Brawlers haven’t seen as much moving and shaking as other genres in recent years. They seem to be mostly stuck in a phase of trying to recreate and perfect what came before, and not so much push things forward.
Punching, kicking, and grappling are easy to enjoy in most of them – but few really feel like they came out in our modern era, and fewer yet want you to be the star of your action movie quite like Midnight Fight Express.
I’ve had my eye on Midnight Fight Express since before it even had an official title. Back in the beginning, solo developer Jacob Dzwinel would share brief GIFs of cool stunts and beat-downs, and everyone would lose their minds. I remained skeptical; many games look sharp in carefully-edited trailers, and anyone good enough at a game’s combat can produce gold.
It wasn’t until I got my hands on it that it all clicked. This really is all it was made out to be.
Midnight Fight Express is a classic arcade brawler at heart, but one that simply wouldn’t have been possible back in the era of the classics. It’s also a game that takes the strides the medium has made since into its core design, creating a rare mix of old-school cool and modern jewel.
Before you lay down the law with your fists, the first thing you’ll notice is how short the game’s levels are. Lasting anywhere from three to 11 or 15 minutes, they are designed to be replayed to perfection. Your first time through is more of a trial run; a rehearsal where you’re meant to explore what you’re up against and formulate a strategy.
The game recognises this, leaving you to worry about most challenges and secrets until the next dozen or so times you’ll be reattempting the same level. As soon as you finish a level, your performance is rated, and the game is all too happy to list everything you missed (and the cool moves you weren’t smart enough to think of in the moment). It’s goading you to restart and do better, even before you have time to think about looking at what's next. Your score, time, and leaderboard ranking are all tracked – logged, waiting for you to do better.
Within the levels themselves, you can restart with the hit of a button, so if you mess something up, or lose your only chance of taking down that one enemy in the specific way the challenge said you should, you can immediately get back in it.
There are 40 levels in Midnight Fight Express, which mostly sit around the same length. You can quite easily get through them without a lot of friction. There are set difficulty levels you can choose from, or you customise it to your specific needs. You have control of enemy aggression, your own starting health (and regeneration), HUD attack indicators, and even whether you re-spawn at the last checkpoint upon death or start the level over.
It took me a while to realise that the point isn’t to finish the game – it’s to do it with style. Even on the more challenging difficulties (I played on Hard), I could brute force my way through levels. It’s only when bosses and certain types of enemies joined that it became a challenge. The rest of the time, you’re given enough opportunity to pull off something cool right in the moment. Higher difficulties only really up the pressure.
Upon finishing a level, you’ll unlock a skill point, and a bit of cash. Skill points can be spent in any one of six different trees that offer paths to new moves, tweaks to parrying and countering, expanded finishers, a gun you can pull out once every few seconds – and a rope to help you live off your best Scorpion life.
The whole thing is easy to understand, and you’ll get to unlock all of them by the end of the game; you won’t be spending a lot of time trying to figure out how to get what you need. You’re always guaranteed a skill point the first time you finish a level, and you can easily assign or take off a move from the same place. It’s intuitive enough, though it may disappoint those who were looking for something deeper.
The goal is clearly for you to create your version of a cool tough guy. For me, that leaned more heavily on finishers, for someone else that could be grabs and disarms. It’s all very attainable.
Level design can sometimes get in the way of making you feel cool, though. Fighting in corners is often tricky; the game doesn’t remove occluding walls so you’ll be left guessing from reading enemy silhouettes and your own.
Any cash that you earn can be used to influence your tough guy persona, though: it is spent entirely on cosmetics. Things like gloves, hats, boots, shirts and pants. There are so many to choose from in every category, and the cooler ones are locked behind certain challenges. You can also dress up as some of the enemies you come across, which can be funny/disorienting.
I’ve actually found the customisation feature to have a slight effect on gameplay, too. Later in the game, the number of enemies throwing themselves (and other objects) at you can be a bit much. Having a colour scheme you can clearly and quickly identify in the midst of the chaos allowed me to react just that little bit faster.
One of my favourite things to discover in Midnight Fight Express was seeing which new sandbox the game was going to throw me into next. There’s definitely an element of style and aesthetic behind those choices. Who amongst us hasn’t pictured themselves delivering justice in a crowded bar, a construction site, on the rooftops of a shanty town, on a moving train, or in a public toilet.
You’ll constantly be surprised what neat new gimmick will be thrown at you next. One level, for instance, takes place in an underground subway tunnel with running trains. You need to watch out for them, but you could also time it just right to put the bulk of your attackers in their path for a nice and satisfying multi-kill.
