I stood at the top of a hill, following the clangs of metal that indicated a battle was taking place nearby. As I surveyed the rest of the battlefield, I noticed my partner, a female warrior called the Peacekeeper, dueling a Knight on a narrow wooden bridge. Decorum demanded that I stay back while they fight one-on-one, but she was rapidly losing the fight. The Knight’s partner, a warrior known as the Orochi, stared me down from the other side of the bridge, also observing decorum. The Knight cut down the Peacekeeper, leaving only me against the two opponents in front of me. I stepped forward, unsheathing my katana, and prepared to continue where my partner left off. The Orochi decided that decorum was no longer on the table and also joined the Knight on the bridge. After a few strong swipes and a reactionary parry, I took the head of the Knight and kicked the Orochi off the bridge to his death.
We won the round.
For Honor is a game made of moments like these. In an effort to capture the feel of weapon combat, Ubisoft created one of the most intense fighting games this generation, with a wrapper that finds a middle ground between Game of Thrones and Deadliest Warrior. You put yourself in the shoes of three factions—Samurai, Knights and Vikings—and pit the different character classes in each faction against each other. The game justifies the battles by establishing a war planet where these three factions have been battling for one thousand years, but this narrative backdrop is as pointless as it is completely ignorable.
What For Honor is primarily about, aside from honor, is the aforementioned weapon combat. Players clang together swords of all types, offering far more diversity among fighting styles than one would expect from a limited toolset. The combat works on a foundation of roshambo, though trying to play without strategy will not get combatants very far. If a fighter is not reading what their opponent is thinking, then they will quickly find themselves outmatched and outpaced.
All this kind of culminates in making the title inexplicably intimidating. While the execution barrier for fighting is not immediately insurmountable, players will very quickly plateau and will find it too difficult to experiment with other characters. They play differently enough that reaching that plateau again is a daunting task only to discover that their skill is not improving well enough. For players who dislike bashing their heads against opponents who seem to be reading their minds, For Honor’s multiplayer is a harsh lesson in humility.
There are options for players who do not wish to engage in competitive fighting with human opponents, but these options are fairly lacking. For Honor does have a single-player campaign, made up of a storyline for each faction that takes them through a fairly confusing plot with different characters. The levels themselves are primarily made from the multiplayer maps, rejiggered for a linear path to take out standard enemies who are decidedly far easier to read than humans. The single-player mode serves as a good tutorial for learning the fundamentals of each character, but it does not succeed at being worth the price of entry for anyone scared off of the multiplayer.
At that point, I have to wonder what makes For Honor different from other fighting games that have the similar criticisms levied against them. It is not that For Honor makes the same mistakes as, for example, Street Fighter V, but it ends up with many of the same consequences. For Honor happily teaches you about its mechanics before throwing you out into the cutthroat war dimension, but you still end up feeling unprepared, and only the strongest actually manage to have fun. The meritocracy of competitive gaming is not a problem that can be easily solved, but For Honor does not solve it any better than its contemporaries. This leaves it in a similar limbo that fighting games keep finding themselves in, where an initially enthusiastic audience falls out over time and inevitably the only fighters wandering the wastelands are the most talented and proficient killers.
This is a problem exasperated by For Honor’s matchmaking, which determines your skill by your most experienced fighter, regardless of who you are actually bringing into the fight. While this makes sense on paper, it provides a heavy disincentive to trying out other characters with whom you are not terribly familiar. For Honor seems to be made on the idea that it is okay to lose while getting better, which I personally do not disagree with, but can be frustrating for most players.
It is worth getting good at For Honor if you find yourself enjoying it. However, the game is asking a lot of you to reach the personal level where you can take real advantage of what it offers you. If you were someone who always felt intimidated by Street Fighter or other fighting games, For Honor’s first dozen or so hours will have you feeling like a warrior, exactly as the game intended. But keeping up with that feeling is increasingly difficult, and a lot of players will be left behind.
I ended up liking For Honor, far more than I expected to like it, in all honesty. I think, however, that I ended up liking it in spite of itself, and could feel the pushback more and more aggressively the longer I played it. It is an enjoyable game, and I have no qualms about calling it one of the best fighting games of this gen, but it does not solve the problems that keep the genre from being for everyone and, in some cases, accelerates those issues. Perhaps that is too heavy a burden for any game to carry, but I still find myself wishing For Honor were capable of it.
For Honor was developed by Ubisoft Montreal and published by Ubisoft. Our review is based on the PlayStation 4 version. It is also available for Xbox One and PC.
Imran Khan is a San Francisco-based writer that tweets @imranzomg.