Kamen Rider: Climax Fighters Looks Like a Thesis on Arena Fighters

A pre-release analysis of the new Kamen Rider game’s mechanics.

[01/02/2018 EDIT: I misread this game’s quality hard.  It was clearly rushed.  Still, this article has some merit, as it rounds up some solid game design ideas… that weren’t all fully realized in the final game.  Oh well.  Fingers crossed for My Hero Academia!]

A few months ago, I started watching a Japanese live-action show called “Kamen Rider”.

In case this article’s existence wasn’t a dead giveaway, I fell in love with it.

It seemed like I’d entered the Kamen Rider fandom at the right time too, as not only did the current seasons turn out to be great, but an arena fighter for the series was announced right after the last concluded.  If you’re up to date on this blog, you may know that I kiiiiinda’ like that genre.

The first advertisement for the game, aired immediately after Kamen Rider Ex-Aid’s finale.

This was back at the start of September.  Now it’s the end of November, and the game is coming out on December 7th.  Problem is, most of that time was spent without much information.  After the commercial announcement that revealed very little and demonstrated some really floaty jump physics, we got a heavily edited trailer and a couple batches of screenshots per month.  It took a while for news outlets to even discuss some of the game’s special mechanics (which really aren’t that unique in its genre), and uncut match footage was totally absent.

The first real trailer, released a week after the game was announced.

That left me feeling more cautious than optimistic about Climax Fighters.  Aside from Pokken Tournament, Gundam Versus, and Lastfight, a lot of big-name arena fighters from the last few years have suffered from a variety of intrinsic problems.  While many developers can build an arena fighter, few can make them right, and fewer still can make them well.

However, the immediate announcement of local multiplayer and an English release (in Asia, but still) weren’t the only hints that this game might be worth getting hyped for.  The “hanging” jumps I mentioned from the first trailer were made much smoother for the second trailer’s build.  This is major, as some games with clear problems in early footage are never fixed.  Climax Fighters becoming visibly better as trailers come out indicates that it’s developer cares about shipping a fun game, and is putting thought into their work.

The second trailer with official English subtitles.  Notice how the movements look a bit smoother than before.

The developer in question?  Eighting, a company that specializes in fighting games and licensed fighters.  They made a name for themselves with the Bloody Roar series, and they have been brought in to work on Tatsunoko Vs. Capcom and Marvel Vs. Capcom 3, among other things.  There is significant genre experience here, and it’s coupled with a clear passion to do right by Kamen Rider.  But did that make this game worth getting excited for?

Right when it seemed we would be going in blind, a livestream on November 22nd suddenly popped up and produced actual match footage of the game in its launch build!  And so, my question would finally receive an answer: does Kamen Rider: Climax Fighters look like a fun game?

The single match from the November 22nd livestream.

Surprisingly, yes, it does!  Kamen Rider: Climax Fighters is an arena fighter for the PS4 that supports 1 to 4 players.  It takes great pains to ensure that players can stay mobile during battles, and looks to offer a surprising amount of potential for combos.  Most of the cast consists of Heisei-era Riders, but the Showa-era Kamen Rider Black got in as an anniversary celebration.

I’m stunned by the degree of competence shown here; this game looks like a culminating thesis on good arena fighter design.  Because arena fighters/brawlers are a subgenre that I’ve always liked, I really want to analyze and discuss their mechanics.  Finding discussions on what makes a good arena fighter has been extremely difficult, not helped by the fact that there’s a lot of mediocre titles floating around.  Frustrated by my lack of an outlet, I’ve decided to start a discussion myself… with myself, if nobody else reads this.  Climax Fighters turning out to be a particularly competent entry in the genre has given me a lot of material, so strap yourself in, there’s a lot of road to cover!

