Way of the Passive Fist is a love letter to the parry, and it succeeds to the fullest.

There are few video game mechanisms as satisfying as the parry. Landing a perfectly timed counter to an opponent’s attack and punishing them for it has been one of the most direct dopamine hits since, well, before video games existed. Amidst all the discourse around gameplay loops and how to reward players, parries are beautiful in their simplicity: instant feedback, with the psychological reward of a success far outweighing the punishment of getting hit. Put simply: parries make your brain feel good. So it only makes sense that a game built entirely around that mechanism would deliver on the same, right?

Way of the Passive Fist is deceptive. It looks like a classic side scrolling beat ‘em up, and it kind of is, but it’s missing a lot of things you’d expect from the genre. There’s no co-op, for starters. You’re rolling solo. There’s also no weapons or items to pick up beyond the occasional bit of health or extra life, and there’s no juggle system to speak of. I worded that last bit very carefully, because despite its lack of complex maneuvers and flashy finishers Way DOES have a combo system. And it’s on the foundation of this combo system that the entire game is built. I hope you’re ready to parry. A lot.

Fights in Way go like this: the game throws a couple goons at you. They walk up, yell, and start throwing blows. You parry each individual strike, starting a combo and filling your super meter bit by bit. Once that enemy is done whiffing another walks up, this time mixing some throws in that require dodges along with some more swings to parry. Eventually the first goon swaps places with his friend again but this time your dodges have left him exhausted, and upon seeing him slump over you dispatch him with a single sharp poke to the forehead. He goes flying, and after hitting the ground and a traditional beat ‘em up flicker, vanishes. Foe B rushes up again for another flurry but this time you cash in your super meter. With a single button press you unleash your massive robotic arm, grab him by the throat, and slam him into the dirt. Fight over. You walk on with a well earned feeling of accomplishment.

Eventually the game throws more enemies at you. Many more, in fact. And initially it will feel overwhelming. But the developers follow two key rules that make the game fair: you’re never engaged with more than one enemy at a time, and to quote them directly, these are “enemies you can set your watch to”. Once you learn an enemy patterns Way almost becomes more of a rhythm game as you respond to recognizable audio and visual feedback again and again, but presented in different ways. You know you’re fighting two punchy guys, a chakram chucking lady, and a robot. That means you’re going to have to parry rapidly, chuck projectiles back where they came from, and do a combination of dodges and parries respectively. Each of them have a set pattern once they attack, but the order in which they strike and how quickly they run up to you can keep you guessing. Couple that with the ability to shoulder check an enemy, which deals no damage but staggers them and allows for another foe to step up, and you have a combat system that feels as much like dancing as it does brawling.

The dance is enhanced by the visuals and audio. Not only does the style stand out for its vibrant color and catchy tunes, but it also plays a large part in the actual play. As soon as an enemy walks up it throws 4 pieces of information at you: who it is (meaning its attack pattern), audio tells (so you can identify who’s attacking in a group), attack animations (which are never interrupted), and a flash over their head that indicates whether the attack is a strike or throw, which needs to be parried or dodged respectively. That sounds like a lot of information, and it can be, but it’s communicated so intuitively and easily that you’ll get the hang of it in no time. The game doesn’t just force you to learn, it helps you learn in every fight. The game occasionally falters in how it implements stage hazards, which can occasionally be timed in such a way that you’re better off disengaging from the fight entirely than trying to evade at the last minute, but these are infrequent and eventually you’ll be able to incorporate them into your routine.

Games this focused on dodge’n’counter, for example Punch Out or Sekiro, tend to be known for their difficulty above all else. Most of them simply are what they are; you get good or you get dead. Way, instead, offers what might be the most in-depth and fascinating set of difficulty sliders I’ve ever seen. It’s not as simple as easy/normal/hard here: there are 4 individual difficulty variables, all of which you can adjust to your liking. Want to fight hordes of enemies on each screen but have late parries count as normal? How about crank up enemy damage but also health drop frequency? It’s all possible, and every single combination comes with its own difficulty name. Bold Eternal Warrior, Daring Wary Proficient Traveller, you get the idea: whichever variables you pick produces your title. You can apply these changes for every mode except one and switch it up as needed, making the game as approachable as possible while also offering a ton of replayability for folks looking to master it. Master, incidentally, being the title for those who crank all their sliders to the right.

"Difficulty" Screen for the game, showing the options for: Enemy Strength, Encounters, Combo Mastery, Resourcefulness

There’s two kinds of responses when reading that last line: abject terror and salivating desire. For those who felt the latter I would point you to the Passiverse mode: a short, roguelike-ish option that lets you take on levels of varying intensity and unlock your abilities in a randomized order. It also happens to be the only mode you can’t customize because this mad lad’s locked to Master. Hope you’ve got your perfect parry timings down.

And no, despite beating the game’s other two modes I haven’t pulled that challenge off yet. But I WANT to, and am going to continue to bash my head against it, because Way is just that good. I’ve always been a fan of this sub-genre and parry mechanisms in general. For some insight into my tastes: 3rd Strike is my favorite Street Fighter, I’ve beaten Sekiro multiple times, and God Hand is one of my favorite games of all time. So when I tell you that Way of the Passive Fist is a new standard by which the genre should be judged and a game so incredibly tuned that it plays like an entire symphony, understand that I don’t say that lightly. I came into this game expecting a fun twist on beat ‘em ups. I left, though I don’t intend to be gone for long, with one of the best indie experiences I’ve had in recent memory. The parry is one of the most satisfying maneuvers in all of video game-dom, and Way of the Passive Fist delivers on that satisfaction in spades.

Review based on Nintendo Switch version.