Under different circumstances this would have been a multi-page, highly-detailed, fanboy-fueled review of the latest – maybe the greatest in terms of content and options – Street Fighter that was released for the PS4/PS5, Xbox Series S/X and PC recently. Reviews like that have been written by yours truly for more than 15 or 30 fighting games over the past three decades or so. But… well, that guy is now a 50-year-old veteran (old enough to have played the original Street Fighter back in 1988) and, sadly, with as little time in his hands these days as one can expect from a family man juggling three jobs, two kids and a marriage.
Old habits die hard, though, so Street Fighter 6 was duly preloaded onto the bedroom PS5 and played for around 10 hours straight as soon as it was made available. And it really is a great game, worthy of the positive review scores it’s been getting. Yours truly has been enjoying it thoroughly.
The only problem: almost one month in, I’m still actively trying to not pay too much attention to the graphics, the art direction or the presentation in general while I’m playing. Why? Because all three are among the most frustrating examples I’ve ever come across in a fighting game.
Graphics and presentation leave something to be desired…
Let’s get the highly debatable parts of all this out of the way first: general graphics quality and overall presentation are a matter of expectations and personal taste, so it makes sense to just offer an opinion on those an leave it at that. Regarding graphics, for instance, it’s rather obvious that they could have been much more impressive and “next-gen looking” if Street Fighter 6 was designed without taking the hardware limitations of the PS4 into account. It’s obviously understandable from a financial standpoint to address a considerably larger user base with any game, but Street Fighter titles stick around for no less than five or six years nowadays. This means that the just-released SF6 will look like this until 2028. That’s a very long time to sport a look that’s not exactly spectacular today.
In terms of presentation… yeah, yeah, we get it, Capcom. You want to get down with the kids, attract the interest of a broader audience, go a bit raw and gritty with the aesthetics of this one. You’re trying, in a sense, to “modernize” the Street Fighter brand. All right. But there’s trying and then there’s trying too hard and that is what’s happening here: all the street culture elements, the graffiti, the slang, the music, when put together they feel forced and kind of pretentious at the same time. What’s more, it is the kind of approach that will work well with some target groups and not at all with others. It’s impossible to please everyone, obviously, but it could not have been that difficult to find a more universally appealing style of presentation. Sure, it would probably be somewhat generic, but also less cringeworthy at times.
When it comes to Street Fighter 6, though, what has put me off personally – from the very first time I watched gameplay footage online – is the general art direction Capcom chose to go with. See, the problem with video game graphics is that there are only so many ways they can convey their visual styles and, for polygon-based fighting games in particular, things are quite clear. Developers can go for a realistic look – as “realistic” as it can get in the context of gaming and the capabilities of current graphics tech anyway – like e.g. Namco or Tecmo did with the Tekken and Dead or Alive series respectively. Or they can go the other way and choose a decidedly artistic, not realistic, look, like the one e.g. Namco and Capcom did with Dragon Ball Fighter Z or Ultimate Marvel vs Capcom 3 respectively.
But mixing and matching different elements of different visual approaches into the same game doesn’t make sense. There’s no coherence, no clear visual choice, no explicit creative intent. The brain cannot decide whether it’s supposed to focus on the make-believe nature of photorealistic graphics or on the the detail of artistic touches when they are both present in the same title (like they are in Street Fighter 6). It is immediately confusing and it actually gets even more frustrating later on, when one realizes that combining all those motley elements on screen could not possibly work in the context of fighting games. Yet here we are.
…but the game’s art direction is the real problem
In Street Fighter 6, what we get is a 2D fighting game using 3D rendered graphics (just like in SFIV and SFV) but these graphics do not pretend to be “artistic” anymore. They are now based on Capcom’s RE engine, which is at its best when it’s going for photorealism (as Resident Evil Village and other Resident Evil remakes have demonstrated). So characters are expressed through graphics of photorealistic properties – such as reflections or light diffusion off different surfaces – while the 3D character models themselves do not conform to natural or athletic proportions, but exaggerated, anime ones. Large hands and feet, extremely toned legs and arms, comically big muscles, all as creatively excessive as they’ve always been in Street Fighter titles… but now sporting an almost ray-traced look.
