PS4 Version tested (post arcade mode patch)
It all started as an April Fool’s joke. April 1st 2017 Arika, a Japanese game developer, famous for its Street Fighter EX series from the 1990s posted footage of a Mysterious Fighting Game featuring characters that were familiar with those who played the EX series or their Fighting Layer games. Those fans didn’t quite know what to make of it. Was it really a joke? Was it DLC for another fighting game? New Street Fighter EX? Turns out that yes, it was real, although it was at the time just a prototype for a game that was being used as a way for the team at Arika to get used to using the Unreal 4 engine. The game was revealed at EVO of that year as Fighting EX Layer, a fighting game that incorporates characters from Street Fighter EX minus the Street Fighters and it’s very good indeed.
While Arika has worked on projects like Endless Ocean and their back catalogue includes hugely successful games like Street Fighter EX, they are mainly concerned with working on games in development by other studios, so this is their return to fighting game development proper, albeit on a tight budget. This low development cost shows in the lack of bells and whistles for the game but what is here is a true love letter to fighting game fans, particularly those who grew up playing games in the arcades and even more so those who consider themselves pros – and this for me is the most important aspect of what makes the game a must for fighting game fans and purists.
There are no tutorials to get you started and you’re on your own. You have a command list in the pause menu and an “expert mode” which is basically the Challenge Mode from other fighting games where you are given a list of combos to practice and complete. There is an Arcade Mode (added soon after launch), an Online and Offline Vs Mode and an “expert mode” … that’s it. You barely get a paragraph of text for the character endings. No character progression, no accessories, no microtransactions, just Arcade or versus modes. The truth of the matter is, that none of that matters with a fighting game this brilliant.
The roster of characters as it currently stands is not just pretty decent… considering old school fighting game fans such as myself ever expected to see them appear anywhere ever again it’s incredible to see characters like Allen, Pullum and Skullomania returning to modern gaming, Skullo is a cult classic and his broken English victory quote makes me laugh every time. Other notable returns include favourites such as Doctrine Dark, Blaire Dame, Vulcano Rosso and Cracker Jack (now just Jack) with Terry Boggard from Fatal Fury: King of Fighters and others such as Sharon and Area set to be added through DLC plus more if the game sells well. The updated artwork for the portraits is excellent and fans of the series will also enjoy some of the original musical themes from SFEX and rearranged versions which adds a 90s nostalgic hook to the game although I really hope they add Skullomania’s theme at some point, it’s my absolute favourite in the series!
Drilling down into the game mechanics reveals fast, aggressive and hugely enjoyable combat. There a couple of ways to play, with “Progressive” being a more accessible way of stringing together fast and furious combos often initiated with a dash into repeated light attacks that trigger special moves into cancels into more specials and more cancels which can lead to some impressively long combos that can include several supers in between. The large window for cancels means that there is huge scope for experimentation with combos with almost endless possibilities, which is an exciting prospect for fighting game pros and tacticians. The supers aren’t as bombastic as those in a bigger budget game like Street Fighter or Dragon Ball FighterZ but they still manage to land a considerable thud each time they are executed. This for me is a good thing as it keep the battle flowing quickly and the fact you can cancel from within one of these moves into another makes them even more versatile and not just time consuming special effects. On top of this mechanic is the Gougi deck system, whereby you select a Gougi deck of cards that give you up to six different buffs once you’ve completed certain conditions in a match. This could be blocking an opponent for a certain amount to gain an armour buff or one to increase speed or throw damage. There are around 15 decks in the full version of the game and experimenting to see which buffs are most useful for your playstyle adds another layer of tactics that is pretty unique and make matches much less predictable and so far, balanced. It’s yet to be seen how this will work out on the pro scene but initial reactions are positive.
The only problem with a game that is built to cater for pros is the patchy communication issues with lag and latency plaguing a fair few matches I tried. I’ve yet to get fully into the online offerings, but I’d say around 65% of my time playing was fine, the rest was kind of frustrating with the lag issues. With a bit of tinkering in the options I found better matches but hopefully as time goes on these issues will be ironed out. I remember the state SFV arrived in when it started out, and this game is already ahead of that in a lot of ways. Finally, some small details in the presentation of the game need fixing, bearing in mind this is a low budget title, but it would be good if the character portraits faced toward each other on the matchup screen, if the localisation was a bit better and if there were at least subtitles for the English audience who might like to know what the characters are saying in their post-game banter. But these are small issues in a game that promises to be supported more and more over time by the developers at Arika who you can tell see this as a real labour of love.
Fighting EX Layer is a fantastic fighting game and an absolute must for fighting game enthusiasts. It might not capture the attention of the more causal fighting game fan but has enough in the way of accessibility options that if the more casual player wished to get involved they certainly can with ease. It’s a deep and rewarding fighting game that promises some exciting matches and with the endless combo and Gougi deck combinations could also see it being taken very seriously on the pro scene. If you want endless customisations, long convoluted story modes, microstransactions and bloat to keep you playing a fighting game then some of the AAA heavyweights might be more your tastes. If you grew up playing fighting games in the arcades and just love the purity of diving in cold, picking a character and learning everything about them from the ground up in a traditional old school manner, then Fighting EX Layer is definitely a fighting game made for you.