June 2022 was a momentous month for fans of beat ’em up games, with back-to-back releases of two highly anticipated titles: TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES: SHREDDER’S REVENGE, and FINAL VENDETTA. While TMNT is understandably getting the lion’s share of attention (and it is a pretty great game!), I’ve found myself far more captivated by FINAL VENDETTA.
Bitmap Bureau’s latest game is a rare modern beat ’em up that’s very explicitly – uncompromisingly, even – designed like a classic arcade game. Lots of games claim to be, but I’ve been very impressed with how well FINAL VENDETTA lives up to this ideal. It’s well paced, controls great, and has a finely tuned and engaging level of challenge.
Overall I’ve really enjoyed the game – I’d say it’s up there with STREETS OF RAGE 4 as a favourite of the genre in recent memory – but it’s not perfect. Here’s my analysis of what I think makes FINAL VENDETTA such a great game – and where I think it’s got some room for improvement.
What it gets right
Combat mechanics and game feel
The heart and soul of any arcade action game is how it feels and controls, and thankfully this is something that FINAL VENDETTA gets right. Upon first touch, it’s immediately responsive, and moving the character around the screen feels good. Punching is snappy, landing hits is satisfying, grabbing and throwing (mostly) works just like you’d expect – simply put, Bitmap Bureau clearly set out to emulate the feel of classic arcade beat ’em ups, and they really nailed it.
Pushing buttons feeling good is a great start, but obviously there’s a lot more to a good beat ’em up than that. FINAL VENDETTA feels closely modelled after FINAL FIGHT (albeit with plenty of significant differences), and although none of the player characters, enemies or bosses are direct analogues, the overall feel is very similar. Enemies are incredibly lethal and can absolutely destroy you in a split second – especially in a group – but the game gives you the tools to deal with it.
Any of the player characters can basically kill almost any enemy in the game in a single combo, and even bosses can be dealt with rather quickly – but it requires careful timing and positioning to set up. Like many modern beat ’em ups FINAL VENDETTA features a pretty open-ended juggle system, and stringing together your character’s various moves into big damage combos feels really good! On the flipside, the enemies’ ability to juggle you adds an extra layer of strategy; you really have to take into account (and counteract) not just how each individual enemy is going after you, but how their different attack patterns might work together.
Much like FINAL FIGHT, you’re constantly balancing on a razor’s edge where the slightest mistake or miscalculation can spell instant doom, and that tension is incredibly exhilarating! It’s easy to make a difficult game, but FINAL VENDETTA manages to beautifully thread the needle of presenting a tough challenge that seems almost completely unfair at first – but with just a tiny amount of practice starts feeling very well balanced. Even when you reach a level of skill and confidence to comfortably beat the game, the constant threat means you can never quite go into auto-pilot, and the game remains engaging from beginning to end.
Fun and distinct player characters
Playing FINAL VENDETTA over the past week or two since release has been a lot of fun – and one aspect I’ve found especially enjoyable has been exploring the three player characters and what they have to offer. Considering how old-school the game feels in general (as well as the game refraining from telling you about a lot of it), I was quite surprised to discover the range of different moves with each character – not to mention the ways some of them can be strung together.
The game uses four buttons, it’s a little bit clunky in places, but not completely unjustified in that a lot of different button combinations result in different attacks. The three characters broadly use the same commands; they may have one or two things the others can’t do, but they don’t fundamentally control or behave differently: they each have a basic combo, jump attacks, front and rear grapples, special attacks and so on. But there are enough differences in the behaviour of each of these moves that ultimately the characters end up playing pretty differently.
Duke is the ‘standard’ character… or at least he comes across as being meant that way – in practice, due to a combination of bugs and design choices he is an absolute offensive powerhouse with absurd juggle combos. Even with the inevitable nerfs he’s likely to receive though, he still feels like the easiest character to use – he still gets great damage output without having many big weaknesses.
Miller was the second character I started learning after beating the game with Duke – my first impression was that he was slow, awkward, hard to use and ultimately just not nearly as fun. However, the character really started coming into his own once I figured out how to achieve bigger combos! I do wish he had more than the backbreaker and the elbow drop to give him more of a pro wrestler flavour though – he really feels like he’s missing an equivalent to Haggar’s pile driver. Granted, the elbow drop is a very cool mechanic, and his ability to stunlock enemies by looping elbow drops on downed opponent gives him a unique advantage – but in the end he still feels hardest to use of the trio, and a lot of the joy of using Miller comes down to the challenge of overcoming his deficiencies.
