Absolver isn't a fighting game and we should stop calling it that
Absolver, the newest game from Devolver Digital, has been out for a while now and just about everyone is calling it a fighting game. This is strange because Devolver themselves has purposefully avoided using the terminology “fighting game.” They call it a “multiplayer combat game” in official materials, and while pedants might say that “combat” and “fighting” are synonymous, the gameplay in Absolver is anything but synonymous with the gameplay found in a typical fighting game.
And I think this genre disconnect is part of what is holding Absolver back. Because when judged as a fighting game it’s not that impressive.
Why isn't Absolver a fighting game? After all, it’s a game whose main mechanic is fighting. It seems like it should qualify.
This brings us back to one of my favorite dead horses to beat: genre classification. And more specifically, why our genre classification for games is so messy.
Fighting games are more than just games with fighting
Yes, Absolver’s main mechanic is fighting, but you can say the same for games like God of War and Punch-Out and few would call either of these fighting games. Obviously there is something more than punching that qualifies a game to be part of the fighting game genre.
I’d wager that the heart of this genre lies in information and how players utilize it. Fighting games have been described by some of the best professional gamers as “high-speed chess.” Chess is a game that puts both players on relatively even ground at the start of a match and tasks them with using their set of tools (their pieces) better than the opponent’s set of tools. What the opponent can do is always known. There is no hidden information in Chess, just board states and individual strategies.
Fighting games are similar except the tools are your character’s move set instead of a set of pieces on a board. Once again there is no hidden information. Both players know exactly what their opponent is capable of at the start of any match. The goal is to be better at utilizing your tools (your moves) than the opponent is at utilizing theirs. Once again there are different game states and individual strategies, but nothing is hidden.
This is something that stays constant no matter how much a fighting game toys with the fighting game formula. Smash Bros. is a good example. It’s obviously an unconventional fighting game. It integrates platforming skills into the fighting game formula and utilizes knockback and lives instead of health bars. It’s as different from Street Fighter as you can get, yet the lack of hidden information stays constant. At the start of any match you are automatically aware of what your opponent can do. Their options are always known. You just have predict what option they will choose and prepare a suitable counter.
Smash does have some hidden information in the form of randomly generated items and stage hazards. These random elements can occur at any time and can heavily swing the match. So is no surprise that all of these elements are banned in competitive Smash play. They are banned to make Smash more of a fighting game and less of a party game.
An even better comparison would be Ubisoft’s For Honor. It, like Absolver, is a 3D over-the-shoulder game that uses stance-based combat. However, I would call For Honor a fighting game. Why? Because as soon as you see a character model in For Honor you know what that character is capable of. One again, matches come down to understanding what your opponent can do and successfully countering it.
Now that we have beaten that horse back into its grave, let’s talk Absolver.
Absolver is not a fighting game because it does have hidden information. In fact, its main mechanic is the ability to learn new moves and customize your combos. There is no way of knowing what combos or moves your opponent has access to. They could pull out a technique that you have never seen before and there is nothing you can do about it.
Of course this is also what makes Absolver fun. When you see someone use a new technique you want to block, parry, or dodge that technique so that you can use it yourself. It’s this watch-and-learn progression system that Absolver is designed around.
But in that way, Absolver has more in common with collectible card games than it does fighting games. Imagine a game of Hearthstone, Gwent, or Magic the Gathering with an opponent who suddenly uses some incredible combo to defeat you. This makes you want to obtain those cards for yourself to try out the combo. It’s part of why collectible cards games are collectible. Each opponent gives you more examples of decks you can build by collecting more cards. Even at high-level play when the best decklists in the meta are well and established, an interesting and unexpected tech choice can mean the difference between victory and defeat.
Absolver also has a lot more in common with RPGs than it does fighting games. The one common thread between games in the RPG genre is progression. Your character starts weak and eventually increases his stats and abilities until he becomes strong enough to tackle greater threats.
Absolver, too, is based around this style of progression. As I said before the process of observing and learning moves is what Absolver is designed around. It is its core mechanic and the reason why people play the game. It wouldn’t be the same game without it.
This is why I think Absolver has been getting a lukewarm reception. It’s being pushed to the wrong group. I can’t scratch that fighting game itch with Absolver. As a fighting game it feels random and unfair. I never know what move to use because I never know what moves my opponent will have. The best I can do is throw out a pretty good move of my own when it seems like my opponent is vulnerable, but there’s no guarantee I’ll have any success. I think assuming that fighting gamers would like Absolver due to its martial-arts focus fundamentally misunderstands what fighting games are about.
That’s not to say I didn’t like Absolver. I did like it, but I liked it as an RPG. And how can it be anything but an RPG? Aside from its progression system, half of the game is based on exploration and boss fights. The player-versus-player element is much smaller than you might imagine, at least smaller than it is in fighting games.
Pick up Absolver if you are looking for a new and innovative RPG with custom combo mechanics. If you are looking for a new fighting game, just wait until Marvel vs. Capcom Infinite comes out.