Tao Feng: Fist Of The Lotus is, in many ways, a breath of fresh air for the fighting genre. Since the days Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat sapped endless streams of coins from enthusiastic teenagers, fighting games have held to conventions that have changed little even as the arcade industry has slowly faded in the wake of the rapidly growing home console market. Tao Feng enters the fray with a list of bold-sounding claims: no more rounds, limb damage, real-time bruising and interactive environments. While it's more intriguing on paper than in practice, Tao Feng still demands attention for its forward-thinking design.
Designed by Mortal Kombat co-creator John Tobias, Tao Feng bears more than a few uncanny similarities to the arcade classic that made him famous. Unlike the slower, more deliberately paced Japanese games such as Soul Calibur and Virtua Fighter, Tao Feng is fast, bloody, and heavily offensive. Like Mortal Kombat, it is enshrouded in a story that pulls heavily from Chinese mythology. But Tobias had a more ambitious vision with Tao Feng than he or Ed Boon had with Mortal Kombat. Tobias recognized that the home console market mandated different design decisions than arcades. In the arcades, time limits were needed to keep lines moving; rounds had become a deeply ingrained convention and, with the exception of Killer Instinct, developers lacked the foresight to critique their value. Fighters could be beaten senseless, stabbed, or slashed and keep fighting like nothing happened. Lastly, the arenas often seemed flat and lifeless, despite often being easy on the eyes. Tobias wanted to do something new, something that would make his new game stand out from the sea of uninspired sequels and copycats that flood the market.
The first step was to get rid of rounds and time. Real fights don't have a neat, tidy structure, and time limits often allowed players to damage their opponent, then play "float like a butterfly" until time ran out. Second was to implement limb damage. Now, excessive blocking or damage incurred from being hurled into objects in the environment will weaken limbs. Lastly, Tobias wanted an open, interactive environment. Not only can characters be tossed around in a destructible environment to cause extra damage, but they can now attack off of walls and swing on poles. But despite all the talk, Tao Feng is not as innovative or even complete as it could have been; while it's founded on an impressive, easy-to-learn fighting system, not all of its ideas come to fruition in a way that truly progresses the genre.
Tao Feng gets big points for being based on a structure that is remarkably easy to learn and understand. While in past fighting games I might have spent days or even weeks learning a new character, most of Tao Feng's characters can be learned in about an hour thanks to the simple, intuitive structure of the moves and combos. Each character has a lead and trailing punch and kick, each mapped to one of the four face buttons (think Tekken). A close and reaching attack can be performed by adding an away or towards directional command, respectively. For each of the four basic attacks, the fighter has a short and long-form combo. During the fight, the fighter builds up a "Chi" meter that allows them to unleash one of three special attacks or heal a damaged limb. Add to it four jump combos, a running attack combo, two alternate stances (each with its own combo), a handful of intermittent moves (shin-kicks sweeps, throws, etc.), and you've got the fighter figured out. Each fighter uses the identical structure (with different combo sequences), so less time is spent learning moves and more time spent practicing their application—learning the nuances of counters, timing, and distance unique to each fighter.
The roster is made up of a motley crew of warriors (nearly 1:1 male and female, incidentally) with a nice variety of styles. The fighting is very fast and unforgivingly difficult even on lower difficulty settings. While it would be easy for a frustrated player to dismiss Tao Feng as a mindless exchange of hackneyed combos, such a judgment would be premature. Further practice, especially on the higher difficulties, reveals as solid an array of subtleties as any respectable fighter. The system was designed to be combo-based, and Tobias did a fine job with it—it's fluid, deep, and challenging. It lacks a well-developed grappling system, but has a brisk intensity to it that is a refreshing change from the gamut of Virtua Fighter-style games that dominate the genre.
But its innovations and fighting engine don't quite add up to the masterpiece it might have been. While deep and challenging, it nonetheless lacks the dynamic of its Japanese counterparts. More attention should have been given to stuns, fakes, reversals and the like, and the paltry three throws per fighter is barely adequate. Additionally, the wall and pole attacks, though certainly useful, are too simplistic to cause a dramatic change in the fighting dynamic. Even the limb damage is a bit limited: you can only damage arms or legs, weakening the strength of punches and kicks by 50%—not one arm or the other, not arms and legs at the same time.
Though it's not cohesive enough to best better fighting games such as Soul Calibur and Dead Or Alive 3 (though the comparison is admittedly apples and oranges), Tao Feng is still a step in the right direction. The fights are long and challenging, and the gameplay has an appeal all its own. With plenty of features, great graphics and sound and a surprisingly well-developed backdrop, Tao Feng's unique gameplay is a welcome step in the right direction. Tobias deserves credit for approaching his creation with a mind for innovation; with Tao Feng, he's created a solid foundation on which to build a better fighting game.