Claire stands in stark contrast to Miller – in the initial release version of the game anyway, she has more limited abilities to cancel her moves and launch enemies into juggle combos than either Duke or Miller, but she also has more obvious strengths to offset her weaknesses. She’s the “speed” type character, and not only does she have the fastest walking speed, she also has instant, very far-reaching jabs. These two things combined means that despite technically having the same kinds of moves, she gets to employ strategies that Miller (and to a lesser extent Duke) simply can’t, given her much stronger ability to interrupt enemy offense, as well as going in for quick grabs.
I definitely wouldn’t say the characters are evenly balanced – but what’s more important is that each of them has a set of abilities that are fun to use. Similarly, your choice of character will affect not only the level of challenge, but also the flavour of the challenge. I’m curious to see how upcoming balance patches will change things, but I certainly hope the game manages to maintain this aspect.
Naturally, a key factor in making the combat fun and engaging is actually having someone compelling to fight – and this might just be the area where FINAL VENDETTA impressed me the most. I think greater efforts could perhaps have been made to make some of the enemy types more visually distinct, but in terms of their patterns and behaviours, they’re designed beautifully.
The various enemy types all have their own approaches to movement, attacking and defense; every one of them is capable of being a threat, but they also all have weaknesses to be exploited. What really struck me is how well the game manages to naturally telegraph this information – if you pay a bit of attention the enemies are consistent and predictable enough, and it doesn’t take a ton of experimentation to start figuring out reasonably effective ways to approach them.
Crucially, the enemies are also distinct in specific ways; it’s not just a matter of some having faster walking speed, longer range, or more health. A lot of them have some form of movement and/or attack that’s completely unique, and they tend to have particular angles or distances they like to attack from. Some are safest to rush down before they can get anything going, others you might be better off blocking their initial attack and punishing its recovery.
What it all boils down to is that no one approach is going to work for every enemy type, and once you have to fight 3 or 4 different enemies at once, things can start getting really intense. Most of the time, the predictable nature of the enemy patterns means that once you start recognising them, getting hit rarely feels unfair – but because you have to stay several steps ahead to avoid putting yourself in danger, just knowing how to deal with each enemy isn’t enough; you have to actually execute, and that can be a lot easier said than done.
There are a couple of enemy archetypes or gimmicks that commonly appear in beat ’em ups but are notably absent in FINAL VENDETTA. For instance there aren’t really any grappler enemies (be it the big wrestler or sneaky ninja variety), nor enemies that completely negate specific moves or mechanics (ie can’t be grabbed, lands on their feet when thrown, etc). The latter can be very annoying when done carelessly, but I do think there’s significant room to still explore in terms of enemies that could create even more interesting combat scenarios. FINAL VENDETTA is by no means lacking in this area – but it’s exciting to ponder how the development team might push things even further in a potential sequel.
Pacing and encounter design
Anyone who’s familiar with my previous writings, or has heard me rambling about game design on my Twitch stream will know that I make a big deal about pacing in games – and that poor pacing is a problem that plagues a lot of beat ’em ups. Bitmap Bureau themselves don’t have a spotless track record for that matter, considering XENO CRISIS can get a bit long in the tooth and BATTLE AXE is a little bit uneven.
With that in mind, I was genuinely impressed that FINAL VENDETTA not only feels like the most mechanically sound and well-paced of Bitmap Bureau’s games, but that the pacing even stacks up quite well against arcade classics of the genre! It isn’t perfect – I can think of a few things I would’ve liked to see to spice things up a little – but it doesn’t commit any major sins, and that’s frankly more than I can say for almost any modern beat ’em up I can think of.
FINAL VENDETTA consists of 6 stages (plus a brief bonus stage) with a nice gradual increase in difficulty, and not a single one ever outstays its welcome. The stages rarely mix things up much in terms of gimmicks, and they don’t feel that different – for example there aren’t really any sections with a lot of pits or platforming, unusually narrow or wide belts, or even much variety in terms of room size and length (most levels consist of a single continuous area until the boss, who always get their own single-screen boss room).
