Cellar Door Games put itself on the map with the release of Rogue Legacy, a critically lauded roguelike sidescroller that in some ways set a trend still being followed by indies today, but the studio later went on to release a new game, Full Metal Furies, to much less fanfare. There were plenty of factors that resulted in the studio's sophomore release largely flying under the radar, but the overall dismissal of this beat ‘em up certainly couldn’t have been due to its quality. Full Metal Furies is one of the best brawlers we’ve played in years, expertly weaving together old-school arcade elements with modern game design to provide an experience that no fans of the genre, or action games in general, will want to miss out on.

Full Metal Furies follows the story of a group of four girls: Alex, Triss, Meg and Erin, as they spearhead a resistance effort against a group of powerful foes called Titans, whose warmongering is causing all sorts of collateral damage. The war-torn world that they live in is a dangerous, broken place, and though each Titan may initially seem to be purely villainous, later plot developments reveal that there’s much more to each character than it seems. Despite the seemingly dark overtones, Full Metal Furies delights in keeping things lighthearted and borderline silly, with witty dialogue and plenty of fourth-wall-breaking humour woven throughout the experience. Each of the four girls is given plenty of screen time in cutscenes and though they don’t generally experience all that much character development over the course of the narrative, you’ll likely come to love this team of quirky and interesting characters.

Full Metal Furies is a beat ‘em up brawler at heart, but there’s actually considerably more going on behind the scenes if you choose to delve in deep enough. There are four characters to pick from on the team: the tank, the sniper, the engineer and the fighter, and each of them has a radically different playstyle that impressively alters the way that you approach combat. Erin the Engineer, for example, primarily deals damage with her pistol—which has to be reloaded when your clip runs empty—but she also has a deployable drone that can lock down a specific area with cover fire. Meanwhile, Alex the Fighter carries around an enormous hammer that would make Amy Rose jealous, and relies on rapid-fire hammer swings and a Marth-esque counterattack for doling out punishment. Every character’s kit is the same in the sense that they each have an escape move, a big damage dealing move and so on, but it’s rather striking how well Cellar Door has managed to differentiate each move-set. Although the foundations may be the same, switching up characters requires dramatically different tactics in many situations, making Full Metal Furies feel like a much deeper and replayable experience than a typical brawler.

Of course, Full Metal Furies isn’t just about punching bad guys in the mouth; there’s a strong RPG system underlying all the chaos that creates an addictive and rewarding feedback loop that encourages you to regularly diversify team compositions. Each character is equipped with four items—one for each kind of attack—but there are three extra items available in each category that must be unlocked by beating certain missions and acquiring the blueprints. The newer gear is more powerful in some ways and less powerful in others, giving players plenty of autonomy for speccing each character to a specific playstyle, but there’s even more depth to then be found in levelling-up the gear itself.

Full Metal Furies employs a deeply satisfying ‘account-centric’ system of levelling in which levelling every individual piece of gear benefits the entire team. Each piece of gear is affected by a certain stat, like TEC or HP, and every time you level up that gear, it adds a percentage buff to the overall account buff being contributed to. For example, you could have a 6 percent boost to strength that all four of the girls benefit from, and 3 percent of that comes from Alex’s hammer being levelled-up twice while the other 3 percent comes from levelling-up both Meg’s rifle and Erin’s pistol once. What’s nice about this system is how it encourages players to constantly experiment with new team setups; it takes longer to level up gear that’s already accrued a couple levels, so if you want to see more stat percentage gains, you have to equip new gear and use characters that usually sit on the bench.

The RPG mechanics don’t just stop with gear either, each girl can be individually levelled-up to acquire character-specific stat gains and skills. Gold is dropped by each enemy you kill and stage you clear, and this can then be spent on buying nodes in a skill tree for each girl. Hitting certain level milestones unlocks new nodes which contain powerful abilities, such as Alex’s hammer swings lowering ability cooldowns, and once again, players are subtly encouraged to invest in all the girls rather than just a couple. Unlocks for each girl become gradually more expensive with each purchase, but there’s a ‘VIP’ system at play which discounts unlocks across all girls by a set coin amount which goes up a bit with each purchase you make. Therefore, buying new skills for under-levelled girls is made free or extremely cheap, while the upper unlocks for your higher level girls require a heavy grind if you don’t want to lower the costs by boosting your VIP discount through making cheaper purchases on other girls. Between this and the system used for gear levelling, Full Metal Furies finds that sweet spot where there’s a steady stream of meaningful upgrades being doled out while ensuring that players are experiencing the full scope of the game through playing all types of characters and gear equally.

Once you’re on the battlefield, combat is relatively straightforward, primarily orienting around moving between arenas, roundly defeating all comers and then moving on to the next arena. New enemy types are introduced at a consistent clip as you move through the story, continuously requiring players to change tactics and adapt to new threats on the fly. For example, one enemy attacks by calling in repeat airstrikes for devastating AoE damage, while another enemy is almost completely invisible and attacks with powerful sniper fire. It would be hard enough to dodge between the madness on screen as it is, but things are made further difficult by the introduction of colour-coded shields; each shield corresponds to a character, and only that one character can damage that enemy to break their shield.