Asset 1

Coming in at 28 characters with many more forms, Climax Fighters likely didn’t have enough time and resources behind it to get really creative, but the cast seems diverse enough to justify their inclusions.  With all the work evident in its design, it seems to me like the game had at least a 2 year development cycle with no significant setbacks.  Playstyles are not very clear, but most of the cast seems to be well-rounded through either several fleshed-out forms, or the ability to switch to a form for a single special attack.

Contributing to the cast’s unique identities are Rider Skills, special actions that each Rider can take when their Skill Gauge is full.  These can range from new movement options, to transformations, to powerful attacks, to speeding up to the point of time appearing slower (which is as wild as it sounds).  The gauges are personalized to match the Skills; the weaker Skills begin matches available and recharge in a few seconds, while the stronger Skills need to be charged through dashing, attacking, and taking hits.  There may be more actions that fill the gauge, and some may only charge with specific stimuli, so this requires more exploration.

Asset 2

Aside from that, everyone is also equipped with an Evolution bar that fills as damage is dealt and taken.  It seems to fill up more when damage is received, making it something of a comeback mechanic.  When full, Riders can transform into their most powerful form (or just surround themselves with a blue-green mist), increasing their speed and damage, providing unlimited armor for the form’s duration (!), sometimes altering their attacks and abilities, and providing (what looks to be one use of) their Super Rider Art.  Transformations and Super Rider Arts pause the match for a moment, which is normally forgivable but looks like it could get annoying in 3 or 4 player matches.  Supers are fairly damaging, but they aren’t insane, likely due to them being easier to combo into than the strongest special attacks.  The transformation action seems to act as a combo breaker that can cause wallsplats, but I’d need to see it happen more than once.  Evolution lasts a little longer than your bar would imply, so make sure you capitalize on it!

Kamen-Rider-Climax-Fighters_2017_09-09-17_006

Other HUD elements include health bars (which are accompanied by large white health numbers that turn yellow and red as damage is taken), a small stamina meter for dashing, a timer, remaining lives for both teams/players, a map, a targeting reticle that shows who you (and any of your partners) are locked onto, and large, curved yellow arrows showing who your opponents are locked onto (that turn red when an attack or Rider Skill is used).  Let’s walk through these elements in order, shall we?

I’m a big fan of numbers accompanying your health bar.  They let players know exactly how much health they have left at any given time, and they let allies keep a closer eye on one another.  In any mode besides local multiplayer (which has everyone’s health at the bottom of the screen), enemy health bars are enlarged but lack numbers.  These numbers were a big help to me in analyzing damage values and spotting some of the more obscured mechanics.  They were likely a big help to the developers in testing those mechanics as well.  Players can get a small hint of how their character is balanced by comparing their starting health value to those of other characters.  Health values I’ve seen so far range from 700 to 950.  The picture isn’t completed with damage numbers over hits, but if you want that bit of extra flourish, the Ex-Aid boys have you covered.

Asset 3

HIT! HIT! HIT! HIT! GREAT! GREAT! PERFECT!!

There’s a bit more to say about damage systems, but it can wait.  The stamina gauge governing dashing is a tiny bar at the bottom of the screen, and while it may be a little too small to keep track of, I’m not sure if there’s much of a punishment for actually running out of meter.  It doesn’t really matter, as the bar doesn’t take much time to fill and deplete.  You usually move at a brisk pace even without dashing, so it’s all good.  It doesn’t appear that there is an air dash, but I’ll need to look into it.

The default timer for matches starts at 240 seconds, or 4 minutes.  This is a very generous timer by fighting game standards, so I’m interested to see what effects advanced tactics would have on match duration.  Matches seem to last 3-4 minutes on average, though accounting for the low skill of the players in the footage, I’d set the average match time between 2 and 4 minutes.

Returning to the targeting reticle, it serves another purpose than just showing your lock-on.  To keep the game’s speed high and combos available, there are very few hard knockdowns during matches.  Being hit will normally either put you in a juggled, wallsplat, groundbounce, or flip-out state.  The first three are opportunities for your opponent(s) to continue hitting you, while the fourth indicates a quick recovery as your character becomes responsive again.