Despite this however, the variety and structure of enemy encounters means that fighting also never feels samey – from stage to stage, or within the same one. The game mixes up enemy types right off the bat, enemy health values are mercifully low, and enemy spawns are spaced and staggered such that you pretty much constantly get to move forward at a brisk pace. Yet, encounters are sufficiently distinct to be memorable – and memorisable!
While I think there’s plenty that could be improved about FINAL VENDETTA’s presentation, one aspect that absolutely does deserve highlighting is all the different ways enemies spawn – in my opinion an unsung hero when it comes to avoiding that dreaded sense of repetitiveness that (bad) beat ’em ups are infamous for. Enemies will walk in from the background, bust through doors and windows, stand up from chairs and benches, somersault over ledges, hang out dancing, or even nap on the ground until you show up.
All these ways for enemies to show up makes a huge difference – it allows even back-to-back encounters with the same enemy types to immediately feel distinct from one another, because they all kick off in a different way. If a tight development budget put limitations on where Bitmap Bureau were able to add a bit of visual flourish, a few of these extra animations were absolutely money well spent.
Music and sound design
While it’s not something I would necessarily say could make or break the game on its own, audio is a huge part of any game’s presentation, and in FINAL VENDETTA’s case it’s the one part I have absolutely no complaints about. The soundtrack from Featurecast and Utah Saints boasts a sweet mix of nostalgic club sounds; hip hop, house, jungle, techno, drum & bass – reminiscent of, but distinctly separate from STREETS OF RAGE, with a tinge of FINAL FIGHT’s rougher edge.
I haven’t listened much to the music outside of the game (yet), but in its context it really is great – it’s immediately catchy and brings a lot of energy and excitement to the game! The mix of genres is also well executed; it helps bring a bit of unique flavour to each of the stages and their boss fights, but it never feels disparate or incoherent. With some of the game’s visuals being a bit on the bland side, the strong and vibrant soundtrack pulls a lot of the weight as far as infusing FINAL VENDETTA with style and personality.
It’s not just the soundtrack that’s great though – the rest of the sound design absolutely delivers as well. Combat feels nice and chunky, breaking stuff is satisfying, and picking up items produces an, um, “familiar yet legally distinct” sound cue, let’s call it. It’s all good stuff!
Another thing I’d really like to highlight (and something I certainly wouldn’t have expected), is the voice over. True to its 90s arcade roots, FINAL VENDETTA does not have a ton of voice acting – none of the dialogue is voiced (what little there is) – but what is there makes a great splash. You get your standard grunts and yells (and they’re all quite good), but the player characters and bosses especially get a few more barks and callouts, which frankly adds a ton of personality. The Gentleman looks a bit stupid, but his hokey Ric Flair impression makes him pretty endearing! And hearing Miller or Duke yell insults at a barrel or wooden crate they just destroyed will never stop being funny (in the best possible way!).
Where it misses the mark
Character design, art and animation
The one thing that really struck me when FINAL VENDETTA was first revealed – and that I sadly have not been able to come around on in the time since – is that I really don’t much care for the game’s character design. The execution in the actual in-game graphics are partially at fault for this as well, but at its core I just feel that the character designs are simply lacking in, well, character.
FINAL VENDETTA is a love letter to games like FINAL FIGHT, STREETS OF RAGE, DOUBLE DRAGON and CRIME FIGHTERS 2 – and from a game design standpoint it does an excellent job of pulling from all these sources to create something uniquely interesting and satisfying – but when it comes to aesthetics I feel like it’s mostly just ticking off a checklist of what “should” be there, and little more. If you drew a Venn diagram charting visual design elements of all those games that influenced it, it feels like 90% of what’s going on in FINAL VENDETTA is safely nested within the area where all of them overlap, with very few idiosyncrasies or twists of its own.
Most of the enemies are wearing very generic fashions – lots of vests, t-shirts, jeans and cargo pants. Sure, most classic beat ’em ups will have at least some generic hoodlums, but once you go beyond the most basic thugs, enemies tend to get more visually extravagant as they get more dangerous. FINAL VENDETTA’s bosses fair a little better in this regard, but as far as recurring enemies go, it never makes any big swings, and Syndic-8 is undeniably a lot more boring than the Black Warriors, Mad Gear or most other beat ’em up gangs. Not a single clown, ninja, pro wrestler, acrobat, robot or kung fu master anywhere in sight!
