As a lover of one-versus-many martial arts films, there’s always going to be a special place in my schedule reserved for games that attempt to emulate the experience of being an incredibly capable fighter who can take out multiple assailants at a time with their bare hands. Midnight Fight Express is the latest to try its hand, with a focus on using the environment around you – though it relies on this crutch a bit too much.
We’ve had a few new examples of street-brawling games in 2022. Sifu was mechanically fantastic (its slapdash use of Asian culture as set dressing was not), and it had a satisfying complexity to its combat system that made each punch feel important. Fights in Tight Spaces took the idea of this John Wick-style fantasy and distilled it down perfectly into a turn-based tactics game, where every second of a fight was a new, weighty decision.
The Midnight Fight Express take on the idea comes in the form of a game with a top-down, isometric perspective that attempts to meld the template of faster and looser variations of arcade-style beat-em-up games (which are also having a contemporary revival, thanks to new titles like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shredder’s Revenge, and River City Girls) together with the more visceral, scrappy style of no-holds-barred brawling. However, meeting in the middle of these two styles holds Midnight Fight Express back.
In Midnight Fight Express, you play a mysterious sleeper agent, combat-trained to the highest degree, who has been awakened amid utter chaos in a strange city. A talking drone instils a sense of urgency, and a directive that you have to help get the city under control by running through a gauntlet of criminals and taking out the head honchos.
It’s a neat scenario and presentational package, with an adequately thumping soundtrack, some surprising fantastical elements, and an intriguing plotline that has enough crumbs about the protagonist’s unknown past to keep you motivated to find out more.
But the fighting component never quite clicks.
Things start off well. Midnight Fight Express adopts a familiar combat string model, similar to the Yakuza series – a heavy attack will result in a different technique depending on how many light attacks were strung together before it. Further hand-to-hand options are introduced as you spend accrued points on the skill tree, such as a more useful parry and counter system (which feature some neat animations), and options to increase your range and attack variety. However, those core strings are still your bread and butter.
Or so you think. Also like the Yakuza series, Midnight Fight Express puts an emphasis on being able to use objects in the environment to your advantage, encouraging you to kick boxes, pick up loose objects as bludgeons or projectiles, and make liberal uses of the melee weapons and firearms dropped by enemies.
But as the game’s difficulty increases over 40 stages, the enemy varieties become more numerous, aggressive, and dangerous, and the stages themselves become more treacherous. It eventually becomes very clear that relying on your character’s own fighting ability is simply not going to be an effective way to overcome every challenge.
Your opponents in Midnight Fight Express don’t give you the courtesy of participating in what I’ll call the ‘martial arts standoff queue’, the (wholly unrealistic) enemy etiquette of only attacking the lone protagonist with two or three people at a time, while the rest wait in the wings for their turn. Instead, the deranged foes of Midnight Fight Express are truly no-holds-barred, meaning no matter how adept you are with the fighting mechanics, there’ll always be someone there to interrupt your parry. There’ll often be multiple brutes that simultaneously charge at you with unblockable attacks, just after you’ve grabbed someone to try and throw them off a balcony. There’s always some jerk off to the side, firing his gun as you try to keep three different attackers at bay.
The solution to these problems then, at least on the default difficulty, is to lean hard into using environmental objects and weapons, which are very good at disrupting enemy attack patterns. You learn to always go for the weapons – especially the firearms – which are very effective at taking even the most grotesque of mutants and brute enemies down in just a few well-placed shots. Midnight Fight Express seemingly knows that this is key – the game includes a feature that lets you easily identify everything usable in the stage.
The game’s later levels finally had me coming to the realisation that the most effective way to do things – despite my stubbornness – was to dive around the stage like a maniac towards whatever weapons I could find, and systematically clobber foes with repeat hits from a pipe, shots from a gun, or by kicking boxes at them.
This is nowhere near as satisfying as using the game’s much more interesting and fluid hand-to-hand options. In fact, it’s exhausting.
Essentially, Midnight Fight Express’s approach to enemy behaviour echoes the approach of challenging retro arcade brawlers, but its more grounded fighting mechanics don’t feel suitable for the pace. And it’s this off-kilter balance between your character’s own ability, the effectiveness of environmental weapons, and the aggressiveness of the enemies that is ultimately to the detriment of its longer-term gratification.
2 Stars: ★★
The PC version of Midnight Fight Express was provided and played for the purposes of this review.