Full Review: Bones aren't the only things being broken here ? you're likely to break a controller or two along the way.
The fighting genre hasn't evolved much over the years. Ever since Virtua Fighter introduced the world to the first 3-D fighter some ten years ago, things haven't progressed too swiftly for the genre. But Tao Feng: Fist of the Lotus, with the help of Mortal Kombat veteran John Tobias, has set out to change all that. Studio Gigante has forged a new approach to the fighting game, upping the ante with several realistic concepts that aim to take the genre in new and unheard of directions.
And indeed, the game bears unmistakable remnants of Midway's classic arcade fighter. The controls, artwork, and even the general pacing and feel of the fighting engine are all very much in tune with Tobias's previous works. But some of the things that made MK such a blast in the first place ? the awesome characters, the gore, and of course the ever-gratifying fatalities, have all been torn from the formula if only for the sake of distinguishing itself from the pack.
Fighting games aren't typically known for their rich storylines, but Tao Feng manages to surprise us in this regard. It tells the tale of two rival clans, one a peace-loving group known as the Pale Lotus and the other an evil faction that goes by the name Black Mantis. A millennia-long quarrel has erupted over the sects' mutual quest for immortality, and both are prepared to fight to the death for their causes. Prior to each battle, the leader of your sect gives you a brief explanation as to why it's so necessary that the opposing fighter be defeated, and why that defeat must come at your hands. In some cases he'll reveal that the two fighters have a long history together, while in others your only motivation will be to see the enemy suffer a bitter defeat. The plot is a lot deeper than you'd expect, but since it's told exclusively through text and dialogue most will likely end up skipping straight through it.
One of the things Tobias set out to do with Tao Feng was to eliminate the traditional three-round structure that's been a fighting game commonplace for so many years. In so being, Tao Feng has taken a slightly different approach. Instead of separating the battle into two or three different rounds, each fighter is given three bars of health. Once one of these bars has been extinguished, they'll fall to the ground and a short cutscene will ensue. They'll come back up sporting their newly-formed battle wounds, and the fight will continue until their final health bar has diminished. This more realistic approach means that fights typically last a lot longer ? some upwards to five minutes from start to finish.
There are a total of 13 playable characters ? six from each of the two sects and one unlockable character that can be used only in versus mode. In general, the characters themselves are an unappealing and easily-forgotten bunch. And quite honestly, some of these guys' names are just downright absurd. They're so ridiculous, in fact, that I struggled to retain my laughter at the first mention of names like Iron Monk and Fiery Phoenix. While none of the characters are quite as memorable as Scorpion or Sub-Zero (of Mortal Kombat fame), it's still a pretty solid, if a bit insipid, cast.
The controls can take some time to pick up, and they'll leave first-time players with the impression of being stiff and unresponsive. But once you've learned the intricacies of the setup, kicks and punches will soon flow into combos with ease. The four face buttons are your primary attacks: Y is for leading punches, B for trailing punches, X for lead kicks, and A for trailing kicks. Using X+Y together performs your character's unique throw move, which can in turn be deflected using the L trigger. Once your chi meter is filled, you can execute one of three chi attacks using the white button in combination with different directions on the D-pad. Attacks can be mounted off walls or poles using the R trigger and D-pad together. And lastly, Back on the D-pad blocks, Up jumps, and Down crouches your fighter.
To say that Tao Feng is a combo-heavy game would be a bit of an understatement. While playing on anything less than the medium difficulty, you can pretty much make due with what I like to call ?rhythmic? button mashing. That is to say, as long as you know the timing associated with each attack button and how to string together basic chains of attacks, you'll be able to play through the game with relative ease. But on the higher difficulties, in which enemies will be unleashing ten or even twenty-hit combo strings, you'll be required to possess equal command over your character's combo repertoire if you wish to make it anywhere. And these combos aren't child's play either ? they call for a precise union of timing and button sequences that would provide a challenge to even the most seasoned of video game veterans.
Prior to its release, Tao Feng was most heavily touted for a feature known as limb damage. It was so heavily plugged, in fact, that it served as the focal point of the game's ad campaign. Basically, if a fighter gets pummeled too much in either their arms or their legs, they'll fall to the ground clenching said limb in pain. After getting back up, attacks from that limb will cause 50% less damage. Broken limbs can be healed at the expense of Chi energy, but the marginal loss of attack power doesn't usually warrant that action. It would have been great to see Studio Gigante take this concept even further with the implementation of full-on skeletal fractures and the like (as the commercials would lead us all to believe), but as it stands limb damage isn't really anything to get too excited about.
Tao Feng's most significant advancement may very well be its advent of environment-mounted attacks. There are two types of these ? wall kicks and pole-spins. Wall kicks can be executed only when your fighter's back is against a wall. If done correctly, your character will lunge off the wall and come flying back toward the enemy with increased force. Pole-spins are pretty much the same idea, only they're a bit easier to sidestep than wall kicks. These attacks add a new dimension to the game, but as is the case with limb damage, the concept could have been developed further.
The game's fighting arenas display an impressive level of interactivity. Many of the objects that lay strewn about can be destroyed over the course of the fight, inflicting additional damage on the fighter that's unlucky enough to get thrown through them. One stage has you fighting in an arcade surrounded by pinball machines and arcade cabinets, and another takes place on a rainy rooftop complete with air conditioner consoles and a set of destructible plate-glass windows. In addition, walls and floor tiles will crumble under heavy abuse, and a hard-fought battle can leave the arena in quite a disarray.
The camera isn't normally much of a problem. It pans and relocates itself to find the best possible angle on the action, and it even negotiates pole-spins and wall-kicks with ease. But it has a bad habit of switching at the wrong moments, bringing an early end to a block or combo by doing a 180-degree flip and changing the direction in which your character is facing. The sudden movement is a tad disorienting, and it takes away from what would be an otherwise fully-functional camera system.
Fist of the Lotus has a sharp, pseudo-realistic look. The character models resemble those from Kakuto Chojin, only with a more lifelike appearance and greater attention to detail. Their animations, particularly those tied to the fighters' extravagant throw moves, are typically very fluid and well put-together. The real-time damage that shows up on the fighters in the form of cuts and bruises is an excellent touch, and something that more fighting games down the road will undoubtedly begin to pick up on. It really is quite a sight to see the immediate effect of your pummeling on the enemy's tattered body, and thanks to Tao Feng we now have just that.
The music is up-beat and perfectly befitting of the on-screen action. Distinct audio cues coincide with knockdowns and instances of limb damage to add a welcomed level of tension to the game's soundtrack. Moreover, the game contains some terrific voice acting, and it's home to hundreds of lines of dialogue; far more than any fighting game I've ever seen. All in all, the game contains a spotless audio package rounded off with some terrific application of Dolby Digital surround sound.
Tao Feng may not be the evolution in fighting games we hoped it to be, but at the very least it can be considered a step in the right direction. Diehard fighting fans will find a lot to like about the game, but the average gamer will be left frustrated and unfulfilled. Studio Gigante certainly had ambitious goals for the game, and it's not to say that they didn't accomplish them, but even with all these advancements it's still a very average fighter that loses its charm a bit too quickly.