Wonder if Kinect 2.0’s new tech is sharp enough to register when you flip it the bird? You’ll have ample room to figure that out with Fighter Within, a shallow fighter that's more infuriating than fun to play. Flailing and kicking at the air like a lunatic gets things off to an amusing start in Ubisoft's ambitious attempt to bring motion-based brawling to the Xbox One. And while Fighter Within shows promise with its opening punches, its shaky fist-swinging framework quickly buckles as each new layer of frustrating complexity gets thrown onto the pile.
Fighter Within's pitifully succinct "Initiation" story mode only takes around an hour or two to complete at most--that's all for the best, really. Play it straight through in a single session, and your joints, muscles, and limbs will inevitably be a stiff, achy mess the next day. The story itself is even more painful than the intense workout it provides. You play as a cocky young upstart named Matt who's looking to sign up with a local dojo and prove himself in training for a big tournament. But before long, the convoluted plot takes a left turn towards some conspiracy about recovering an ancient book of fighting techniques penned by Genghis Khan--or something to that extent. It's hard to follow and absolutely rife with corny, clichéd dialogue delivered by generic characters that are hard to take any lasting interest in. Unfortunately, these are the same characters you get to look forward to playing as outside of the story section.
Oddly, the campaign also doubles as an in-depth tutorial. It stretches itself thin across 21 matches that introduce you to the large number of possible moves you can attempt in the arena. Yes, "attempt"--it's a gamble whether or not the more advanced maneuvers will register accurately when you're trying to trigger them in the heat of combat. The one thing this starter mode does do well is teach you new moves and their corresponding motions at a gradual pace, giving them enough time to sink in before you progress to the next set. That's about it, however, and even then it's not much of an accomplishment, considering the underlying gameplay is so inconsistent.
Grasping the basics of virtual combat with the Kinect is easy enough, and it is fun at first. You throw a punch or kick in real life and your on-screen combatant follows suit. Sweet. The same goes with blocking or ducking. Even the more subtle nuances of aiming higher or lower translate well in the arena, at least most of the time. The results of your movements register instantaneously when you're hurling simple attacks, and it's satisfying when they connect with your opponent's face or other unguarded regions. But everything starts to break down when you try to get fancier.
Delivering hooks, attempting throws, picking up sticks to bludgeon opponents with, and triggering totem powers are just a few of the many inconsistent maneuvers that often get lost in translation between the gestures you’re meant to use and what actually happens when you try them. It's not that they don't ever work, period; they just don't work when you need them to. As you progress into the tougher battles, the frustration this spurs eventually builds to a boiling point where you might find yourself more content to punch the Kinect itself rather than the air in front of it. Inadvisable, but hey--you could hardly be blamed if you do.
Special attacks put some interesting elements into play beyond trading basic blows. Holding your arms back to charge up your Ki meter to three different levels lets you trigger all manner of jump kicks, flips, headbutts, energy blasts, and more. Delivering repeated blows to the same area of your opponent creates combos, and well-timed blocks can generate counters moves. The problem is these cooler attacks play out as mini-cutscenes that have you standing around waiting to get back into the fight. Admittedly, they're a good chance to rest for a second, but the disconnect from the one-to-one movement-based action breaks up the momentum of combat in an awkward way.
Arcade and training modes give you the opportunity to try out each of the dozen characters and compete in a series of fights against AI opponents. While each warrior has a few unique moves--and strengths and weaknesses--that differentiate their fighting styles, they're far from the standout characters fans of the genre have come to expect. Pummeling your way through round after round with different fighters doesn't feel rewarding, and the fatigue that sets in after a few boisterous bouts is a welcome excuse to just stop playing.
Local multiplayer matches are perhaps the most enjoyable part of this meager package--if only because your human opponent is likely to have just as hard of a time pulling off the trickier moves as you will. That, and it's almost impossible not to laugh when you're standing next to someone who's essentially trying to beat you up by punching and kicking in the wrong direction. At least the Kinect does a great job of sorting out who's doing what in your living room when you're standing side-by-side swinging.
Fighter Within's good looks and intriguing premise don't pan out into a virtual brawling experience you'll want to stick with past the first few rounds. Boring fighters, advanced attacks that are horribly imprecise to pull off, and a paper-thin solo campaign add up to a disappointing slog that feels like a punishment--both physically and mentally.
The imprecise combat of Fighter Within does an awful job of showcasing the new and improved Kinect 2.0 tech. This is easily one of the weakest Xbox One launch window titles yet.