If there’s one thing I dislike about discussing and reviewing the quality of games, it is that there is a lack of descriptive terminology applicable to the actual gameplay experience. Taking control of a character and getting the chance to explore open worlds, experiment with flashy spells and attacks, and actively participate in compelling narratives evokes a wide range of emotions, but it can be difficult for us to express them to one another. There have been attempts by some journalists to introduce specific phrases or jargon to the realm of video game discussion, but it tends to lack substance, offering up an awkward word choice that demands explanation instead of making a point clearer.
Case in point, the word “chunky.” Although it’s often applied to aesthetics, in particular, the appearance of pixel art in a game, I’ve often seen some individuals use the term to describe gameplay. I don’t really understand what it is supposed to mean in that context- there are some games that use rumble features and input lag in order to sell the tactile “feel” of a game, emphasizing the press of a button, sure. Outside of using the word “chunky” to express the structure and play length of certain scenarios, however, I’m not sure I see how it could be applicable. Except in the case of combat, which I feel can possess a similar definition as the tactile aspect of games.
Although it’s not often my first choice of descriptor, I often find myself falling back on “chunky” as a indicator of a successful action combat system. This is not to say that turn-based games cannot also feature “chunky” combat- in their case, I think it either has to go back to the tactile notion that even turn-based games can emphasize the press of a button, or the animation, sound effect, and screen shake associated with the attack needs to be particularly weighty. Examples of both of these definitions can be found in titles like Paper Mario, Xenoblade Chronicles 2, and Cosmic Star Heroine. The first uses action commands to sell the impact and success of an attack, the second pairs its active selection combat with meaty animations and a nice cancel system, and the third uses some great animation and sound effects to brutalize the nature of some of its attacks. Emphasis on the aesthetics of an attack can have a somewhat inverse effect, however. Earlier Pokemon games had a pass with their static character portraits being mixed with impressive attack animations- Lugia’s Aeroblast from Pokemon Gold/Silver/Crystal comes to mind- but more recent entries have developed more complex and spectacular animations that make the generic “damaged” reaction animation- or complete lack thereof– from their opponent feel completely devoid of realism and connection to the battle. I know, it’s like I wanted another excuse to hate on Pokemon.
But in action combat systems, “chunky” takes on an entirely new and more meaningful definition. When I think of “chunk,” I think of… weight. Heft. The windup that accompanies actions like those. A move in an action combat system can be “chunky” without necessarily being slow. The Sword and Shield animations in Monster Hunter are a great example of this. They illustrate the speed of the weapon and the momentum of each attack- notice how certain inputs not only possess more weight, but they also carry the character model forwards. This sort of purposeful design can be both an advantage and a pitfall- you can wail away on an enemy and use a particular attack string to move your body out of harm’s way. Not only that, but many other animations have weight and a sense of purpose and danger to them- chugging a potion leaves you vulnerable, but how else are you going to get all that healing liquid in your stomach?
Titles that blend stamina and committal movement animations are often the best examples of this sort of “chunkiness.” Soulslike titles such as Unworthy, Animus, Salt and Sanctuary, and Ashen are some fabulous examples of this, though they wouldn’t work well if enemies didn’t have a similar sense of pacing. Games that risk losing this sort of “chunkiness” are those where enemies have an unfair advantage in terms of movement and purpose, such as enemies whose attacks auto-lock on a player’s position until execution. Pacing needs to be consistent, or else you start running into balancing issues.
Now, that doesn’t mean a game is bad just because its combat isn’t “chunky.” Case in point- there’s plenty to love about the Ys series of games, with snappy combat that lacks a bit of weight and almost de-prioritizes the use of any ability that keeps a character static or exposed for very long. Ys VIII manages to circumvent its fairly weightless combat with a great parry and dodge system and extremely punishing enemy design that has consistent pacing. Wizard of Legend focuses more on cooldown phases in-between attack strings in order to activate your abilities and wail away, and it makes those attack strings brutally fast. Some titles are reliant on knockdown of juggle mechanics, like Code of Princess. But some games, like RemiLore, fail to take advantage of either sort of option, which then results in what I’d call “the useless heavy attack,” which is when a heavy weapon or the “y” button on a control scheme has little to no use, slowing down the player against faster enemies that are barely left exposed.
The “chunkiest” game I think I’ve ever played was Lucah: Born of a Dream. Not only because of its aesthetics, which evoke something of an amateurish, scratchy MSPaint doodle mixed with meaty, chiptune sound effects and screen shake, but also its customizable attack inputs, which are not only given very apt descriptions in the equipment screen (the game is very transparent about the speed of certain attack inputs, for example), but swappable across the light, heavy, and support options in addition to having multiple custom equipment slots available for use. It’s freeing and allows for multiple play styles that compliment the variety of boss battles you’ll experience throughout Lucah’s strange, nightmarish world. So if you should see the word pop up in any of my future reviews, just know that chunky combat is a badge of pride, especially if you enjoy a very specific style of gameplay. If you’re more of a passive, laid back sort of individual, you can still find chunky attack options in titles like Atelier Ryza or even SteamWorld Heist, where shaky aim and meaty weapon kickback can result in precision and damage issues, respectively.
What are some titles you’ve played that feature hefty, chunky combat? Feel free to share them in the comments below, or just shed some light on your favorite combat systems!