Midnight Fight Express is far more than the sum of its parts. Were it just a somewhat technically impressive beat-em-up with a treasure trove of references, knock-offs, homages and even some rare moments of true knee-bending reverence to action cinema, especially ones from the ‘80s and ‘90s, it wouldn’t have held my attention from start to finish.
What begins as an apparent nod to (or parody of) any given back-alley, neon-lit action movie starring a long-haired merc tonally shifts half a dozen times in the remaining 35-or-so levels. The colorful lighting quickly fades into a pale yellow streetlight, then firelight, the dull white fluorescent light of an office, and then flashlights affixed to an enemy’s shotgun before a rising sun washes the chaos in a brand new day.
In just a single scenery or lighting change, your victims will change at least three—no four—times. In the course of a six-or-so hour rampage through The City of Tomorrow, you’ll exchange bullets and blows with Russian Mobsters, cops (the game calls them Corrupt Bastards), leather daddies, SWAT teams, zombies, street gangs, game developers and even a couple cartoonish scientists.
This doesn’t result in tonal shifts or inconsistencies, but it does help keep the often lackluster writing from getting stale or registering with the player. Voices change, but the timbre remains the same; this is either an unabashed, sloppy, wet kiss in the form of a love letter to action movies’ past that haphazardly plunks in references, or a written-by-Reddit attempt at an Archer-like take on the action movie starring a Willis, Washington, Schwarzenegger or Stallone.
Of course, this game was developed by a one-man Polish studio and published by a relatively small team, so mileage may vary based on the language you play the game in. Unfortunately, most of the game’s current English translation didn’t land. It’s not a dealbreaker, as you won’t miss any vital gameplay elements if you just mash your way through the story’s twists, turns, mustache-twirling villain monologues and occasional gags.
The overall story arc seems decidedly hellbent on creating an unreliable narrator (for some fun story reasons I won’t spoil) and in doing so, it can feel unfocused. That also allows the protagonist, Babyface—an (almost) wordless, faceless player insert who carries all the deadliness of your favorite bygone action heroes rolled into one—show off what he can do.
One night, Babyface is greeted by a package at his door. Inside is a talking drone that tells him he’s a sleeper agent whose memory’s been altered. The drone, named Droney—which is apt not because it’s a drone, but because of how much it talks—guides you through the City of Tomorrow, as you peel away layer upon layer of bizarre conspiracy. As you tear through the criminal organization, you’ll quickly discover that the city’s wealthy, philanthropic capitalist overlord who “just wants peace and order” is the mastermind behind the entire thing.
Like a classic pulpy action movie, the story’s just a connective tissue keeping Babyface’s fists, kicks and bullets trained on deserving street thugs and cops. And it’s a good thing it does. Midnight Fight Express’ most impressive feature is its deep, detailed combat. Brought to life with dozens of animations captured from an experienced stunt team, each blow feels believable and satisfying.
These animations do so much to make Midnight Fight Express’ combat sing. At first, you’re given only a handful of moves, really just a couple different attacks that can form some basic combos, but you don’t get many options until you’re nearly halfway through the game depending on how you level your skill tree. I wish there was a little more available to start with, as the lack of variety in the early game made me expect the remaining 35 or so levels to feel like a neon-washed mudslide, lacking flair or depth. My concerns were largely assuaged, but far too late into the game. Sure, that leaves room to encourage players to revisit levels with more combat abilities and try to climb the game’s score and time-based leaderboards, but it also makes the journey to unlock some new moves a slog.
It doesn’t help that its grading system (a standard F through S-rank way to gauge your performance) can feel arbitrary at times, especially when there are fewer options at your disposal. The fact that you’re partially graded on kill diversity, for example, really hammers that point home. Thankfully, your letter grade is given to you next to an actual numerical score and various other statistics, making it easier to track where you might’ve gone wrong.
While the end-of-level scoring system isn’t the best, Midnight Fight Express does record a GIF of your best segment of gameplay (think of it like Overwatch’s play of the game feature) and allows you to save a gif of you cracking skulls and taking names. It’s not just for bragging rights, either; looking back at a John Wick-perfect skirmish as your S-rank letter grade beams at you is rewarding beyond just a number. In fact, the GIF feature is the biggest thing I hope other action games and beat-em-ups take away from this game.
Unfortunately, Midnight Fight Express has more things to learn from other games in its genre than its counterparts can learn from it. From TMNT games to Bayonetta to Castle Crashers, the beat-em-up genre boasts some of videogames’ best boss fights. While there are bosses in Express, they tend to range from anticlimactic brawls against baddies with bloated health bars, to downright frustrating sequences with one-shot-kill attacks that you can’t always see coming. Sometimes they’re both. It also doesn’t help that nearly every boss fight in the game throws wave after wave of goons at you. This doesn’t just cause boss fights to drag, but it can also distract the camera from a potentially devastating attack from the boss.
This also highlights a major flaw with the game’s combat. A few levels into Midnight Fight Express you’ll unlock finishers and parries, which allow you to finish off enemies and avoid taking some serious damage, respectively, as long as you can follow a quick button prompt flashing over an enemy. Nailing this in time lets you pull off some stylishly animated strikes. The problem is, these bits can be interrupted, sometimes by one-shot-kill moves from a boss.
The game doesn’t just encourage you to use finishers, but it actively requires you to do them if you want to get a good score. In a normal fight, an unavoidable, combo-breaking, high-score-run-toppling interruption is annoying, but not the end of the world. In a boss fight, it could mean instant death.
On dying, you’re only put back to a checkpoint or beginning of a scuffle, but sometimes this means you need to sit through occasionally unskippable segments of dialogue and cinematics. This would be frustrating in any game. In a game where levels only last about five minutes, you might end up re-reading the same lines for longer amounts of time than you spent playing the level if you’re dealing with a particularly pesky opponent. That would get old with any game, but especially with one whose writing is as flat as Midnight Fight Express’s.
Midnight Fight Express brings so much to the table. From kinetic combat to the occasional fun Easter egg, it gets so much about the genre right. Unfortunately, the game severely lags in the elements that most other games in the genre get right. If you’ve already burned through Sifu, TMNT: Shredder’s Revenge, and Streets of Rage 4 and want another action game to tide you over until Bayonetta 3, Midnight Fight Express’ richly-animated brawls will satisfy, though probably not as much as those before or after. However, if you’re looking for over-the-top action that toes the line with comedy, interspersed with cheesy dialogue and twists pulled from an old pulp thriller, you owe it to yourself to play Midnight Fight Express.
Midnight Fight Express was developed by Jacob Dzwinel and published by Humble Games. Our review is based on the PC version. It is also available for Xbox One and PlayStation 4.
Charlie Wacholz is a freelance writer and college student. When he’s not playing the latest and greatest indie games, competing in Smash tournaments or working on a new cocktail recipe, you can find him on Twitter at @chas_mke.