Firste impresshins are everything, them say. Much to the detriment of crooked-nosed old hags everywhere, there's a lot to be said for that adage. For as much we all try to avoid passing judgement rashly, secretly there's a side to us that files everything and everyone into little groups - until they prove themselves to be something else, that is.
My first impression of Tao Feng: Fist of the Lotus was: this looks like another bland beat 'em up with nothing new to offer, and playing it will hurt my brain. That and 'why name a fighting game after a flower?'
Guess what? I was right. Well, almost.
Why a game like Fist of the Lotus can seem so polished on some levels - the graphics, in particular, are strong and the characters well animated - yet so boring and uninspired on others, really does boggle the mind. Innovation is harder than it sounds, sure, but why build a half-decent fighting engine only to waste it on a premise as terrible as this?
At its heart, Tao Feng is just like every other 3D beat-em up you've seen or played. Everything is in the right place. There are 12 characters to choose from, six belonging to the 'good' Pale Lotus clan, six to the evil Black Lotus clan. Bouts are fought in standard 3D arenas with the added bonus of destructible items and background furniture. There's a versus mode, a quest mode, a tournament mode, a team battle mode - you get the idea. In short, Fist of the Lotus has everything you would expect of a beat 'em up, and fans of the genre could slip into its gameplay like Rare into Microsoft's pocket.
It has everything, and yet nothing. Because while Tao Feng might have 12 characters to choose from, not one of those characters is any way appealing, unless you're one of those digital breast people. For a start, they all seem so similar. Sure, they're built slightly differently and strangely coloured, but they're all distinctly human. Where's the mystery, I cry. Where's the cool goddess theme of Sophita from Soul Calibur, or even the sheer style of characters as far back as Vega from Street Fighter II? Not here anyway, and I won't even start on Guilty Gear. Instead, the game seems to have become stuck in a 'real world' theme, therefore limiting any creative ideas the developers might have had about interesting fighters.
And while Tao Feng might have a variety of modes to get stuck into, none of them is worth getting stuck into. The versus mode is standard fare; pick two fighters and duke it out. The quest mode is particularly silly; you must fight your way through both clans, with every character against every character from the opposing clan, with a worthless story about gaining immortality thrown in for good measure. Survival mode is the same as always; kill as many fighters as possible without dying. And need I explain Team Battle?
Unfortunately, all this puts what is actually a passable fighting engine in a bad light. It may not have weaponry, or three different stances for its fighters, but it does provide for a reasonably deep beat 'em up. There are two buttons for punch and two for kick, plus a 'chi' button and a taunt button. Unlike, say Tekken, Fist of the Lotus focuses more on stringing together combos than on special moves, so in order to master the game you'll find yourself learning long lines of button combinations - but that's the case with most games of this type anyway. The problem with Lotus, once again, is that there's nothing much new going on. Pressing two buttons together will garner a throw; landing hits will build up your chi meter, which allows for pretty underwhelming specials; double-tapping up or down sidesteps; pressing R results in wall attacks; tapping back on the controller blocks - and so forth. We've seen it all before and, sadly enough, even right at the birth of the Xbox with the far more entertaining Dead or Alive 3.
In fairness, Tao Feng does attempt to veer (about .5cm) from the norm by doing away with round-based fights and instead uses a three health-bar system. This basically means that every time one of a fighter's three health bars are emptied, that 'round' is over and his next bar appears - but the other fighter's health remains the same. So essentially bouts are one long round with short animated breaks every time a fighter loses a third of their energy. It may not be useful, but it does add a little extra tension to a game that has less hooks than a fish sanctuary.
Also, the limb-damage system is an interesting idea. Excessive blocking or being thrown into walls can lead to an injured arm or leg, which in turn leads to a halving in the damage dished out by it. The left trigger can heal the limb when your chi bar is full, and this adds a welcome element of strategy to fights.
Notice the Lotus
If there's one area where Fist of the Lotus deserves a little credit, it's the visuals. The animation is generally good, though not on a par with Dead or Alive 3 and nowhere near Soul Calibur or Virtua Fighter 4. The textures are as crisp, clean affairs and some of the environment effects are very satisfying. One example is when a character called Exile (one of his boring catchphrases is "prepare… for pain") does his piledriver move on someone. As his opponent's head thuds into the ground, the floor's surface cracks open and leaves a large mark. Very satisfying indeed. Throw in the neat damage indicators - black eyes, bruises etc - and you have the game's best features.
In fact, Tao Feng is so easy on the eye visually that if you saw a demo of it running you might actually think it was going to impress you. But keep watching and, like a drunken rejection from a girl in a nightclub, it will quickly dawn on you that it's not going to happen. Like the gameplay, a solid base was never built upon and the end result is just boring.
So, who's going to want to buy this game? Well, the Xbox isn't exactly a haven for fighters at the moment, so any diehard fans of the beat 'em up genre will probably consider adding Tao Feng to their collection if the black box is their only console. But that doesn't necessarily mean Fist of the Lotus is worth a purchase. It does all the basics very well, yet doesn't bring enough originality to the arena. Add to that a selection of rubbish characters, boring backgrounds and sleep-inducing special moves and what appears to be a good fighter reveals itself as nothing more than average, and perhaps something less. Maybe if Soul Calibur 2 wasn't towering on the horizon Tao Feng might have fared better, but in a world of saturated genres, a lack of imagination is hard to forgive.
First impressions might be important, but lasting impressions are what count.