Kamen-Rider-Climax-Fighters_2017_11-2117_013

However, after taking several consecutive attacks or a lot of damage (or sometimes just from an Evolution being activated next to you), you will enter a Downed state.  This is Climax Fighters’ version of a hard knockdown, and it seems to be prompted by a hidden value that builds up as you take hits and/or damage.  A Downed character is marked as such on the reticles of anyone targeting them, and remain totally invincible for its duration.  It lasts about four seconds, roughly as long as it takes for a KO’d character to respawn.

The exact reasoning behind this mechanic is a little unclear, but I’ve done my best to unpack it.  It’s clear purpose seems to be in team battles, where one team is punished by temporarily losing a member, and the other team is forced to leave one character alone for a moment.  In a 1v1 setting, it seems to be intended to give both players a breather by returning the field to neutral.  In practice, however, the player who caused the Down would immediately attempt to get in position to attack the Downed player as soon as they stood back up.  I don’t know what the wake-up i-frame situation is, so there’s a possibility that Downed players will just need to stand up blocking or dodging.

Kamen-Rider-Climax-Fighters_2017_11-2117_029

Speaking of which, those are both present.  Blocking puts up a barrier that can defend against roughly two average auto-combos.  It will change colour twice after taking certain amounts of damage, and, in a move I haven’t seen since Super Smash Bros. itself, seems to slowly lose durability if held without being attacked.  I’m not sure if this is the case, but it seemed like it in the four-player match.  The third trailer showed a clip of Kamen Rider Birth seemingly using a guard crush, so that may be an attack property.  As for evasion, dodges are more comparable to sidesteps than rolls or leaps, so an erroneous dodge can still leave you in danger.  It seems like you can dodge cancel out of your specials’ recovery, but like so much else, there’s little evidence for it.  Cancels likely don’t require meter, increasing the intensity of matches with their availability.  Some footage I saw seemed to indicate that there is either an air dodge or the ability to jump-cancel out of air attacks, but I have no conclusive evidence on it.

You’re gonna’ want to learn what cancels and defensive options you have available to you, because this game plays fast and loose in its regular movements and its combo system.  As I mentioned above, there are a variety of states and positions that different attacks can leave opponents in.  Where this system leaves the bounds of sanity is when you realize that they are designed in conjunction with the frequently short startup and recovery frames to allow combos that naturally unfold with a bit of creativity.  Where there’s a will, there’s a way to keep a combo going.  That’s this game’s open secret to its fun factor: whether you’re taking hits or mashing out attacks, almost everything transitions quickly enough that you’ll soon find yourself back in the action.  The quickest normals and specials can be spammed fairly quickly even when they don’t hit anything, and that sets quite a pace.  There’s a reason some of the slowest attacks had to be given base damage comparable to supers: they wouldn’t be worth using with everything else flying around!

Kamen-Rider-Climax-Fighters_2017_10-12-17_014

It’s not all damage all the time, though.  A game with significant potential for combos and potent attacks that already deal quite a bit of damage on their own needs damage scaling to keep things fair.  When a character is in a combo-able state, hits (by both you and your partners) will deal successively less damage.

However, sometimes that isn’t enough to maintain the feeling of fairness.  Sometimes one player will find a particular attack that another player has a lot of trouble dodging, and will spam that attack repeatedly.  To ensure that battles still feel fun and fair, Climax Fighters employs something known in the Smash Bros. community (hey, there’s that name again) as “stale-move negation”, or “damage decay”.  Damage is cut by approximately half if identical (or possibly any) attacks connect close together.  In the four-player footage, right at the beginning of the battle, one player uses two consecutive auto-combos (as in, it’s not a true combo) on another and that player is Downed.  When a player is Downed seems to vary depending on the attacks involved, so the specifics of the system still eludes me.  Team battles dish out Downs more often, but I can’t be sure.  Later, a player repeatedly hits another player with a projectile, and while that player is eventually Downed, the damage dealt is gradually cut down to under 10, making the assault less devastating.  Damage decay, alongside the Downed mechanic, seem to exist to excessive pressure and give inexperienced players a fighting chance.