Credit where it’s due – Vixen, Liu and (to a lesser extent) Axl break away a bit from the generic mold, and as a result they are far more memorable than anybody else. Vixen especially not only has an outfit that makes her seem like something more than just a normal person wearing normal clothes, she also gets some fun animations of dancing and sitting down enjoying a drink – these little details add a huge amount of personality!
Although it’s something I’ve seen the game receive a lot of praise for, I must admit that I’m not the biggest fan of the character pixel art. It’s definitely not terrible, and there are plenty of aspects and touches I genuinely like, but on the whole I have two major gripes: the derivative nature of the fake KOF art style, and the inconsistent quality of the animation. The character sprites are clearly intended to mimic the look of classic KING OF FIGHTERS games, but they exhibit a lot of odd quirks like oversized heads, stumpy legs, flat-looking hair, etc. It’s not that the sprites look awful or anything – the direct riff on KOF’s style just invites a very unflattering comparison, and once again FINAL VENDETTA comes across as a bit of a knockoff with little of its own to set it apart.
The animation I also have some issues with. There’s certainly a lot of it – but a lot of animation doesn’t equal great animation. In fact, there are cases where the overly smooth motion makes certain actions a lot less snappy and impactful than they could be, and perhaps most egregiously, weapon attacks having so much wind-up that they end up nearly useless (thankfully, this is being addressed in the game’s first post-release patch). The bigger issue for me however is that for a lot of animation the key poses just aren’t that strong or expressive – and this issue is arguably even exacerbated by the high number of in-between frames, further muddying the characters’ motions. Even here I think the derivative style hurts the game; while FINAL VENDETTA’s animation is not bad, KOF provides a clear example of how you could achieve more with less.
Environments and visual identity
Much of the criticism I have towards the character design I would also echo when it comes to the environments. Unlike the characters I do think the pixel art for the backgrounds is uniformly excellent, and I have no qualms with the technical execution of them – but the locations themselves feel generic, and even a bit boring. You get city streets, a subway station, another subway station with an underground elevator, a harbor, a nightclub, and finally the grounds and interior of the big bad’s mansion. The latter stages are easily my favourite; the nightclub in particular is by far the nicest looking stage, but the intensity and challenge of the combat towards the end of the game helps make the stages feel a bit more memorable as well.
Ultimately though, the stages for the most part feel like rather generic – if well-drawn – versions of the types of location you would expect from a beat ’em up. Although I admittedly wouldn’t know how I’d expect (or want) it to be done, I’m also a little disappointed that the game doesn’t do more with it’s British setting. I suppose the music arguably has a European vibe to it, but aside from the subway being The Underground, and one of the weapons being a cricket bat (an excellent touch!), there’s not much in the game’s visuals that would have me guess that the game’s actually set in the UK – a shame considering how novel the setting could’ve made the game.
Lacklustre narrative and world building
Another area where I feel FINAL VENDETTA fails to live up to the games that inspired it is in the world building and storytelling. Clearly an arcade beat ’em up doesn’t need extensive dialogue scenes or narration – but aside from limiting its very brief writing to the attract mode and ending (which is completely fine), FINAL VENDETTA also doesn’t do much visual storytelling to make up for it either. You never really learn anything about the villainous Syndic-8, who the bosses are or how they relate to the stages, how the characters get from one place to the next, or for that matter why.
Again, I’m not specifically advocating for cut scenes or cinematics between stages – some games like like BARE KNUCKLE 3, THE PUNISHER or the PC Engine DOUBLE DRAGON II make that work well, but even a single dialogue box can ruin the pacing of a game if executed poorly. What I’m talking about is any kind of connective tissue tying scenes and stages together, bosses making cameo appearances before their fights, map screens showing the player’s progression – just something to reinforce the narrative as anything more than just dudes punching each other in a series of disconnected locations and then there’s a final boss.
