Update: Since I wrote this review, Cellar Door Games has added an online matchmaking lobby to Full Metal Furies, alleviating one of my biggest issues with the game.
After the success of 2013's Rogue Legacy, developer Cellar Door Games had a lot to live up to. Rather than just expanding on the excellent foundations of its previous hit, the team decided to switch into hard mode by trying something entirely different. Full Metal Furies takes the classic arcade beat-em-up formula and adds layer upon layer to it to make something that feels both nostalgic and entirely new.
Love it or hate it, the pixel art aesthetic suits Full Metal Furies perfectly. Each character and enemy is loaded with detail, with bosses appropriately being the most arresting. Fights often get visually chaotic, but they’re rarely confusing thanks to clear markers of who is targeting whom and what areas you should move away from if you don’t want to play catch with mortar fire. Sound cues are somewhat less clear, and the soundtrack sets the stage well whether it’s a hectic battle theme or chill camp tune but isn’t particularly interesting.
Among the things that set the game apart are a base that expands as you play to hold all of your upgrades and acquisitions, and a surprisingly deep set of puzzles that have you gathering clues in both the overworld and the game's levels. These elements add depth and character, but you're really here for the combat. Built for co-op play, the game pits four unique characters, each upgradeable in myriad ways, against hordes of challenging enemies.
Triss the tank excels at blocking and crowd control. Erin the engineer can lock down enemies and dodge away before they retaliate. Alex the fighter leaps around the battlefield dealing massive damage. Meg the sniper keeps enemies at bay with mines and rifles. No matter your preferred playstyle, you'll likely click with at least one of the Furies. Over the course of the game, I switched characters frequently and by the end it would have been impossible to pick a favorite. Their moves are simple on their own but chain together in tactically and viscerally satisfying ways.
Each of the game's characters brings four skills into the fray. These roughly break down into a simple attack, a dodge, a power attack, and a more defensive move, but they're wildly different from each other in practice. For example, the "dodge" skill can be anything from a simple roll to a powerful dive bomb that knocks enemies away.
The deeper you get into the game, the more complex it gets. Full Metal Furies has perhaps one of the best upgrade systems ever for a game of its type, allowing players to build and upgrade equipment as well as invest points in a stat/skill tree. A few of these stat upgrades just boost health or damage, which I'm never a fan of, as it encourages boring builds and functions as little more than a way to siphon cash away from more interesting upgrades. However, these trees also offer options to buff characters in more meaningful ways, such as adding new skills or modifying attacks. Much more interesting is the equipment system. Throughout the game, you can find blueprints which can be built and equipped at your base. Each piece of equipment purchased this way directly affects one your character's four skills. Some of these completely replace that skill with another, and even the more linear upgrades come with drawbacks that will alter the way you use the ability. Swapping loadouts this way keeps the game fresh and allows for seemingly limitless attack combinations when you factor in a whole party.
Co-op combat is the core of Full Metal Furies, and it almost never disappoints. While each character is viable on her own, the Furies really shine when they work together. A full roster can have Triss knocking enemies to the floor with her charge where they can be swept up in Alex's whirlwind, all while Erin traps her foes with a flying drone and pistol and Meg picks off stragglers from a distance. Played with a full party, or even just a partner, Full Metal Furies is a frenetic, bullet-dodging riot that easily ranks among the best beat-em-ups ever.
It's fortunate that a full team is the efficient killing machine that it is, because enemies can be downright brutal. If minotaurs with machine guns and charging attacks seem tough, just wait until they're combined with flying bomb drones, invisible snipers, and artillery strikes. Fortunately, checkpoints are generous and you gain experience even from failed runs, so the action keeps moving at a constantly escalating pace. At times the game turns into a straight-up fantasy bullet hell, putting your evasive skills to the test. In these moments, when you're weaving through a hail of gunfire, parrying melee strikes and diving over a missile strike zone while your partner ziplines across the battlefield to perfectly place a landmine before knocking a horde of enemies away with an explosive rifle shell, Full Metal Furies absolutely shines. There's so much variety to the action, from skills to enemy types, that this game could become a staple in any gaming group's rotation.
However, this perfectly tuned co-op experience does have a downside. While the single-player mode is interesting in its own right, it pales in comparison to multiplayer. Solo players do have access to an interesting mechanic whereby they can switch between two team members (chosen between missions) on the fly. This allows you to set up some wild combos using the abilities of both characters. It has appeal as a sort of juggling act and should satisfying the kind of players who like a fast-paced skill testing type of gameplay, but it's disappointing from any other perspective. The game is just not meant to be played this way, and no other real concessions are made to solo players. What is an engaging challenge to rise to with friends becomes a reflex- and patience-testing chore alone. It's still fun for a while, but it eventually becomes a slog.
What would be a small caveat becomes a deal-breaker due to the baffling decision by the developer not to include matchmaking in its co-op game. In response to a post of the game's Steam forum asking about online play, developer Cellar Door Games said, "We decided to make it invite only because it is a very heavy story-oriented game, so it didn't make much sense for people to suddenly drop-in to your campaign."
This, frankly, is nonsense. There is no reason why a story-driven game couldn't have drop-in gameplay; it's a pretty standard feature in plenty of games of this exact type. And to call Full Metal Furies a "story-oriented game" is beyond a stretch. The story is that the Furies have to kill a couple Titans and shoot cute quips at each other between levels. It's a serviceable story, and it's exactly as much as the game needs, which is to say almost none. It's certainly not worth excluding a vital part of the game for, and without matchmaking, the game feels not only lacking but unfinished. The developers have tossed the community a bone by setting up an official Discord server where players can set up their own groups. It's a half-hearted concession, and a month after release the desolate server results in more unanswered requests than it does actual games.
Review scores are imprecise at the best of times, and in this case even more so, so take it with the following grain of salt: If you plan on playing Full Metal Furies alone or finding teammates online, it's a fun but limited niche game that's good for a few hours of fun. But if you have a dedicated group of friends who can play together regularly, I wholeheartedly recommend it as one of the best games of its kind.