We’ll need to wait until the game releases to examine the mechanics and move lists, but I do have an inkling of what the controls are.  A recent magazine article stated that Triangle is for special attacks, and you can get different ones by pressing it while holding a direction.  Judging by the way action games are usually set up, I bet that X is jump, Square is for normal attacks, and Circle is for Rider Skills.  Dashing will be on a trigger or bumper, as will blocking and dodging (which I think will be on the same button), and Evolution and Super Rider Arts (which will almost certainly share a button).  Changing your lock-on will thus have to be on either the right stick itself or on L3 or R3.

Kamen-Rider-Climax-Fighters_2017_10-12-17_001

We got some information on the modes and features of the game early on, and they seemed promising.  It can be played locally or online, which is a big plus for me.  Local multiplayer isn’t a guarantee for this type of game anymore, and I value it very highly for it’s inherent accessibility (every online console service costs money these days) and added playtime value (for people without internet access or the necessary online membership).

Matches can be free-for-alls or team matches, and the teams can be unbalanced if you want.  Not sure if 1v3 comes with an inherent handicap, but it’s nice that the option is there.  Local multiplayer shrinks stages to a standardized size (though their shape can still be unique), and appears to remove all elevations.  The normally behind-the-back camera is changed to a diagonal view across the stage, allowing all players to be onscreen at the same time.  The fewer players there are, the more the camera lowers and zooms in, causing it to resemble another one of Eighting’s fighters, Castlevania Judgement.  Stage identity is reduced considerably and directional specials could be messed up, but that’s a price I’m willing to pay.

Kamen-Rider-Climax-Fighters_2017_10-12-17_006

Also included in the game is what appears to be a psuedo-story mode called “Mission Mode”.  I don’t fully know what it entails, but it appears to be a linear singleplayer mode with text-based cutscenes.  It seems like there might be special challenges in it that are not normally available, so it could be interesting.  Still, the primary motivation for progressing through it is to unlock customization items for your online avatar.

Ant the reason you have that customizable avatar is the interactive online lobby!  A neat feature that I recognize from a couple of Arc System Works’ recent fighting games, this system allows players to control little avatars and walk around a small room with other players.  This game’s avatars are simplistic non-characters that have two accessory slots and the room is much smaller than any of Arc System’s lobbies, but the effort to make a charming online system is still apparent.  Doing this sort of thing involves more effort than most fighting games are willing to expend, so it’s an admirable inclusion.

This video has two 1v1 matches in it.  I don’t know where it came from.

That livestream I mentioned earlier had some specific attributes that are worth mentioning.  The only match it had was a 4-player online team match between rather unskilled players, but footage is footage.  Another video or livestream with two 1v1 matches (also online) appeared within a day of the first livestream.

Judging from those matches, the online modes seem to run nicely with any amount of players, but this observation comes with the caveat that (very good) Japanese internet was being used with all of the players were sitting right next to each other.  Regular consumers and importers may not have the same experience.  The loading screen leading into the four-player match lasted around 20 seconds, and the two-player loading screens, while mostly edited out, looked like they might load for almost as long.  There’s no telling how good load times and game performance will be offline, but I’m hoping for the best.

Kamen-Rider-Climax-Fighters_2017_11-2117_005

I’ll wrap things up with some miscellaneous observations on things I’ve seen.  As I mentioned above, the players in the match footage did not seem to be experienced with the game.  Among the heaps of evidence for this was the absence of quite a few attacks present in the trailers.  The large number of short combos that they managed to perform anyways speaks wonders of the game’s lenient combo system.  There were a couple moments where teammates worked together to keep a combo going, though they both just used flurries of blows without any finesse.  It looked like just one player dodged at all, and the whole group only blocked a few times.  Basically, even though the game didn’t get the best possible showing, what we didn’t see still holds value.

