Melee-focused action games have spent years enacting the fantasy of engaging in armed combat, fortunately sparing us the hours of rigorous training and resolve it takes to actually do so in real life. But For Honor, Ubisoft's third-person weapon-based arena combat game, is different from other melee-focused action games, like Dark Souls or Dynasty Warriors. Its combat system is simple on the surface, but executing its more advanced tactics requires a patient mind, as well as an understanding of its deliberate pacing. There are not many games quite like For Honor. It's an incredibly entertaining fighter that's satisfying both in single and multiplayer, even despite the narrative flaws of its story mode.
Its fantasy medieval world is populated by three of history's most iconic warrior classes: knights, vikings, and samurai. Regardless of which faction you choose to play as, For Honor challenges you to restrain yourself and uphold self-control in the face of strenuous conflict. The elegance of its combat is at times awe-inspiring, easily pulling you into the euphoric highs of a well-deserved victory, where your patience was maintained and your reflexes were on point.
For Honor focuses primarily on one-on-one duels, though fights against multiple foes are common. There are 12 heroes to choose from, each brandishing their own unique weapon and fighting style. While the game's combat is simple enough to be accessible to beginners, its deep mechanics allow frequent fighters to noticeably develop their skills. It's only then that each Hero's strengths and weaknesses are fully revealed. For example, the spear-wielding Nobushi offers a wealth of slow, long-range poke attacks, which when put up against Orochi's swift sword swipes, transform the battle into a calculated struggle of space management and precision striking. Every moment you spend in combat is rife with strategic possibilities: should you keep baiting an opponent with an attack or dodge? Should you get in close and knock them into a nearby pit? Or should you disorient them by being overtly offensive? For Honor's combat encourages adaptive thinking, providing substantial depth and balance in its moment-to-moment action and myriad matchups.
At times, putting what you learn into practice is a test of patience, whether you're playing against human opponents or AI. Fights are slow and measured, demanding you diligently carve out openings through subtle, calculated movements rather than through brute force or button mashing. As a result, you spend as much time--if not more--trying to read your opponent than attacking them. The pace of combat in its initial stages seems clunky and disorienting--especially if you're used to faster-paced fighting games--but once you grow accustomed to its tempo, it's For Honor's most fulfilling and enjoyable quality. Its slow-pace is much like learning a dance; you aren't adjusted to the choreography’s complexity and speed, but after repeated practice, it becomes a gratifying exercise of muscle memory.
Aside from a few informational videos and practice sessions, For Honor's most useful training tool is its single-player story mode--at least for a time. It more or less functions as a long-form tutorial, putting you into various story-driven scenarios that teach you the fundamentals of combat. For example, some stages offer you insight on how certain characters are played and how their special abilities (called Feats) are used, while others familiarize you with some of the multiplayer modes.
Unfortunately, the narrative that links these scenarios together is a nonsensical mess. A warlord named Apollyon, whose intention is to ensure an eternal age of all-out war, instigates the conflict gripping its world. But her motivation is so irrational, muddled, and unclear that she rarely makes for an entertaining presence. Meanwhile, the battle-hungry ensemble cast tasked with either standing up to or supporting her are marred by lackluster characterization. They provide little in the way of relatability, coming across more as tools to move the story forward than actual living, breathing people. It also doesn't help that their character models are lifted straight from multiplayer, with recycled, faceless designs that make it difficult to distinguish them from the multitude of other characters.
While the story mode is content to act as a multiplayer tutorial, there are moments when it attempts to be more ambitious. For instance, you sometimes encounter set pieces, like a desperate siege against a heavily fortified Japanese castle or a fast-paced chase on horseback. But these moments end up more monotonous than exciting, as they typically consist of repetitive fights against dozens of AI opponents with the occasional objective involving interacting with an object in the environment. The attempt to string together For Honor's unique take on melee combat with a narrative leaves much to be desired. Its roughly six-hour length effectively teaches you its base mechanics, but it overstays its welcome well before the first half with a haphazard narrative. And due to the simplistic AI of many of the foes you encounter, it’s easy to become more aggressive and complacent in duels, which is a bad habit to bring into multiplayer.
When you tackle For Honor's multiplayer, there are plenty of modes to dive into. However, the most varied and entertaining of the bunch is Dominion, a 4v4 mode where you and your team cooperate to capture and hold three zones in a battlefield filled with AI minions. Rushing from point to point, defending a zone, or working with your teammates to obtain others is exhilarating. And in the midst of all this, there is always a multitude of emergent moments to experience, like heroically sprinting into the middle zone and slaughtering swarms of AI minions in order to capture a point and turn the tide of battle, or finding yourself cornered on a bridge alone, up against three members of the opposing team. Unfortunately, combat in this mode can become too chaotic when no respawns occur at the tail end of the match; this often causes you and your teammates to mindlessly button mash your way to victory against the last standing hero. Despite this, Dominion encapsulates the sensation of a large-scale medieval battle on a smaller scale, distilling the desperation of a relentless charge and the ruthless sword fights that ensue in its wake.
Elimination mode, meanwhile, emphasizes and amplifies the complexity of For Honor's team-based duels. It's uncomplicated in premise: a 4v4 face-off to the death with no respawns. Combat is thrilling and challenging in this mode, especially when it's solely up to you and a teammate to secure a victory against a full enemy squad. You come to understand not only how to fight against multiple foes, but also how to judge when and where it's appropriate to do so. Learning this is at times punishing or unfair, as poor environmental awareness in a battle against multiple foes often spells certain death. But when your reflexes and ability to manipulate these factors work in your favor, it's difficult not to feel an overwhelming satisfaction in how the game makes it possible to win against all odds.
If Dominion demonstrates For Honor's capacity to create varied and exciting moments, and Elimination embodies the thrill and depth of its team-based fights, then Duel showcases combat at its most tense and absolute. This strictly one-on-one battle mode removes your ability to use Feats, forcing you to rely on the strength of your Hero's base moveset. The grace of its simplicity heightens the tension of combat, taking the base of its complexities and forming it into something more akin to a traditional fighting game. Duel's stripped down nature showcases the brilliance of For Honor's one-on-one combat, elevating its other modes in the process by how it condenses what a duel is into a raw and brief competitive instance.
It helps that many of For Honor's various multiplayer modes are each entertaining in their own right, as playing through them feeds into a cross-platform territory acquisition system called Faction War. As you play matches, you earn War Assets based on your personal performance, which can be distributed to further your chosen faction's influence. While it doesn't seem like much, the sense of community and promise of rewards it provides gives you higher sense of purpose.
In terms of performance, For Honor runs smoothly on both PS4 and Xbox One versions with little issues in online stability. The PC version runs well too, even on low to mid range hardware setups. You're given a slew of options to find the best balance between visual quality and frames per second. This is paramount since the game requires you to consistently run at a bare minimum of 30 fps in multiplayer.
After slaying countless foes, it’s clear the impact For Honor's combat has had; its fundamental tenets of discipline and restraint are bestowed upon you permanently, forever changing the way you perceive a melee-combat encounter in a game. In its highest moments, For Honor is difficult to put down. Its slow combat pace and narrative shortcomings might turn off those unwilling to take the time to dive deep into what it has to offer. However, make no mistake--those who do will be rewarded with some of the most satisfying multiplayer melee fighting conceived in recent years.