The result is the kind of visual confusion mentioned earlier: fighters look plasticky, shiny, literally glowing at times (often without even the necessary light sources present) while their bodies and features retain the artistically hyperbolic, “videogamey” design of old. These two approaches both present on screen just can’t complement each other visually. They are contradictory by default.
It’s truly hard, in fact, to find a single AAA video game that managed to combine the two – “the artistic look” and “the realistic look” – during e.g. the last decade or so (we’re not seriously talking about even the general impression of photorealism in games before 2012 now are we?). Just out of sheer curiosity, yours truly went through more than two dozen “best graphics in video games” lists and the pattern is perfectly clear: developers either went for maximum “convincing detail” in photorealistic graphics or maximum “hand-tuned detail” in artistic graphics. There were no popular examples that successfully combined the two.
In the case of Street Fighter 6, Oily Ryu and Shiny Chun-Li are not the only visual problem either. There’s other stuff too, such as the decidedly vector-looking, painterly effect of matte colors filling the screen or covering the ground in certain circumstances – e.g. during specific Drive moves, when Kimberley uses her spray cans etc. – that seems like it was borrowed “as is” from a different video game altogether. Such is the stark difference between that particular, jarring effect and all other “photorealistic” effects on display – e.g. flames or blasts – that it’s almost as if it was something implemented in an earlier, alpha version of SF6 that nobody bothered to replace in the final one.
There are other visual issues too. There’s the sense, for instance, that fighters don’t quite blend with their surroundings: more often than not they look like they’ re just “pasted onto” various backgrounds, as if they’re duking it out in front of a Hollywood green screen that’s replaced by different CG templates. Those backgrounds themselves are even less convincing, as their level of graphical detail is nowhere near as high as that of the fighters’ designs. It’s something of a mess… and it’s just the standard offline modes we’re talking about here. The World Tour mode’s graphics are a wholly different mess, as the “semi-open-world” approach brings about its own problems.
Broken art direction can’t be fixed, but it could be patched
All this may sound as overly negative for a video game currently attached to a Metacritic score of 92. It is the most content-rich Street Fighter ever released, after all, even one of the boldest by offering a few radical changes (such as modern controls). What’s more, the confusing, incoherent art direction of Street Fighter 6 does not seem to be a real issue in the minds of most players. That’s perfectly fine. For some people, though, not really liking what’s on display while playing a game obviously sours the entertainment experience as a whole. It’s kind of hard to look without looking, you know. It’s not quite a deal-breaker (we wouldn’t even be having this conversation if that was the case) but it’s irritating enough to simply spoil the fun. Again, not everyone will agree. Again, that’s OK.
The bad news is that this art direction is an integral part of where Street Fighter 6 seemingly wants to go in terms of style and presentation. Capcom made a conscious choice that can’t be changed through e.g. a simple software update, no matter how big (even if the company wanted to do such a thing… which it doesn’t). The good news, though, is that the company could give to those of us not exactly enjoying SF6’s art direction an interesting option via a software update: a “always-on SpiderVerse graphics mode” of sorts.
Have you watched Spider-man: Into the Spiderverse or Spider-man: Across the Spiderverse? Remember that absolutely amazing comic-book like effect, with the vivid colors, uneven outlines, increased contrast and old-school printer halftones? Street Fighter 6 uses a similar technique, obviously for dramatic effect, in situations where the new Drive system is powering specific special moves (such as an Impact or Reversal). Well, how about playing with that effect always active on screen? It’s highly stylized, so the 3D models of fighters don’t look quite so unnatural when “painted” instead of “rendered”, it would practically match the “spray” or “paint” effects already present and it could even help fighters blend way better with the game’s backgrounds (assuming those are “SpiderVersified” too). Plus, come on: it would look extremely cool to control these highly-detailed sketches of characters in real time!
Oh, oh, and… while you’re at it, dear Capcom people… why don’t you also add a simple option for removing all on-screen indicators – health bars, time, Drive meter etc. – so, just for kicks and amazing screenshots, we can have a few rounds pretending we’re playing an interactive Street Fighter comic book? Think about it!