The game does appear to be at its best in a four-player climate, but the offensive mechanics are definitely tuned well enough for 1v1 gameplay.  Players who prefer that will want to stick to smaller, flatter stages, of which there seems to be a couple.  And on the subject of stages, they are quite faithful to Kamen Rider’s common battle locations, which is to say that they’re very plain.  Still, they serve to alter battles through different raised areas and sizes, and I think I even saw a small square arena tailored for 1v1 fights.  We’ll have to wait until the game comes out to see the full selection.

Kamen-Rider-Climax-Fighters_2017_09-09-17_001

There are match openings and endings of varying lengths for each character, and they are all animated quite well.  Having all of the openings play consecutively in a four player match is a bit much, though.  The textures in general look a bit cheap, but still nail what they’re going for and look pretty good.  The animations and special effects are definitely the visual high points.  All of the (many!) models look more-or-less equally detailed, and that’s good, because you’ll be seeing a lot of them.

Speaking of the different models, I noticed that at a couple points in the footage, Riders are hit while assuming a different form for one attack, and they actually stay in it for the duration of those combos!  Now, a few forms (like Mighty Bros. XX, which involves Ex-Aid splitting in two) will revert to normal when hit, and some forms (like Fourze’s Magnet States) are used for armoured attacks, but this is still a really neat unnecessary touch.

Kamen-Rider-Climax-Fighters_2017_11-2117_008

Regarding the various attacks, as I’ve mentioned before, the variety and creativity is not especially large (especially compared to the Gundam Vs. and PSP Dissidia games, which have so many different attacks), but there is a respectable mix.  Combing through the final trailer, there’s a lot more distinct attacks than I’d expect out of a random licensed fighter like this.  A lot of attacks seem to be fairly fast and mobile, and those that aren’t tend to hit hard.  Like, a-fifth-of-your-health hard.  To restate what I said earlier, the supers accessible through Evolution are easier to hit and combo with, but the amount of damage that some characters can deal if you aren’t careful is major.

On the other end of the speed scale are the attacks that move fast and far as well.  To help catch up with opponents that are trying to flee in the larger environments, there are a decent amount of attacks and movement abilities that can move you forward quickly.  There seems to be some heavy vertical and horizontal tracking on dash attacks, a lot of which can be used as those mobility options I just mentioned.  Some characters can even sprout wings and fly across the stages!

The final trailer, featuring all 28 characters.  Note that it’s sped up slightly to disguise the footage taken from older builds.

Kamen Rider: Climax Fighters has impressed me a lot, and I was not expecting it to.  It looks like the new standard for good arena fighters, something that I’m still reeling from.  I didn’t think this would be more than a 6/10 “fans only” game that is stiff, slow, and runs poorly, but it’s looking like a real 8/10 “bring it to parties and tournaments” game.  At this point, good-feeling controls and local multiplayer performance are all it has left to prove.  I can’t wait to get my copy of this, and you may want to consider buying it too.

If you’re interested, you can purchase a physical copy with English subtitles here: https://sea.play-asia.com/kamen-rider-climax-fighters-english-subs/13/70bjlp

Resources Used

The first commercial can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7kD_u7PNVFw

The first trailer can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jeqwtPFasgA

The officially English subtitled version of the second trailer is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xc9GWNvCtY8

The four-player match from the official livestream was uploaded here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0ZtOXqTT7SA

The video featuring the two 1v1 matches is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S0KhSmi1kEE

The final trailer can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SaxmMbz16PU

The online magazine article that I got some information from is here: http://dengekionline.com/elem/000/001/636/1636786/

That article was translated near the bottom of this page: https://www.rangerboard.com/showthread.php?p=5502583

Thanks to Gematsu for their swift and detailed coverage of the game.

All images and footage are property of Eighting, Bandai Namco, and Toei Company, Ltd.

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