‘Midnight Fight Express’ review: brawl star

Do you like hurting other people? Yes, actually

Midnight Fight Express has you moving from person to person, fluidly attacking people on all sides. You can’t stop: the enemies won’t, and as the game’s difficulty starts to ramp up you’ll quickly get outnumbered, wiped out by a collection of thugs in one of the game’s many unique locations.

It’s been 10 years since Hotline Miami released it’s unique brand of neon-hued ultraviolence into the world, and Midnight Fight Express feels similar on the surface: both games have a thumping soundtrack and a focus on blood, but that’s where the similarities end. While Hotline Miami is a laser-focused exercise in gore-soaked minimalism, Midnight Fight Express feels crunchier: you’ll take blows and bullets from all angles, dodgerolling as you hurl propane tanks at enemies and fire off both a revolver tucked away in your pocket and a grapple hook that you can use to pull enemies closer or just swing them around in circles.

Midnight Fight Express fits a lot of ideas into its eight-hour runtime. At times it feels like the Streets of Rage game I always wanted as you brawl through crowds of enemies with baseball bats, crowbars, and the occasional gun. Later, it feels like a John Wick game, playing like a tactical shooter as you get your mitts on sniper rifles, automatic shotguns and other military grade hardware that can turn your enemies to jam.

Midnight Fight Express. Credit: Jacob Dzwinel.
Midnight Fight Express. Credit: Jacob Dzwinel.

This mishmash of different influences makes for an uneven tone, and not every level shines, but Midnight Fight Express cadges most of its levels from elsewhere. Some of these influences go well: early levels where you’re duking it out with gangsters in a bathroom channel Mission Impossible: Fallout’s famous fight scene, but later levels that fully recreate Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 2’s airport massacre level are more overt in where they’ve been lifted from.

With the completion of each level, you’re given a star to unlock a new combat skill and each of them feel like a meaningful upgrade: perhaps you’ll learn to disarm an opponent while blocking weapon attacks, or learn a longer-range attack. Very few of these upgrades feel superfluous, and it means that as you go through each of the game’s 40 levels you’ll slowly layer more advanced techniques into your repertoire.

There’s a good reason to replay levels: there are different challenges for each level, unlocked after your first completion. There are a few other challenges: score, time, a little award for collecting the golden teeth from enemies you’ve pummelled into the dirt. It’s a joy to replay some of the levels with an expanded moveset, pirouetting through the maelstrom dishing out violence in every direction.

Midnight Fight Express. Credit: Jacob Dzwinel.
Midnight Fight Express. Credit: Jacob Dzwinel.

There’s a wealth of systems underpinning the combat in Midnight Fight Express. Throw a weapon at an enemy and different things could happen: a blunt object will stun an enemy, while a sharp object will often kill them outright, or stick in the enemy and cause severe damage. That’s before working in a grapple hook, and a revolver which has a variety of different rounds (including a friendship bullet that will make an enemy fight for you for a few seconds).

This is part of what makes fights so chaotic in the game. With so many different interactions to think about, often it’s just a case of trying to fuck up the nearest enemy rather than thinking about the perfect line. Even while replaying early levels, the extra freedom you get from later abilities makes every fight a technical challenge as you’re trying to maximise points or tick off some hard to earn challenges.

It’s a shame that not every level lands. Early on, Midnight Fight Express is one of the best games I’ve played all year. The first third of the game feels incredible, with fluid combat that only gets better as you revisit it later after you’ve gotten your hands on a few more skills. However, towards the end of the game as you’re throwing down with mutated criminals, robots, zombies and even a game developer wrapped in pillows, it all feels a little bit silly. Still, at least it’s doing something interesting and you never know exactly what to expect.

Midnight Fight Express. Credit: Jacob Dzwinel.
Midnight Fight Express. Credit: Jacob Dzwinel.

Sadly this is the case for the story too. You’re Babyface, a figure from the criminally underworld who is hypnotised into forgetting his past. Then, you’re posted a talking drone that tells you it’s time for one big night of violence, the only way to save the city from all the murder and bloodshed is to commit it all yourself, decimating the city’s criminal population.

A few vehicle-based levels are disappointing, and while I’m expecting to replay several levels in Midnight Fight Express again, I’m happy to just pretend anything where you ride a vehicle for the entire level just didn’t happen, so I can continue to enjoy the rest of the game.

Outside of those, the real problem isn’t even the multiple bizarre enemies, but more that they’re given defences that make it nearly impossible to use some of your more fun abilities. As an example, later on you get the ability to grab an enemy and steer them towards an environmental hazard: maybe you want to grab a goon and smash him face-first through a sink. Later enemies are nearly impossible to grab, or so dangerous you just need to mash them up with regular attacks, and it does feel like the game is a little less fun.

An example of when the game gets this right is an airplane level where you fight several Russian mercenaries. These guys can and will disarm you and use your weapon against you if you let them, and they move fast enough that they can – like you – dodgeroll out of the way of bullets. These guys are tougher, but if you do manage to corner them, you can take them out without too many issues. That’s much more satisfying than what the game does elsewhere, which feels like: punch this enemy’s guard repeatedly until they get stunned or fall over.

Midnight Fight Express is a beat-’em-up worth playing, even in a year when we had the superlative beat-’em-up that is Sifu, but the first half of the game is a solid five star effort that quickly loses a lot of steam with its later levels.

Midnight Fight Express launches on August 23 for Xbox, PlayStation, Nintendo Switch and PC. This review was played on PC.

The Verdict

Midnight Fight Express is an incredibly engaging brawler, but it slowly unravels as it comes to its conclusion. The storyline, levels and writing are nearly there but don’t quite gel, but it’s hard to judge it too harshly when the actual minute to minute gameplay – battering bad guys – feels so damn good.

Pros

  • Incredible fist fights
  • Satisfying shooting
  • Ultraviolence and soundtrack combined
  • Meaningful upgrades

Cons

  • Cribs most of its level ideas from other games, films and media
  • Loses momentum as the game continues
  • Terrible vehicle sections
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