Even if you look at the most narratively slim beat ’em ups of yore, a lot of them employ a variety of methods to ground the game to some kind of story, or at the very least make the journey feel cohesive and connected in some fashion. On the surface of it, STREETS OF RAGE 2 is a game you could target with a lot of these same critiques, but there’s a few critical reasons why I never felt the same way about that game. For instance:
- The opening shows Mr. X and gives some kind of background on the Syndicate, instantly providing some sense of what the climax of the game will be
- Different scenes in levels feel believably connected, and the game shows the characters entering or exiting buildings, going through doorways or otherwise getting from scene to scene
- Bosses like Barbon, Jet and Shiva get brief but very cool introductions giving the fights a lot of flavour and grounding the characters in the world
- Even the stages and bosses that don’t get that level of grounding are cool and/or outlandish enough to be compelling on their own
FINAL FIGHT and DOUBLE DRAGON are other good examples of games that provide just enough storytelling within the game itself, even if you skip past the attract mode introductions – we get to see upcoming bosses make off with the hero’s girlfriend at the start of the game, and throughout the game it’s made unambiguously clear how each stage connects to the next.
By comparison, FINAL VENDETTA’s stages feel pretty disconnected, but more importantly the flow within each stage feels clunky, with boss fights feeling almost a bit tacked on. What’s even weirder is that the first stage is actually presented quite well, making the inconsistency of the other stages stick out even more. Stage 1 has a nice little introduction showing the player characters coming out of a garage door, and after fighting their way through a few city blocks the scene ends with the player being guided to enter a building – once they do the screen fades through black to an interior scene; a dingy little bar where they’re introduced to Big Frank, the first boss.
Stage 2 starts inside a subway train, and at some point – suddenly and without warning – the screen fades out, then shows the train pulling up to a station as the player character exits the train to continue fighting. So far, so good – mostly – but those sudden screen transitions continue through the rest of the game, and get increasingly jarring. Immediately following even, the train platform scene ends just as abruptly as the previous one, and then all of a sudden the player is back inside a train? The second boss Diesel gets a pretty sweet introduction where he tears off the doors to enter the train – but it’s undercut both by the disorienting transition to the boss scene, and the cool animation literally being covered up by the name tag introducing the boss. The flow of it is just… off.
Jumping kinda sucks
One of the very few gameplay-related complaints I have with FINAL VENDETTA is that jumping – and perhaps more relevant, jumping attacks – leaves a lot to be desired. Thankfully, the game doesn’t have ill-advised platforming sections that require precise jumping, but the fact that jumping and jump attacks are awkward if not useless in combat is a big enough problem of its own. In most beat ’em ups, jump attacks provide a relatively safe and quick way to clear crowds and create breathing room, with the trade off being low damage. FINAL VENDETTA however makes this a highly questionable option, for a few reasons.
Firstly, jump attacks have a height restriction, meaning you have to travel a fair bit into the air before you’re allowed to perform a jump attack. This makes it impossible to do quick jump attacks, giving enemies a chance to retaliate, but if you try to do an instant jump attack (which is generally how you would use them in a game like FINAL FIGHT), the game will just eat your attack input and you simply get an empty jump.
Secondly, with the enemies’ uncanny ability to hit you out of the air – and juggle you for huge, inescapable damage – being airborne simply is a liability, no matter what. Sure, jump attacks shouldn’t be the answer to everything, and having some enemies consistently anti-air the player is a great way to set them apart, but FINAL VENDETTA sort of flips this on its head where jump attacks are almost never a great option, and the punishment for trying it is often very severe.
In a sort of defense, it could be argued that the crowd control utility usually associated with jump attacks is covered by some of the other moves – and yeah, my complaint isn’t necessarily that you lack the ability to deal with crowds. But the way jumping works, it doesn’t seem to have a useful purpose (outside of Miller’s elbow drop), which feels like a waste – in addition to not being very fun. I think it’s perfectly fine to have moves that are sub-optimal or situational, but when a move is so consistently risky that it’s basically never a viable option, that’s a bit disappointing.
Poor onboarding and accessibility
Unsurprisingly, a game like FINAL VENDETTA is bound to attract a lot of criticism for its difficulty and inaccessibility. A lot of this criticism is stuff that doesn’t really apply to me, or that I disagree with – I think the difficulty levels were tuned just right from the get-go, and not allowing continues makes perfect sense to me; practicing to achieve the 1-credit clear is basically the entire objective of the game.
