ARMS Review

Punch your way to greatness in Nintendo’s zany new brawler

ARMS Review
Source: Nintendo Press Kit.

This game was reviewed using an eShop code provided by Nintendo for Nintendo Switch.

Earlier in June, I wrote an article titled Test Punching on Switch. In that piece, I provided some background on the game along with my early impressions based on my experience with the Arms Global Testpunch. The final game is not radically different (given how close to launch the Global Testpunch events were) — but certainly, the Global Testpunch was a somewhat limited taste of the final release. Not only does the full game include more content and modes, but I’ve also had more time with it; I’ve been able to try different play styles, and explore the single player experience in greater depth.

I remember being intrigued by Arms a month ago: how do I feel about it now? Read on to find out.


At its core, Arms is a fighting game, but it is completely unlike Nintendo’s other big fighting franchise, Super Smash Bros., in the sense that the camera sits behind the player character and the gameplay focus is around manipulating the each extendible arm independently. To quote myself for just a moment:

From a combat mechanics point of view, Arms is attempting a fairly classic rock, paper, scissors approach — that is, establish a simple rule set that can combine in complex ways to enable depth of strategy. Characters in Arms are all different but they essentially fit into one of three broad categories: power (slow but strong), speed (fast but weaker), and balanced (an equal combination of power and speed). At the same time, each character can independently change their left and right arms, which adds a significant layer of depth for players; during the Arms Global Testpunch, I found myself rarely using the same arm on each side — it usually made sense to mix-and-match different arms to provide enough scope to handle a variety of combat encounters.

One way in which I have compared Arms to Super Smash Bros. is that the initial barrier to entry is quite low; you can button mash with some success here and have fun, but more experienced players will be able succeed by taking advantage of the unique traits of each character and their individual arm combinations (along with maintaining a solid grasp of the differential timings of each characters’ punches).

This does mean that, right out of the box, Arms has the potential to appeal to a wide variety of players. You don’t need to be a fighting game expert to enjoy yourself here, regardless of whether or not you’re playing local or online multiplayer modes. But continued practice and perseverance will reward tenacious players, especially when it comes to competing in ranked matches or simply winning enough tokens to unlock the various arm upgrades (more on that later).

Rules of engagement

A key area where any game succeeds or fails is controls — I think this is true regardless of genre, although some games certainly require greater finesse than others. Given that Arms features such a novel, movement-based gameplay mechanic (that is also so heavily dependent on timing), accurate and seamless control is even more crucial here.

So, there’s a bit of a story here, and the relevance to you is going to depend largely on how you are approaching this game. Bear with me. :-)

Fundamentally, there are really two primary ways to control Arms. Either you’re going to be gripping the dual Joy-Cons in your fists and using motion control, or you’re going to be avoiding motion control in favour of buttons and analogue sticks (either by using a single Joy-Con in horizontal position, Joy-Cons with the Joy-Con Grip accessory, using the Switch in handheld mode, or using a Pro Controller). There are pros and cons to each approach, but the approach you choose may also be influenced by the kind of player you are (and by personal preference — one thing I’ve found already is that when I discuss Arms with other players, there seem to be wildly different feelings about the motion control and whether or not to use it).

Motion controls: pros and cons

For the most part, I’ve been using motion controls. Gripping the Joy-Cons vertically in each palm, with my thumbs resting on the L and R shoulder buttons feels surprisingly natural and comfortable. In this position, hand gestures do most of the heavy lifting — you can simultaneously tilt both Joy-Cons left/right/forward/backward to move in those directions. You can also tilt both Joy-Cons inward to block. Actions like jumping, dashing, and triggering your rush attack are controlled through buttons.

On the pro side, motion controls offer slightly more flexibility than non-motion controls. I think the biggest advantage is that if you send both arms flying simultaneously, you can independently guide/direct each one mid-punch. This simple ability is incredibly useful in combat — let’s say you send you right arm straight ahead; your opponent’s natural reaction might be to dash to one side to avoid it. So, shortly after sending out your right arm, you could send out your left arm in an arc that might counter your opponent’s dash. This ability to independently guide each arm mid-punch is a subtle but strategically important part of the game’s combat mechanics, especially if you’re playing online against other people.

Source: Nintendo Press Kit.

Also — and this is really a big personal preference thing — I enjoy playing Arms while standing. Something about standing up, physically moving, and feeling the HD Rumble in each hand as my punches land works really well for me. There’s a visceral quality to it that I just couldn’t match without the motion controls. There’s also, frankly, a positive fitness component to this; try playing Arms this way for a couple of hours and see if your heart rate doesn’t rise!

So, what are the downsides to motion controls (other than the obvious fact that not everyone will be attracted to the exercise aspect)?

For starters — and as accurate and responsive as the Joy-Cons are — I definitely found that on some occasions, the game just didn’t understand my inputs. For example, I’d go to strafe to the left and my character would block instead. Or I’d clearly send both arms out at different times (one-two-punch), but the game would fling both arms out in a grab move, leaving my character vulnerable.

It’s really worth putting this in context; the motion controls here are incredibly accurate on the whole. I’ve definitely never played a game — including on the Wii — with motion controls that are as nuanced and precise as those in Arms. However, there are occasional hiccups, and these can incur a combat penalty, especially when you’re in the heat of battle.

