Shadow Fight puts the “fight” in Facebook fighting games

Accuse me of hyperbole if you wish, but I haven’t been so surprised by a fighting game since I first played Street Fighter II on the SNES back in 1992. That’s not because Nekki’s Shadow Fight is particularly revolutionary (most of its charm springs from its successful mimicry of other fighters), but because it’s the first Facebook fighting game I’ve played that actually lets you, well, fight. That fact alone renders this martial arts-based fighter worthy of attention, but its unexpected complexity and undeniable refinement distinguish it as one of the finest Facebook games in recent months.

In my experience, “fighting” in most Facebook games usually boils down to watching a stationary avatar inflict damage on an opponent through animations of explosions or slashing swords. Occasionally the artwork makes up a bit for the lack of true interaction, but until now these games have largely been a poor substitute for the titles they wish to emulate. In some cases you don’t even get to choose your moves.

Shadow Fight

Not so here. True to its name, Shadow Fight centers on stylized combat between two shadowy opponents that resemble ninja-style marionettes as viewed from the other side of a Japanese shoji screen. Beyond this comparatively minimalist presentation, however, lies a remarkably deep combat experience with more than 35 available moves, many of which can be unlocked by gaining “dan” after winning tournaments. The matches themselves are won by being the first to win two rounds (much like Soul Calibur or Street Fighter II), and occasionally you’ll get the chance to fight some bosses. Eventually you can unlock weapons such as nunchaku and swords after you’ve amassed enough coins (or forked out enough Facebook credits), and you can then use these to fight in specialized tournaments. And if that’s not enough, an unfinished “fatalities” menu promises brutal finishing moves à la Mortal Kombat in the near future.

Alas, Shadow Fight falls just short of a perfect score, but only because its battles preserve the Facebook tradition of battling the AI rather than a breathing opponent. That’s not to say that it doesn’t do a passable job of fooling you. To initiate an unarmed match or a friendly duel with one of your friends, for instance, you simply choose which one of your friends you want to battle and the fight begins with your friend’s photo in the health bar. If you win, you can use the taunt of “revenge” as a way of getting them to play, but you’ll never truly get to match your skills against theirs. The best you can hope for is to fight an AI version of their avatar with the weapons and skills they’ve amassed through leveling, and the same goes for the tournaments that pit you against random Facebook profiles from around the world. Unless, that is, you opt for the two-player battle. Unfortunately, this style of local gameplay requires that both combatants share the same keyboard, so I suspect you’ll remember the ensuing squabbles over who has the most shoulder room more than the gameplay itself.

Shadow Fight is a joy to play regardless, and the AI is tolerably intelligent. (Although I usually found that I could win games just by keeping my opponent pinned). On a technical level, you can expect the standard energy-based limits common to the platform, along with bonuses and special unlockables that appear as you level. The gameplay is fluid, the physics are believable, and the presentation exudes an aesthetic elegance that its flashier cousins often lack. Shadow Fight is a promising and pioneering title that likely heralds a fatality for the style of fighting games we’ve seen up to this point.