mashing combat, Rayton can also use gadgets in and out of fights by spending EP. There are four gadgets that do different things: one is a simple healing flask, another provides an automatic parry if Rayton is standing still, still another fires an explosive homing missile. Gadgets are powerful, but players must be cautious as the EP bar is more difficult to fill than the SP bar, which can be used to activate powerful special moves like a ground pound or an explosive drill dive. The SP meter fills as Rayton succeeds in combat, but not the EP bar.
There’s a long gap between finding the drill and finding the third weapon, the whip. Once the whip is found, battles become significantly easier as there are a handful of special moves that absolutely trivialize minibosses and even main bosses. The whip also lets Rayton slingshot between certain anchor points, making traversal of formerly tedious areas like the Abandoned Mine a snap. Finding the whip also sets players on the path to the final areas of this game, and this is where the best and worst parts of F.I.S.T. come to bear.
Keeping Up the Pace
There is a reason that the Metroid series ties its best endings to speedruns. Metroid games are ultimately built to be completed quickly. Even Hollow Knight has an achievement for beating the game in a few hours or less. F.I.S.T., by virtue of being big and beautiful, lags in its latter third. Two areas in particular, the Underground Lake and the Ancient Complex, introduce new mechanics that grind any sense of momentum to a halt. F.I.S.T. still satisfies, but like the hare racing the tortoise, loses its sense of urgency and as a result, its chance at glory.
The underwater sections of the Lake are beautifully done, just slower-paced. Rayton cruises through liquid at probably the same speed as he does while running, but something about being underwater makes everything feel ever-so-slightly off. This could be due to the restriction of abilities; while swimming, Rayton cannot use any other weapons besides the drill and can’t even dash effectively. Being underwater is still fun, and it makes sense that the game would try and shift up its mechanics from what the player is used to up until that point. It just goes on for slightly too long.
Ditto for the puzzle-solving shenanigans of the Ancient Complex. In this late-game area, combat takes a backseat to bringing enchanted stones to specific locations. When Rayton is carrying a stone, he moves slower and less nimbly. The double jump is lost, and throwing the stone is only so useful. To be clear, these puzzles are well-designed; they simply come too late in a game that is nearly laser-focused on combat and platforming up until that point.
Rabbit at Rest
But again, these are mere quibbles. F.I.S.T. looks great, and feels great to play. Every element comes together in satisfying fashion. There are sections that feel a little like padding, but for at least the first half of the adventure, things move along. It is always a great feeling to “100%” a section of the map, and every new unlocked combat ability has its uses. Increasing health, SP, and EP makes Rayton feel like an unstoppable force, giving credence to his characterization as a legendary fighter. It just works, which is more than can be said for many games that attempt to do what F.I.S.T. has successfully achieved.
The posters, collectibles that give Rayton the ability to change the appearance of his weapons, are all themed around F.I.S.T.‘s inspirations. There is even a sly nod to Bloodborne in one of the very first areas. While it might seem jarring to see references to Neon Genesis Evangelion, Doom, and even Sonic the Hedgehog throughout this game, players will appreciate that F.I.S.T. knows its roots. It successfully evokes the feeling of playing a classic Metroidvania while still planting its own flag and establishing something new.