Standard controls: pros and cons

I also tried playing without motion controls. Although this isn’t my preferred way to play, there are some clear advantages; you can play Arms in handheld mode, and you can also play split-screen multiplayer (either in TV mode or handheld mode) where each player holds a single Joy-Con. It means that you can still access local multiplayer with only two Joy-Cons, and it means that you can easily play the game on-the-go as a single player.

The other obvious benefit is that there are no issues (at least none that I’ve found) with the game misinterpreting your inputs. It makes me wonder if for this reason only, more competitive Arms players may opt as a general rule to never use motion controls. I guess that remains to be seen.

In terms of cons, I think the biggest example is that if you aren’t using motion controls, there’s no way to independently control the curve/direction of each arm mid-punch. So, if both arms are mid-flight, you can guide them but you can only guide both in the same direction — you can’t really engage in the scenario I mentioned earlier, where you guide both arms separately to acquire a tactical advantage.

If you’re reading this and you’re playing Arms, I’m really interested to know what method you prefer: please feel free to comment on this article below to let me know what feels best for you.

Getting your arms dirty

I’ve spent a lot of time so far talking about the game’s controls and combat mechanics, mostly because I think this is really the central value proposition — Arms is, after all, a fighting game at heart. If the core gameplay mechanics don’t tick the boxes for you, then the surrounding structure might be a non-issue.

That said, once you’ve acclimatised to the way Arms plays, there are numerous ways to punch your way to victory.

If you’re going to be playing the game on your own (that is, without a buddy for local multiplayer), then your options are significantly limited. You can move through the game’s central “campaign” (Grand Prix mode), which is simply a series of one-on-one battles leading to a boss. You can move through Grand Prix as different characters, and there are ten difficulty levels to engage with. I actually found this mode quite difficult, especially once I began moving beyond level four.

id Cobra is my favourite character so far. Source: Nintendo Press Kit.

I spent most of my time in Party Match, which is essentially a casual online mode that drops you into a lobby and uses matchmaking to set you up with different players and different challenges. This is where I had the most fun with Arms, because of the enormous variety on offer; one minute you’ll be in a three-way fight, then you’ll be playing two-on-two volleyball, only to be followed up with a mock boss battle which sees three players teaming up to take down a single heavily-armoured foe. What’s really cool about this mode is that between each match you’re returned to one of the most unique and inviting lobbies I’ve ever seen in an online game — you get a live view of what other players are currently doing (each player is represented by an icon of their chosen character’s face, and the faces float in and out of large bubbles that show the match type). The little player icons visibly respond to being punched or KO’d; it’s really wonderful, and it’s a little detail that makes the wait between matches (which I’ve found to be very brief) all the more fun.

The sheer variety of activities is pretty cool, too. As much as the standard fights are great, it’s kind of refreshing to have the game broken up into completely different challenges with various team configurations. I personally really love V-Ball (volleyball) and Skill Shot (where two teams compete to hit the same targets to earn the most points).

It’s also possible to play a more serious Ranked Match (which has to be unlocked by playing through Grand Prix at level four). If you have a few friends who own the game, you can also jump into the Friends mode, where you can set up your own lobby and invite people (you can even add password protection if you so desire).

As you play through Arms, you’ll also collect currency that can be spent on unlocking more arms for each character. It’s worth noting that each character in the roster starts with three “standard” arms to choose from (each with a different capability); ultimately, you can unlock all the arms in the game so that every character can use any arm from any other character. It’s quite expensive to do this though, so you’ll find that many hours of play are required to unlock everything.

Local multiplayer (especially combined with Party Match) is a blast. Source: Nintendo Press Kit.

Playing these modes — especially Party Match — are even better if you have at least one other person to join you in person. Not only does this make for a more rowdy atmosphere (well, in my case it did), but it also adds further variety to the Party Match challenges — sometimes you’ll be on the same team as your couch buddy, but sometimes the game will pit you against each other as it teams each of you up with other online players.

Final thoughts

Arms is like nothing I’ve ever played before. That statement alone makes it worth checking out. It’s not only a brand new Nintendo franchise, but it’s also a completely fresh experience that feels like nothing else, especially when playing with a Joy-Con in each hand. You can’t experience anything like this on any other platform, and for that reason, I almost feel like Arms is the Switch equivalent of WiiSports (in a way that 1–2 Switch wasn’t).

Most importantly, you don’t have to be a hardcore fighting game fan to enjoy what’s on offer here. Arms is flexible enough to be enjoyed by players at an elite level, while still being accessible to those who simply want to play it as more of a casual, party-style experience.

The biggest knock against the game, I think, is the question of longevity — this is especially true if you’ll be playing the game alone, without any local multiplayer component. Once you’ve cleared the Grand Prix and played Party Match to death, your best bet is going to be Ranked Matches, but that’s certainly not for everyone. That said, Nintendo have promised to continually support Arms with free content updates over the coming months (much as they did with Splatoon), so there’s certainly going to be something to look forward to, although it remains to be seen how much this will inject further variety into the experience in the longer term.

For now, we’re left with a genuinely unique Switch exclusive that is full of personality and that takes advantage of those powerful little Joy-Cons. I’m almost a month into owning the game, and I’m still jumping in and out of Party Match. I’m looking forward to seeing how the game evolves over the coming months.

If you have any questions about the game — especially if you’re curious about something I didn’t cover in this review — feel free to add them in the comments section below.


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