However, I think a lot of the criticism is extremely valid. FINAL VENDETTA knows what it is – to a fault – and as a result it’ll inevitably struggle tremendously to appeal to and connect with the vast majority of players, who aren’t already into the idea of grinding to 1CC difficult arcade games. I absolutely admire Bitmap Bureau’s ambitions, and to be clear I think their dedication to arcade game design is exactly why the game is so great – I just fear that it’s a little too uncompromising for its own good.
The problems I have aren’t at all what the game sets out to do or how it works – but its inability or unwillingness to meet unfamiliar players halfway, and communicate what it expects of them. For players with a certain level of familiarity and interest in arcade games, the appeal of the game’s structure is going to be self-evident, but the fact of the matter is that this is a very niche audience.
Making games for a niche audience is fine, obviously, and I love that FINAL VENDETTA essentially is a classic arcade game. But I think there is a lot that could be done to help new players understand what the game is about, without compromising what makes it a good experience. There is a Neo Geo-style “How to play” video, but it’s entirely non-interactive, doesn’t actually show you all the moves, and just like in Neo Geo games – it doesn’t really teach you how to play.
It’s an example of where I think some of FINAL VENDETTA’s slavish adherence to old design paradigms hurts the game – even among hardcore arcade players I don’t think many people would be upset by a tutorial that actually explains the game, the ability to practice individual stages without a secret cheat code, or an actual in-game manual. (The Steam version does come with a PDF manual, but I wasn’t able to find any kind of manual in my Xbox version 🤷♂️)
Beyond literal tutorials and instructions – which admittedly may have a hard time reaching the players who need them the most – I think there’s a ton of room for other kinds of incentives and encouragement to help hook players as well. As a point of comparison, I previously praised STREETS OF RAGE 4 on this exact subject: SOR4’s arcade mode is structured almost identically to FINAL VENDETTA’s, and as far as I’m concerned it’s the “real” way to play the game – but the way it’s presented disguises it as kind of a bonus mode, steering new players towards the friendlier, less demanding Story mode by default.
In addition, SOR4 has a very simple kind of meta progression where points earned in any mode go towards unlocking additional characters. Now, I’m obviously not suggesting that FINAL VENDETTA should implement 12+ unlockable bonus characters, as if that’s something that can be done at the drop of the hat, but my point isn’t about the characters – it’s about the drip feed of progress bars filling up and rewards being handed out any time you play the game.
Even if learning the enemy patterns and spawn points, and improving your skill at the game is the “real” progression, for a lot of players that just isn’t going to be tangible enough. I think most modern consumers simply aren’t conditioned to think of spending time with a fun game and learning to overcome a challenge as its own reward, so giving out some kind of tangible proof of “progress” is really vital to convince people that sticking with the game is worth their time. Not that it’s exclusive to a particular kind of player either, really; if the game is inherently fun on its own (which it is!), I think sprinkling some kind of reward or meta progression – however light – can only add a layer of appeal.
FINAL VENDETTA is a great game – but I feel the shortcomings in this area are what is likely going to keep it from growing the genre too far beyond its already firmly established audience of hardcore fans.
I wasn’t sure what to expect of FINAL VENDETTA when it was first announced – I wasn’t in love with the visuals, and although you couldn’t really judge how it plays from a trailer, my general level of faith in new beat ’em ups isn’t very high. But once I got my hands on it I was instantly impressed – I think the game is something really special, and it really manages to hold its own against classics of the genre in ways I was definitely not expecting.
Despite my nitpicks the game manages to get a lot of the difficult things right, and that makes me very excited about how the game could potentially change or expand in the future – not to mention the prospect of a sequel! If some of the onboarding aspects could be ironed out, and there’s a bit more budget for flourishes to give the game and its world some much-needed flavour, a FINAL VENDETTA 2 could be truly amazing.
Bitmap Bureau haven’t typically done sequels in the past, instead moving on to new projects in different genres, which is pretty cool. But in this case I would honestly love to see that change – if only the once – as I feel really stoked about what a bigger, better sequel could offer! Until then though, I’m happy to keep grinding it out in the FINAL VENDETTA we’ve already got.