Independently developed self-published games (or "indie games" as per the common vernacular) are known for a lot of things. They're typified as quirky experiments like Minecraft, high brow narrative dramas like Dear Esther, peculiar puzzlers like Limbo, and novel arcade affairs like Hotline Miami. But they're not known for third-person action games. After all, who would want to compete in the same field as the likes of Bayonetta, Devil May Cry or Dark Souls with a minuscule budget? Surely these games must take endless playtesting to perfect. Yet smalltime Montpellier-based studio The Game Bakers (Squids Odyssey) has risen to the challenge with its latest boss fight only affair Furi. The results are glorious.
Furi's premise is simple - defeat nine powerful foes - and the mechanics are even simpler. Furi boils down the verbs of an action game into four elegant moves: slash, shoot, dodge and parry. Beyond that, you can charge your shots, strikes and dodges for extra damage or a farther reaching evade, but that's it. There aren't any combos to learn, collectibles to gather, or character progression of any sort. In other words, it's Punch-Out!!
Yet Furi is more than just a Punch-Out!! clone. It takes the overall design of the arcade classic then reinterprets it as an isometric mashup of third-person hack-and-slash titles with bullet hell shooters (like cult classic Nier). Most bosses can be fought through a mix of twin-stick shooting and melee strikes, which may sound simple, but this limited toolkit offers more than enough options as you duke it out through Furi's gauntlet of guardian encounters.
What makes Furi so gratifying is that each boss encounter is wildly unique and each requires completely different strategies. Some are fought in multi-screen spanning vistas, while others are quarantined to claustrophobic arenas. Some are set in open plains, while others are peppered with shifting walls and moving platforms. Some rely primarily on melee fisticuffs, while others litter the screen with a flurry of projectiles. Each is comprised of several stages, meaning that you're never dealing with the same attack pattern for more than a minute or two at a time.
Furi's minimalist controls may seem shallow, but The Game Bakers have unearthed shocking depth from such a limited arsenal. For example, shooting an enemy is the safest way to whittle down their HP, but you refill a little bit of health by successfully parrying. This encourages you to regularly mix up defensive and offensive tactics. You also can't rely entirely on your firearm as most bosses' attack phases culminate in an enclosed melee showdown where your guns are stripped and you live or die by the sword. Bosses tend to get very aggressive in this wounded state and you'll need expert reflexes to properly time your evades, parries and strikes. It's in these intimate climaxes that Furi most proudly wears its Punch-Out!! influence on its sleeve.
The melee combat isn't the only brilliant design decision cribbed from Punch-Out!! as Furi's checkpoint system isn't a far cry from Little Mac's rise to glory. You begin each fight with three lives. Fail, and you'll automatically get resurrected with full health at the beginning of that boss' phase, sans one life. But each time you finish a boss' phase, you're rewarded another life (up to a maximum of three). It's an ingenious way of keeping players in the game long enough that they have time to practice while still offering a sense of urgency as your extra lives tick away during the end of an eight-minute battle.
The Punch-Out!! influence doesn't end there either, as Furi owes its wonderful post-game content to the Wii Punch-Out!! reboot's Title Defense mode. Finish Furi's admittedly brief campaign (which took me about eight hours) and you unlock the more challenging Furier Mode. This isn't just a regular hard mode, where enemies deal more damage and you dish out less. Oh no. Instead it's a complete reinvention of the game where each foe is blessed with an unholy array of new moves.
Quite simply, it is the most comically challenging hard mode I've encountered since God Hand. To put it in perspective, Furi's optional final boss on the default difficulty took me the better part of an hour to best. Upon slaying the big bad I felt pretty darned pleased with myself. Then I tried booting up Furier Mode just to give it a gander and was shocked to discover that after nine attempts I couldn't even beat the first phase of the tutorial boss. It's bonkers!
Irritatingly, the incredible level of polish applied to Furi's combat system doesn't extend to the game's more peripheral attributes. The trippy neon landscapes and whacked out character designs (by Afro Samurai creator Takashi Okazaki!) are a treat, but the low-fi textures, blocky character models, and garish lighting don't do them any favours. Looking at Furi it's hard to shake the feeling that it must have had incredible concept art that was later mangled through shoddy graphics. As is, Furi looks like a low rent El Shaddai. It's still plenty stylish, but not the eye popping wonder that it's achingly close to being.
There's a few other blemishes that tarnish Furi's magnificence. The plot is an uninvolving mess and each chapter begins with a lengthy prologue where your character very slowly walks up to their new challenger while a creepy man in a rabbit head cryptically narrates the plot. These story setups provide a nice breather and they're often fun to look at, but your sluggish walking speed coupled with a Resident Evil-style camera system and finicky movement make such scripted narrative sequences an irritating slog rather than the majestic Shadow of the Colossus-esque preamble they so desperately want to be. Also, each boss has an irritating habit of reciting the same few lines of dialogue - something that gets old on a first attempt, nevermind the 20th.
These shabby peripheral elements prevent Furi from being a masterpiece, but scarcely detract from the exquisite white knuckle action Furi delivers in spades. Furi may look rough around the edges and its seemingly slight slew of content may be a tough sell (especially at the somewhat pricey €24.99 / $24.99, though it's a PS Plus freebie during July) but at the end of the day it's a winning premise done right. Elegant, deep, inspired, and oh so tight, Furi is a gem.