In between the standard brawler levels are the game’s weakest offerings. The chase missions often overstay their welcome, even if it’s fun to see what scenario the game has set up for you. You typically have limited control, usually shooting from a moving boat/motorbike etc., and there isn’t usually enough room to manoeuvre. Some of those levels had me on the verge of lowering the difficulty just to get through them. It’s a nice spectacle to witness, but not so much be part of.
The regular brawler levels are full of things to throw at delinquents, and wield against them as weapons. They won’t hesitate to do the same to you, particularly with cardboard boxes. Melee weapons typically have limited durability, so you can’t rely on them often.
You pretty much have access to all the same tools your enemies do. If you feel at a disadvantage, you can always go for a disarm, or overwhelm the wielder enough that they have to drop it. Even the more lethal options – effectively what makes certain enemies more threatening – can be picked up and used. A hammer, for instance, can make a normal thug more dangerous because of its wider attack range and heavy hits. If you don’t leave that maniac to the end, you can prioritise them and use their weapon against everyone else.
If there’s one tool I feel the game could’ve done without, it would be guns. The difficulty is such that whenever they’re introduced, the scales are thrown out of whack. You might decide to take out the gun-toting bozo first, at which point you’ll end up with a weapon that’s too good to pass up. Even if only a few bullets are left, they’re usually enough to eliminate two or three enemies with ease.
The gun that you can equip as a secondary has a long cooldown, and only lets you fire one shot at a time. That really could’ve been it, but the reality is that you’re likely to run into at least one person carrying a pistol, shotgun, or sniper rifle in almost every level in the mid-to-late game.
The game’s last third is particularly frustrating because of it, with more enemies with firearms than not. I understand the constant need to escalate in order to keep up with your growing power, but I wasn’t expecting to be dodging bullets and laser pointers in a brawler quite to the same degree.
The action flows really well in Midnight Fight Express. The game’s motion-captured moves, physics-based objects, and interactable environments all contribute to that feeling. The game isn’t very consistent with what is and isn’t destructible, though, and guessing wrong could leave you stuck and ruin the moment. Depending on their height, you can punch over certain objects, such as tables, but the overhead perspective makes it hard to judge. This disruption didn't happen often, but when it did, it felt like a wrench being thrown into the machine.
I would’ve also liked to see more invincibility added to some of the longer moves. There’s certainly a tactical element in forcing you to pick the right moment to do a finisher, but the game is usually going for cool over tact, and being punched out of your elaborate move doesn’t feel good.
The one true flow-ruiner, however, is dialogue. There isn’t any voice acting in the game, so you’re going to be reading a lot of dialogue.
There are too many of these damn speech bubbles everywhere. I could stomach them in the interrogation room where the bulk of the story is told, but when you’re eager to have your knuckles meet the cheekbones of some scumbag, the last thing you want is to read. Your companion drone, controlled by a mysterious hacker, usually has a lot to say, and it can get tiresome.
It doesn’t help that you have to press a button to advance every paragraph. I know hiring professional actors isn’t cheap, but so much of the banter and background chatter would’ve landed much better when spoken as you run around and get into fights, rather than bringing everything to a complete stop.
Until the moment it took a weird left turn, the story was fairly predictable – which is another reason I wanted to button through it and get to the smacking. I didn’t find it to be very engaging, beyond a few instances of referential comedy, callbacks to movie quotes/other games, and less-than-subtle political commentary.
It’s admittedly not a major problem, all things considered. If you are curious about the protagonist’s backstory and his place in the bigger picture, you’ll come across NPCs in many of the missions who have a line or two about your past life. You’re incentivised to seek them out to up your overall rating, and to get that a little bit of context about the events.
Going back to Midnight Fight Express’ original claim to fame – all those GIFs – you can tell the developer wanted that element of the game to factor into the experience beyond its initial Twitter marketing potential.
At the end of every level, the game picks the coolest few seconds and lets you save them as GIF. This was definitely a good decision, but their quality and resolution are lacking. I wish there was a way to browse other people’s GIFs in-game, but as it stands, you’d be better served using your console or PC’s built-in instant capture instead.
It’s easy to recommend Midnight Fight Express. For one thing, it’ll launch into Game Pass on the day of its release, August 23. But even if Game Pass wasn’t a factor, it would still be worth buying for just how cool it makes you feel, how good it looks in motion – and best of all: how it allows both of those feelings to be accessible to most players.
Version tested: PC. Code provided by publisher. Game also available on PS4, and Xbox One, with Switch out in September.