In single player, you control two girls at a time—tagging out as needed with a tap of the shoulder button—but this shield system can still make fights extremely difficult if one of the girls happens to get knocked out. When this happens, a bar over the girl’s head slowly creeps up towards one hundred percent, which you can speed up by running over to her and holding down the tag button to revive her. In the thick of battle, it can be quite an effort to dodge between all the shielded enemies to bring back the character needed to fight them, but then again, Full Metal Furies revels in its punishing difficulty. You’re sure to see the game over screen plenty of times here, as there’s a distinct rhythm to combat that can take some time to get to grips with. Moreover, it takes a while to learn new enemy attack patterns and weaknesses, and given how many enemies Full Metal Furies loves to throw at you at once, it can be a lot to handle. If you consider yourself to be someone with slow reflexes, you’re gonna have a bad time, but mastering battle is an exhilarating experience once you get the timing of attacks down.

Beat ‘em up games are typically expected to be shallow and relatively straightforward arcade experiences that don’t require much thought, but this is yet another area in which Full Metal Furies defies expectations. When traversing between arenas in each stage, its possible to stumble upon one of the game’s many secrets in the form of optional side areas. Some of these require a careful navigation of a difficult obstacle course while others contain more cerebral puzzles that we won’t spoil here, but the journey is almost always worth it as you’re treated to a new blueprint or a Rosetta Stone.

Rosetta Stones form the foundation for a mystery that permeates the entirety of Full Metal Furies, and the depth to this mystery is more complex and rewarding than you’ll see in most games in general, let alone beat ‘em up games. Each Rosetta Stone is part of a pair, and the first one that you find always includes a riddle pointing you towards the next one. These have you doing relatively simple things like pausing the game at a certain point on the overworld map or going backwards in an area that you ordinarily would go forwards in, but soon give way to much more meta-puzzles that require you to do things like translating morse code or watching trailers for the game to find a critical piece of info. We often found ourselves solving a puzzle, only to realize that the solution to the puzzle is part of a much larger puzzle, which itself is part of an even bigger puzzle that intersects with other puzzles in some ways.

Clearly, Cellar Door Games has put a considerable amount of effort into designing this system of puzzles and mystery, and praise is certainly deserved for the creative ways in which solutions are hidden behind riddles and misdirection. Indeed, if you’ve ever felt that the design of puzzles in Zelda games has been a bit too simple, you’ll be more than pleased with the challenging brain-benders on offer here, and the developers have ensured that there’s an equally enticing reward waiting in the centre of it all. It’s satisfying how much more depth this adds to the gameplay experience; when you aren’t busy managing team compositions or dexterously combating the pleasurably difficult hordes of enemies, you’re staring at a wall of gibberish or hieroglyphs with a pen and paper trying to decode a message that’s stumped you for hours. We’d recommend that you go into this one as blindly as possible; though the temptation of going to the internet to find the answers may be strong, these puzzles are considerably more rewarding when you finally reach that ‘Aha!’ moment.

All these disparate gameplay elements are made considerably more compelling, then, when you throw some other players into the mix. Full Metal Furies is a wonderfully engaging experience when playing in single player, but it’s taken to another level when you have a friend or two next to you on the couch to experience it with you. Not only is it more fun to find a good rhythm and set up multi-character combos that positively melt the opposition, but having a couple more brains to throw around theories and ideas around the more esoteric puzzles makes for a collaborative experience that you’d be hard-pressed to find elsewhere on the Switch. And for those of you that don’t have any friends on hand, Full Metal Furies features online multiplayer, too.

Unlike most other indie games of this generation, Full Metal Furies employs an art style that doesn’t use pixel art as a crutch, tastefully weaving in retro character and enemy models into carefully hand-painted environments. Each character sprite is exceedingly well detailed and animated, and though the environments do fall into relatively uninspired world tropes (oh boy, another desert world), there’s a striking visual style to having pixelated characters fighting on semi-realistic backdrops. Backing all the action is a wonderful soundtrack that employs a mixture of chiptunes and rock, evoking the soundtracks of the Mega Man X series in more ways than one. There weren’t any particularly anthemic tracks to be picked out of the bunch, but what’s here is sure to please and fit tonally with everything happening on screen.

Conclusion

Full Metal Furies proves that Cellar Door Games is an impressively talented studio capable of producing quality games that can set new standards in some ways. We wish more developers would invest such considerable effort into this sort of puzzle design in action games, and coupling that with the deep RPG systems, punchy gameplay and memorable writing makes for an experience that no Switch owner will want to be without. Cellar Door Games has outdone itself with Full Metal Furies and we can’t recommend this release enough; put in the time, and you’ll find this is much more than just another beat ‘em up.