Prior to my lengthy review session with Rag Doll Kung Fu: Fists of Plastic, I’d been utterly ignorant about the history of the title – something which quickly proved to have been my loss. Unbeknownst to me, Rag Doll Kung Fu was created by Media Molecule co-founder Mark Healy, beginning life in 2005 as a PC title. Now as a PSN exclusive, the game has been retooled to take advantage of SIXAXIS controls and a very naturalized interface that greatly benefits Healy’s intentions of allowing players to experience “spinning through the air like a Russian gymnast.”
The game is a perfect blend of Team America: World Police meets every Kung Fu cliché in existence. And based on my time with the title, I’d suggest it’s exactly the type of game you might not have any interest in until the moment you interact with it, suddenly finding yourself still holding the controller several hours later. The thematic charm of the game manages to grab for attention the moment the menu screen opens and one of the most successful mood-setting songs begins to serenade like a siren – with the notable difference of steering you toward starting the game rather than crashing into some rocks.
This comedic fighting game features characters that are string-less marionettes with an action figure flavour, complete with a plastic coating that shines in HD. And where this could merely serve as an aesthetic gimmick, the character movements realistically mimic the loose and flapping feel of this idea while still maintaining a strong sense of control. It’s an extremely fine balance that proves to be the game’s greatest achievement, and offers a glimpse into what would become the play-style gamers have since experienced within LittleBigPlanet. As a marionette fighting game, the game relishes in exaggerating the use of ragdoll physics, limbs extending with every punch and kick. Additionally the game embraces the same attitude with regards to the analog sticks of the PS3 controller that fueled the natural feel of Katamari Damacy. Here this allows players to control leg movements with the left analog stick and hand manipulations with the right. Naturally players can punch, kick, jump, and pick up objects like pots and throwing stars for projectile attacks. The game even allows other characters to be grabbed and slammed into the ground or tossed off of cliffs or into walls. The mechanics of the controls raise the bar when nunchucks and fighting staffs are introduced, with the right analog stick directly controlling the swinging attacks – offering the sensation of really using the weapons rather than assigning the fun to the repetitive tapping of a button.
Though that already paints a competent scenario, abilities are more layered than I at first expected, focusing as much on incorporating classic Kung-Fu mythos as in creating a humorous parody of ’70s Kung-Fu films. Players can grab ledges, kicking or swinging, able to build a momentum that allows them to launch toward the next ledge. More complex combat is introduced in combination with the SIXAXIS abilities of the PS3 controller. There’s a power-punch, a power-slam, and a fire-fly punch that can launch characters into the air, all enabled by using a button press in combination with shaking or flicking the controller. Chi points that are gained during fights can even be converted into health by turning the controller upside down, causing characters to levitate and meditate. And in the spirit of the great Kung-Fu legends, shaking the controller can also summon a chi-power ball that can then be thrown at opponents.
A tutorial and subsequent series of eight challenge stages gradually trains players to use all these skills in harmony. Points gained within these challenges unlock reward items and contribute to leaderboard status. The stages are scaled arenas based on numerous locales from the movies the game parodies. And though it will keep you busy for a time, it’s all meant to lead toward the multiplayer possibilities. And that’s where we arrive at the elephant in the room unfortunately, because the game has no online multiplayer support. It’s an incredibly odd omission, given that the title is available through an online store, and for the simpler reason that the game-play insists upon the option – even including an editor to customize character appearance and add unlocked rewards. This would normally be the deal-breaking point of the discussion were it not for a combination of the charm and deceptive complexity of the game. Manipulating these characters is such a naturally fun experience, that the joyous oddities of the title as well as the low price manage to salvage my recommendation. That doesn’t forgive the fact that the absence is a mistake, but instead accepts that allowing that absence to steer you away from the title denies you a genuinely great experience.
What’s offered instead is the more tradition in-house party game scenario, where four friends can compete in person via four specific match styles. There’s a standard Deathmatch mode, as well as a King of the Hill mode that awards bonus points for the greatest guilty pleasure option ever in a game – standing toward the wind and posing while making mock Kung-Fu noises – I’m serious, the game encourages us to do this – and it’s a good thing. There’s also Capture the Fish, which allows players to see who can toss the most fish in a basket while fighting, and finally Dodgeball, which tosses that referenced projectile into the frey to be used as the primary weapon. Should you manage to drag three friends to this game, you’ll likely be playing for awhile while making your own animal screeches and poses. And it shouldn’t be too hard, since this is the type of game suited to that style of N64 late-night play sessions that kept my term papers from being handed in on time.
Overall, the depth of parody and the unique presentation of the characters create a title that stands out among the options available. The design breathes a new life into the fun of the parody, and does a reasonable job of finding a way to introduce another entry in the party-styled fighting game genre, which is always a difficult proposition. As a wise man said while my game was loading, “Catch the duck after it eats the fish to get two meals in one,” or take our view that even with a critical omission the unique style is well worth the small price of admission. If you’ve ever picked up a stick and started making Kung-Fu animal screeches – and I know you have – then this game has your number. And if you haven’t, well then you’re mostly dead inside anyway, aren’t you.